Skip to main content

‘Gord was a dancer at heart’: Analyzing the physicality of the Hip’s front man

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip sings performs at the Toronto’s Rogers Centre (then named the Skydome) in 2003.

KEVIN FRAYER/CP

The millions of Canadians who watched the broadcast of the Tragically Hip's final concert a summer ago did not see the full version of front man Gord Downie. His cancer and treatments had diminished his physicality. A once-agile rock god was working at less than full power.

He moved in the smallest of ways, substituting charisma for muscles. He was covering and compensating, which is as common a dance as there is in life.

Last week, at 53, he succumbed to brain cancer. In his prime, he was a dancer of some kind – perhaps a frustrated one. In his 2001 poem My Girl, about a daughter, Downie seemed to indicate that he would have been a better dancer if he were a woman.

Story continues below advertisement

Grumpy ballerina in her rug routine

Showing her fantastic basket

And her strawberry crate.

This is what my genes

Have been waiting for.

A female host.

Given Downie's passion for dance, I asked Guillaume Côté, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, to assess the magic of the man's movement.

Story continues below advertisement

"Gord was a dancer at heart," Côté said. "He didn't have a dancer's body, but he must have been in great shape. His use of his space and his use of his own body were quite peculiar. His movements and choreography were interesting and quite different than most lead singers would dare to do."

Downie, as a physical performer, evolved over his career. He was intense earlier on – seemingly mad, muscles flexed, squeezing out everything he had.

"He was pretty wild," said Côté, featured in next month's National Ballet productions of The Winter's Tale and Nijinsky. "But there's a beauty in that. There's a naiveté – being free, over the top, the abandonment."

As he got older, Downie, who in 2010 collaborated with Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt on the Dora Award-winning contemporary dance piece Beside Each Other, refined his movements and loosened his physicality.

Sometimes he would affect a Mussolini-like pose. Other times he would make basketball-court moves or engage with a simple white handkerchief.

Less mad, more playful.

Story continues below advertisement

"With Gord, it did change," Côté explained. "I could see it. I think he picked his moments. As you age, you get economical, and the movements become more crafted, but often deeper."

In 2010, inspired by choreographer Crystal Pite and her thoughts on the transience of art, Downie wrote and recorded the song The Dance and Its Disappearance.

"When we watch dance, the artists and the audience are part of a momentary collective experience that will never happen again," he told The Globe and Mail then. "It's just me and you – we are the dance and its disappearance."

Hawksley Workman, a Juno Award winner, theatre artist and inimitable live performer, gives his views on Gord Downie's dancerly abilities:

"One of the incredible things about Gord was his balance of macho and feminine. Something about his physicality was very disarming to the bro contingent. Gord got away with a lot that other performers might not have been able to.

"His trance-like wildness on stage was almost ritualistic, and we were all able to go with him vicariously. I feel like the 'distant babbling conjurer kook' stage character is something Gord helped popularize in Canada.

"As far as his dancing goes, he's very lean, concave-bellied, with a high-heat metabolism.

"I remember seeing him at a Lou Reed tribute show. At the end of the song, he made a wild, almost left-right basketball deke of the mic and closed the song in a perfectly timed spin and pose. I thought it was ridiculous and incredible – and totally, shamelessly and disarmingly uncool. Which in the hyper-self-awareness of Canadian indie rock made it supercool. At least to me."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter