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Artist Interviews

Noam Gagnon
Choreographer, Artistic Director of the Holy Body Tattoo
February 24, 2005
National Arts Centre - Ottawa, Ontario


My name is Noam Gagnon and I was born in an older neighbourhood of Montreal. I moved to Laval, then to St. Jerome, and now I live in Vancouver.

How did you become a choreographer?

My background led me to it. My father was a labourer, but he was also a visual artist and a musician. Creating was part of my daily life. I never thought I should become a doctor or a lawyer. Going towards the visual then the plastic arts came naturally; nothing else really interested me. I loved expressing myself through these mediums. Dance, on the other hand .... I was working in the visual arts and my work had an impromptu quality reminiscent of what was known at that time as "portable" art. I also did music, dance and a lot of improvisation. A dancer friend suggested I try a solo and I accepted her invitation. I went on stage and did my short piece and suddenly the world was transformed, totally open to me! "What a stage animal!" my friend remarked. I had no idea what she meant, but I knew that I had never felt so at home, so free. Even though I was doing a lot of improv theatre at the time, this experience literally transformed my life. A little while later, I had to decide what I was going to take at university. I was a bit tired of the visual arts and I had three friends doing choreography at Concordia University, so I decided to do the same thing. And I had just read an article about a Spanish choreographer, who talked about the creative process of the artist alone in his studio--that the only limits on an artist were those he placed on himself or his own limitations. I was very struck by the process of exploration he described. I was about 17, 18, 19, at the time and I was looking for myself--I wanted to find my way as an artist and as a man. Together all these things triggered something in me. I decided to take a year off and travelled to the US and Mexico. I really wanted to keep travelling, so I told myself that if I enrolled at an English-speaking university, since I hardly spoke English, I could imagine that I wasn't in Montreal. So I decided to go to Concordia and took a translator with me to the interview. I was sure they would accept me on the basis of my school records (I had great marks in the visual arts), but they told me I had to audition and show them my choreography. I was very good at improv but I knew nothing about choreography. But I'd done gymnastics when I was younger, so I clowned around a bit to a piece of medieval music. They told me I had a lot of raw talent and that I'd have to learn English. At that time, 1982-83, there was an international festival of new dance in Montreal: Bausch, Rosa, La La La Human Steps, etc. The explorations being done into different states and forms fascinated me. Édouard Locke's work, for example. And that's how I became a choreographer! [he laughs]

How would you describe your creations and what characterizes your choreographic language?

I would call the Holy Body Tattoo's language "cinematic". Just as if you looked at the actual film stock of a film, you see every movement and create visual phrases. It's a high-intensity, visceral language, which wants to create lots of impact. It also tries to show that beauty and humanity still exist despite the constant pressures on them.

What are your sources of inspiration?

Inspiration? I always start from a need or a hunger that comes out of the previous piece, because you can't create new choreography every day. I do try not to replicate what I've done before and to always create something that transforms me. I do a lot of duos, but I try to express my ideas differently every time. It's very stimulating. Actually, I think inspiration is really a question of happy accident. Of course, you have to remain open. It's always there; you just have to be open, feed your imagination, stay happy and try to always look at your language with a fresh eye.

When you go into the studio to start a new creation, what sets the process in motion--music, a movement, a thematic shading?

It's usually a piece of music that starts the process, but that's not what I'll stick with. There has to be a rhythm and an intention. I often start from a theme, then powerful impressions lead me to start improvising and I try to develop some of the sequences. The feelings I experience while doing it become action verbs, which help me to structure the piece and define certain parts. After that I look for some adjectives to flesh out the work as whole. I don't start out looking for beauty or aesthetics; above all, I want to create works that are edgy, real, striking.

What would you like audiences to take away from your performances?

I'd like each viewer to be able to define his own point of view and translate it into how he'd react in the situation that the piece presents. monumental , for example, deals with interpersonal relations, with the trade-offs you have to make all the time, the important or unimportant choices that we make or don't make every day and our responsibility for them. So it's about viewpoint. Watching the piece, viewers can identify or not with the choices it presents and come to a decision about them.

What is your greatest professional challenge?

Working in a duo. [ laughter ] Really, working in a duo.

What advice would you give to a young artist?

I don't know. With experience, I realize that the more I know, the less I seem to be sure of it. You have a sense, a feeling, and you have to listen and learn to harness it. Is that advice? You have to get into contact with this voice and learn to use it whether you're an artist or not. I really don't know what else I can say.

What quality are you most looking for in your dancers?

Hunger and the desire to go the limit. They can't be afraid to take risks. Performing my pieces is demanding, both physically, viscerally--they're all action, or as I said earlier, verbs--and psychologically. They take the performers and the public to the point of no return. Not everybody can do that kind of work. People ask me how I came to it: I could do it, that's all. I wasn't made to be a boxer. Some people just know they can handle the physical and emotional impact of the Holy Body Tattoo's style, but it's not for everyone. Our choreographies take us to places where I feel comfortable because... well, because I'm French and love drama, and I'm not afraid of strong emotions, of dark and light spaces, the light-dark of human relations or experiences that leave their mark. It's crazy but I prefer such situations, because it's easier to locate the truth, see what's behind the mask, find your own way and, ultimately, make choices.

Who has had the most influence on your career?

The entire Holy Body Tattoo team, naturally. Some people have been part of it for nearly 10 years, and I've worked with Dana for 17 or 18 years. It includes the people who work on the film sequences, the music, etc., our graphic designer Stephen Gilmour--everybody who shares my daily life, my private life, sees my highs and lows and supports me despite everything. That means the whole company influences my career. It's like making a movie, it's a team effort. The creator has to have a vision but he can't bring it to life by himself. It's because of the dancers that the Holy Body Tattoo's language continues to be able transform itself and to transcend Dana and me.

How did you come to name your company?

Certain day-to-day experiences leave indelible traces; they're permanent, like tattoos. They're impenetrable, incomprehensible, so you can call them sacred, holy. And our daily life has an enormous influence on our body. The body remembers whether you want it to or not, often because of genetic factors, but also often because of the intensity of the emotions that have been lived. So the name of the company combines the three English words--holy, body and tattoo--that express these realities. As choreographers, we really wanted to start from powerful experiences, see what lies beneath, show how daily life is lived. That's it!