With elements of contemporary and street dance alongside martial arts, it is this unique combination that sets Montreal’s Tentacle Tribe apart from other dance companies. It is a winning formula that continues with the upcoming production of Ghost, set to play The Cultch later this month.
Using what co-founder and co-choreographer Elon Höglund calls the “Tentacle Tribe approach,” Ghost is based on research he and fellow co-founder and choreographer Emmanuelle Lê Phan undertook on breathing techniques.
“It has the structure, and it has the art, more like a musical piece,” explains Höglund. “There is a story to it, but it’s more about the internal journey and looking inside for answers about meditation, breathing, and focusing on your inner reality for answering questions.”
This approach to dance has become a natural extension in both Höglund and Lê Phan’s careers.
“I’ve been dancing my whole life, and I’m 40 this year,” says Höglund. “I’ve been dancing professionally since 2000, so it’s an accumulation of all my experiences and those of Emmanuelle.”
Höglund goes onto explain he and Lê Phan approach any new work in a scientific way through a deconstruction of each step and how it relates to a specific dance. “For Tentacle Tribe, it’s like a Rosetta Stone; it’s more like a way to understand languages, and in creating our own,” he says.
That language has developed over the years after Höglund, and Lê Phan first formed a friendship during their time together with Cirque du Soleil in 2005.
It would take several years before the two would go onto form Tentacle Tribe in 2012, with a realization that there was an opportunity to explore dance beyond hip hop. “Until that time, there were not many people exploring outside of the hip hop box,” says Höglund.
With backgrounds in hip hop and breaking, as the two joined forces, they used their past experiences in those dance styles to create something new. “In a way, what we do isn’t hip hop anymore, it’s just its own thing,” says Höglund.
While Höglund admits collaborating with Lê Phan was challenging at the outset, it started to get more comfortable when the duo realized they both didn’t need to be involved in all facets of the creation process. “In the beginning, we were trying to create everything together, every single step together,” he says. “Now, we have a formula where we feel like we can give ourselves some breathing room.”
That formula usually entails each individually creating sections of a dance piece, discussing them and then one taking the lead. “We choose to do that to make things a little smoother because there are no wrong or right answers in art,” he continues. “It’s a balance. It’s sometimes difficult, but I feel like there are so many benefits and the fact that we’re two people allows more freedom.”
Ghost is a prime example of how Höglund and Lê Phan work together. “Breathing is a big part of my martial arts practice, and as a dancer, you need to be very aware of your breath,” he says. “So that was interesting to me, and I dropped the idea to Emmanuelle, and she was really into it, and then we just evolved from that.”
But while Ghost may take its inspiration from the initial seed about breathing, Höglund says it is ultimately up to audiences as to what they take away after seeing the work.
“With dance, sometimes you just see movements and bodies, and other times those movements and the music together can trigger something within you,” he says. “Or maybe you start creating a story in your head while you’re watching, so you are kind of co-creating with the piece itself. My goal is that people will find some creativity in it, and maybe that inspires them in some way.”
The Cultch and New Works present Tentacle Tribe’s Ghost at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) February 12-15. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.
(Editor’s Note: A version of this interview first appeared on Halifax Presents on January 9, 2020).