Thursday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre saw The Holy Body Tattoo performing monumental with live accompaniment by Godspeed You! Black Emperor for PuSh, Vancouver’s International Performing Arts Festival. Let’s break that sentence down a bit.
The Holy Body Tattoo is a contemporary dance troupe whose most prominent work monumental premiered in 2005. The piece was arranged to F#A#∞, an album by Montreal post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In quite serendipitous fashion, the 2016 PuSh festival coincided with GY!BE’s tour schedule, as well as marking the 10 year hiatus for The Holy Body Tattoo. With all planets aligned, the dance company was able to secure the band to accompany them live. I had the privilege to see this firsthand and it was nothing short of incredible.
monumental deals with the subjects of chaos, confusion, and conformity manifested in physical form. I will be the first to admit my ignorance towards contemporary dance but due to the overt symbolism and incredibly emotive dancers, this piece did not require a particularly refined lens. I applaud the choreographers, Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon, for making it so accessible. Sitting through 75 minutes of contemporary dance can be quite difficult but judging by the stunned silence of the audience mid-performance and the massive ovation at the finale, I’d say it was well received.
The piece revolves around 9 dancers, clad in “everyman” uniform (think black and white business attire), stood atop individual pedestals. As the show progresses, the characters quickly degrade from well-kept worker-bees to frantic, flailing animals. What begins as obsessive self-grooming and physical ticks transforms into violent clashes between characters. At times, the temperature of the room rose as dancers paced the stage, yelling incoherent obscenities at one and other. The physical toll the performers were subjecting themselves to became evident near the end of the show as shirts darkened with sweat and all semblance of aesthetic composure was lost.
Fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the album F#A#∞, are likely reading along and already connecting the dots between the music and movement. Heavy drumming, distorted guitars, and chaotic composition are trademarks of the GY!BE sound. Along with the band’s political leanings and the themes of monumental, very little is not aligned within the production. That being said, the one noticeable disconnect seemed to be between who was and who was not “in character” on stage. For the dancers, the performance was just as much acting as it was anything else. For the band, it seemed a little too close to playing backup; I even noticed a guitarist drinking from a beer bottle. That being said, perhaps the band being visible was more to act as proof that the score was happening live than to involve them in the show.
At times, a screen dropped in front of the band and images of wind turbines were projected alongside quotes from Jenny Holzer such as “OBVIOUSLY YOU STRIKE OUT AGAINST PEOPLE WITHIN RANGE. IT’S CATHARTIC TO AFFECT SOMEONE WHEN YOU’RE ANGRY. ALTERNATIVELY, CHOOSE ENEMIES IMPOSSIBLY FAR AWAY SO YOU NEVER HAVE TO FIGHT”.
monumental was overwhelming, the sensory overload creating immense feelings of anxiety. It was so loud, the woman ahead of me resorted to plugging her ears with her fingers for the entirety of the show. But this all seemed intentional and rightly so; you are not supposed to sit comfortably through a show like this. If you come out with the feeling like you have been punched in the stomach, that is probably a win for the creators. The production is aptly named and benefits greatly from exceptional choreographers, Godspeed’s music, Holzer’s writing, and 9 incredibly committed performers. monumental is being presented a handful of times across the country so if you have the opportunity to go, I highly recommend it.