Who is Dana Gingras without Noam Gagnon? That is the question fans of The Holy Body Tattoo – the wildly successful, hard-driving company the two have co-directed since 1993 – were eager to discover with “Smash Up”, Gingras’ breakaway production. The show marks the debut of her new company, Animals of Distinction, although The Holy Body Tattoo is apparently still a going concern, and the evening was made under the umbrella of both organizations.
The choreographic side of the question is defused in “Smash Up”, because it is not a single dance work but a series of happenings that take place over about two hours. These were staged in a number of locations around the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, but even the dances inside the theatre felt like edgy art events more than formal movement studies. Collaboration was clearly key, and crucial to Team Smash Up are conceptual designer Jonathan Inksetter, whose site-specific installations have been seen in Montréal and Brussels for close to a decade; and animator James Paterson and programmer Amit Pitaru, who contributed a deluge of mostly abstract animations, bar the occasional skulls, crosses, hearts and so forth. Contributing equally dynamically to the happenings are what the publicity calls “original music mash-ups processed by Roger Tellier-Craig.” These involve Tellier-Craig’s own electronic music, intercut with music by bands like Radiohead and The Knife.
The action began in the parking lot, where those close to the alley were treated to the sight of a spiffy-looking Ford Ranchero arriving with the Team Smash Up performers – five dancers in red worksuits and two mascots in the form of a bunny (Shay Kuebler) and a bear (Andrea Gunnlaugson). Some of us in the back grumbled at our poor sightlines, especially when we shuffled through the bowels of the theatre and could barely see past the crowd to the alcove where a film of collapsing buildings was projected.
After a peek at the dancers preparing in the dressing room, the audience was divided into two teams, following either the bear or the bunny. The bear team headed into the theatre’s main floor and eventually Susan Elliott stood before us, sporting a short pink wig. Her first formal movement was to strike her chest with her fist, hard, which set the overall tone of the choreography in the trademark ferocity associated with The Holy Body Tattoo. “849: Body Ache” was not, however, choreographed by Gingras but by Elliott, a prolific dancer and choreographer who has performed for a vast range of creators, Holy Body among them. Of course, no one does lyrical for an evening titled “Smash Up”, so the ferocity was hardly a surprise.
The four works that followed, choreographed by Gingras in collaboration with the dancers, continued in the same fierce percussive vein. The aerobic intensity was less grueling than in past Holy Body pieces and there was much tense, alert stillness, as in the beginning of the second happening, “A Million Tiny Robots in Your Head”. This took place in the lobby, where Sonja Perreten, in a white slip and a white blindfold, moved cautiously among the audience. Once Perreten stepped onto the makeshift stage, the pace increased as animated film images washed over her and strobe lights flashed, until she sought rest in the bear’s arms.
Except for that large, fuzzy and friendly mascot, Perreten’s solo was stylishly angst-ridden, and the same thing could be said about the whole evening. The bear and the bunny added – how shall I put it? – a certain down-market tone. Admittedly, the two mascots were useful guides for the audience, and when they boogied in the lobby during intermission, the opening night crowd happily egged them on. My own feelings were more ambivalent, and I wanted to see the individuals sweating underneath the fur; mascots seem like slightly evil pretenders to me.
Although the bear was busy cuddling at the end of Perreten’s solo, we were somehow herded upstairs to the balcony for a bird’s-eye view of two black-clad figures – Gingras and Sarah Doucet – lying splayed out on the white floor below. “I Am a Chain Reaction” looked like an homage to Holy Body Tattoo’s 1996 “our brief eternity”, which featured some of the same floor-bound, cog-in-a-wheel movement and, in the film that was projected during that earlier hit show, the same high-angle viewpoint. “Chain Reaction” included an animation of a continually growing and disappearing ladder projected onto the floor, which the duo frantically scrabbled after in a nightmarish game of snakes-and-ladders.
From the same balcony view, the audience peered down at the next, equally dream-like piece, “Davey Jones’ Locker”, another solo for Perreten, now in a turquoise bathing suit, red flippers and red goggles. Her gently swaying arms and body made it seem like she was swimming in the sea of animation surrounding her until, as the stage darkened, she lay quietly as if submerged in her own unconscious depths. This devoutly Freudian mise en scène – or so, at least, I happily experienced it – was perhaps the metaphoric level to which Gingras aspired in the whole surreal evening, though nothing else was as clearly and brilliantly focussed.
After intermission, bear and bunny teams united in the theatre for the finale, “Quartet”. Performing with dancers Doucet, Gingras and Siôned Watkins was the unseen Marie Brassard, whose recorded voice contributed her poetic text: mysterious phrases like “Blood in the veins of pussycats” and “Blink and here I am.” The visual environment was striking, as film of black fragments hurtling through space blasted onto the white screen behind the dancers, sometimes forming letters, words or phrases, before blasting off again. The amount of movement, though, was miserly. The dancers were still for much of the piece, slightly drooping but tense, and not until near the end were they actually in motion together – pushing their heads sideways, flinging their arms or making desperate circles with their torsos. Their moves were muscular, even when just placing a hand over the mouth.
To end, everyone gathered on the street to cheer the performing team as they climbed into the back of their truck – and the freakishly cold May wind that left us shivering must have been even more biting for them. Hopefully those furry mascots cuddled close to the dancers and kept the edge off the cold hard night that, as an artist, Gingras continues to be drawn to.