Culture Vulture: Holy Body Tattoo’s MONUMENTAL and nora chipaumire’s portrait of my father

September 18, 2016

I love artwork that shows me things I’ve never seen before. It’s why I’ve always been drawn to the downtown and other-borough venues that showcase emerging and experimental performance. The BAM Next Wave Festival began with a solid commitment to that realm of contemporary live art, and I’ve seen tremendous stuff there over the years. Inevitably, as the festival has become an international institution, there has been a drift toward brand names and sure-fire programming. But every so often BAM makes a new effort to tune into cutting-edge work, most recently by introducing the new cozy BAM Fisher (Fishman Space). This week I saw two shows by artists completely new to me (endorsed by my friend Keith Hennessy, himself a cutting-edge performance-maker/curator/teacher/scenester) and came away challenged and invigorated.

The Holy Body Tattoo is a Vancouver-based dance company that formed in 1993 and in 2006 morphed into a new entity called Animals of Distinction. In 2005, the company created monumental with choreography by company founders Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon, poetic films by William Morrison, texts by Jenny Holzer, and recorded music by Montreal emo band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Last year the bright idea emerged to revive the piece and tour it around to festivals with the band (who recently regrouped after being on hiatus for several years) playing live. I had no file on any of these artists except for Holzer, whose work with soulful/philosophical aphorisms I adore. When I arrived at the BAM Opera House, the ushers were handing out earplugs to nervous middle-aged patrons, which alerted me that it was going to be THAT kind of show, which usually thrills my rock-n-roll heart. The show was indeed a  multimedia spectacle with separate movement, sound, and visual tracks intertwining in provocative and compelling ways.

For the first half of the 85-minute piece, the nine dancers confined themselves to standing on boxes (or plinths, as they call them in the program) — for my taste, they ran out of interesting things to do up there pretty quickly so this section ran long for me. But after that, when they left the boxes, the dancing/movement/choreography kept transforming itself in ways that I could never pin down and mostly found exciting to watch.


The Holzer texts were longer than her usual one-liners and faded in and out unpredictably, forming chapters in a non-linear narrative. And the music was indeed monumental, droney and sweet and slow-building at times and then sometimes dense waves of squalling sound as three electric guitarists at high volume generated spooky crying overtones. Not quite like anything I’ve seen before, which is always high praise in my book.

Same went, only double, for nora chipaumire’s portrait of my father at the BAM Fisher.  It was ostensibly an exploration of black African masculinity centering on the father she never had any real relationship with. But from the minute you walk in the door this is an extremely layered piece in a space that is highly alive in every way. The stage is set up as a boxing ring with chipaumire and Pape Ibrahimas Ndiaye (representing her father/sparring partner) continuously connected via lengths of stretchy straps with Shamar Watt circulating as referee/cheerleader/stage-manager, constantly rearranging the portable floodlights that serve as the show’s only lighting. (A witty touch: instead of earplugs, the audience is issued cheap sunglasses in case the glare gets to be too much — a courtesy never offered at Richard Foreman shows.)

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But the activities, the costumes, the gestures, the masks, the soundscore, and the movement pile onto the boxing metaphor numerous other frameworks: hiphop concert, voodoo ritual, club performance, shamanic trance ceremony, and Wooster Group-style mediated theater. There’s a lot of movement that rarely looks like dancing, speech that rarely emerges as coherent sentences let alone narrative, sound that almost never sounds like music — and the whole thing is pretty riveting. The three performers push themselves to extremes of physical ability, gender identification, and cultural cross-reference.  I was dazzled. 


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