This Iggy Pop dance show is loud and proud

Choreographer Helen Simard on Idiot, a show inspired by the granddaddy of punk rock.

IDIOT1 @ ©Nikol_Mikus

Roger White and Emmalie Ruest. Photo by Nikol Mikus

In October 2012, Helen Simard was at la Tulipe taking in Swans, the recently reformed experimental rock group. The sound was deafening, so the Montreal-based dancer was standing at the back of the room, drinking in the scene: the musicians, the merch girl fighting with a hustler, a person trying unsuccessfully to merge into the mosh pit.

That’s when Simard started to see the crowded room with what she calls her “choreographer’s glasses.”

“Swans’ music is all kind of crazy crescendos with no release ever, and it’s really intense and you basically need to vomit and wear earplugs and die by the end of the show,” says Simard. “But at the same time, they’re something really visceral and raw about it.” (Cult MTL‘s Johnson Cummins has described the band as a “completely fucking amazing live experience.”)

Helen Simard
Helen Simard

That night, an idea started to form in Simard’s mind: she would choreograph a dance show based on the live rock experience. The former co-artistic director at Solid State Breakdance decided to focus on musicians, and specifically singers, with no barrier between a body and its art. She considered Mick Jagger and James Brown, but discarded them as “too obvious” as simple dancers. Simard then settled on Iggy Pop.

Iggy: the guy from Michigan who smeared hamburger meat and peanut butter on his bare chest, the de facto daddy of stage-diving. The singer in tight pants who would flash his junk to the audience, cut himself with glass shards or sit onstage, catatonic and drugged out. Nearing 70 today, Pop is still touring with his first real band, the Stooges, and has continued to stage-dive despite promises to stop.

“What’s fascinating is that he was all or nothing,” Simard explains. “There is a really eclectic raw energy in his type of performance. It’s very confrontational.”

Not to mention that Pop’s photogenic looks, expressive round eyes and intense movement has left behind oodles of photos and research over the decades, perfect for a choreographer to study.

In the fall of 2015, Simard and her collaborators first presented the Iggy-inspired No Fun at Monument-National as part of the POP Montreal festival. It was a postcard of his raw, explosive time with the Stooges, with live musicians performing and “three little Iggy Pops running around” singing and dancing.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop
David Bowie and Iggy Pop

The second piece of Simard’s Iggy trilogy is Idiot, premiering at la Chapelle this week. Named for his first solo album, it delves into his time living in Berlin with David Bowie, where they took in krautrock and German books and movies while trying to wean themselves off of drugs.

Bowie’s output from that time was more commercially successful than Pop’s, making Berlin a botched experiment that fascinates Simard.

“Success is less interesting than failure; no one wants to watch a movie where everything goes right,” she explained. “So how can we dive into that failure and use that as a starting point to try to create an absurd, surrealist universe?”

While No Fun was raw and loud, Idiot is meant to be more “film-like,” with quieter moments at the point where the dance, music and theatre intersect.

She’s again working with musicians Ted Yates and Roger White (from the local rock band Dead Messenger) as well as drummer Jackie Gallant, who’ll play together live onstage. The music will be loud, so earplugs will be offered at the door. (Simard says she searches for bulk deals on earplugs online, stocking hundreds of them in her closet.)

I winced at the mention of earplugs — my ears and heart are still ringing after taking in the jarring soundtrack at Dave St-Pierre’s controversial dance piece Suie last month. But Simard convinced me of the merit of much-too-loud sound at shows with a whimsical reminder to artists:

“Music touches us, it gets inside our bodies and lets us feel alive… and I think that’s the only reason that people come to live performance anymore, is to feel alive,” she opines. “Otherwise I’ll sit at home and watch YouTube and everything will be perfect.” ■

Idiot will be performed at la Chapelle Theatre (3700 St-Dominique) on Feb. 27 (7 p.m.) and Feb. 28, March 2, March 3 (8 p.m.), $33.50, $28.50 students/seniors/art pros/people under 30, $18.50 kids under 12