Office Life as Dance

A Canadian choreographer finds inspiration in the movements people go through when they’re on their way to work.

Yannick Grandmont / BAM

Everyday, billions of people in America and around the world wake up and start their daily rituals to eventually end up at work. Preparing for work can entail so many details, but for most it involves both mental preparation and some kind of physical preparation, whether it’s getting into office-appropriate clothing or physically traveling to one’s place of work.

These work-related actions, often small and unconscious, have now been reimagined in a work of dance choreographed by Dana Gingras and performed by The Holy Body Tattoo, a Canadian contemporary dance company. “It's the accumulation on a smaller scale of all these everyday actions and how we come together to make things happen and work. That is monumental to me,” says Gingras.

The Holy Body Tattoo’s piece, monumental, is having its American premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival this weekend, described as a “full-bodied indictment of the daily grind.” The dance was also inspired by photographer Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series, which depicted men and women in business attire in spasmodic movement. It is accompanied by post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which plays a tension-filled and upbeat score, while text from artist Jenny Holzer’s Living is projected behind the dancers during climactic scenes.

In the creation of the piece, Gingras sent her dancers out to observe real-life workers. “The dancers that we worked with...part of their homework was to go out into the city and watch people going to work in the morning around the stock exchange area, the central business area, after work, and then in bars after work. A lot of gestures were harvested by observing people on their way to work,” explains Gingras.

In the piece, seemingly regular gestures—such as the way people look at their phones and the way people stand on the subway—become movements that the dancers perform in both isolation and unison. Overall, the effect is energetic but dystopic. The set of small movements first start as repetitive but evolves to be obsessive, and at times the dance evokes disturbing and anxiety-inducing feelings about the things people do in unison in the confines of the modern world. “I think isolation is at the heart of the piece, whether it’s working in a cubicle all day long or being connected to our devices which are kind of disembodying,” says Gingras.

Visually, the show is astounding, and sometimes violent, when depicting the physical manifestation of a corporate and urban environment that can work its humans to spiritual death (a feeling many New Yorkers can relate to, surely). One review, by the Canadian newspaper The National Post, called the show a “poetic exploration of the cruelties of human group behavior.” The creepiest moment comes toward the end: The dancers line up after a violent portion of urban conflict to smile at the audience—conveying a sort of corporate customer-service vibe everybody knows. It’s a smile that lasts too long, and reminds the audience that they too are doing a kind of job.