It's not a stretch to say that one of the most exciting moments in Vancouver's modern cultural history was the establishment here of the dance company the Holy Body Tattoo. Co-founded by Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras in 1993, the troupe pushed the art form – and dancers – to astonishing (and often punishing) creative heights. Their fifth and final work was the ambitious monumental, which premiered in 2005.
After monumental, HBT took a break. Now after a nearly 10-year absence, the Holy Body Tattoo is back, restaging monumental for an international tour that begins Thursday at Vancouver's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
"Coming back to monumental after 10 years, it's really amazing to look at the work, rediscover the work and be surprised by it again," Gingras says. "It's like, oh wow, we made that."
Gingras, who was born in Fort St. John, B.C., and Gagnon, from Montreal, met in 1987 at an audition for Vancouver's EDAM (Experimental Dance and Music) – and hit it off.
"We really clicked right away. It was instant. We became the terrible twins. That's what we were called, the terrible twins," says Gagnon, now 52.
Through those early dance-career years, which later took them away from Vancouver, Gagnon says the two were "never ever satisfied. We wanted more. We wanted to be pushed. You look back and you go, 'Oh those poor choreographers; what we put them through.' We needed to start doing our own thing. We had too much craving and desire to realize what we wanted and it didn't matter how far we went in other people's work. It just was never enough."
In 1992, they started to work together and took the leap of forming their own company, returning to Vancouver – Gagnon from Ottawa, Gingras from Montreal – to establish the Holy Body Tattoo. Gingras says if they had stayed out east they feared there would have been more dance jobs and distractions pulling them away from their work. "So it was kind of an enforced way of just really being able to focus and research. And we did; we pretty much spent the first year locked into our studio from morning till night working together, improvising, slowly, without realizing it, generating a language. And that language sustained us."
The troupe, making cutting-edge work with multimedia elements, was lauded with acclaim and awards.
Monumental was a very contemporary piece about our boxed-in, urban, technology-driven, high-pressure lives. The work placed its performers on separate plinths – both pedestals and isolation silos that emphasized the feelings of confinement and alienation.
The work was enthusiastically received, but Gagnon and Gingras needed to take a breath.
"At the end of monumental , we just went, 'what's next? To do more of the same?' Then we just needed more time to try to go interiorly and try to figure out what are the next steps," says Gagnon.
He stayed in Vancouver, established his own company, Vision Impure, and a Pilates studio. Gingras returned to Montreal, where she founded Animals of Distinction as a satellite company of Holy Body Tattoo. They both still dance as well as choreograph.
"We just left it open; and we kind of never came back," says Gingras, now 49. "And I really think monumental was kind of a culmination of all the research and the work that we did from '93 onwards. I just think it was complete; I think we really felt that. And by looking the other way for a little while, it became clear. I think if the hunger had been there, we would have obviously come back and created something. Noam and I were conscious of not repeating ourselves and creating for the sake of creating, because there's this demand and you're caught in this creation/production cycle. So it just didn't seem to call us."
The calling came in the form of presenter David Sefton, who had the idea to remount the show – this time accompanied with music performed live by the powerful Montreal-based post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Sefton is the artistic director of the Adelaide Festival in Australia, where monumental will be staged in March. It will also travel to Montreal and Quebec City, with other stops to be announced.
While the choreography remains the same, Gingras says the live music has had a "huge impact" on the piece.
"I saw the dancers completely transform with the live music," she says. "It was like a level of energy I've never seen them [have]. They just kind of exploded into this way of moving. … You could see the music was inspiring. It was pushing them in another way."
It's been a decade, but the themes explored in the work feel more relevant than ever, its creators say. And the reunion has been a revelation.
"Right now our differences and our similarities are there, but with more excitement in the room because we see ourselves … in a very different way," Gagnon says. "I will always feel an affinity towards that woman's brain and heart and desires, even if there's change. We're not 25 any more. That woman is brilliant. And when I'm in the room, it stimulates me in the right way to rise up to a similar level."
Monumental is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver Jan. 28, Places des Arts in Montreal April 11 and 12, the Grand Théâtre de Québec in Quebec City April 15. Vancouver's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival runs to Feb. 7 (pushfestival.ca).