When choreographer Dana Gingras was six years old, she started dreaming of ways to escape ballet lessons. Unlike many of her friends, most of whom aspired to be prima ballerinas, Gingras was drawn to a dance style that was far less dainty. “One of my earliest memories is waiting for a class to start and watching a bunch of beautiful flamenco dancers finish their practice and exit the studio,” recalls Gingras in an interview from her home in Montreal. “I remember being very envious. These flamenco girls had better shoes, better costumes and better moves. I swore that at some point I would find a way to ditch the tutu and run off with them.”
Instead of devoting herself to Cinderella and Swan Lake, the B.C.-born talent learned modern dance through intensive summer courses at Simon Fraser University and École de danse contemporaine de Montréal. In 1993, she co-founded the Holy Body Tattoo, one of the most avant-garde dance companies in Canadian history. And in 2006, she founded her current troupe, Animals of Distinction, which often works with artists outside the field of dance. Gingras has built her reputation on projects that flirt with pop culture. Her CV includes a cinematic fan letter to Winnipeg artist Marcel Dzama—a short film called Dances for Dzama—and Smash Up, a tribute, through gesture, to musical remixes and mashups. When Montreal’s Arcade Fire asked her to choreograph the video for their song Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), Gingras created a zombie-like dance that suited the online version, where viewers can change the characters’ moves via webcam or mouse.
“There are very few bands out there who are dedicated to exploring branches of art the way Arcade Fire does,” Gingras says of the collaboration. “They did not want Sprawl II to be some regular MuchMusic video at all. There was a real sensitivity to the series of gestures.”
Her latest work, Heart as Arena, features the 45-year-old’s experimental choreography, which she will perform with Animals of Distinction at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre from May 10 to 12 and at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques from May 29 to 31. “I’m big on ticks and physical tendencies, anxieties and nervous shakes,” Gingras says. “The idea is that everyday actions that have intentions become the dance. It’s an alphabet derived from watching the way the dancers I work with live and react.”
Heart as Arena’s vocabulary of moves—which includes feral high kicks, dives and dancers seemingly in seizures—are performed with music composed by sound artist Anna Friz, whose specialty is manipulating the static from transistor radios. “I wanted to explore what happens in the space in between bodies and the radio waves—all the electromagnetic forces moving around us,” Gingras explains. “The work is super lo-fi as I am commenting on the shallowness of communication inundating everyone in the 21st century. Everything today is a sound bite. Intimacy is lost. I wanted to provide the audience with what they are lacking.”
Gingras says a 1986 Vancouver performance of Human Sex featuring Louise Lecavalier of Quebec’s modern dance company La La La Human Steps inspired her. “She was harnessing a kind of wildness that I wanted. She had control of a vast amount of unbridled energy that read as so honest. The spectacle wasn’t like any dance show I’d seen. I felt like I was at a rock concert.”
Toronto-based dancer Sarah Doucet—who is cast in Heart as Arena and has worked with Gingras as both costume designer and dancer for more than 10 years—says Arcade Fire sought out Gingras because her artistic views are compatible.
“In terms of the music industry, Arcade Fire is very anti-conventional. They saw that defiance in Dana. Heart as Arena is part of that, it is very in-your-face. She creates aggressive, ballsy, challenging choreography—she doesn’t do pretty with a bow on top,” Doucet says. “She believes art and dance doesn’t need to be precious. She’s a modern dance activist and so her rebel streak attracts other rebels.”