A riot of FUN: Helen Simard's creation NO FUN at Summerworks

Helen's Simard's work NO FUN is brash, loose and incomprehensible and all of those things in the most intriguing, fun way.  NO FUN is coming to Toronto next week as part of the dance portion of Summerworks Festival, curated by Jenn Goodwin.  Helen is one of the spunkiest, coolest ladies I have met in the course of my career. On stage she has an infectious and beguiling presence, a riot of ease, smarts and spontaneity.

As she answered my questions on her voice as a choreographer, you can also witness the considered thought that goes into crafting her fast and loose work.

LR: "Brash" is a word used in your promotional material for NO FUN. What does brashness mean to you?

HS: First thoughts: raw, shameless, unforgiving, uncompromising, self-confident, perhaps even rude. 
Beyond this: not being concerned with what one should be or do, just being and doing what one is, unashamedly.

LR: What was the trajectory leading to making NO FUN? How did the rock show subject matter become important or compelling to follow for you?
HS: I've always loved watching musicians move. There's a lot of interest in dance in "pedestrian" movement, but the way musicians move might not be "dance", but it isn't pedestrian either. It's this weird kind of movement that is half functional and half performative and totally unlike dance vocabulary. And I find singers particularly interesting because singing, like dancing, is an art that is made primarily through the body. And there's something about early punk singers in particular that's appealing so raw, so physically engaged, so disinterested in beauty or perfection. Something that's real and totally in the body.
I got into watching videos of Iggy on YouTube, and was like, my lord this man can move. Snakey spine, sexy hip swivels, sensual back bends, disturbing grimaces... so much inspiration. And his music! Thinking that he came out of the 60s, when everyone else was talking about peace and love, to show the gritty, grimy, dirty side of life. Beautifully unsettling sounds that gnaw at the soul. 

So I thought, what if I made a show that took Iggy—his work, his persona, everything—as a starting point? What kind of material could I find if I dug through his career? Could the way he moved be transformed into dance and woven into a kind of choreography? And if so, how would the music and movement find a way to coexist on stage in my show, the way they did in his performances? That was the starting point of my research with NO FUN.

What eventually became interesting or compelling to follow with the work was not creating a caricature of Iggy, but finding a way to summon the kind of trance-like energy that he creates. My interest shifted from looking at him as just in your face or provocative, but rather seeing how he pushed himself and others to the limit in order to create a strange kind of closeness or togetherness. The interest isn't in pushing the audience away, it's in bringing them in, in shaking things up to create a cathartic release. So the show becomes a journey through a number of emotional states, passing through confusion and chaos to enjoy moments of stillness and clarity.

LR: Can you tell me what drew you to the artists in your team or how they became involved?
HS: I work pretty intuitively when it comes to casting my performers. I never hold auditions or anything like that. I just think of what my show might be and try to let the show tell me who is in it. The show usually knows what it needs more than I do. 

For the dancers, I chose them because they all reminded me of Iggy somehow. I knew Stephanie Fromentin from my masters at UQAM, and she's got a smarmy kind of sense of humour mixed with just the right dose of grit that she balances with a calming physical elegance. 

Emmalie Ruest embodies Iggy's "j'm'enfoutisme", an expression in French that translates roughly to "I don't give a fuckism"... she's the one in the show that looks like she might go off the rails at any minute. It's kind of scary and hypnotic all at once. 

Justin Gionet is a new addition to the cast, he's replacing Sebastien Provencher. It's hard replacing a dancer... what I mean is that because I work so much in collaboration with my performers in creating the work, I can't so much replace someone, but rather have to figure out what someone else could bring to the work. Justin brings a youthful charm, some awkward postures, and he can jump like a freaking ninja... so was happy to bring him on board!
The musicians were another story. When we started the creation, I was working with my husband's (Roger White) band, Dead Messenger. They're guys I've worked with for years. Over the course of the creation, two of the guys in the band had to drop out of the project because of other commitments, so only Roger and Ted Yates are left in the cast from Dead Messenger. Rémy Saminadin came in as our new drummer; he's more of a jazz drummer and percussionist than a rock drummer, and does a lot of weird improv work, so he brought a crazy spacey vibe to the show that wasn't there before. Todd Tolls is a Toronto-based bassist (that sounds funny ha) jumping on board just for SummerWorks, he's a guy I've known for more that 20 years, killer musician and great performer

More than anything, though, what I love about my team is how much fun we have together. I was part of a collective for 12 years (Solid State Breakdance) and feel that one thing I learned from that experience is that when artists have fun together and enjoy their work environment, the work is better! Despite the show being called NO FUN, we're always laughing in rehearsals. I freaking love my team.

LR: One of the things you say about your work is that it looks at the beauty in failure. I  love this idea: beauty in failure. Do you have a sense of why that is important to you in making performance works?
HS: I think we spend so much time planning how we want things to go, and trying to control what happens, on stage and in life. But failure is all around us. We can't stop it. Things fall apart all the time and don't go the way we plan. I think that if we accept that, amazing, beautiful moments can emerge from these little failures, moments that we never could have imagined or engineered.  Who would want to read a book or watch a play where everything goes well? "Helen got up in the morning, brushed her teeth, went to work, did a good job, came home and ate a delicious dinner then went to bed and got 8 hours of sleep. She woke up the next day perfectly rested and did the exact same thing". That's so boring. But hey, throw in a car crash or a nervous breakdown and all of a sudden we have something to talk about. 

When I'm creating, I try to come into the studio with a starting point and a direction in mind, but never with an idea of where we're going to end up. I like give my performers impossible tasks or scenarios to work through. "Jump while you're lying on your back and while you climb into this bag I gave you and can you pull your underwear over your head at the same time? Don't pretend to do it, do it.  All of it." I know it won't work. But trying to make it work and failing horriblly yields amazing things, beautiful strange things I could have never imagined.  Things that are very vulnerable, very human finally, perhaps less calculated and more honest.
LR: Similarly  in creating what is ‘difficult to understand’ (another phrase from you use to describe your work), what is your value or reason attached to that? It is really brave given the climate surrounding contemporary dance or performance lately, the myth (or maybe it’s not a myth) that audiences fear not being able to "get" contemporary dance?

HS: There is so much fear involved in not understanding things. I think it's one of the things that we as humans are most afraid of. We create our world through attaching meaning to the things we see, do, and interact with everyday. So experiences that we can't easily digest and label can be unsettling. Same goes with art, a lot of people want to know right away what the work means, to be able to latch on to something concrete that helps them situate what they are seeing or experiencing. 

But if I think about the work that has touched me the most or stayed with me the longest, it's rarely work that I was able to understand right away. Because as soon as I understand, I'm free disengage and move on to something else. I GOT IT. NEXT. But when I don't understand, I'm forced to engage with what I've seen or experienced, to situate myself in regards to what has been put in front of me. I'm forced to face my expectations and what I take for granted in a performance setting. And I might not always LIKE that, but I'll stay connected to what's happening in front of me. I can't tune out.

Art is a space to escape the pressure of understanding, a place where it's ok to not "get it". Especially an art form as abstract as dance. Why would I use movement to say something concrete when even words can be confusing or misleading? What's beautiful about dance to me is that it can take us out of the realm of the conscious and the concrete into something more visceral, more affective, something that can't be described. To a new way of seeing and being in the world. To a place that is outside logic or reason. So my show is inspired by Iggy Pop, but it's not "about" Iggy Pop... really in the end, it's not about anything really, except what the spectator takes away from the experience.

Go have NO FUN with Helen and her amazing team!
If you need more reason check out the trailer:

part Summerworks Festival 2016
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street

Thursday Aug 4th 9pm
Friday Aug 5th 10:30pm
Saturday Aug 6th 4:15pm
Sunday Aug 7th 1:15pm

Tickets $15 or check out the multi-show pass deals

all photos of NO FUN by Frederic Chais, courtesy of Helen Simard
photo of Helen Simard by Nikol Mikus


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