Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PuSh Pull

The PuSh Festival wrapped up this past weekend. In the end, I couldn’t get to the Children’s Choice Awards event on Sunday (chose to bang away at a paper instead, as the writing had finally started to flow). Organizers had invited back the kids from Bridgeview Elementary in Surrey who had participated in last year’s Haircuts by Children by Darren O’Donnell’s Mammalian Diving Reflex (where yours truly was shorn). They were given free reign to check out the shows (though presumably not Ronnie Burkett’s R-rated Billy Twinkle—see below), and this was to be the red carpet moment where they revealed what they liked and disliked. I’m bummed that I had to give it a pass, but here’s my own verdict on the rest of the shows we saw:

1. Transmission of the Invisible: conceived, choreographed, designed, and scored by Toronto-based Peter Chin, of Tribal Crackling Wind, this was a collaboration between dancers from Canada and Cambodia that sought to explore the fusion between modern western and classical Cambodian gesture and movement. I’m not sure I was able to figure out entirely the narrative, aesthetic, and cultural codes at work in the interactions between the two male Cambodian dancers and the two female and one male Canadian dancers, though there were definitely some interesting racial and gender politics operating throughout. As a piece of intercultural performance, I appreciated Chin’s exploration of the difficulties of assimilating and making meaning from different cultural forms, but I also felt, paradoxically, that the accompanying video installation by Cylla von Tiedemann (one of my favourite dance photographers) demanded interpretation, especially as it featured, in my recollection, only the western dancers, presumably on the streets of Phnom Penh. An additional treat was a delightful solo by Chin himself, which preceded the piece—after which he bounded exuberantly up into the audience, and sat with us to watch the main performance.

2. Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy: Ronnie Burkett was back in town with his Theatre of Marionettes, this time offering what surely is his most self-lacerating and nakedly autobiographical puppet play yet. Billy, you see, is himself a puppeteer, working on a cruise ship with his “Stars in Miniature,” which include, most memorably, a saucy burlesque dancer, a roller-skating bear, and a dipsomaniacal off-key amateur opera singer. In the middle of one of the nightly routines he has been performing for years, Billy loses it over an audience member who won’t stop talking. He soon finds himself out of a job and contemplating suicide by hurling himself over the prow of the ship. Enter Sid Diamond, or rather his ghost, in the form of a bunny-eared sock puppet. Sid, it turns out, mentored Billy when he was just starting out, and has always lamented his pupil throwing away his talent on popular cruise ship entertainment rather than developing a more classical repertory such as his own (Sid does puppet Shakespeare, you see, and reacts badly when Billy introduces into his act a parody of The Taming of the Shrew called The Taming of the Moo). Sid’s job is to review Billy’s life for him, reminding him of why he started in the business in the first place, and what he himself has to teach to others. In exchange, Sid gets released from the quasi-limbo state in which he has been caught since his death. As usual with Burkett, the play is filled with bawdy humour, lots of camp asides, and of course delightful set pieces of marionette wizardry, including in this case Burkett manipulating Billy manipulating his own mini-puppets. I have read that Burkett interviewed older puppeteers who in fact worked the cruise ship circuit in the 50s and 60s, and the requiem of the title in part refers to those in-the-process-of-being-lost traditions of both artistic and queer tutelage. One hopes, in this regard, it is not also a requiem for Ronnie himself, and what his daring stagecraft has to teach a theatre public that thinks puppets are only for kids. And yet, after this one does wonder what he’ll do next. Perhaps that sock puppet is one clue of a change in direction?

3. The Invisible: the latest one-woman show from Montreal wunderkind and Lepage collaborator Marie Brassard. Richard and I had seen her piece Jimmy at one of the first PuSh Festivals several years ago, and so were anticipating this event very much. Like Jimmy, it continued Brassard’s explorations with sound, voice manipulation, and lighting effects. However, unlike Jimmy, which was a tight, focused bit of storytelling about the mutability of gender and identity, and which made of the technology of her dramaturgy an intimate dreamscape in which we, in the audience, felt invited to participate (in part via a canny breaking of the fourth wall at a key moment), The Invisible meandered randomly from a discussion of 19th-century spiritualism and the fascination with ectoplasm, to an account of a literary hoax in the southern United States involving an androgynous male prostitute called JT LeRoy, to various excerpts from Marie’s own dreams (the woman must be in analysis). And Marie (who is a tiny little thing) looked lost on Freddy Wood’s cavernous proscenium stage. As Josh Bowman, PuSh’s Fundraising Manager (and a former student), put it to me after the show, the piece was more compelling as a sound installation than as a work of theatre. But even here, Marie was verging on self-indulgence and the voice modulation shtick now feels somewhat gimmicky.

4. Nanay: a testimonial play conceived and co-written by Richard’s colleague Geraldine Pratt, who teaches in the Geography Department at UBC, and whose research has for a long time focused on Filipina nannies who come to Canada through the Live-In Caregiver Program, taking care of other people’s children while separated, often for years at a time, from their own children back in the Philippines. Using interviews with the caregivers, as well as their Canadian employers, and Canadian government officials, Pratt and her collaborators (including co-writer Caleb Johnston and members of the Philippine Women’s Centre of BC) created different theatrical environments in which they staged the stakeholders’ various stories, often in radically different dramaturgical ways. Audience members were given clipboards and a form at the outset, and were invited to write down our thoughts on whose stories we found most compelling, and whether or not we found all sides of the issue presented fairly. Afterwards, there was a talk back session, but we were not able to stay, as the performance went way overtime (we attended the first show), and we had to get to another event. However, I’m not sure what I would have said had I stayed. For there did seem to be a very radical divide in terms of how the nannies’ stories were told (literally up front and personal, as we crowded into a small kitchen space or a cold storage area to listen to compelling narratives of loss, privation and indignity that were presented with a minimum of theatrical ornamentation) and how those of their employers’ were presented (whether as melodrama or as farce, and with a clear sense—via the use of scrims, video projects, and the placement of the audience in tiered rows at a distance from the actors—that these were being staged as entertainment). Verbatim theatre is tricky, but with the right dramaturgy, it can be done well—cf. The Larmaie Project, or DV8 Physical Theatre’s recent To Be Straight With You. Unfortunately, I think Nanay ultimately missed the mark.

5. Assembly: Radix Theatre’s exploration of wholeness and fragmentation via a motivational speaking seminar that goes awry was one of my favourite shows at this year’s festival. Laugh-out loud hilarious and featuring expert and revealing (quite literally) performances from actors and co-creators Katy Harris-McLeod, Andrew Laurenson, Billy Marchenski, and Emelia Symington Fedy. From the mid-1908s era hotel boardroom where the piece begins (in the Granville Island Hotel, a place I’d never before been inside), to the nametags we were invited to wear, to the Madonna headset mics that adorn our “dream team” of speakers, Assembly mercilessly parodies the worst clichés of countless professional seminars and exploratory retreats many of us have had to attend over the years. But when Harris-McLeod starts to refer to different unprintable words for a certain part of her anatomy in order to distinguish the winners from the losers in the rat race of life, you know you’re in strange territory indeed. It only gets stranger, with a rather X-Files-like moment of exhibitionary display leading to a still more surprising—because so quietly moving—conclusion.

6. Live from a Bush of Ghosts: an interesting mixed-media experiment from Theatre Conspiracy about the “fallout” of electronic culture. Inspired by Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of industrial landscapes (see my previous post), Brian Eno and David Byrne’s recording My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s novel of the same name, writer Tim Carlson enlisted the DJing talents of local hip-hop duo No Luck Club, the live video mixing wizardry of Candelario Andrade, and the dancing and acting skills of Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, to make connections between First World waste, Third World disposal, and Fourth World retrieval. Some of the digital and electronic effects were amazing, but I’m still struggling to piece together all of the story episodes, some of which worked better than others.

All in all a most satisfying and culturally edifying experience. Kudos to Norman Armour and his staff for PuShing the envelope of performance yet again in Vancouver. Whatever one ultimately thinks of the work, it is never boring.

Many of the performances at PuSh were included as part of the programming for 2010’s Cultural Olympiad, which is currently underway as we approach (tomorrow, I believe) the one year mark for the grand event itself. There’s been a lot of discussion in the arts community about what happens after that. While Armour and others are indeed grateful for the one-off boosts in funding and profile that Cultural Olympiad programming and sponsorship is providing in the lead up to the Winter Games, people are also lamenting a lack of longer-term arts legacy planning as part of the general Olympic mandate. There is evidence that the new administration in City Hall is undergoing its own rethink of its cultural programming structures, perhaps going so far as to create an independent Vancouver Arts Council that gets money from the city, but that also operates on an arms-length basis; but one wishes that Vancouver had hewed more closely in its Olympic preparations to the Turin model, which used the cultural opportunities created by the Games to revitalize its entire arts infrastructure, making the city a leading destination for contemporary art in Italy. The hasty and ill-conceived announcement by Premier Campbell about a new False Creek location for the Vancouver Art Gallery that would be part of a post-Games effort to build an “entertainment” district in the area adjacent BC Place (which would itself get a facelift as a potential home venue for the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team and as a more used destination for touring rock bands) is symptomatic of the short-sighted thinking on these matters. Rather than an “entertainment” destination, the city should be thinking about arts and culture integration, with the VAG, for instance, better suited to the Post Office location on Georgia and Hamilton, across from the Playhouse and Queen E, and in a prime location to make links with other arts and community organizations in the Downtown Eastside. But nobody asked me.


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