Post-Rock and the Dance: A Bromance
Shown this past weekend, monumental provided a rare evening for Brooklynites: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presented Canadian contemporary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo’s work to the live accompaniment of the iconic post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor! (GSBE). Die-hard GSBE followers and BAM regulars came for different reasons and most likely with different expectations. Choreography by Dana Gringras and Noam Gagnon included virtuosic falls, persistent flinching which grew into percussive ruptures, and creepy group smiling that held the room. Several video projections (windmills and desert-scapes) demarcated various sections of the work, along with text by Jenny Holzer, all set to well known tracks by GSBE. Ripe was the opportunity for a special layering of these often disparate art forms. However: whether or not post-rockers will be lured to the contemporary dance scene or vise-versa seemed secondary to the broader opportunity to watch the dynamics of this relationship play out; that is, the contemporary dance body working amidst the hard instrumental swells of legendary rockers.
In this work, the experience of capitalist drudgery (the everyday force of corporate life) crafts the bodies onstage into tortured statues, asking us to question what it is we revere in contemporary culture. The dancers remain isolated to the surface area of square boxes (later revealed to be amps) for the better half of the evening, beginning in curled, pained positions. Gestures spring out of their bodies in short bursts, usually referencing another body part with agitation; grabbing a knee or flicking the hair. A tremendous holding-of-the-body-in-position was the most visible task. The confinement of the dancers’ space set up a dynamic of alienation which was never effectively resolved. The interactions between the dancers remained strained and adversarial, even through some full-throttle-contact partnering toward the end.
These dancers were not left to themselves. When the music amplified for the first time, a back layer of stage was lit to reveal GSBE. The band was elevated behind the dancers as a kind of driving shadow, the ‘behind’ of the everyday grind and the force with which this unrelenting presentation of urban anxiety pedaled. These two sets of bodies, presentational in different ways, provided some of the most compelling moments of the evening: was the relationship between movement and music also adversarial? Which bodies rocked other bodies? Was the whole work rockin’ enough, man?
Long-time fans noticed that the drastic dynamics Godspeed You! Black Emperor! is known for were a bit softened in this space, the musical transitions clearly affected by the parameters of the dance. Despite this fact, and the muffling of my earplugs, the drums lived in my throat and the vibrations rattled my brain. The dancers also contributed to the soundscape with gasps of air, the hard hitting of their flesh and feet, the act of counting out loud, shouting. While the sense of the individual alienation of the dancers was strong, no dancer was ever left alone onstage. In fact, even while isolated, the body is never left to itself. The body is always subjected to the elements, the spinning of windmills and the passing of time, film projections, incessant itching and the power of textual explanation.
This vulnerability of the body was underscored by the harsh repetition used throughout the work, both impressive and maddening. The dancers would brilliantly execute the full range of a gestural idea, let it sit, let it sink. Just when the movement itself had been pushed up toward an edge, the commitment to the gesture would unleash on us again. Must I watch this thrust of the pelvis again? Flicking the hair and scratching the scalp again? I began to really hate these movements in a way I’ve never experienced as an audience member. While appreciating this performative strategy of agitation, corporate life and its waging of civil war on our bodies, I also wonder if this unwavering tone reduced the work’s depth.
The work itself is certainly not responsible for positing a solution or even a brief reprieve from our harsh realities. However, the most successful interaction of these art collectives would find ways to not merely match the other’s tone but to interrogate the limits of each other’s perspective. Like any bromance, these two elements seemed to celebrate each other by only reinforcing a rather flat understanding of what the other was presenting; the mutual recognition of each other was an activity of maintaining a current identity. What if monumental did not just present the concept of ‘fighting the man’ but also explored how the notion of ‘fighting the man’ often has the implicit requirement of ‘fighting the man’ like a man? In short, the incredible opportunity that this collaboration represents deserves more time, more attention, and more critical attempts.