Dancing That Gets Under Your Skin

Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer

Whatever Holy Body Tattoo lacks in numbers, it makes up for in intensity.

"Relentless," "a perpetual motion machine" and "the martial arts of modern dance" are some of the terms critics have applied to the modern dance troupe formed by Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras in Vancouver, Canada, in 1993.

In all that time, the two dancer-choreographers have created only three works, in part because they put as much emphasis on performing as creating. They've danced their works hundreds of times to great acclaim in Europe, the Middle East and North America.

They make their Los Angeles debut dancing the middle work, "our brief eternity," at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA, Wednesday through Saturday.

"We've been described as being like the MTV generation," Gingras said in a recent phone interview from the British Columbia city. "But we were brought up with that. It's what we know. We're not trying to appropriate something that isn't us."

Gingras, 35, was born in the small town of Fort Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada. She moved with her family to South America, spent her teenage years in the U.K. and came back to Canada when she was 17. She immediately started dancing.

Gagnon, 38, was born in Montreal to an artistic family, and although he always "wanted to move," he first studied the visual arts. "In my family, boys didn't dance," he said in a separate interview from Vancouver. "We did army training."

Still, he decided to try dance at Montreal's Concordia University. "After six months, I knew it was meant for me."

The two met in 1987 at an audition for the Vancouver dance troupe EDAM, or Experimental Dance and Music, which specialized in contact improvisation.

"We immediately became branded as the terrible twins because we were naughty and cheeky and full of ourselves," Gingras said.

"Right from the start, she fascinated me," Gagnon said. "She was eager as I was. She was full of creative ideas. We were really cocky when we started."

They danced with EDAM for two years, then went their separate ways. They got back together in Montreal in 1993 and decided to form a partnership. Their first step was to move back to Vancouver.

"We wanted to isolate ourselves," Gingras said. "There were too many distractions in Montreal. There was an amazing dance scene there, and we knew if we stayed, we would get sucked into it and our focus on our work would suffer."

The name they picked for their company is a creative use of words.

"We wanted to come up with something that summarized the idea that the experiences you've had in life are contained in your body," Gingras said.

"The body doesn't lie. Who you are, your dreams, your perception of the world--that's in your body. Those marks are saved. You can't really erase them."

Yet it took about 21/2 years before they presented their first piece, "Poetry and Apocalypse," in 1996.

"It took that long to develop our aesthetic," Gagnon said. "We were looking for a style, for a vision and roots to express what we're trying to say."

Their first work quickly won them a Canadian following, but it was their second, "our brief eternity," that caught the eye of international presenters when they premiered it at the 1996 Canada Dance Festival. They were soon launched on the international circuit.

That work, in turn, won them the first $50,000 Alcan Performing Arts Award/Dance 2000 in February 1999, the largest award of its kind in Canada. They used it to fund their third piece, "Circa," in which they explore gentler, more sensuous movement.

"A theme that runs through all our work is the nature of endurance, whether it's willpower, the push to keep going, or the letting go and giving in to where you're at," Gingras said.

"Noam and I usually go through a process of long improvisation based on the concept of the work. We try to create a language for each piece."

"She's extremely good at overall form," Gagnon said. "I'm extremely good with details and the breaking down to the essence of what that physicality is. We're incredibly balanced, working together. It's a match made in heaven."

The language of "our brief eternity" is related to "the obsessive nature of progress and accumulation and the rapid changes that occur with progress," Gingras said, "and trying to look at what is lost individually with progress. You can't just evolve from something. There's got to be a loss."

In order to convey such ideas, the work projects a text by sci-fi writer William Gibson and short story writer Christopher Halcrow.

"The text can convey heady ideas, which dance can't," Gingras said. "You can't dance ideas."

The work is set to a driving, percussive industrial rock score by Jean-Yves Theriault, incorporates a black-and-white film of the dancers by William Morrison, and enlists a third dancer, Susan Elliott.

"This barrage of information puts the viewer in conflict," Gingras said. "What are you drawn to? You can't get everything. Are you drawn to the text, to the body? That echoes what's going on in our society, with its overloaded information."

With its 55 minutes of nonstop action, both dancers, now older, are feeling the difference.

"At 35, it's tough," said Gingras. "You definitely spend a lot longer preparing to do it.

"When we made this piece, in '96, we were much younger and we had the drive and the desire to move that way and wanted to expose that much energy. Now we're not so much into that.

"But that makes it more interesting to come to it. You really approach the content of the work with an objectivity in terms of interpreting the work. There's more tension. Our work, if it gets too easy, looks like aerobics from hell."

"I'm 38," said Gagnon. "My body can't be pushed as much as it used to be. I'm more prone to injury. But at the same time, I understand it's not about pushing. Sometimes it's about stillness."

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"OUR BRIEF ETERNITY," Holy Body Tattoo, Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood. Dates: Wednesday through Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Price: $35.Phone: (310) 825-2101.

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