No matter how dark and driving the movement, something bright always shines through Noam Gagnon’s performance. It makes his dances cathartic to experience. This has been the case in his work as co-director, with Dana Gingras, of Vancouver-based The Holy Body Tattoo, in hits such as “our brief eternity” (1996) and “Circa” (2000). It was also the case this fall with “The Vision Impure”, the debut of his new satellite project, Co. Vision Selective. It was his first show without Gingras since founding The Holy Body Tattoo in 1993. Gingras launched her own solo project, Animals of Distinction, in May 2007 (reviewed previously on this site).
The double bill opened with Gagnon’s work for himself and Sonja Perreten, after which the evening was titled, followed by a thirty-minute solo for Gagnon by Britain’s Nigel Charnock. Gagnon gave his usual committed performance in both, with little respite till the evening ended.
“The Vision Impure” begins with black and white film, by Kenneth Sherman and Gagnon, of elegant bullfighters, magnificent bulls and roaring crowds. A bull runs toward the camera, his body studded with the lances used to weaken him before the kill – and then Gagnon stands before us, bent over in a pool of rainbow-coloured lights, his arms reaching tautly to the ground. Within minutes, he’s spinning and lunging, sweat pouring down his bare chest. He throws himself against a weathered red wall that stands upstage, and stumbles and falls – once, twice, maybe three times – in heavy defeat. There’s no doubt where Gagnon’s heart lies: with the sacrificial animal.
This opening solo, called “A Few, is a drama of epic proportions. It’s also a finely delineated dance of despair, with a particular muscular vocabulary that continually draws energy in toward the body before exploding out, hard, to the performing arena.
Perreten joins Gagnon for parts two and three of “The Vision Impure” – “All Good Things” and “The Last Sliver to Go”. The pace slows down as she climbs over the upstage wall and onto Gagnon’s shoulders. They are mostly close together during their duet – he lifts her so that she drapes backwards over his wiry body; they hold hands and spin; they stand in intimate proximity, flinging their arms out, threatening to collide.
During Perreten’s solo, Gagnon lays next to the upstage wall while she mostly stands downstage, bending and ducking like a twitchy boxer, her long dark hair flying free and undercutting the tension with its luxurious flow. Perreten’s solo suffers from being a little static and undifferentiated, as in the long opening, which has her facing upstage, her top flung off so that her back is free to become what is at first a compelling muscular canvas.
Throughout, the film often returns, its images hurtling past. Long lists of action verbs – loves, escapes, tells, travels, defies – cross the upstage screen in a smooth horizontal stream; the dancers flash by in fast motion; and, near the end, Perreten’s long hair bleeds a mysterious liquid as she draws it over Gagnon’s flesh.
Gagnon is superbly supported by his collaborators; as in all his work, he has an instinct for finding skilled, like-minded colleagues. His collaborator on the film, Sherman, is an art-school graduate (from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1996) and multimedia artist. Costuming is by Gabrielle Parizeau and Emilie Leclerc, who are (surprisingly) theatre students at Langara College’s Studio 58. To begin with, they put Gagnon in dark pants and a soft shirt that has a telling touch of scarlet in the inner cuffs; in the duet, he and Perreten are in dark pants and tops. The soundscapes by Stefan Smulovitz (part one) and Jeff Corness (parts two and three) are also dark, but with grace notes, such as Viviane Houle’s ethereal vocals during Gagnon’s solo.
After intermission, Charnock’s “When that I was” provided something completely different. Charnock, a co-founder of DV8 Physical Theatre in 1986, introduced his solo choreography to Vancouver in 2005 when he performed “Frank”, a stand-up comedy dance routine that had audiences roaring, or offended, as he lambasted critics, climbed over the audience, mocked suicide and Martha Graham, and did a bit of energetic modern dance – just, he said, to keep himself in shape. “When that I was” is equally kooky, though Gagnon is a gentler person and the absurdity is somewhat sweeter.
Yet there’s no denying “When that I was” is designed for a diva, and Gagnon lip-synchs and boogies, hugs and caresses himself, and generally fools around with his usual energy and passion. The tomfoolery includes wrapping a Canadian flag around his near naked body, bringing a plastic doll on stage and posing like a disco king while ye olde strobe light flashes.
The recorded sound includes songs from Elvis Presley and a Broadway musical, poetry by Walt Whitman and a comic rant against the joys of children. Gagnon also speaks on stage, and his quiet monologue, mostly in French, is both humorous and heartfelt. He references his father’s death, his movement history – including yoga, improvisation, modern dance and the frenetic pace of The Holy Body Tattoo – and his dreams.
“When that I was” provided an opportunity for Gagnon to try something outside his usual seriously sexy persona. In it, he faces the crowd squarely and this time keeps the lances well away. He dares to smile, to flirt and to laugh. He still gives himself an aerobic workout, which was the inessential part of “When that I was.” But hard, fast and furious physicality is crucial to “The Vision Impure” – it’s still the means by which Gagnon reaches for something transcendent.