An Electric Bolt of Messy

Helen Simard’s Requiem Pop By Philip Szporer
  • Angélique Willkie and Sébastien Provencher in Simard's Requiem Pop / Photo by Claudia Chan Tak
  • Sarah Williams in Simard's Requiem Pop / Photo by Claudia Chan Tak
  • Justin Gionet and Sébastien Provencher in Simard's Requiem Pop / Photo by Claudia Chan Tak
  • Sébastien Provencher in Simard's Requiem Pop / Photo by Claudia Chan Tak

April 10-13, 2019, Agora de la danse, Montréal

Helen Simard’s Requiem Pop arrives at the end of a highly creative cycle for her as a creator – beginning with No Fun (2014), then on to Idiot (2017). All three works celebrate her imaginative muse, music icon Iggy Pop, whose career spans over fifty years. The Iggy legacy is a minefield of mimicry and subjective response. As I write this review, Iggy, at seventy-two, is playing sold-out concerts at the Sydney Opera House. The adulation overshadows how shunned he was, in certain circles, earlier in his career.

Requiem Pop blends choreography with live music, speech, lighting, costuming and props, and in a real sense, no one element dominates the other. The barrage of this multi-layered approach brings an electric quality to the work. There’s a bit of a buzzy club vibe in the packed theatre, with the younger crowd toting wine in hand.

A friend of mine fittingly described the show as a puzzle, suggesting there are lots of oddly shaped and irregular interlocking pieces, with each piece holding a small picture of the larger whole. Iggy, his music and the cultural signposts from that era dominate the show. But Simard incorporates Yves Montand’s Les feuilles mortes (in the English world, the song is known as Autumn Leaves) into the mix, and it plays a central and recurring role in the show. Requiem Pop is ultimately about the process of letting go of things to grow into the person you are now.

In Simard’s case, the Montand song choice is reflective of her shifting practice – how she has forged her pathway as an artist. She first came to the public’s notice about seventeen years ago as one of the Solid State Breakdance Collective, a celebrated Montréal bgirl group. The group emphasized sisterhood, empowerment and breaking the conventions of what was then an aggressive male-dominated breakdance scene.

This latest rigorous piece tackles the notion of the adulation and illusions of hero worship, fandom and the cultural icons we don’t know but love. I recently read an article about hero worship that suggested that role models and idols can be many things to us – inspiring, comforting and destructive – but that fervent worship often leads to disappointment. The performers (Stacey Désilier, Stéphanie Fromentin, Justin Gionet, Sébastien Provencher, Sarah Williams, Angélique Willkie) have the twitching, flailing Iggy body down pat, sometimes looking a bit out of their heads, while the fierce musicians (Jackie Gallant, Roger White and Ted Yates) incite them from risers at the rear of the stage with lots of sound and fury.

Simard’s vision unleashes an electric bolt of messy, self-destructive Iggy (or Iggy Stooge) chaos onto the stage. There’s more than a scent of the very strange primal urges of punk rock era of the 1970s, most particularly the raw, nihilist, fuck-you madness (don’t forget, some people used to refer to the music as “Iggy mental”) that galvanized fans.

Requiem Pop’s ragged distortedness of the Iggy spectacle is pitch perfect as the performers crawl on all fours or settle into exaggerated mock-model cross-legged struts, when they‘re not melting into each other’s arms. And Simard teases out the bored teen mentality of the time. Truth be told, I half expected the audience to raise their adoring arms at one point, as one of the dancers, as an Iggy figure, literally would be crowd-surfing.

Some moments have more teeth than others: Williams inhabits the sweaty, rough pose of the times, a cock of her head, a sly hint of the erotic howls that Iggy’s voice exalted that buries deep into your core and even his iguana-like physique. Désilier tries on his deadpan, confrontational tone, eviscerating spectacle as “nothing new.” But it sounds like she’s going through the motions.

Simard doesn’t illustrate the movement with words, nor do the physical sections give meaning to any particular text. The premise of the use of text in performance (telling little stories) is a key question that many contemporary dance creators grapple with, but those words only come to life with the right performer. When Willkie, who knows how to deliver a line reading, speaks about love (were the words Iggy’s, who knows?), you are there with her. She makes it personal, grounded and felt. “Your friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person,” is how Willkie sums up her monologue. This is not a recounting of capitulation. It’s something way deeper. She’s emotional, yielding, fluid. She makes you want to go out and find that “swinging kind of truth,” as she says. That total conviction to the material is everything.

What I particularly enjoyed in Requiem Pop’s movement was a repeated gesture, a stand-your-ground stance that Iggy Pop knew well (music writers report the physicality came from Bowie): essentially, you keep your arms away from your torso, put one foot in front of the other; little movement is best, with a move a bit left, then a move a bit right. Simard did her homework. She traces the personality of these figures, develops a rapport with the audience but ultimately let’s us decide what defines a cult hero. 

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