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REVIEW: monumental – The Holy Body Tattoo and Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Barbican

monumental at Barbican 2018
Drawing © Geoff Winston 2018. All Rights Reserved

monumental – The Holy Body Tattoo and Godspeed You! Black Emperor
(Barbican, 13 July 2018 – first of two nights. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The art connections are strong in monumental, the contemporary dance performance which brings together two strands of radical Canadian arts culture, the choreography of experimental dance troupe, The Holy Body Tattoo and the music of left-field rock collective, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Conceived by Dana Gringras and Noam Gagnon, the dance company’s co-founders, monumental was premiered in Ottowa in 2005 with a soundtrack which was a composite of recorded tracks by GY!BE. At the Barbican GY!BE performed the music live to introduce material from their most recent albums in the revivified version of this breathtaking, physical ballet.

The choreography, angular and agitated, and the costumes, semi-formal office dress in a palette of greys, black and white, acknowledge an inspirational debt to artist Robert Longo’s drawing series, Men in Cities (1977-83), based on his photos capturing friends’ poses as objects were thrown at them, which has been described as ‘a ballet of falls and stumbles, leaps and trips’.

The stage setting took its cue from ’60s and ’70s minimalist and environmental sculpture, of the likes of Donald Judd, Tony Smith and Carl André. The Barbican stage area was transformed in to a vast, grey expanse with a group of short, square-section plinths placed in the central foreground. The band took up their places in a line the full width of the stage on a raised area to its rear, backgrounded with muted illumination. Pared-back lighting was dramatically employed to define space and accentuate gesture while dry ice issued discreetly.

The choreography was unforgiving and fast-moving, pushing the dancers to extremes. For much of the 75 minutes the dancers were positioned on the plinths – one on each at any one time – to act out convulsive, obsessively metronomic and synchronised behaviours, articulating themes of dysfunction, alienation and confrontation arising from the demands of corporate cultures and the technologies which derail the lives of individuals in their service.

Projected high up above the band was a series of pithy, disquieting statements from artist Jenny Holzer which first appeared in her late ’90s series, Living, in tune with the project’s questioning political spirit – ‘IT’S WISE TO BE ON GUARD IF YOU ARE ALWAYS SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE WHO ARE COMPELLED TO BE NICE TO YOU. YOU’RE BETTER OFF ANONYMOUS AND PART OF THE GROUP.’ Towards the end of the show these were deconstructed and integrated with William Morrison’s monochrome film footage with stroboscopic immediacy.

The gut-wrenching physicality of the dance performance was astonishing to watch – tightly directed down to the last detail, but leaving room to bring out improvised physical feats in the hyper-active maelstrom. Dancers flew through the air, clashed one-on-one and in groups, and focussed in on themselves with awkward, manic gestures of introversion, adding chants and cries to amplify the corrosive effects of societal forces. Dancers would slip off the pedestals, and struggle to regain footing, a finessed choreographic detail. All the while GY!BE’s music painted a wash of melancholic, powerful and nuanced textures.

The impact was visceral, touching and disturbing. The achievement, unequivocally reflected in the title, was, indeed, monumental.

Supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Quebec

(GY! BE reviewed for LJN)

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