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Company brings band in for epic show

Revived production returns to PuSh fest

n monumental, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Jan. 28, 8 p.m. Tickets from $45; The PuSh Festival runs until Feb. 7 at various venues around Vancouver.

Having Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform live as your soundtrack doesn't happen overnight. Especially when you're a small, defunct cult dance company from Vancouver, looking to bring back a work (the 2005 hit show monumental) that hasn't been performed in 10 years.

In fact, it is a process that began in 2005, the moment the Holy Body Tattoo broke up.

You see, music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor formed the score for monumental the first time, but in the form of tracks. As time passed and talk got more serious about resurrecting the show, HBT founders Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras felt a remounting would only really be worthwhile if the elusive Canadian post-rock band signed on to perform, too.

It took about five years after their final performance, however, for the reputation of HBT to reach the heights necessary to be able to interest a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

It took even longer for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which was two years into its own indefinite hiatus when HBT dissolved, to get back together themselves and start touring again. Then it took a further four years for Gagnon and Gingras, who were simultaneously enjoying their own solo careers while liaising with the necessary producers and managers, to actually negotiate and coordinate a tour. Did we mention they have been managing the return of monumental, HBT's largest work ever, from opposite sides of the country?

The legend begins again with this year's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, but it started in a studio in East Vancouver.

Gagnon and Gringas first met while performing with Vancouver's influential EDAM (Experimental Dance and Music) scene in the '80s. By the early '90s, the dancers were bringing a fearless punk sensibility to their new company - earning the Holy Body Tattoo a reputation for "balletic yet brutal" choreography that functioned as a commentary on modern culture.

"For me the whole Holy Body Tattoo (thing) was pretty punk rock, and that's what I came from," says Gringas, speaking by phone from Montreal, where her company, Animals of Distinction, is overseeing monumental. "It was trying to harness that energy and sense of rebellion and just, you know, spirit of pushing boundaries.

"I'm just really grateful I had something physical to put all of that energy into!" Gringas adds with a laugh.

In a few short years, the company had collected awards and accolades, as well as international acclaim, and left an indelible mark on Canadian dance (which only grew more apparent in their absence).

monumental, however - having been built out of concepts from earlier works such as White Riot and Our Brief Eternity - could be considered HBT's opus.

In the piece, nine dancers stand on white plinths, jerking and flailing to the elegiac Godspeed You! Black Emperor score (spliced together at the time from tracks from the band's first major release, F# A#$8, with the help of former band member Roger Tellier-Craig) like a stressed out, societal stop-motion animation, until the whole artifice begins to fall apart.

"The work really is about pushing the performance language, to create a sense of humanity through effort, through extreme repetitiveness," explains Gagnon, speaking by phone from the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby. "Exposing a sense of humility," he adds. "We push it to a place where really, you realize everyone, no matter what, is equal. And it really speaks to how far we are willing to go, and when we go that far, what is the cost, and what do you have left?" Critics raved, but by the end of the show's run in 2005, Gagnon admits it was time for a change.

"After monumental, we both felt we needed to go back into our own sphere of work and really deepen other avenues of our psyche, artistry, and try to develop other aspects," he explains. "And we had different needs - we needed time to regather, re-explore, redefine in order to be able to get us, interestingly enough, into the same room again, realizing that we had something more to offer."

More to offer, indeed. As urban culture continues to grapple with loneliness, stress, poverty, mental illness, inequality, individuality and desire - not to mention the veritable resurgence of all things '90s - the piece has possibly even grown in relevance. "The work really speaks about the physical anxiety of our urban culture, and universal themes such as conformity, non-conformity. You know, trying to find a voice in what we want," explains Gagnon. "Even though our external world may have technologically advanced, we internally are still struggling with a very similar, if not worse, barrage of information."

Gagnon adds that he and Gringas had always hoped for a second life for the piece, but that it took the support of people like David Sefton, one of the original presenters of monumental, and producer Sarah Rogers, to bring the band and the dance company together.

"In the last five years those two have been working incessantly to be able to create a reopening of the work," says Gagnon. "And also, in order to work with a band that has an international career like this, we needed to have a tour organized before the show opened."

So, a tour they've delivered. In addition to its launch at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre this month, monumental will also be at Quebec City's Grand Théâtre de Québec in April, as well as at international stops like the Adelaide Festival in Australia.

Most excitingly, monumental's entirely new troupe of dancers (including Vancouver's own Shay Kuebler), will be joined onstage by the eight-piece instrumental band for the first time.

For fans of the original, the choreography hasn't changed, but the soundtrack has had to be reworked to remove some outside music and accommodate live performance, as well as incorporate some of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's newer tracks into the show.

"It's pretty epic," says Gringas of the music, appreciatively. "They've never done anything like this before. They've done, I think, scores for films and stuff before, but never with another element of live dance. I think it's completely foreign and strange and weird territory for them," she laughs. "But I have to say it's been thrilling to have everyone in the room and hear that music live and see this new cast of dancers just fully, very passionately dive into the choreography."

Some might even call it monumental, but that would be an understatement.

- Kelsey Klassen writes for our sister paper the Westender.