Buzz around a show is an interesting thing. When PuSh International Performing Arts Festival revealed a glimpse of its programming early last year, monumental by The Holy Body Tattoo was a major highlight. And rightly so. The company, co-founded in 1993 by Dana Gingras of Montréal and Vancouver-based Noam Gagnon, hasn’t performed in over ten years. In interviews the two have explained that the disbandment was not controversial but rather a moment for both parties to continue moving their own artistic work forward, and for them that meant creating entities independent of each other.
Media coverage of this one-night performance was extensive, and that’s a great thing for contemporary dance. There’s a lot people can talk about around this new version of monumental (it originally premiered in 2005 and was the last thing The Holy Body Tattoo performed). The seminal post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor joined the dancers live onstage — in the original, monumental was performed to a recording of the Montréal group. The difference live music makes when watching dance cannot be understated. At points I felt as though my own body was vibrating from the wave of sound coming from the platform behind the dancers — I can only imagine what that volume must have felt like closer up.
The press and marketing successfully got word out. The performance was sold out. Standing in line I heard someone say that it felt more like a rock concert than a dance show, and I’m sure those in the box office at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre felt like that too. The show started almost twenty-five minutes late while tickets were collected and everyone finally seated.
And then, the show.
Monumental begins with nine dancers — Caroline Gravel, Louise Michele Jackson, Kim de Jong, Shay Kuebler, Louis-Elyan Martin, Esther Rousseau-Morin, Sovann Prom Tep, Michael Watts and Jamie Wright — perched on white cubed pedestals of varying heights. Dressed in variations of black, white and grey business attire, the dancers propel into motion when the bass beat kicks in. Syncing angular and sharp, abstracted quotidian gestures with the pulse of the score, the dancers move in unison, gradually upping the physicality or momentarily breaking off from the group for frantic solos. The band is still unseen, hidden behind a thin curtain at the back of the stage — one that revealed and descended throughout the work, visually dialing up and down their presence in tandem with their projected sonic levels.
I wondered about the stability of the boxes and how difficult it might be to move quickly up there. Some of the dancers looked more at ease than others, whipping around in half turns and moving into sharp high lifts or lower, bent-over squats. The pulse-led sequence of movements was satisfying and trance-like, making moments of variation, like when one dancer first falls on top of the box she is on or when one of the men jumps right off, a welcomed visual relief.
Throughout, there were instances where it seemed as though a choreographic idea and its accompanying physicality had reached peak point but was waiting for the music to finish its journey. Or, vice versa, a movement scene was just getting going, but the sound score was turning a corner and so with it the dance. The choreography served the music to a greater extent than the other way around.
Monumental grapples with contemporary themes such as the anxiety of urban life — modern society’s persisting anxiety — and an increasing interaction and dependence with technology. And though not narrative, the social and political threads root the work, making it relevant and relatable.
Text by artist Jenny Holzer was integrated in the form of projections at the back of the stage, communicating random though thoughtful bits. These added texture to the scenes in a poetic way, as did the projections of actual urban scenery and technological intrusions, like wind turbines by film artist William Morrison, which added visual depth.
The forms of projection, the sound and the lighting by Marc Parent eventually coalesced into what many in the audience assumed was the final scene. But this false ending, right after the climax as the stage switched to black, was followed by a denouement that helped resolve some of the tensions deployed throughout the work.
The dancers quietly came to sit at the front of the stage, on their knees after the chaos of the previous scene. This wasn’t the first time the group looked out at the audience, mustering forced smiles or concerned looks, but seventy-five minutes later we knew them better; we’d been witness to their group dynamics, struggles and successes. And then casually, in their own time, they walked off one by one, leaving the stage a disheveled mess of overturned white boxes. The final image resembled a cityscape, one without the characters that just moments ago had imparted their irreversible influence.