Photo: Chris Randle
PuSh 2016: Monumental
Dance and artistic expression through movement are not my favourite media but this intriguing collaboration was an opportunity too good to pass up. I first saw Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor play in 1999 (it was amazing - it made my bones hurt) and they have gone on to be vastly influential musical giants.
Monumental was first mounted in 2005 but it was not possible to bring it to life on the scale imagined by Holy Body Tattoo founders Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras until now. The dance group has been dormant for a number of years but are back to stage this spectacle in the way they had always hoped, and to tour it around the world.
The dense, all-encompassing music was absolutely appropriate for this experience. It was designed to be immersive (violin, drums, many guitars) and this was very effective. I wonder if the two epic elements were rather too overwhelming though. Personally I preferred to listen to the music and would have liked to a better view of the band members, who were obscured by the dancers and sometimes covered by a screen. The night's musical performance was dark but beautiful and still intense and brilliant all these years later.
Imagine the story of the apocalypse relayed by the survivors, regular folk with PTSD. Or imagine office workers who are having psychotic hallucinations going to bootcamp training or playing paintball. These are the scenarios that came to mind while watching the repetitive twitching, the frantic flailing and the physical angst of the nine dancers. It isn't specifically unpleasant but it is very dark. The themes seemed to be alienation and loneliness.
The performers all began on white pedestals, separated and constrained. It was an apt metaphor and an interesting limitation for a dancer. I thought more would be made of the descent from the plinths, which I had started to think would never occur. This might symbolize freedom, or further terror, but it seemed rather arbitrary. I preferred the very active sequences to the very precise movements (meant to convey the anxieties of modern urban life). Much of the movement was genuinely awe-inspiring, especially sequences where dancers threw themselves from air to floor while whirling around the pillars. There was a little levity but not much. There seemed to be a riot at one point, and a drunken party at another.
It was very hard not to impose a narrative onto Monumental, as it was supremely gestural. Optimistic interpretations are possible: what makes us human? what struggles do we share and how could those bring us together instead of keep us apart? how do we deal with our desires in a healthy way? But it was hard not to see a pessimistic story about how people become cold and empty or even worse, how people are driven to violence and insanity. But maybe I'm reading too much into an art form which lends itself to expression and exaggeration...
The film projections (wind turbines, bridges) did add something to the piece but the projected text seemed deliberately obscure but lacked any insight and was surplus to requirement. The sound and lighting were great.
The show culminated with an interpretation of "Dead Flag Blues" (from the album F#A#oo, a dark ditty that we like to refer to as "The Church is Full of Bodies") including the narration, which was a powerful and fitting ending. As a whole the audience seemed blown away by the experience; there was a standing ovation.
While this was a one-night only performance, there are dozens of amazing PuSh shows on until February 7th. Go see one.