MONUMENTAL promises to leave audiences in awe during the Festival.
‘I always joke that this is the piece that never should have happened,” says Dana Gingras, co-creator of Monumental. ‘First of all you’re dealing with a dance company that doesn’t exist any more, a band that always says ‘No’, and a piece that’s over ten years old. How is that possible?”
Yet possible it most definitely is. One of the most hotly anticipated shows in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival may have taken a lot of time and energy to get here, but Monumental is on its way.
Gingras and co-choreographer Noam Gagnon first created the piece in 2005, when their dance company, The Holy Body Tattoo, was blazing a trail in Vancouver. Despite Monumental being one of Gingras and Gagnon’s most successful works, the company folded shortly after and both moved on to new projects.
Back then, the show was performed to recorded music by fellow Canadians Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who themselves had announced an indefinite hiatus. But when the band began to tour again in 2010, a plan was hatched to bring the two factions together on stage.
“They said no for about four years,” explains Gingras. “Then at one point last year they said yes, and then it was full steam ahead. They definitely came into this project with some trepidation, wondering what is this dance thing and how do we fit into it?
“It was a big risk for them, so I’m really grateful they took that leap of faith. And it’s been received very positively, so they’re very happy and want to do more.”
Both Holy Body and Godspeed are known for their political content, so they were already a good fit. But Gingras was also inspired by the arrangement of Godspeed’s music.
“They’re so cinematic,” she says. “The way things build in the music, the ebb and flow and the arcs, it was an amazing way to structure the choreography, to bring out the emotional high and low points.”
Another starting point for the piece was the work of American painter Robert Longo. His 1979 series, Men in the Cities, depicts besuited men and women twisting their bodies into contorted positions, something the movement in monumental is clearly redolent of.
Audiences have received the work as a statement about modern urban life, about conformity and the struggle to find your own voice. All of which is in there, but for Gingras, it’s more important that each individual view the piece in their own way.
“We’re not interested in delivering a message or giving a tight narrative and saying ‘This is what the piece is about’,” she says. “We tried to create a blank screen, so there’s room for people to put what they’re experiencing into the work. And it’s been amazing to see what people projected on to it in 2005, and now. Because whatever is going on in the world is really the lens through which people digest the work.”
In 2005, when the show toured Canada and the United States, the events of 9/11 still cast a long shadow. The internet was growing by the day, but was unrecognisable compared to today. Yet somehow, Monumental has retained – or indeed increased – its relevance.
“In some ways, it seems to be resonating more now,” says Gingras. “The violence has always been there, and the things the piece touches on like the electronic age, that was already there – but maybe now we are more isolated and more disembodied because of technology.”
The idea of isolation looms large in the show, because, as the title suggests, the dancers are all standing on pedestals, like monuments. For over half an hour they don’t touch the floor, balancing precariously, moving with an almost violent intensity, but resolutely stuck in their own little world – until finally, they come down.
“One dancer said to me ‘Now I’ve done monumental, anything else seems easy’,” says Gingras. “There’s very little latitude in it in terms of self-expression, because it’s moving so fast, there are so many details and there’s so much unison.
“And then there’s the moment when they get to break out, and it’s almost like we can see all of this repressed tension and need for expression come out, and a wildness emerges.”
Gingras describes the nine dancers as being “very intimate with their boxes”, having rehearsed with them from day one. And with lights shining up into their faces at times, the piece is not without risk – which is absolutely intentional.
“Because they’re elevated off of the floor, the dancers lose their grounding, their connection to the earth,” she explains. “So then there’s this inevitability of toppling, which metaphorically feels really rich.”
Those familiar with the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor will know that it has a repetitive, almost hypnotic feel which it’s easy to get lost in. monumental was popular when it toured 11 years ago, but the presence of Godspeed on stage has intensified the experience for both audience and performers.
“It’s almost as if the velocity and violence that comes out of the dancers’ bodies gets amplified by the music being there,” says Gingras. “So there’s definitely a different impact with the band live – it goes right into your bones.
“The presence of live music – there’s nothing like it really, it’s so physical. And with a recording there is no risk, it’s set and it is what it is. Whereas with live music it breathes, it’s there being re-created on stage. So it’s a massive presence in the work.”
l Monumental is at the Playhouse,
8 and 9 August, 8pm