PuSh Festival: Interview with Holy Body Tattoo's Noam Gagnon

After a ten-year absence, legendary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo returns with a multi-city international tour, starting at Vancouver’s own PuSh Festival. Alongside Montreal post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the company will perform monumental, its fifth and final work, on January 28 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. In anticipation of what promises to be an incredible one-night-only performance, SAD Mag spoke with renowned choreographer and Holy Body Tattoo co-founder Noam Gagnon about what to expect from monumental.

SAD Mag: What's the story behind the name “Holy Body Tattoo”?

Noam Gagnon: It's a play on words. Powerful experiences leave traces on the body, they become almost like tattoos. We wanted, as choreographers, to think about experiences that change—or force you to change—your point of view or to make choices.

SM: How is this idea reflected in your work?  

NG: We're thinking about the impact of some of those experiences, those moments in someone's life that...leave traces. There's so many things in our lives that we don't have a choice [about], or we don't have the opportunity to express. So we wanted to create a setting where we could speak about those things.

SM: Why is dance such an important form of expression for you?

NG: The body doesn't lie. You can see that as we get older. You look at a child or at a woman who's 90 years old. What is going on in someone's life has an impact not only on their physical body but also on the markings of their face [and] your ability to perform your daily tasks. Even after plastic surgery, you look at someone's spine, their hands, and there will always be something that will betray their history.

 Photo by Chris Randle

Photo by Chris Randle

SM: Tell me more about monumental. What’s the piece about?

NG: The first part is based on the view of the individual being betrayed by work; it’s really this idea of the hyper-structured place where everyone has to be the same, and the strain of having to fall into the same beat at the same time. You realize at some point [that] something’s going to break. The beauty of it is realizing when it’s gone too far, picking up the pieces and realizing what we’re left with. This is part of our humanity, part of our growth.

SM: HBT is known for going almost “too far”—for pushing dancers to their limits. Can you explain the rationale behind this?

NG: The places of change and the places of growth in our lives [occur] when we push through our comfort zone, and push beyond our level of ability...The things that actually are powerful, that have the ability to create an impact in our lives are the things that require an incredible amount of effort. What I find at the end of the day is beautiful is watching people push their bodies to this extreme. The more we are challenged, the more we have a possibility of acknowledging what is really going on. And the effort to continue, to adapt in order to go on—it’s a beautiful thing. That’s what’s fascinating, because we will survive—we’ve survived everything.

SM: Is it strange to be doing monumental again, a decade after its premier? 

NG: Well it’s a bit sad, because I think that as a society [today], we’re more alienated from each other, and we have less understanding of how we function within one another. History just keeps repeating itself.

[But also] I think it’s actually quite exciting that we we were able to tap into something that still has resonance. This new incarnation is infinitely better. I can’t tell you how much more powerful it is with Godspeed [You! Black Emperor]. It really is an experience of a lifetime. It’s crazy, crazy, crazy powerful—disturbingly beautiful.

SM: What do you hope to achieve with monumental?

NG: The mandate of Holy Body Tattoo is to create powerful experiences and to leave traces. We’re just leaving powerful images for people to reckon with in a setting that speaks about the world we live in.

[monumental] speaks about the best and also the worst of people. We’re not trying to make a story that it’s linear—saying people are good or people or bad—we’re trying to create a window where people can actually make their own choices.


Holy Body Tattoo performs monumental on January 28 at 8pm at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Tickets are available at ticketfly.comThis interview has been edited and condensed.