Behind The Curtain: Helen Simard’s IDIOT

Questions by Caleigh Crow

Why choose Iggy Pop as a subject for a trilogy of shows that are “part dance show, part rock concert, and part hallucination”?

I started doing research on Iggy because I had gotten into the idea of making a dance piece that used a singer’s movements as a starting point for choreographic research because singers are like dancers in that there’s no barrier between your body and your art. I thought of Mick Jagger or James Brown first, but then thought that they are already too clearly dancers… I needed to look at someone with an original, unique way of moving but that was kind of un-classable, indefinable. I settled on Iggy because his body and his way of moving are so central to his musical performances, it seemed perfect. Plus since he’s had such a long career, there’s endless documentation of him to work from. And of course, he’s full of really interesting paradoxes: aggressive yet vulnerable, masculine while feminine, explosive and delicate all at once. Last thing: this is a guy who has had as much failure as success in his career, and I love digging into the idea of failure as an artistic starting point. Things are so much more interesting when they don’t work than when they do!

What do you hope to accomplish artistically/communicate/question with the trilogy and with IDIOT specifically? 

I honestly never really hope to do anything with my work. I don’t want to sound too far out there but I feel like the work has a will of it’s own and has done what it wants, and what the work told me it wanted was a trilogy. The first piece in the trilogy, NO FUN, was originally a 20-minute work that I presented at the Montreal Fringe in 2014. At first that’s as far as I meant to go, but then I was invited to develop it into a full-length work that was presented at Pop Montreal in 2015. At the end of creating NO FUN, I felt like I had finally developed a clear work method and I had finally figured out what I wanted to say, so I figured, why not keep the same concept for the research but start over again at the start of the process with the same team and see what would happen this time around. And of course, odd numbers are cooler than even numbers, so if I was going to make two pieces, I had to make a trilogy! NO FUN really looks at the Stooges era for Iggy’s career. It’s a wall of sound, a big old mess that explodes all over and threatens to fall apart at any second. IDIOT, being inspired by the period in the late 70s when Iggy lived in Berlin with David Bowie, is a bit colder, a bit more clinical perhaps, and much more poetic. I start the creation for the third piece in February, it will be presented in 2019 and focuses on Iggy now, the aging rock star who keeps on going in the face of all those who tell him to stop. In all, it will represent 6 years of artistic research once this last piece is presented, which is crazy to think about!

I get the sense that IDIOT is a show that must be felt rather than described to be understood. Do you agree with my assertion? Why/why not?

This show is 100% about feeling. There’s literally nothing to understand in it. I think that as human beings, we spend so much time worrying that we won’t “get” something, we’re afraid of looking stupid in front of other people, we’re constantly just trying to make sense of the insane world that we live in. For me, art and aesthetic experience provides a space where we can escape meaning andlet ourselves float in a world of the impossible, the undefinable, where sensation and emotion are at the forefront. I think that the shows that we understand right away are the ones we forget most quickly. The ones that we experience on a visceral or emotional level tend to stay with us and open us up to new ways of being in the world.

The album, The Idiot, is infamous both for the legends that come from working with David Bowie during the Berlin years and for its influence on many artists that followed. Do you think the album has become something more than the sum of its parts, and how does that connect with the heightened nature of the show?

The Idiot was so far ahead of its time. It’s absolutely brilliant artistically but didn’t have the commercial success Iggy was hoping it would, nothing near the commercial success that Bowie saw with the three albums he put out during the same period. But The Idiot has inspired so many other artists, and I agree it’s taken on legendary proportions with time. I feel like that’s the case with most of Iggy’s career. We’re just finally starting to understand him now. I guess making this show was just my attempt to understand him (and through him, myself) a little bit better.

Given the use of multiple art forms (live music, dance, spoken text – what I’d call theatre), can you give me some insight into the rehearsal hall? As a director how did you tackle this kind of show?

I make work through improv, and it’s important to me to work with the dancers and musicians together from the beginning of the process because I want them to be intimately connected as if they were one, instead of slapping music that feels disjointed from the action on at the last minute (something you see a lot in contemporary dance). The creation started with a weeklong residency at La Chapelle in summer 2016 where I worked with the performers through a series of improv scores and structures to generate movement and music ideas. I documented and reviewed all the improvs, and selected the material that I felt could be developed further. Then I worked with the performers in smaller groups to develop these base ideas further which lead to more free form improv. For the text, I put the lyrics of all the songs from The Idiot through google translate into like 20 different languages before bringing them back to French and English, by which time they had become fairly nonsensical and insane, and these texts served as a basis for more improv.

In January 2017 I went out to the country for a week with my dramaturge Mathieu Leroux and one of my musicians Roger White, where we holed up and combed through the hours of improv footage, mapping out what became the skeleton of the show. Then it was back into the studio to get the performers to learn improvs they had done, maybe months earlier. It was really difficult! But like Bowie had done recording The Idiot for Iggy, I wanted to keep raw, unfinished feeling that improv gives, even though the show is highly structured and at this point leaves very little up to chance. There’s so many elements and so many things that can go wrong that I work a lot outside of rehearsal to make sure I know what I want and am clear in what I’m asking, because not everyone on the team has the same background and we don’t all use the same technical terms to talk about art sometimes. Plus when you add really loud music and earplugs, communication gets hairy pretty fast! Working on IDIOT taught me a lot about being a better director I think because the show needed me to be better!

When we move into production, there’s so many different technical needs to make all the pieces fit together that there’s always this movement where I’m like “what am I doing?” But I can’t imagine making work that wasn’t interdisciplinary anymore. I’m so lucky to have an incredible team of performers and collaborators supporting this project because without them none of this would have been possible.

Is there a reason why you chose The Idiot as a subject rather than Lust for Life? What about The Idiot gave you “fuel” to make this show?

The whole show is inspired from Iggy’s whole time in Berlin, including recording and putting out Lust for Life, but the industrial, cold sound of The Idiot really spoke to me at the beginning of the creation process. You can hear the intensity of that time in Berlin in the album. I listen to it now and it doesn’t feel dated at all, either sonically or in the sense of loss and despair it captured. I think if it still speaks to me today, and if it inspired me to make this show, it’s because we’re living in times of loss and despair. We’re living in a time where we feel lonely, disconnected, like we’re in the dark searching for true connection with others. I was trying to make a space where that sense of chaos, confusion, and failure could be something beautiful, not something to be afraid of.

Only 3 chances left to catch IDIOT on January 11, 12, and 13 at the 2018 Wildside Festival! For more information and tickets please click here.

About Helen Simard

Helen Simard is a Montreal-based choreographer, dancer, rehearsal director, and dance researcher. From 2000 to 2012, she was co-artistic director, choreographer and performer at Solid State Breakdance, with whom she participated in the collaborative creation of nine choreographic works that toured across Canada and in Europe. Since, she has worked as an independent choreographer, drawing inspiration from punk rock aesthetics and live music to create several interdisciplinary works: On the Subject of Compassion (2011), NO FUN (2014), Mouvement sans/100 manifestes (2014), IDIOT (2017), and […] As if Nothing Happened (2017), presented by Tangente Danse, Studio 303, La Chapelle, Phénomena, and Festival Quartiers Danses in Montréal, as well as the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival, SummerWorks (Toronto), Dancing on the Edge (Vancouver) and KISMIF (Portugal). Helen also regularly provides rehearsal direction and dramaturgical support for Tentacle Tribe, Sébastien Provencher, Greg Selinger, and Victoria Mackenzie. She holds a BFA (Concordia, 2000) and an MA (UQAM, 2014) in contemporary dance.