Dana Gingras’ Frontera puts bodies in motion

A scene from Frontera a performance by the Montreal dance company Animals of Distinction. Choreography by Dana Gingras. Photo: Yannick Grandmont

Dana Gingras likes those liminal spaces She finds inspiration for the dance works she creates in between things.

It is a learned experience for the Canadian choreographer whose young life lacked roots because her parents were always moving across great distances.

This sense of displacement and being the outsider is reflected in her work Frontera (Frontier in Spanish) which will be at the National Arts Centre on Feb. 19 and 20.

The germ of the project started “when I was doing an application for a residency in Montreal. I was thinking about a project as I was about to go to Argentina where I grew up. I spent part of my childhood there. Spanish was my first language.

“I was taking husband and we were planning this trip. Donald Trump had just been elected and there was a lot of stuff going on at the same time that got me thinking about displacement and borders and frontiers and the movement of people in the world.”

Right now, she said, the planet is seeing the largest mass displacement of people ever.

Dana Gingras. Photo: Austin Young

“All of that got me thinking and reading about this topic and thinking about my own displacement and how I am always feeling like an outsider.”

Gingras was born in Fort St. John in northern B.C. Soon after her parents picked up stakes and moved to Argentina. They stayed there until a military coup launched the dirty war in that country and the family moved again finally landing in the U.K.

After high school she moved to Canada.

“I was born in Canada, but never felt like I lived here or that I belonged here. That was very confusing. Then being an anglo with a Quebecois name living in Montreal has its own kind of displacement.

“As an artist I think I have spent most of my career being interested in that outside point of view. I love liminality. I love the edges. I love looking at things from the outside.”

She brings many different perspectives to her work and her life.

“There has been a lot of movement in my life always living somewhere where I wasn’t born. Not knowing what home means is one result. When I think about my parents now, they were really up for some adventure.”

The dancers of Animals of Distinction: Robert Abubo, Stacey Desilier, Paige Culley, Sovann Prom Tep, Léna Demnati, Esther Rousseau-Morin, Caroline Gravel, Koliane Prom Tep, Mark Medrano  and Louise Michel Jackson. Photo: Adrian Morillo

Gingras is a dance and film artist with 20 years of work as a dancer and choreographer. In 1993, she co-founded the award winning Holy Body Tattoo company with Noam Gagnon. Gingras is also an associate dance artist with the National Arts Centre and runs her own company called Animals of Distinction which is performing Frontera.

Mass migration seems to fit the idea of dance movement. In the case of Frontera, Gingras said she was interested in “looking through this lens of movement and displacement. When you do that you start also thinking about things that block movement like borders or walls. That opened up another topic — surveillance.

“All our movements are being tracked through smart phones and other devices. A whole other level of investigation started to inform this work ideas of control and invisible power.

“Where I arrived after all this investigation is a question of where is our freedom and agency. Where are these spaces where we have the ability to move in a line of desire.

In the piece, the dancers are moving in a rhythmic way, she said, not in a prescribed way, “looking for pockets of freedom and openings. There is a theme of resistance underlying the work.”

It’s clearly a comment on the world today.

“What I always try to do with a work is creates a lens through which we can look at the world. But I also always feel I am creating a prism through which we can look at a subject from many different sides.”

Lighting plays a key role in Frontera. Photo: Yannick Grandmont

That said the work is open ended enough to allow audiences to connect their own experiences to the work. For example, “we were just in Sydney, Australia, and all the fires were happening. It was impossible for people there not to project their own experience on the work because there was huge displacement happening for humans and animals.”

The work is set in a black space with lighting serving an important role, almost as an actor.

Light in the piece, she said, represents oversight or control and the dancers are almost searching for safety in the shadows.

“Using light we are able to constantly reconfigure the map or the territory without need for set pieces. I wanted the lighting to be more than just on top of the dance.”

This is where funding from sources such as the National Creation Fund comes in. It allowed Gingras’ team to develop more fully this use of lighting.

The Creation Fund “makes large scale work possible. You need to be able to try these things out. You need time in a space to know what you are doing.”

The name of her company, Animals of Distinction, doesn’t really have a significant meaning. It’s actually the name of a toys produced by a now defunct company.

“When I was a kid I had toys that had labels saying Animals of Distinction. I always thought it was a great name. I thought it would be an interesting name for a company involved in collaborations with artists working in different mediums.

“I make films as well. It is a name that leaves space for me to create in different ways.

“I have worked a lot with live music and many different collaborators.”

The result, she says, is “a kind of meta-choreography when all these different elements speak to each other. It’s not just the movement. More than anything I call it expanded cinema.”

She is certainly not doing dance theatre.

“I don’t think in theatrical terms. All my works starts from a very pedestrian point of view. I’m inspired by the post-modernists and for me the body is the starting point —  bodies in motion.

“With Frontera I worked to create a language based on freerunning and parkour. The dancers are traceurs, so they trace through these forbidden spaces. It’s very physical work. It does create images but it doesn’t have a narrative.”

The piece is also informed by field recordings of people countries such asRussia, Germany, Ireland, Mexico and the U.S. The recordings were done by Dave Bryant from the enigmatic Montreal band and Polaris Prize winning Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

“He sought out a bunch of different people. He even found one of the original tunnellers under the Berlin Wall. I’d eventually like to get the interviews in their entirety on our website.”

The performance also includes musicians on stage with the dancers. They have a set score and improvise on top of that.

“It’s a live performance and I am interested in that feeling that it’s happening in the moment, that it’s not rote.”

To that end the dancers have some room to improvise. The lighting, however is a on computer program. But even so the dancers can change the relationship to the light with their movements.

This piece premiered this past November in Quebec City. Since then it’s been performed in Montreal, then in Sydney, Berlin and most recently at the PuSh Festival in Vancouver then to Ottawa.

“We went around the world one and a half times,” she said. After Ottawa the show will take a break but Frontera will be back on the road in the fall.

Animals of Distinction present Dana Gingras’ Frontera
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: Feb. 19 & 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.