Thursday, December 31, 2009

Should Old Acquaintance, or, For Naught

Hard to believe how quickly the end of this year snuck up on me, let alone the end of an entire decade. I can get quite maudlin on such occasions, so I'll keep my comments in this final post of 2009 as terse as possible.

Images on the news last night reminded me how this decade began--with the manufactured panic over Y2K and the mass computer meltdown that never happened. Of course, here on the west coast of North America, where we're virtually the last to ring in the new year, the story was already old news by the time fireworks exploded without a hitch over Sydney's Harbour Bridge.

I think I had forgotten about Y2K because, as I'm sure is the case with most people the world over, I really mark the start of the past decade with 9/11. Fitting, then, that we should be leaving it more or less the way it began, the recent attempted terrorist attack over the skies of Detroit on Christmas Day having sent airport security around the world into full lockdown mode.

As for Canada, while we politely declined to join George W's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, we were soon enough embroiled in Afghanistan, deploying our first combat troops since the Korean War, and fighting an insurgency for the first time since the Boer War! Yesterday turned out to be one of the deadliest days of the mission so far, with four soldiers and one journalist killed by yet another roadside IED--bringing this country's total war dead in Afghanistan to 138.

Meanwhile, back at home our benevolent dictator of a prime minister, Stephen Harper, has prorogued parliament for the second time in less than a year, the better to avoid more embarrassing and probing questions about the Afghan detainee scandal, no doubt. Has anyone noticed? Our government has effectively absconded with democracy, and won't be back until after the Olympics, in March.

Speaking of the Olympics, while the event itself will technically be registered as belonging to the next decade, for Vancouver, and for better or worse, this past decade has largely been about preparing for a certain five-ring circus. Readers of this blog know by now my own position on this interminable exercise in place promotion (and my conscience is clean--I voted "no" in the referendum back in 2003), and the promises (such as ending homelessness in the city) as yet lived up to from the original Bid Book and the flurry of official "agreements" signed in conjunction with it. Come tomorrow I will be laying off the slagging somewhat and concentrating--hopefully together with some of my students in a related blog--instead on simply reporting what's going on Olympics-wise in the city over the next three months. And I'm sure some of that reporting will even be laudatory--I mean Laurie Anderson's coming to town, for heaven's sake!

Still, as the final 17 hours tick down on this decade, it's hard not to feel cynical. And I haven't even mentioned the environment yet. The recent toothless deal brokered in Copenhagen at the last minute by an increasingly concessionary and compromising President Obama seems to me symptomatic of the opportunities lost during the past 10 years (from using our shared grief over lives lost to violence to forge bonds across religious and ethnic and economic difference, to using the recent financial meltdown to rethink our dependence on automobiles). It's also a slap in the face to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia almost exactly five years ago, not to mention those killed and displaced by Hurricane Katrina less than a year later. The oceans will rise, and while I'm not saying I subscribe to certain recent theories divined from the ancient Mayan calendar, I am saying that's it's not too difficult to predict, climate skeptics and University of East Anglia researchers notwithstanding, what the next decade will bring weather-wise.

As of yet, this first decade of the second millennium is without an official catchy shorthand name, media pundits unable to decide what to come up with from its zero-sum middle digits. I say leave it that way. These past 10 years have been for naught.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Post-It Protests

The folks over at Creativity Counts have started an Arts Cuts Memo Call to Action, asking concerned British Columbians to send creative memos to the government reminding them of the importance of the arts, and to follow the recommendation of their own Finance Committee by restoring funding to 2008 levels.

In my contribution, which I've included below, I've taken the opportunity of sneaking in a bit of publicity for the upcoming PuSh Festival:

And here's a related video from the Alliance for Arts and Culture:


When You're (Not) Smiling


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dance Follies and False Fronts

At EDAM’s studios at the Western Front last night Richard and I took in a mixed program of new choreography.

First up was Struck, by Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers Artistic Director Brett Lott. Featuring a quartet of female dancers elegantly sheathed in costume designer Norma Lachance’s see-through black dresses, simple yet effective lighting by Dean Cowieson and Kyla Gardiner, and an original score by Christine Fellows, the piece begins with the dancers, aligned horizontally and staggered according to height (short, tall, short, tall), slowly emerging out of shadow. What at first appears to be a coincidence of the performers’ body types takes on added structural resonance, however, as the piece slowly unfolds as a succession of solos and duos in which the shorter and—it appeared to me—more emotionally intense of the dancers successively attempt to woo their taller, more aloof sisters. All of this takes place within a single square of light, with the dancers taking turns entering it to sculpt the spaces between—at times painfully proximate, at other times as painfully distant—themselves and the bodies of their would-be others, who are watching silently from the shadows.

Next up was EDAM Artistic Director Peter Bingham’s X pollination, his latest contact improv-inspired work, this time for two male dancers, James Gnam and Chengxin Wei. James and Chengxin are both former Ballet BC dancers (now each with his own company, the plastic orchid factory and Moving Dragon, respectively), and here Bingham is clearly having some fun putting the two through their shared weight-transfer and floor-based movement paces, while retaining various balletic traces in the classic arm movements and foot positions that are interpolated near the end of the piece, and in the final double tours en l’air that punctuate the piece’s witty close. The dancers are also clearly having fun discovering how their classic technique can be adapted and expanded via this new form, and in response to each other’s bodies. The highlight of the evening for me.

Finally, the program ended with Joe Laughlin’s Dusk. The first part of a work-in-progress “on experiences surrounding darkness, shadows, limited visibility, and declining light,” the piece—also for four female dancers—was in many respects quietly terrifying, despite being performed under more-or-less full house lights. This is because what begins as a seemingly benign solo for lead dancer Caroline Farquhar (with fellow company members Michelle Cheung, Tara Dyberg, and Samantha-Jane Gray languishing in various poses along the back wall of the studio) eventually turns into something far more menacing, as Cheung’s gradual shadowing of Farquhar’s movements becomes part of a larger monitory process in which Farquhar is first coerced into moving according to the others’ desires, and then constrained from movement altogether.

All in all, a fine evening of dance, made all the more enjoyable by Reece Terris’s witty “Western Front Front—Another False Front,” his addition of a new, larger, and more ornamented façade to the exterior of the venerable building. Part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, this architectural folly remains on view through to the end of March; however, the dance follies described above have only two more shows—this Friday and Saturday.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Another Olympics Update

Running with my buddies Clint and Jamie this unusually brisk winter morning in our Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, we saw city workers moving concrete pylons and erecting barbed-wire perimeter fencing around the Olympic curling venue at Ontario and 33rd. My first thought was incredulity--who'd want to protest curling, except maybe those who didn't consider it a real sport, or its sometimes older and less-than-toned competitors real athletes? This was soon replaced by anger, as a block-and-a-bit later we ran by what remains of the Little Mountain social housing complex, which is being steadily demolished in advance of proposed redevelopment.

The stark juxtaposition of these two images brought to mind the second Pre-Games Results Report released by researchers at UBC last week. Part of a series of four "Olympic Games Impact Studies" mandated by the IOC (two prior to and two following upon the Games), the report concludes that the Olympics have so far had "a very slight positive impact." Mostly this has been felt in the area of athlete preparedness and competitiveness, with the federal government's "Own the Podium" campaign having successfully positioned Canadian 2010 Olympians to excel in their individual events next February. On the subject of homelessness and affordable housing, however, the report is far less laudatory, noting that reliable data suggests that homelessness in the city has more than doubled in advance of the games, that the legacy of 252 social housing units from the Olympic Village is in jeopardy, and that while statistics suggest the number of social-housing units per 1,000 people in Vancouver increased from 35.6 to 39.4 between 2001 and 2006, in Metro Vancouver it decreased from 22.3 to 21.8.

So much for the Inner-City Inclusivity Statement that all three levels of government signed back in 2002 committing them to a net increase in social housing and an elimination of street homelessness as a concrete legacy of the Games. In the following video posted to YouTube by Am Johal and the folks at the Impact on Community Coalition, we are reminded of just how many promises have been broken in advance of the Olympics (kudos to the IOCC gang for getting in some hard-hitting stats at the end of the video on the arts and culture cuts in BC):

Meanwhile, I read in the paper today that VANOC has signed a deal with Concord Pacific allowing it to use the vacant CP-owned lots on North False Creek between GM Place and Science World for official Olympics-related events. This solves an accessibility and security nightmare for VANOC at the 11th hour, brings CP on board as an "official supplier," and of course gives CP a public relations windfall in being able to do some advance marketing on the final piece (quite literally) of their post-Expo 86 redevelopment of the downtown core of Vancouver.

And who says hallmark events like these don't benefit everyone?


Monday, December 7, 2009

After after the quake

Alessandro Juliani (left, as Frog) and Tetsuro Shigematsu (as Junpei) in Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions' mounting of after the quake at Studio 16

It took two tries, and it was very touch and go right up to the end, but Richard and I did finally manage to secure rush tickets for this past Saturday’s penultimate matinee performance of what so far this fall theatre season has proven to be the hottest show in town. I’m referring to Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions’ acclaimed co-production of after the quake, which just finished its sold-out run at Studio 16.

The nail-biting around the tickets was definitely worth it. This production had all the elements of thrilling theatre: a great story simply told; a uniformly superb cast; sharp direction; and an overall design concept (set, sound, and lighting) that integrated seamlessly with the theatricality and thematics of the play.

Adapted by Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Frank Galati, after the quake is based on two stories from acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 2002 collection of the same name. The stories in Murakami’s book are set in the months between the devastating earthquake in Kobe in January 1995 and the deadly subway attacks in Tokyo two months later. Suspended in a surreal dream state, Murakami’s characters struggle to make sense of their lives and forge links with one another amid the general malaise and fear dominating society. Quotidian acts of connection take place against superhuman feats of rescue and sacrifice. To this end, in the play we are introduced to Junpei (Tetsuro Shigematsu), a writer who lives to tell stories to Sala (Leina Dueck), the nightmare-plagued daughter of Sayoko (Manami Hara). Sayako is divorced from Takatsuki (Kevan Ohtsji), Junpei’s best friend from university, and over the course of the play we learn how this triumvirate first met, the bond they forged, and how both men eventually fell in love with Sayako, with Takatsuki beating Junpei to the punch in declaring his intentions. Junpei sublimates his feelings for Sayako through his writing, and the linking story in after the quake is the one Junpei is composing in his head about a mild-mannered and put-upon bank clerk, Katagiri (Ohtsji again), who is visited by a giant frog (the superb Alessandro Juliani) and enlisted in Frog’s plan to rescue Tokyo from an imminent earthquake by doing battle under the Shinjuku subway station with Frog’s mortal enemy, Worm.

I am a big fan of presentational theatre, and one of the things I like most about Galati’s adaptation is the multiple levels of narration that he has retained from Murakami’s writing: the play’s narrator (Juliani again) tells us Junpei’s story, who tells us Katagiri’s story, who is in turn told about his life by Frog, who seems to know everything about him. At various points in all levels of the diegesis, characters address the audience directly. Like little Sala, then, we are enfolded into the magic of the storytelling, and because this is furthermore done within the context of the theatre (where the wires are meant to show), we willingly suspend disbelief and travel along with Katagiri and Frog as they attempt to save the world.

The fact that we have such wonderful actors as our guides helps immensely in facilitating this journey. All the performers—most in multiple roles—are superb, but Juliani really stands out as Frog. With only a pair of amphibian-like gloves, a bowler hat, and a walking stick—and aided at key moments by the voice and visual enhancements of sound and lighting designers Yota Kobayashi and Itai Edral, respectively—Juliani loosens his long limbs, steps liquidly across the stage, and makes us believe he is indeed a frog.

The play’s direction was as it should be—unobtrusive—and this is all the more remarkable given that Pi and Rumble Artistic Directors/Producers Richard Wolfe and Craig Hall were sharing duties on this production. Yvan Morissette’s set—a marvel of sliding doors and screens—was as elegantly simple and structurally complex as the play itself. And what a delight—in a city as densely populated with Asian Canadians as this one—to finally see a critical mass of said citizens represented on our stages.

One final mention must go to box office manager Tara Goertzen-Travis, who for three-weeks, night after night, dealt with rush ticket hopefuls like Richard and me with patience, grace and infinite amounts of good humour. Here’s hoping her job is much easier if and when the production gets a well-deserved remount next year.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Miscellany

In the spirit of gearing up for the holiday season, here is a miscellany of thoughts based on recent local and global headlines that have grabbed my attention:

1. “I wonder if Carla Bruni can get me a walk-on in Woody Allen’s new film?”/ “I bet Nelson Mandela will be pissed.”/ “What’s everyone so worked up about? It’s not like I head-butted anyone.”: Possible thoughts running through French football captain Thierry Henry’s head following revelations he committed a handball violation in advance of the winning goal in a World Cup qualifying match with Ireland.

2. With friends like these…: Poor Richard Colvin—nothing like going from a respected high-level diplomat to a government pariah overnight. PM Harper and his various minions were lining up to outdo each other in heaping scorn on the former point man in Afghanistan for testifying before a parliamentary committee that his emails warning that Taliban detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody faced likely torture were ignored. And how would we know anyway, given the mostly blacked-out versions of those emails that have been provided to the committee, and to the media? (Actually, the resurfacing of the detainee issue, coming on the heels of Henry's World Cup imbroglio, reminded me a lot of my chapter on David Beckham and Tony Kushner in my forthcoming book with Manchester UP. I'd say more about how, exactly, I connect football with Afghanistan in the context of my larger argument about performance, place, and politics in the book, but I'd rather you buy a copy instead! It's out at the beginning of February, but you can pre-order--apologies for the exorbitant UK academic pricing--here.)

3. “Okay, I’ll go. But I’m not going to have fun, and I’m not going to talk to anyone.”: Stephen Harper commits to attending upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen after Barack Obama and China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, announce they’re going. Unlike Obama and Wen, however, Harper will arrive with no concrete pledge from Canada to cut carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. One doesn’t hold out much hope for some sort of universally ratified post-Kyoto protocol emerging from the Copenhagen meetings, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Harper will at least be shamed into coming on side with Obama. (As a side note to this item, one wonders if our famously grumpy PM is even more out of sorts these days because of the rumours swirling that motorcycle-riding wife Laureen may be about to dump him for her RCMP boy-toy. They have not been traveling together recently, and she has been spotted sans wedding ring in several recent photos…)

4. What Mayor Gregor giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other: Okay, so City Hall has backed down on its ridiculous proposal regarding the ratio of food and alcohol pricing in Vancouver restaurants. And it has also amended its anti-Olympic sign bylaw to apply only to commercial properties. But the same municipal government that is spending feverishly to gussy up the city in advance of the Olympics is also slashing public library budgets (forcing several branches to slash hours and one perhaps to close permanently), and closing popular amenities like the petting farm in Stanley Park and the Bloedel Conservatory atop Queen Elizabeth Park. Meanwhile, the nearby Little Mountain social housing community is officially no more, razed by bulldozers (with a little help from a freak blaze that erupted one afternoon) this past month. What happens next is anyone’s guess because BC Housing, the provincial agency mandated to ensure a provision of replacement subsidized housing in the redevelopment of the site, claims that a confidential non-disclosure agreement prevents it from releasing details of the contract of purchase and sale that is being negotiated with private partner Holborn Properties. With the official Olympic curling venue only a block away, and all available space around Nat Bailey Stadium already spoken for, who says that they can’t—at least in the short-term, pave paradise and put up a parking lot?

5. Yeah, but only until the end of March: My reaction upon reading that VANOC CEO John Furlong topped the list of Vancouver magazine’s Power 50 issue.

6. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet: I was sorry I couldn’t get to the Wrecking Ball event at the Vogue on Monday (work and life conspired to intervene). But I was please to hear—courtesy PuSh Managing Director Minna Schendlinger at a Board retreat last weekend—that Kevin Krueger had received so many emails protesting the cuts to arts and culture in the province, that his ministry account had recently crashed. Apparently his staff has quietly put out the word, via the Alliance for Arts and Culture, asking members of the community to stop sending emails, that the message has been heard. Of course we’ve all interpreted this as license to send even more!

That’s it for now. Back next month (which is Tuesday!) with what I hope will be more performance reviews. The new Murakami play; Headlines Theatre’s After homelessness…; EDAM’s new program; MachineNoisy at the Dance Centre: all things I want to see.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Deconstructing Government/Reconstructing the Arts

The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services has released its Report on the 2010 Budget Consultations. Not as forceful as one would have wished on arts and culture, though it does call for a full restoration of funding to 2008/09 levels in next year's budget. The Report can be accessed here.

Meanwhile, the latest edition of The Wrecking Ball, a night of short sharp political theatre ripped from the headlines, is coming to Vancouver next Monday, November 23. And it's taking on the BC arts cuts. Here are the details from their website:

The Wrecking Ball: Vancouver

Wrecking Ball to tackle Draconian Cuts to the Arts
Canada’s leading Theatre Artists take on the BC government from Coast to Coast

Vancouver’s theatre community joins actors, directors and designers from across the country in creative and satirical protest to the BC government’s mind-boggling and short-sighted plan to slash 90% of cultural funding, which will make it the only jurisdiction in Canada not to invest in culture.

In 2008, during the federal election, Wrecking Ball events across Canada helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Harper government’s planned culture cuts, and prevented a Harper majority. This time, events across Canada throughout the month of November will highlight the devastating arts cuts announced by the BC government in their September budget update.

Vancouver’s Wrecking Ball features some of Canada’s most nationally and internationally recognized actors and directors, including multiple award-winning actor/playwrights Daniel MacIvor (House, Twitch City) and Linda Griffiths (Maggie and Pierre), Leacock-winning writer Mark Leiren Young, Alcan Award winner Carmen Aguirre, Steven Hill of Leaky Heaven Circus, and Camyar Chai.

Margaret Atwood asks, “What is it that power-hungry politicians want from BC artists? Control over the story through the annihilation of the former story-tellers? Is this the agenda behind the decapitation of arts funding in British Columbia, while mega-millions are poured into the Olympics? The BC arts community will retaliate, of course. Over the past 50 years they’ve put BC on the map.”

“It won’t just be a protest,” adds Wrecking Ball Spokesperson Adrienne Wong. “It’ll be a night to laugh and celebrate what we know – that British Columbians care about culture.

“And it’s not just arts and culture,” Wong adds. “Cuts to Gaming investments in many sectors indicate to us that this government is looking for ways to subsidize its corporate welfare, low-tax environment on the backs of civil society organizations that provide essential services to British Columbians. It seems that they don’t think much of activities like culture and sport and places where people come together for reasons other than profit. They call it a frill. We call it democracy.”

The Wrecking Ball
Vogue Theatre, 918 Granville Street, Vancouver
Monday, November 23, 2009, 8:00pm
By donation

Contact: Ellie O’Day, O’Day Productions

Monday, November 16, 2009

Diving Deep

The Surfacing event that took place at The Dance Centre this past weekend proves that there is life yet in and at Ballet BC. I couldn’t get to the Ignite gala at the end of September that was meant to announce the resuscitation of the company under Interim Artistic Director Emily Molnar, so I was keen to attend a performance of Surfacing, if only to check the pulse of an artistic organization this city and province can’t afford to let die.

The first-ever commissioned choreographic series by Ballet BC, the conceit for the Surfacing program proves that Molnar is not interested in reinventing the wheel, and that she is not afraid of taking risks. Pairing Ballet BC dancers with members of the Arts Umbrella Graduate Program in Dance, Molnar assigned a differently mixed group to four respective—and respected—local choreographers: Joe Laughlin, Simone Orlando, Donald Sales, and Rob Kitsos. She also assigned the music for each piece, and imposed a 20-minute time limit on the finished product. Finally, the choreographers had less than a month to conceive and choreograph their works, and only two weeks to rehearse them. Despite—or maybe because of—these constraints, the pieces that resulted were uniformly excellent, although the combination of musical and choreographic styles (not to mention my own tastes) meant that some stood out for me more than others.

Joe Laughlin led off the program with “On Wings,” set to a Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 1. Perhaps because of the musical choice, this piece felt the most traditionally balletic, with the women en pointe for much of it and the men in the first sections mostly doing lifts. The piece did gain complexity as it proceeded, as did the partnering, and no doubt the two young men seconded from Arts Umbrella (one impossibly tall) gained immense experience and confidence as a result of the process.

Simone Orlando, who is currently Artist in Residence with Ballet BC, was next up with "Doppeling." Bach’s Concerto in D Minor provided the score to what I read as a witty post-Freudian take on the Olympia story from Hoffman’s Tales. Half a dozen female dancers, dressed in matching beige lyotards, and sporting similar bewigged bobs scamper, jump, prance, and pose mechanically to Bach’s allegro tempo. They are soon joined by four men, also in lyotards and wigs, also doing their best pixie wind-up impressions to the music. The two groups remain for the most part segregated along gender lines until the lead female doll encounters her blond male counterpart. There follows a moving pas de deux that would seem to bring the piece to a natural conclusion, except that—my only criticism—Orlando adds a coda that returns both dancers to the uniformity of their respective groups.

Donald Sales, working with Yann Tiersen’s combination of tango, accordion music and French chanson, created "Long Story Short," an alternately moving and joyful celebration of the rituals of social and romantic courtship. The piece opens with two tableaux: downstage left a couple reclines dreamily on the floor; upstage right there is a tense domestic stand-off at a table that seems to lead to a break-up (not least, it’s suggested through an effective bit of trompe l’oeil, because of another woman). Thereafter Sales alternates animated group scenes that involve the incorporation of everyday bodily movements (scratched heads, tugged ears, smelled armpits, picked noses) into exuberant expressions of pure dance with quieter movement sequences focused on three individuals who for different reasons (self-absorption, painful shyness, willful isolation) forsake both the group and the longed-for connection with another.

Finally, my colleague Rob Kitsos brought down the house with "Regression Line," a Jets and Sharks-style contest of movement set to a propulsive rock score by Dub Trio. A dance rumble that repeatedly brings the dancers to the threshold of (presumably violent) contact, only to back away and start the marshalling of short, sharp movements all over again, the piece is remarkable for its aggressive yet incredibly disciplined energy. The gang groupings and their respective star-crossed leaders, as I conceived of them, circled each other warily, often precariously, and yet at the same time knew when to keep their distance, with Rob effectively juxtaposing vertical and horizontal lines of movement throughout.

Rob’s piece, moving 15 plus dancers across an intimate stage space at full velocity, also reminded me of why I so love attending performances of The Dance Centre. It’s up close and personal, to use an old cliché. When the different groups of dancers marched purposefully downstage at different points in the piece, it did feel like they were going to continue on into the audience, and from where I was in the third row one could see every flexed muscle, every tensed tendon, every bead of sweat on their bodies.

Ignite, I recall, was staged at the Playhouse, which I’ve also come to appreciate more and more as a space to watch dance thanks to the DanceHouse series. It makes me hope that, as the company rebuilds and redevelops, it will think twice about making its home in the newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I know changes in the design and acoustics mean that this venue is not the cavernous echo-chamber it once was; I also know that filling a theatre that size means that much more ticket revenue. However, I never thought the Queen E was the best fit for Ballet BC, and that the impulse for some of former Artistic Director John Alleyne’s more ambitious—if not always completely successful, not to mention financially remunerative—story ballets was just as much a function of the performance space as it was the imagined tastes of the company’s main audience base. If Molnar is indeed trying to attract a new kind of audience for a company that will distinguish itself less by a repertoire of Sleeping Beauties and Nutcrackers than by daring new works of the sort on display in Surfacing, then she would do well to think about the spatial fit of the performance venue as well (one wonders, in this regard, if the about-to-open SFU Woodward’s might fill a much-need size gap here).

One final note. From what I understand new Ballet BC Executive Director Jay Rankin is very good at his job, and is working tirelessly to put the company back on a sound financial footing. However, judging from what he had to say in advance of yesterday’s performance, he’s not the best public speaker. Which is unfortunate if you’re trying to draw attention to arts cuts and urge people to donate to endowment funds, etc. Molnar, on the other hand, is warmth and articulateness personified. My advice: let her do the talking from now on.


Monday, November 9, 2009


Twenty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. I can remember watching the footage on TV in my residence common room at the University of Toronto. At the time it seemed so unbelievable. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary a lot of media reports have been focusing on how this symbolic end to the Cold War was more accidental than inevitable. And yesterday, in The New York Times, an article about a generation of Germans who've grown up with no memory of the divide between east and west, and who aren't really all that keen to be reminded of it (or the Holocaust, for that matter). For them, presumably, the Brandenburg Gate will be remembered as the site where U2 performed that one November in 2009.

Speaking of anniversaries, this blog is now just over a year old. I'm told most blogs don't last beyond a few initial posts, so I consider this an achievement of sorts (even if the depth of analysis in certain of my most recent has fallen off somewhat). Not that anyone is going to offer me a book contract anytime soon...


Sunday, November 8, 2009

DanceHouse Launches Second Season

DanceHouse's second season got off to an explosive start at the Vancouver Playhouse this weekend, with two works from the red-hot choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter.

Uprising begins with rock-star lighting flooding the stage. Seven men emerge from the shadows and adopt a static pose reminiscent of classical ballet: right foot bent to left knee and arms stretched in a port-de-bras. But with Schecter's furiously percussive score (he composes his own music) pounding away in the background, such passive gentility will not hold, and soon enough the dancers' legs slip, their backs and heads slouch forward, and their arms--still touching--now start to break from side to side in time to the beat.

A study in martial masculinities, Uprising, while an all-around kinesthetic marvel that makes excellent use of its dancers' physical virtuosity, focuses much movement and meaning into the men's arms. At times they are held aloft, fists clenched, pounding at the air (and presumably an invisible enemy--the piece ends, as per its title, with a witty visual allusion to Jean Valjean and his comrades at the barricades in one of the more iconic images from Les Miserables). At other times those arms are turned against each other in combat, or offered in embrace. And then there's the pose that's lingered with me most powerfully, an inverse of the opening port-de-bras: the men's arms, at separate times, stretched behind them like a bird's wings as they run, seemingly off-balance, and yet in full control, across the stage.

Several of the same arm gestures recur in the second piece on the program, In your rooms, which is performed by a mixed company of 11 dancers, and with live musicians on stage recreating Shechter and collaborator Nell Catchpole's combination chamber-hip hop score. The piece actually begins (and then begins again) in fits and starts, with a voice-over (Shechter's perhaps?) ruminating on order and chaos, and with spots fading quickly in and out on the entire company worrying their arms before them while sitting with legs outstretched on the floor, and then on break-out clusters of dancers improvising more frenzied whole body movements. A seeming rumination on both the pleasures and perils of group identity, the 40-minute piece is filled with amazing mass choreography and more intimate encounters.

Shechter danced under Ohad Naharin at the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel before relocating to London to pursue a solo music and choreographic career. One can definitely see the similarities in their styles, and DanceHouse organizers Barb Clausen and Jim Smith certainly knew what they were doing in programing each of these men's work in launching their first two seasons. Talk about high-energy dance!

Next up in the DanceHouse season is Vancouver's own Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot, with the new piece Dark Matters at the end of February. It's a bit of a wait, so for those craving a dance fix in the interim, consider the Surfacing event programmed by the still-struggling Ballet BC for next weekend. Featuring new work by Rob Kitsos, Joe Laughlin, Simone Orlando, and Donald Sales, it takes place at the Dance Centre from Nov 13-14.

Finally, the Vancouver International Dance Festival is on a critical fundraising drive this month, hoping to raise $10,000 in order to offset losses due to cuts in BC Gaming funds that have imperiled so many companies throughout the province. Please consider donating through the link they've set up at the Vancouver Foundation.


Friday, November 6, 2009

100 Days/14 Shows

A short post long on numbers for those into keeping count (and/or accounts)...

This past Wednesday marked the 100-day point till the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver. The occasion coincided with a new role for VANOC: strike-breakers. That's right, the provincial government is preparing back-to-work legislation for striking paramedics in the province, in part based on a document forwarded by Olympics organizers stating that in the wake of a likely escalation of the H1N1 pandemic, the government would either have to put an end to the strike or ensure that some contingency plan was in place should emergency health care workers potentially still be off the job come February.

Needless to say, this wasn't being played up in various symbolic ceremonies around the city celebrating the countdown event. Among those ceremonies, perhaps none was more weighted with significance than Mayor Gregor Robertson handing over the keys to the False Creek Athletes Village to VANOC CEO John Furlong. Media and invited guests were treated to a tour of of the facilities, and the rhetoric surrounding the whole event was decidedly more upbeat, conciliatory, and even congratulatory than the doom and gloom scenarios painted a year ago by the newly elected Vision Vancouver City Council, who upon examining the books, forecast a billion dollar deficit for the Village that taxpayers were potentially on the hook for. Now, it seems, things are looking up, with condo king (and contemporary art collector) Bob Rennie on hand to assure everyone that post-Olympics sales in the development were looking golden.

Today, however, we learn that the overall economic benefits of the Olympics for the 2003-2008 period have been much less than predicted by Games organizers and government politicians alike. As Vaughan Palmer notes in his Vancouver Sun column today, parsing the numbers outlined in the 4-part report on Olympics impacts prepared by PriceWaterhouseCooper, you eventually discover that the mega-event boosted both the provincial GDP and job creation by, respectively, one-tenth of one percent.

Whooeee, baby! Let's not spend it all in one place--like on wage increases for those paramedics, for example, or, heaven forfend, on arts and culture!

Arts and culture in this city was in fact precisely what I and 100+ other people were celebrating yesterday at the VanCity Theatre on Seymour Street, as we gathered there to witness the launch of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival's 2010 line-up. Full disclosure: while I was there as a supporter and fan, I also attended in my official capacity as a new PuSh Society board member, a role I am very excited about.

But just now I'm even more excited about the program Executive Director Norman Armour and his talented team of colleagues (including new Associate Producer Dani Fecko) have assembled for this coming January and February: 14 shows totaling 93 performances over 18 days at 11 different venues across the city, and featuring artists who hail from 12 different cities and 6 different countries working in at least 6 related disciplines (theatre, dance, music, film and video, installation, and multi-media). How about them numbers?

Or how about these, cited by Norman in his program guide message, and repeated at yesterday's event: "BC's arts, culture and heritage industries generate 80,000 jobs in the creative sector and $5.2 billion of annual revenue." In strictly monetary terms, then, art is a good investment, and would that Liberal politicians who've been anticipating windfalls from the Olympics that have yet to materialize pay closer attention to the wealth of creative resources we have immediately to hand.

Then, too, as those of us who listened yesterday to an excerpt from Stefan Smulovitz and Eye of Newt's new PuSh-commissioned score, to accompany a January 28th screening of Carl Dreyer's classic 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc at Christ Church Cathedral, were undoubtedly thinking at one point or another, there all sorts of other ways (aesthetic, social, political, ethical) that art's value far exceeds one-tenth of one percent.

The Festival officially launches on January 20th with a performance of Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's. The first chance to get a glimpse of this amazing new venue (even before Robert Lepage touches down in it with The Blue Dragon later in February), the show itself promises to be truly "spectacular": in its showcasing of the potential for emancipated response in live performance; and in its use of the talents of 20 dynamic local performers, some professional dancers and actors (Noam Gagnon, Billy Marchenski, Adrienne Wong), some not, or no longer (Jim Green, Max Wyman). Definitely not to be missed.

PuSh passes are now on sale. Visit the Festival website for purchase details, and for descriptions of all the shows. Or pick up a free program guide at any JJ Bean location across the city. For information on how you can become a member of PuSh's new Patron's Circle (and reap fantastic benefits in the process), contact our Fundraising Manager extraordinaire, Bobbi Parker at 604-605-8285 or

This public service announcement has been brought to you by...


Tuesday, November 3, 2009


To my knowledge, I am in none of these photos. However, they represent for me some of some of the best images I will savour from this past Sunday's 40th anniversary New York City Marathon: the distinct borough neighbourhoods and crowds...

the beckoning Manhattan skyline...

the fantastic entertainment all along the route...

and of course the finish line in Central Park finally within reach...

All in all, it was not my best race: 3:42:10, which is 20 minutes off my PB in Australia this summer. But I have to remind myself that I've been injured and haven't had much time to train. Plus the New York course is damn hard: those long bridges that just won't end and that steady rise along 5th Avenue to Central park right at the end are especial killers. I also went out too hard at the beginning and after a while my legs just started to quit.

Still, I wasn't really running for a fast time. More for the experience of the event itself. Believe me, 40,000+ people running across the Verrazano Bridge all at once is quite something to behold--I'm just sad I was in the green wave, which started on the lower deck. The crowds were fantastic, and seeing the diversity of neighbourhoods, and how people greeted you was certainly a lesson in performance studies. To say nothing of all the bands: marching; gospel; rock; funk; etc. I'm pretty sure I saw Beck playing for us in Brooklyn, which is pretty amazing.

Got to talk to some interesting people pre- and post-race as well. The first wave of runners had to be at the Staten Island Ferry at 5:30 am, and we didn't start to run until 9:40, so there was plenty of time to mill about. I had conversations with local New Yorkers about Obama, gay marriage, universal health care (being Canadian was a definite conversation starter on the latter two), Mayor Bloomberg buying a third term, and where to eat the best Italian in Manhattan. I also talked with a Scotsman who has run more that 100 marathons. He was my age, so depending on when he got the bug, he must do between 5 and 10 a year, which is pretty amazing.

Finally, while lining up to collect my gear at the end I talked with a man from Atlanta who works for ING, the banking company that sponsors the event. He was running because the company gets a certain amount of free spots in the race each year, and he managed to score one this time round. I complimented him on the free stuff and cool gear we got in our loot bags. He said he'd pass it along to the higher-ups. Then he told me the bank was on the verge of financial collapse.

Glad I ran my race this year.


P.S. The trip was otherwise pretty mellow. Went to the new New Museum on the Bowery for the first time; saw a compelling William Blake exhibit at the Morgan; and caught a revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family on Broadway, with the divine Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell in the lead mother-daughter roles. A backstage satire loosely based on the Barrymore acting clan, this remount by director Doug Hughes (of Frozen and Doubt fame) was crisp and contemporary, with the entire company in fine form (especially Reg Rogers as a swashbuckling stand-in for John Barrymore, complete with rapier scene), and a sumptuous set design by John Lee Beatty that perfectly captures over-stuffed Upper East Side glamour from the 1920s.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

By Stephen Sondheim's Side...

... is where I stood for a few brief, fantabulous minutes last night. It was part of a benefit for APPLAUSE! Musicals Society, which brought in the maestro to talk about his life in the theatre. The talk itself, which was moderated in inestimable fashion by Jerry Wasserman (who had done his research), was at the Vogue, and it was great to see the venue more or less sold out and the audience hanging breathlessly on Sondheim's every word as he traded anecdotes about Oscar and Jerry and Lenny and Arthur and Ethel and Hal; talked about studying Cole Porter lyrics and Mozart symphonies with Milton Babbitt at Princeton; revealed that he is working on a two-volume edition of his complete annotated lyrics for Knopf; and claimed that the greatest American musical of all time remains the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

But the talk at the Vogue was actually preceded by an intimate (!) gathering for 75 people or so across the street at Tom Lee Music (a longtime sponsor of APPLAUSE!), each of whom had purchased a premium ticket from APPLAUSE! in order to sip wine and nibble canapes in Steve's presence. And, with the right combination of luck, timing, and hutzpah, actually get a chance to exchange a word or two with him. Which is what Richard and I did at an auspicious moment when the coterie around him momentarily parted and there was a pause in the conversation. Seizing that moment, I thrust my hand forward, introduced myself and Richard, and mentioned that we'd be in New York this weekend (which is true--I'm running the marathon there on Sunday), and did he have any recommendations about what we should see theatre-wise? He seemed to appreciate the question (maybe because it wasn't a query about the rhyme structure and chord changes in "Children Will Listen"?), although he wasn't altogether sanguine about the musical theatre scene in New York at the moment. But he did recommend the revival of Finian's Rainbow, which he's heard very great things about, and which he suspected would be reviewed very strongly when it opens (either today or tomorrow). It is the first time the play is being revived since its Broadway premiere in 1947, so I can imagine the interest (how do they solve the problem of blackface, for instance?).

At any rate, it was only a momentary brush with theatrical greatness, but it was a huge thrill nonetheless. The entire evening will remain a performance high point in my life, without question--even the residue of blood splatter from Evil Dead: The Musical (which is currently playing at the Vogue) that I took home with me on my jacket.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pollster Shocked by Olympics Fatigue!

In a column by Gary Mason in yesterday's Globe and Mail, the results of a recent poll revealed that over 70% of British Columbians couldn't give a rat's ass about next February's Olympics, and that only 20% continued to think the Games were a good idea. Pollster Greg Lyle said he was shocked by the numbers.

Well, duh?!

When we are being bombarded daily with the latest announcement about how much further in debt we can expect to be after all this is over; when our civil liberties continue to be eroded in increasingly Kafkaesque ways (the latest directive being contemplated is legislation that would give police the right to enter the homes of people living within designated Olympic zones and seize any signs being publicly exhibited that promote a competitor of a Games sponsor); when we've been told that basically we should put a stop to life as usual and barricade ourselves in our homes for the duration of the Games, what did he expect?

Furthermore, given the recent pummeling that the arts and culture, publishing, and social services communities have taken as a result of the provincial government's financial mismanagement (which includes the costs associated with planning for the Olympics), who in their right mind would be in a mood to celebrate anyway? I for one will not be bullied into jumping on any boosterist bandwagons for the sake of our global image and collective civic pride. You'd think we were living in China...

Having got that off my chest, let me mention that colleagues in Urban Studies at SFU have organized another symposium on the Olympics and its legacies. It will take place this Thursday and Friday, October 22-23, at SFU Harbour Centre, and, among other highlights, will feature a "Mayor's panel" with Al Duerr and Valentino Castellani. The former was mayor of Calgary immediately after the 1988 Winter Games and the latter oversaw Torino's winning bid for the 2006 Winter Games. For information, see the following link.

More performance-related posts soon, I hope.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Playing Catch-Up

It’s been a while since my last post—no doubt this will continue to be one of the perils of trying to maintain this blog while in full-on teaching mode and, as at present, also trying to juggle home renovations.

A lot has happened in that time, from Mayor Gregor’s announcement yesterday of Vancouver’s rebranding as the Silicone Valley of the new Green Economy to the arrest of Roman Polanski. Rather than trying to summarize it all, let me instead draw people’s attention to one important bit of political news, and two favourite returning cultural events in Vancouver.

The political news concerns the public hearings currently being conducted across the province by the Finance Committee of the BC government. These hearings were, of course, announced with very little notice, and the first of them, held this past Monday at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue here in Vancouver, left members of the arts community scrambling to make their voices heard in all their fulsomeness and all their fury. (I’m told representatives accomplished both tasks admirably.) I reprint the schedule for the remaining hearings below, and I urge concerned citizens in relevant communities to attend and make their own voices heard—and not just about the dreaded HST! If you are unable to make one of the meetings (as in my case), you can also fill out an on-line survey, or make a written, video, or audio submission. Here is the link to do so:

The deadline for public input is October 23, 2009. There is still time, before the government finalizes its September budget update, to get the Liberals to reconsider their cuts to the arts. I urge all who can to tell Campbell, Krueger, Hansen and their cronies why culture matters. Again, here is the schedule for the remaining public hearings:

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 8:30 am to 12:00 pm
Date: Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Place: Douglas Fir Committee Room 226, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, British Columbia
Agenda: Public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 9:00 am to 1:00 pm
Date: Friday, October 09, 2009
Place: Community Futures Strathcona, #200-580 Duncan Ave, Courtenay, British Columbia
Agenda: Videoconference public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 9:00 am to 1:00 pm
Date: Friday, October 09, 2009
Place: Community Futures East Kootenay, 110A Slater Road NW, Cranbrook, British Columbia
Agenda: Videoconference public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 9: 00 am to 1:00 pm
Date: Friday, October 09, 2009
Place: Commumity Futures Peace Laird, 904-102 A Ave, Dawson Creek, British Columbia
Agenda: Videoconference public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Date: Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Place: Summit Room, Hudson Bay Lodge, 3251 E. Highway 16, Smithers, British Columbia
Agenda: Public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm
Date: Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Place: Skylight Ballroom, Ramada Hotel, 444 George Street, Prince George, British Colimbia
Agenda: Public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Date: Thursday, October 15, 2009
Place: Somerset Room, South Thompson Inn & Conference Centre, 3438 Shuswap Road, Kamloops, British Columbia
Agenda: Public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm
Date: Thursday, October 15, 2009
Place: Thompson/Shuswap Room, Woodfire Conference Centre at the Best Western Inn, 2400 Highway 97 North, Kelowna, British Columbia
Agenda: Public hearing

Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services

Time: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Date: Friday, October 16, 2009
Place: Guildford B, Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel, 15269 104th Avenue, Surrey, British Columbia
Agenda: Public hearing

Now on to some of the remaining fruits of arts and culture in this province. It’s the beginning of October (where did the last month go?), and so that means that hot on the heels of the Fringe the Vancouver International Film Festival is underway (as of yesterday, in fact). I haven’t yet had a chance to peruse the program in any depth, but my money so far is on Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man, which follows veteran Lisbon trans performer Tonia as she deals with younger competition, a petulant boyfriend, and her estranged son. The festival runs until October 16th.

Finally, DanceHouse, as part of its 2009-10 international dance series at the Playhouse (to which Richard and I have bought season passes, and which begins this November with the Hofesh Shechter Company) is bringing back its very popular "Speaking of Dance" series at the Vancouver Public Library. The talks are Tuesdays, from 7:30-9pm, in the Alice MacKay Room, on the lower level of the VPL,
350 West Georgia Street. The line-up of speakers is as follows:

October 13, 2009
> Kaija Pepper, Dance Critic & Author
> Janet Smith, Dance Critic & Arts Editor, Georgia Straight

November 17, 2009
> Santa Aloi, Professor Emerita, School for the Contemporary Arts, SFU
> Claire French, Independent Choreographer & Dance Teacher

January 19, 2010
> Martha Carter, Director & Choreographer, marta marta HoP
> Emily Molnar, Interim Artistic Director, Ballet BC

April 6, 2010
> Day Helesic, Co-Artistic Producer & Choreographer, MovEnt
> Rob Kitsos, Assistant Professor, School for the Contemporary Arts, SFU

That’s it for now. More news soon.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Martial Masculinities

Just a quick shout-out, in the midst of the Fringe, to Eye Heart Productions' offering of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, now playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until this Saturday. Last night's house was pitifully empty, a shame for a play as insightful about the relationship between misogyny and homophobia as this one, and for a production, crisply directed by Jeff Hyslop, that features uniformly excellent performances.

The play, set at an elite private boys' school (St. Joseph's) on the east coast of America in the late 1980s, concerns a sex tape that has been making the rounds of the locker room, and that would seem to feature the god-like captain of St. Joe's football team, Brandon Hardy (a very affecting Alex Coulombe), filming himself having aggressive sex with a townie girl--one Cheryl Moodie (Claire Robertson) we later discover, who seems not to know she's being filmed. The tape finds its way into Coach Shea's (Greg Bishop) hands. Shea promptly calls Brandon's mother, Elizabeth (an excellent Teryl Rothery), who in her husband's absence must determine, with help from her public school teacher sister, Maddy (Tara Fynn), if it is indeed Brandon on the tape and, if so, why he committed such a heinous act.

The answer to the first question comes fairly quickly, and once Brandon has admitted that it is indeed him on the tape the weight of the play shifts to the particular culture of masculinity at St. Joe's (a mixture of class-based droit de seigneur and violent homosociality) that allows Brandon to not think twice about using and exploiting Cheryl in the way he does, as well as the personal circumstances in Brandon's own life that set in motion his actions in the first place. And it is here that we gradually learn the full scope of Brandon's relationship with his gay best friend, Justin (Taylor Bishop), a relationship that if not wholly reciprocal in a sexual sense, does betray where Brandon's real feelings lie and why, at least until he graduates from St. Joe's, he felt compelled to prove as unambiguously as possible his heterosexual credentials.

I actually saw an earlier production of this play performed by members of the legendary Steppenwolf Company in Chicago in 2007, with none other than Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey in the title role of Elizabeth Hardy. I much preferred Rothery's performance, if not this entire production, which felt less earnest, and yet didn't, in the process, lose any of its sense of moral outrage at the normative perpetuation of gender and class roles in our society.

I'm not sure if Aguirre-Sacasa has revised the play since that Steppenwolf production, or if Hyslop made some strategic cuts. But I seem to recall Brandon eventually coming out to his mother in the earlier version, whereas here he breaks irrevocably with Justin and retrenches even further into an internalized homophobia. I also remember a more explicit conversation between Elizabeth and Coach Shea about his own humiliation at the hands of her husband when they were both students at St. Joe's, a conversation that is left more oblique and open-ended here. I can live with the latter change, but I'm not sure how I feel about the former. It gives the play, despite its non-sequential ending (retained from the earlier version), a no-exit feel to this spectator, and one can't help but apply that to the larger culture of heteronormative masculinity.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fringe Review 3: Biographies of the Dead and Dying

Nothing like a belated notice of the addition of nudity to get the punters out to a show. I had already decided on Andrew Templeton's "psychological ghost story," Biographies of the Dead and Dying, as one of my Fringe picks when I noticed advisories about its revised content starting to appear on the Fringe website and at the main ticket outlet on Granville Island. Then I noticed the updates about the show's remaining performances approaching sell-out status.

Which brings me to a short digression about a peeve I have with the Frequent Fringer pass, and the Festival's policy about reselling unclaimed tickets. For those of us who've bought a pass, there's no guarantee we'll get into our desired show, depending on how many advanced tickets have been sold, and how early or late we arrive at the door to get our card hole-punched. Last night I admit to cutting it close in getting to the Havana (Joanna and I were having a lovely meal at Me and Julio at the other end of Commercial and lost track of time). Initially when I presented my pass to the ticket person, I was told that the show was sold out. I was also told that despite the fact there were six unclaimed pre-sold tickets in front of this person, I could not use my pass to appropriate one (Festival policy, I was told). With the House Manager saying he had to close the theatre door and start the show, I told Joanna (who had bought a single ticket in advance) to go on without me. Then the House Manager came back and said he had counted 8 empty seats, and that I (and the one remaining customer behind me) could have one.

Now, logically speaking, in a Festival where all box office receipts go directly to the artists, why wouldn't you try to sell--or even re-sell--as many tickets as possible? Why ever in the theatre would you leave seats empty if people wanted to claim them, and pay good money to do so? I'll stop my rant now, but I do suggest Festival organizers rethink this policy for the coming years, especially in the wake of the collapse of other sources of funding. In these cutthroat times, one must be as mercenary as possible.

As for the show itself, I'm somewhat at a loss as to how to describe it. Part Henry James' The Turn of The Screw and Stephen King's The Shining, with a Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes writerly rivalry thrown in for good measure, the play focuses on blocked and alcoholic writer Alice (Heather Lindsay), who has written a successful chick-lit novel she now despises and is seeking material for a new book by renting a cabin on Vancouver Island said to be haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, Thomas, who committed suicide by blowing his brains out. This is related to Alice by the cabin's caretaker, Jack (Simon Driver), with whom Alice begins a torrid (and quasi-S/M) affair. The scenes between Jack and Alice (which involve myriad uses of an old washtub that serves as a key prop throughout the play) alternate with those between Alice and her husband, Jonathon (also played by Driver), a pretentious poet who belittles Alice's own writing, and her ghost project in particular. Alice also regularly speaks into a tape recorder to her unseen daughter, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination.

Needless to say, there's a lot going on here. But I'm still not quite sure what it all means. I think a connection is being made between ectoplasmic ghosts and ghost-writing (at one point when Alice is seeking to conjure a vision of Thomas, Jack suggests she try Yeatsian automatic writing). But as this gets mapped onto further explorations of the gendered division of creative labour and female "hysteria" (the stillborn child/novel), things get a little muddy and confusing. We're not helped by the fact that the play's largely horizontal plane of action is ill served by the Havana's awkward spatial layout. The combination of straining to see what's going on physically, and to understand how this relates to Alice's story mentally, proved very taxing indeed.

Still, the performances by Lindsay and Driver were fearless, and the relentless emotional intensity of the staging is more than enough to merit the sell-out crowds this show is deservedly attracting.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Fringe Reviews 2: The Accident and Caberlesque!

Jonno Katz, from Melbourne, is a Fringe veteran and clearly a crowd favourite to judge by the sold-out and highly appreciative crowd that turned out for his latest solo turn, The Accident, at the Waterfront Theatre last night. It's a physical theatre piece about the relationship between two "orphaned" brothers--the younger, and more sensitive Sebastian, and the older, brutish Ray (whom Sebastian nevertheless adores)--and the woman, Emily, who quite literally comes between them. There's also a sub-plot about a conceptual art project, The Crapper, that goes horribly wrong.

Katz is a wonderfully engaging performer, and especially talented at physical and vocal mimicry. And he has heaps of energy as he bounds and slides and cartwheels and semi-breaks across the stage in his unique interpretive dance routines, which punctuate the monologues of his main characters. However, the story he tells in The Accident was not terribly compelling to me, in part because I found his characters to be such caricatures. Ray is too abusive, Sebastian too milquetoastish, and Emily too stereotypically girlish to be altogether believable, or to engage our sympathies in any meaningful way. Ray's breakdown and consequent display of vulnerability following the climactic accident of the title at Sebastian's gallery opening comes too little, too late for this particular viewer.

After The Accident I sprinted over to Performance Works to see B-Side Productions' Caberlesque! with my friend Joanna. The show, as its neologistic title hints, is a historical tour of the cabaret songs of 1930s Berlin, 1960s Amsterdam, and contemporary New York, punctuated by stunning burlesque performances by one Prairie Fire (we're given a chance to guess the number of jelly-beans on her dress before the start of the show), and held together by a suitably blue narrative, as told by fellow performers and torch singers Sugarpuss, Marina, and Max.

Earlier reviews of the show that I read suggested the two genres--cabaret and burlesque--didn't quite work together, and that the story arc that's supposed to hold them together is too disjointed. But Joanna and I felt that the show hung together wonderfully, not pretending to be anything more than a felt homage to its component forms. To this end, the performers (I wish I could mention them by other than their stage names, but there was no program) were uniformly excellent, with Sugarpuss, Marina, and Max all in exemplary voice as they belted out world-weary numbers by Weil and Brel, and with Prairie Fire putting on a technically accomplished and visually stunning display of her mastery of historical burlesque routines (a fan dance, various screen dances, a hilarious waltz with a randy puppet, and a mind-blowing dance with glowing whirly things on strings).

There are four shows of Caberlesque! remaining, all at tricky times (two in the very early evening today and Thursday, and too very late on Wednesday and Friday). If you can make it , you should definitely make a point of taking it in.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

First Fringe Reviews and Midsummer

So the 2009 Vancouver International Fringe Festival is well underway, and I saw my first shows yesterday. In the spirit of the Fringe's own economical ethos (short shows produced and staged quickly), I will try to post short Twitteresque thoughts on what I see.

murder, hope is a new solo work by Bellingham native Becky Poole that is ostensibly about brain disorders, with a particular focus on Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare form of aphasia that can cause afflicted children to suddenly lose the ability to express and understand language. I say ostensibly because the self-described "non-linear" piece also includes several Appalachian folk ballads about abused wives and avenging nurse-angels, as well as a disquisition on Batman's crime-fighting abilities and heroic status. Poole is an engaging and dynamic performer, and has an amazing singing voice (she's pretty talented on the musical saw as well), but her performance was stronger than the piece itself, with the various parts never quite adding up to a satisfying whole, and with what I found to be an over-use of an audio soundtrack focusing on one little boy, Devin, with the syndrome. Just as we get sucked acoustically into Devin's story, Poole pulls us visually in another direction via her own intense physical presence, or else the new use to which she puts one of her many props.

Matters Domestic is comprised of two new short two-handers by local playwright, author, and actor Barbara Ellison (full disclosure: Barbara is currently enrolled in a class of mine at SFU), and directed by local legend William B. Davis (best known as The Cigarette Man on The X-Files, but also a respected theatre actor, director and teacher in this city). Part of the delight of both pieces is slowly discovering the surprising twists in their plots and characters, so I don't want to reveal too much here. What I will say is that the first play, DNA, centres around high school senior Victoria's (Lesli Brownlee) revelation to her single mother, Amanda (Lisa Dahling), that she is pregnant. Amanda's reaction is far from what we might expect, and over the course of an intense but briskly paced 10 minutes, Ellison has fun reversing ageist stereotypes and overturning various maternal conventions. The second play, Download, is even harder to talk about without giving away the central surprising conceit of its plot. Suffice to say, the piece concerns a busy career woman's contracting of a man to be a helpmate to her around the house and a surrogate father to her busy teenage children, and what happens when the terms of that contract run up against the material realities of day-to-day life, not to mention matters of the heart. Again Ellison is asking provocative questions about normative conventions of parenthood and kinship relations, but in a way that creates an imagined future (the play is set, cannily, a year from now) that's all too believable. The writing is sharp and instantly recognizable and veteran actors William MacDonald and Nancy Sivak deliver superb performances.

Yesterday evening I also made my way over to the east side to see the last performance of the Traverse Theatre production of David Greig's Midsummer, which opened the newly renovated Historic Theatre at the Cultch last week. Greig is Scotland's leading contemporary playwright, and his work tends to be quite topically political (United Players staged an excellent production of his American Pilot a season or two ago). However, Midsummer, "a play with songs," as it is subtitled, is a rollicking romp of a comedy about two thirtysomething Edinburghers, lawyer Helena (Cora Bissett) and petty criminal Bob (Gordon McIntyre), whose drunken one-night stand turns--surprisingly for both of them--into something more meaningful. Briskly paced, the play is told largely in the third person, with the actors recounting Bob and Helena's story directly to the audience, pausing every so often to reenact a crucial scene, or to grab dual guitars and express themselves more meaningfully in song. The play doesn't pretend to be any deeper than its lonely-hearted main characters, but neither does it condescend to them or hold them up for ridicule, taking their loneliness to be real and heartfelt. It's therefore hard to resist the play's many charms, starting with Greig's deft writing and direction, and finishing with Bissett and McIntyre's completely complementary, wildly energetic, and near flawless performances. They are both so comfortable in their roles, and with each other on stage, that their relaxed banter, physicality, and occasional improvisations are infectious (one unscripted bit of hilarity that had actors and audience members alike in stitches last night occurred when one of the fake eyebrows that Helena had affixed to her forehead in her guise as a heavy after Bob--who has absconded with his boss's cash--kept falling off). The audience was roaring from the get-go, and when, later, various members are conscripted into becoming part of the action, all willingly played along.

Of course, another attraction of the evening was seeing the newly renovated theatre itself. It is, as all reports have so far conveyed, stunning. I got there late and so didn't have time to fully explore its amenities, as I had to rush to find a seat in the rapidly filling auditorium. I ended up in the balcony, which now has a main access hallway wrapping around it to afford better ease of access to the various sections. And while the sightlines up there are, overall, vastly improved, my one complaint is the height of the safety rail on each of the three rows, as it means for those of us not long of torso that we have to sit up incredibly straight (or else lean forward) in order to take in all of the action. Likely this has more to do with building codes than with aesthetics, and it's only a minor irritant, but I do long for theatre venues the world over to come up with a way to fix this irksome feature of most modern re-dos.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dancing the City

Rob Kitsos's Wake, which premiered last night at The Dance Centre, and which runs for two more performances today (at 2 and 8 pm), is exactly the kind of dance theatre I most enjoy. It is a large-scale work for eight dancers (including Kitsos in a dual embodied and virtual role as choreographer/planner and metteur-en-scène) that combines movement, text, video, and live electroacoustic music (by composer Martin Gotfrit) in a wholly integrated and complementary way. Equally appealing to me is that the piece achieves a similar reciprocity in the compositional and aesthetic relationship between individual sequences of choreography (often challengingly abstract, technically complex, and intensely physical) and an overall narrative structure that neither reveals its meaning too willingly nor remains deliberately obscurantist.

Kitsos takes as his point of departure French philosopher Michel de Certeau's essay "Walking the City," in The Practice of Everyday Life, using the "urban 'text'" we all collectively write in our flânerie to explore both the spaces of connection and the distances between various bodies as they inhabit and interact with the built environment. How do you capture and represent what de Certeau calls "the activity of passers-by," when by its very nature that activity is meant to be fleeting, to not linger (passing by), to leave a trace only in its forgetting? Sounds like a perfect metaphor for the documentation of dance itself, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Wake opens with Rob Groeneboer's video capturing Kitsos in the guise of some sort of city planner, atop a downtown building, with various plans and blueprints spread out around him. Coincident with Kitsos's structured improvisation of a movement sequence atop the building on the video, the seven young live dancers (Cort Gerlock, Jane Osborne, Roxoliana Prus, Justin Reist, Olivia Shaffer, Kim Stevenson, and Leigha Wald--all graduates of the BFA Program in Dance at SFU, where Kitsos teaches) get up from the chairs on which they have been sitting along either wing, and take up recumbent positions on the floor. Eventually the dancers "wake" to the city, and one of the delights of the first in-sync movement sequence featuring all seven performers is how the horizontality of their floor work contrasts with the verticality of the office and residential towers captured in the montage of images in Groeneboer's video.

Thereafter, the piece proceeds in terms of a succession of movements choreographed around the dancers' own embodied relationship with the city, with various colour sequences filmed in and around Gastown becoming the basis for a reconfiguration (sometimes willful, at other times willed) of those relationships in solos and duos and trios that are all about negotiating the space between self and other (even if, as de Certeau reminds us, that other is space itself). In this regard, I was especially struck by the complex arm work and hand clasps Kitsos came up with for three of the women in one memorable sequence, finding a way to mimic in bodily gesture the tangled psychic complexity and constantly shifting terrain of friendship itself. Similarly, in a humourous pas de deux for the two men, they argue abstractly in spoken word about the best route from point A to point B as they materially enact proximity and closeness in their mutual physical striving.

In his role as planner/choreographer, Kitsos interrupts these proceedings at various points throughout the piece: via black and white sequences on the video that feature him furrowing his brow, taking notes, and eventually meeting up with someone who may be a developer or a government bureaucrat (a perfectly cast Emily Molnar) in some corporate boardroom; and via various live walk-throughs, during which he surveys and takes more notes on the performance we are witnessing. In this, we see Kitsos trying to flush out patterns, to make sense of various fragments, to render legible both the city's various intersections and the dancers' bodily intertwinings. But the city and the dancers resist easy conscription. When, for example, Kitsos improvises his own solo late in the show (to wonderful accompaniment on electric guitar by Gotfrit), attempting, it seems, to reduce what we have hitherto seen of the other dancers' bodily trajectories to one or two core repeatable phrases, those other dancers studiously avoid him, either remaining planted against either wing wall, or else, in running to the other side, going out of their way to avoid contact with Kitsos and his notebook (a prop he carries with him throughout the piece, and which he dances around during his solo). And, later, when Kitsos attempts to join the other dancers and mimic their movements at the very end, he finds he is unable to fully take part, perhaps not having paid close enough attention after all.

The dancer, like the city walker, does not easily conform to a grid.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Benefit Shows

By now most in Vancouver's tightly knit theatre community know of the terrible tragedy that befell Azra Young, daughter of Electric Company founders Kim Collier and Jonathon Young, and her cousins Fergus and Phoebe Conway--all three killed in a freak fire that broke out while they were sleeping in a family cabin on Shuswap Lake earlier this summer. An educational trust fund, the Collier Young Conway in Trust Fund, has been established in memory of the children and two benefit performances are taking place in support of it next week.

Julia Mackey will perform her solo show Jake's Gift at the newly reopened Cultch next Monday, September 14th. And Bard on the Beach has designated its performance of The Comedy of Errors the following day, September 15th, as a special benefit in support of the fund.

For more details, see the following item in The Georgia Straight.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Arts Rally this Wednesday

Alas, I teach, but for those of you who can attend, please do so:

Media Release: Sept 8, 2009
From the Direct Action Committee of the Alliance for Arts and Culture

We call on all those who believe in the value of arts and culture in our communities to join a rally at noon on Wednesday, September 9th in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to bring public attention to the recently announced, brutal cuts to our sector by the BC government.

Funding to the arts and culture sector has NOT been restored; the provincial government is planning to cut over 80% of what has consisted of only 1/20th of 1% of the provincial budget. No other provinces in Canada have reduced support for a sector that, according to government statistics, produces significant returns on investment. This is a sector that creates both social and economic capital. ART WORKS!

We ask you to consider the ways that arts and culture touch your daily lives at home, in the streets, your children in schools, community centres, on TV, your music, on the internet, in videogames and in theatres, museums and galleries. We ask you to think about culture as part of our individual and community identities, a way to connect with our diverse origins…with who we are today and with what we care about. Arts and culture are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. The arts are NOT A FRILL!

Our symbol is a grey and empty rectangle, a metaphor for a world without art and culture.

Please join us.

Media Contacts:
Brenda Leadlay: or 778-990-2690
Judith Marcuse: or 604-319-8436

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More Flip Flops on the Arts

So it appears that, in the face of massive outrage from the BC arts community, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman has had an eleventh-hour change of heart on the gaming revenues, restoring $40 million of previously promised money that was then subsequently--and summarily--cut (see the story in today's Vancouver Sun). All well and good, but in the same breath he also announced that the three-year funding model the government had previously adopted regarding the allocation of these revenues will be eliminated, and that they will revert to a year-by-year application process.

However, the even more alarming news is the further erosion of funding to the BC Arts Council, with the 40% rolling cuts announced in February's budget now escalating to more like 80-90% in Finance Minister Colin Hansen's revised budget this past Tuesday. In February it was announced the Council's funding would drop to $9.6 million in 2010-11, before increasing slightly to $9.8 million in 2011-12. Now we're told that those numbers will be $2.25 million in 2010-11 and $2.2 million in 2011-12 (see the article from yesterday's Globe). And this at the same time as $400 million is being set aside in the form of various "relief measures" to offset the phase-in of the controversial HST. Why not scrap the HST altogether, and move that $400 million over to arts? Clearly there seems a plan afoot to gut the BC Arts Council completely and absorb all arts funding decisions and administration within the Ministry, as was recently done with BC Tourism. Kevin Krueger's silence during the past few days is most telling in this regard.

I wasn't going to reply to the boilerplate email Krueger's office sent me in response to my August letter, but now I definitely will, asking for an explanation of these further cuts, and what they mean for the government's long-term funding priorities for the arts.

I know there is division in the community about using the Olympics as a platform to voice dissent about the Liberals' neglect of the arts. While a boycott of the entire Cultural Olympiad is perhaps extreme, I do think something needs to be made of the international spotlight in getting the word out to the rest of Canada and the world about what low esteem this government has for the arts. Pointing to Turin as a model we could have and should have followed re tying long term arts and culture commitments to an event like the Olympics might be a way to go here.

In the meantime, I repeat the exhortation that ended my last post: we all need to reach deeper into our own pockets to help support our favourite institutions. The Fringe opens next week, and is accepting grateful donations with tickets purchased on-line, and will also have donation buckets at all venues. And the main stage space of the Cultch reopens this long weekend with a special two-for-one ticket deal for
Midsummer, a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe. (As a side note, see the interview in The Georgia Straight with Cultch Executive Director Heather Redfern about the amazing changes to the venerable old venue on Venables.)


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Whither BC: The Sequel

As expected, most arts and culture organizations (along with several other social programs) in the province received letters last week advising them that previously promised revenues from BC gaming revenues were being withdrawn owing to the ballooning deficit and Finance Minister Colin Hansen's revised budget projections (read the Vancouver Sun story here). This despite the fact that most of these organizations had already gone ahead and programmed their seasons in anticipation of the funds they had been contractually guaranteed.

As Lorna Brown noted in a recent email sent to the community urging people to join a Facebook campaign protesting the cuts, combined with the cuts to the BC Arts Council announced in last February's budget, this amounts to a de facto 75% cut to arts and culture in the province. Where else in the world would this be allowed to happen?! We live in a largely information-based and creative economy: why aren't, therefore, the creative industries duly rewarded with stimulus spending the likes of which was lavished on so many other dead or dying industries? When will the people of this province wise up to the dirty tricks of this government? Everyone's in an uproar about the HST (as well they should be--another kick in the pants to arts and culture in the form of higher ticket prices); but this is an administration that has gleefully--and with impunity--lied to us before. And that continues to do so (BC Rail, anyone? Missing emails?).

Of course, the Liberals are hoping the outrage over all of this will blow over as a result of the massive party that will be the Olympics. But what kind of party will it be with no money for the artists and creative producers who are best positioned to showcase the city culturally? I vote for riding this wave of anger right on into the Olympics themselves, letting the world know in no uncertain terms just what price this government puts on the second pillar of the Olympic Movement.

In the meantime, the public must do all it can to support the organizations whose programs and livelihoods are now imperiled. The best way we can do that is by going to see their work. The Vancouver Fringe Festival starts next week--I've just bought my Frequent Fringer Pass. Soon after that it will be time for the Vancouver International Film Festival. Though there's the little matter of teaching to contend with (the sabbatical is officially over today-boo hoo!), I hope to attend as many films as possible. And The Dance Centre's 2009/10 program just came in the mail today. It's chock-a-block with exciting offerings, starting with my SFU colleague Rob Kitsos's new work, Wake, next Friday and Saturday (Sept. 11-12).

Dig deep into your pockets, people, and buy a ticket to these and other events. And, since we can't vote Campbell and the Liberals out of office for another four years, consider doing so to the federal Conservatives instead. I hear Michael Ignatieff has just withdrawn support from Harper's minority government, so I guess that means we're headed to the polls once again this fall.