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‘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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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."

Tragically Hip fans pay tribute to Gord Downie in Kingston (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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