Sunday, August 23, 2009

Being Beatrice

The story of Beatrice Cenci, the 16th-century Roman noblewoman who conspired with her stepmother, Lucrezia, and her two brothers to murder her father, Fancesco, after years of abuse, has inspired many artists, starting with Percy Shelley, whose 1820 verse drama, The Cenci, has in turn served as the basis for many subsequent dramatic and operatic adaptations. Two of those operas are Canadian: George Elliott Clarke and James Rolfe's 1999 Beatrice Chancy, which transposes the action and setting to 19th-century Nova Scotia during slavery, and which starred a young Measha Brueggergossman as Beatrice; and, most recently, Fugue Theatre's production of Jenn Griffin and Peggy Lee's experimental operetta Via Beatrice, which concludes its brief run at Festival House Theatre on Granville Island with two final performances at 2 pm and 8 pm today.

Griffin and Lee juxtapose Beatrice's story with that of Diana (Lucia Frangione), a present-day Canadian woman, who has traveled to Rome in an attempt to get over the death of her daughter, Nicole, who has committed suicide following a traumatic rape. In Rome, Diana meets the much younger Alessandro (Marco Soriano), a former DJ with emotional baggage of his own who now offers tours of the "haunted" city that focus, in particular, on Beatrice, who is said to haunt the Sant'Angelo bridge, where she and her family were executed. Diana and Alessandro begin a tentative romance that is equal parts Roman Holiday and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (both Hepburns, Audrey and Katherine, are savvily mentioned at one point by Diana) under the watchful eye of a local cafe owner, also named Beatrice (Laura Di Cicco), who seems to have some telepathic connection to her 16th-century namesake.

At a tight 90 minutes, the action of Via Beatrice shifts deftly back and forth between the two timeframes with the aid of sharp lighting changes, and with the three actors taking on multiple roles. And yet while structurally the plot has been finely honed by director Matthew Bissett and dramaturge Leisl Lafferty, it strikes me that thematically there is a struggle to map the Diana/Nicole storyline neatly onto what we witness of the evolving historical relationship between Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia--beyond, that is, their obvious parallel indictments of male violence against women. I don't mean to dismiss this as a powerful critique inherent in the work; however, it strikes me that the Cenci story, as conceived by Shelley, for instance (and as subsequently reconceived, by Clarke and Rolfe and others), is also about other power struggles, including that between the Catholic Church and the landed aristocracy. This aspect of the historical Beatrice's story doesn't really find its equivalent referent in Diana's, and so the audience is at times left to fill in too many conceptual gaps.

That said, the production is, overall, a marvel. Lee's score is especially rich and expressive, and the performers are without exception brilliant, both in terms of acting and vocal delivery. We need more bold work like this in Vancouver, and I urge readers who chance upon this post within the next few hours to rush down to Granville Island today and fill the seats for the show's final performances.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

More on Little Mountain

Re my post from last Saturday about the Little Mountain redevelopment, there was an interesting article in the Globe yesterday by Wendy Stueck stating that, despite the perimeter fencing, etc., plans are still very much in limbo about the projected tear-down date, and whether or not the whole project will even proceed for many years to come. This apparently puts all sorts of other social housing projects in jeopardy, as the Little Mountain project is BC Housing's main lynchpin. And City Manager Penny Ballem says Vancouver is pretty much out of the loop on all of this, that City Hall hasn't even seen a copy of the agreement between Holborn and the province.

Meanwhile, there are still apparently some hold-out residents living in the boarded up units. And I have it on good authority that there are several site-specific artistic interventions that are ongoing. Stay tuned for more news on that front.

Check out, as well, one of the readers' comments on the Globe link, which makes a very convincing argument for the province having no real plans to redevelop the site whatsoever, instead wanting residents cleared out so they can bulldoze the building and use the space for extra temporary parking during the Olympics--the site being immediately adjacent the curling venues.



Monday, August 17, 2009

Burlesque West

According to my friend and former colleague at UBC, Becki Ross, Vancouver used to be the bustling capital of a burlesque circuit that saw performers tour venues from San Francisco to the Yukon, and that greased the economic engines of this city from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Becki details this history in a new book, just published by University of Toronto Press, and from which I have taken my title for this blog post.

Vancouver is also now a thriving centre for the neo-burlesque scene, which has exploded throughout North America as women of all shapes, sizes, ages, sexualities, and races have started reviving the traditions of classic burlesque. Local performer and choreographer Melody Mangler, for example, recently captured first place in a major burlesque competition that took place in Las Vegas (apparently live butterflies flew out of her corset when she opened it).

Mangler is a member of the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society, a company primarily (though not exclusively) devoted to burlesque entertainment. The Chickens have recently collaborated with Cass King and John Woods of The Wet Spots (our local, hetero—though no less raunchy—version of New York cabaret duo Kiki and Herb) to produce Shine: A Burlesque Musical, which is currently playing at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island until the end of this month. That fact alone—that an X-Rated show about tittie tassles and g-strings is playing family-friendly Granville Island—tells you something about the recent mainstreaming of burlesque. Whether that mainstreaming is enough to sustain a whole musical is another matter.

As my friend Joanna, who accompanied me to a performance of Shine last Thursday, has noted, the very form of burlesque—arising as it did out of vaudeville, minstrelsy, and sketch comedy—seems to be antithetical to a traditional book musical. And, indeed, the weak link in Shine is primarily the narrative through-line. It centers mainly on King’s Shine Mionne, the boozy and bewigged proprietress of The Aristocrat, a down-on-its-heel nightclub whose burlesque glory days are behind it, and which is now being squeezed by gentrifying impulses from all sides (it doesn’t help that Shine has also lost much of her money in bad stock investments). Enter Richard Suit (Michael Smith), who convinces Shine he can restore The Aristocrat to its former glory if she takes him on as producer, and if she agrees to tone down some of the racier bits of her show in order to target a more Broadway-style audience (one of many meta-references to musicals throughout the show). Unfortunately, this plan involves ditching The Aristocrat’s large and lusty reigning diva, Lulu Van Doozy (a full-throated Noelle Pion), in favour of someone more conventionally “pretty”—someone like Grace Anderson (a superb Gemma Isaac), a graduate student from Emily Carr who has come to The Aristocrat to write a thesis about burlesque and gender performativity, but who finds herself being conscripted as part of Shine and Suit’s dueling visions for the new show. To this end, a particularly hilarious set piece involves Grace and the just-arrived would-be actor from the prairies, Frankie Avid (Teddy Smooth), first performing a romantic love duet, as written and choreographed by Suit, and then repeating the number in Shine’s rewritten, and suitably more vulgar, version.

Moments such as these are well worth the price of admission, and Isaac, in particular, is a delightful and charismatic performer. But not everyone in the cast has her acting chops; nor does everyone match the vocal power and range of Pion and King. The musical, which is admittedly still evolving (it started as a one-off, three-song contribution to last year’s Vancouver International Burlesque Festival called By the Seat of Our Panties), is also somewhat schizophrenic in terms of its content and target audience references; that is, while there are lots of local references to charm Vancouverites (The Aristocratic just happens to sit between a Starbucks and a Cactus Club, for example, mirroring the fate of the old Aristocratic Diner at the corner of Broadway and Granville, whose neon sign now sits in the window of the big-box Chapters store that took its place), it also crams in as many New York geographical and cultural references as possible (the creators have made no secret of their desire to make it into the New York Fringe Festival, and maybe even all the way to Broadway).

Then, too, to go back to Joanna’s comment, the strengths of burlesque may just not be adaptable to the Broadway-style musical. The best moments of the show are the dance routines themselves, which highlight the superb choreographic talents of Mangler and April O’Peel, and which showcase the outstanding burlesque dance talents of the show’s chorus (Keri Horton as Feral is a particular standout). And it is here, as with traditional burlesque, that the audience most vocally demonstrates its appreciation.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why, Indeed?

I snapped this photo on my way past the Little Mountain housing development at 33rd and Ontario the other day. I gather from the wire fencing now surrounding the long boarded-up apartment and townhouse complexes that they are finally going to start the tear-down in advance of the scheduled redevelopment.

Little Mountain is the oldest public housing development in Vancouver, designed in the early 1950s in response to the postwar baby boom, and specifically aimed at low-income families. In late 2006 Little Mountain was targeted by the provincial government as the first public housing site in the province to be redeveloped according to its "Housing Matters" blueprint, which seeks to partner private developers with non-profit organizations and provincial agencies in order to create mixed-use and mixed-income communities, where social housing is "more fully integrated" alongside market real estate.

A "Residents First" policy was adopted when the Little Mountain redevelopment got the go ahead, and Holborn Properties won the private sector bid. Among other things, that policy stated that all residents would be relocated to other BC Housing public and non-profit units, or relocated in the private market with the help of the Rental Assistance Program or the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters program. It further stated that all current residents would have the option to return to Little Mountain's subsidized housing when the new units were complete.

All well and good, but many in the city wondered why, after the last of the residents were relocated early last year, and with an attendant global economic collapse that no doubt put a damper on Holborn's development zeal, the site then sat vacant for so long, with what appeared to be 500 units of perfectly decent social housing available yet unused during one of the coldest winters on record in Vancouver.

I know projects like this take lots of planning and coordination and time, but graffiti such as that captured in this photo is a telling reminder that in the lead-up to the Olympics, the vaunted rhetoric surrounding solutions to homelessness in this city are more often than not at odds with reality.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Beijing One Year On

Re my previous post, there was an interesting article in today's Globe assessing the legacy of the Beijing Olympics--today marking the one year anniversary of the spectacle of the Opening Ceremonies.

Much of what the article has to say was confirmed to me earlier this week by my friend, and former student, Amy Zhang, who together with her partner, D'Arcy Saum, hosted me during my visit to Beijing last June. Amy is in town briefly en route to Yale, where she will begin a Ph.D. in Anthropology this fall, concentrating on informal waste communities in China. Amy was also the lead writer on Greenpeace's Environmental Assessment of the Beijing Games, and I relied on her expertise extensively during the research and writing of the Beijing sections of my Olympics chapter.

At any rate, as noted in the Globe article, Amy told me that pollution is definitely down in Beijing following the Olympics, with the new subway lines helping to offset somewhat the increase in automobile traffic. The showcase venues, while still a draw for out-of-town tourists, remain unused, and one shudders to think what Herzog and de Meuron's Bird's Nest Stadium will eventually be converted into. Relatedly--and something not reported in the Globe article--Amy told me that even the iconic Rem Koolhas-designed CCTV building remains unfinished, its fate in jeopardy ever since the fire at the adjacent Mandarin Oriental Hotel in January.

Needless to say, and despite Jacques Rogge's grand claims about Beijing repeating the model of South Korea, there have been no great leaps forward in terms of human rights in China. But, then, as I pointed out in my previous post we here in BC should be chary about wagging a disapproving finger.

Amy does believe the environmental legacy has the potential to be significant long term, with a similar clean-up model being employed in Shanghai in advance of next year's World Expo, and in Guangzhou in the lead-up to the 2010 Asian Games. She also notes that Greenpeace seems to have established itself as a viable player in the environmental activist scene in China, with increasingly bold protests and challenges to government policy.

One wonders what Vancouver's legacy will be? Barely breaking even, according to a related article in the same section of the Globe.


Olympic Rights Complaints: An Update

This week the Impact on Communities Coalition (IOCC), a local Olympics watchdog, filed two new human rights complaints with the UN. As IOCC chair Am Johal explained in a brief item in The Georgia Straight, the first complaint centers around civil liberties and mostly targets the special Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, which the IOCC claims has been unduly harassing activists and Downtown Eastside residents. The complaint also alleges that a recently passed omnibus City bylaw restricting assembly and free speech during the Olympics is unconstitutional. As, indeed, it is, and it shocks me that a Vision Vancouver-led council not only allowed such a bylaw to pass, but actively supported it.

The second complaint filed by the IOCC with the UN concerns tenancy protection for renters occupying suites in homes across the city, who are vulnerable to being evicted by owners anxious to make some extra cash during the Olympics by charging higher rates to out-of-town visitors (something that is again being encouraged by the City).

These two UN complaints join a previous one filed by the IOCC, Pivot Legal Society, and the Carnegie Community Action Project in April 2008 regarding the conversion of single-room-occupancy suites in DTES hotels to market accommodation targeted at Olympics tourists. The federal government will have a chance to respond to that complaint in September.

Meanwhile, the women ski-jumpers' attempts to have the ban on their sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) overturned by BC Supreme Court was unsuccessful in early July. Although the judge did explicitly state that the IOC's ban was discriminatory, she claimed that as the IOC is a supra-national organization, the women could not rely on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to make their complaint.

There was better news that same month for the BC Human Rights Tribunal complaint leveled against the Downtown Ambassadors. A petition by the City of Vancouver and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association was denied, paving the way for the complaint to move forward for review.

As I argue in my chapter on the Olympics in my forthcoming book, these rights challenges highlight some of the social groups left behind when host cities harness their particular urban aspirations to abstracted messages of Olympic inspiration: if human bodies can be engineered--via equipment vested or drugs ingested--to go "faster, higher, stronger," then why can’t the places those bodies reside? Of course, the winners and losers that accompany such contests are a reminder that the history of the Olympics mirrors the history of capitalist modernity, from their humble branch plant origins as an amateur sideshow at World Expositions (themselves glorified trading shows) to their steady growth as a powerful global industry run by professional elites, fueled by broadcast revenues and corporate sponsorships, and riven by bribery scandals and competitive fraud. Even the poor return of medals that is routinely cited (as it was again in Beijing) as evidence of Canada’s lack of serious investment in its sports industries is part of this same developmental narrative. Yet as these rights challenges again attest, such fundamental institutional inequities are actually built into the very fabric of an athletic movement based on the cohesion of body and world that has for most of its history done its best to ignore over half of the bodies in the world, not to mention the various social and political movements they have spawned.

Whither sport. Despite its Charter’s principled avowal that "the practice of sport is a human right" (and notwithstanding the noble efforts of former and current Olympians involved in the Right to Play aid organisation), the Olympic Movement remains deeply entrenched within binaries of human difference. Sex and gender are chief among them (as hormone testing and controversies surrounding trans athletes routinely attest), but exclusionary divisions and categories based on race, class, sexuality, age, religion, physical mobility, and geography are just as persistent. Indeed, one of the main arguments in awarding Beijing the 2008 Olympics--that the world’s most populous nation should have the right to host the world’s premiere sporting event--seems slightly specious when one considers that most of the sports showcased at that event were invented by white European men at the height of colonialism. In the corporatized, bureaucratized, politicized spectacle of place promotion that is the Olympics, final medal tallies belie not just the unspoken story of "performance enhancement," but also a long history of the global south, or the communist east, having to beat the West at its own game.


Friday, August 7, 2009

On Fire

Things have finally cooled down here in the Lower Mainland, although no rain yet. And most of the province continues to be ablaze. As Alanis Morissette might say, it's rather ironic that as Vancouver plays host to the World Police and Fire Games (who knew such an event even existed?), BC's interior is going up in smoke.

Things are heating up in the arts community as well. A letter-writing campaign is in full-swing in response to remarks made by Kevin Krueger, Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, regarding the 40% cuts to the BC Arts Council's three-year service plan laid out in last February's budget. Ever since Krueger announced on a Victoria radio show in early July that he's seen no evidence of anyone in the arts community "lighting their hair on fire about what is coming down the pipe," arts administrators and cultural producers have been sending an avalanche of scorching memos (if I may mix my metaphors) precisely to this effect.

As an incoming Board member to the PuSh Festival (did I mention that yet on this blog?), I've recently lent my voice to the chorus of protest. For what it's worth, I reprint my letter, which I've just today sent off, here. I urge other BC citizens who care about the arts to pick up their pens and follow suit.

Honourable Kevin Krueger
Minister, Tourism, Culture and the Arts
Province of British Columbia
PO Box 9071, Stn Prov Govt
Victoria, BC
V8W 9E9

7 August 2009

Dear Minister Krueger,

I am writing to express my concern over the cumulative 40% cuts to the BC Arts Council’s three-year service plan (2009-2012) announced in the most recent budget tabled by your government. As an avid consumer and patron of the arts, an educator, and incoming board member to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, I am dismayed that at a time when other sectors of the economy are being provided with unprecedented stimulus funding, the budget for BC’s cultural industries will be reduced by more than half by 2011-12.

Combined with the recent announcement that the province is freezing $36 million in grants from lottery and gaming revenues, as well as the proposed HST’s likely adverse effect on ticket prices, these core cuts to arts and culture will seriously imperil the ability of organizations like PuSh to continue to stimulate BC’s performing arts scene, present cutting edge work, attract major talent from around the world, and expand its audience base. In its five short years of existence, PuSh has steadily advanced its mandate to produce the very best of international cross-disciplinary performance, has gained an enviable reputation in Canada and around the world for the quality of its product, and has attracted more and more audience members each year—over 24,000 in 2009. And yet I learned at my very first board meeting on 22 July that the cuts announced by your office will almost surely bring this process of growth to a halt.

I was pleased to read in the most recent Georgia Straight (6-13 August 2009) that you have recently begun meeting with local arts advocacy groups, including the Alliance for Arts and Culture, to discuss the funding situation. With this letter, I wish to echo the concerns of arts administrators and cultural producers across the province that you’ve no doubt been hearing in these meetings. I urge you to reconsider your planned cuts, which will have lasting—and wholly detrimental—consequences for one of the most vibrant sectors of the BC economy, a sector, moreover, that will be in the global spotlight during the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics. Heeding your recent appeal in the Globe and Mail (28 July 2009) for “constructive dialogue” on this issue, I also wish to explain a bit further how I, as a university educator and a private citizen, benefit from a creatively stimulated and financially robust cultural community.

In the English Department at Simon Fraser University, I regularly teach classes in dramatic literature, film, and the performing arts. In these classes I stress to my students the historical importance of artistic and cultural production to a healthy democratic society, going all the way back to the central role played by dramatic festivals in helping to foster community dialogue in ancient Greek society, as well as the way in which the patronage of writers and master painters in the Renaissance was considered a key social duty and citizenry responsibility. I then tie these historical examples to the contemporary Vancouver and British Columbia performing arts scene, noting not just what fantastic entertainment is available at my students’ fingertips, but what so much of this work has to teach us about some of the pressing social issues we will have been discussing in connection with past works from the dramatic canon.

Now let me tell you how my job in conveying such matters to my students is potentially made more difficult by the announcement of your rolling cuts to the BC Arts Council. Emphasizing to my students that an appreciation of the importance of the performing arts can only be fully obtained by attending a live performance, I regularly program class outings to local productions as part of my curriculum. As many of the students in my classes cannot afford to pay even the discounted prices for student tickets, I rely on the goodwill of various arts companies and producers in providing further discounted group rates. With these companies now facing severely reduced budgets over the next several years, I fear that school outreach programs such as these will have to be curtailed. Coupled with the almost certain decimation of these same companies’ touring budgets, this means that my colleagues teaching in the interior of the province will have even less opportunity to expose their students to some of the best live performance being produced in BC. To put this in the starkest possible terms, this means that an entire generation of BC’s youth will potentially never be exposed to the unique pleasures and importance of live performance in this province.

It is one thing to say that the proliferation of electronic and digital media in our technologically sped-up society has meant that it is more and more difficult for the plastic and performing arts to compete for the attention of our youth. However, it is quite something else to aid and abet this turning away to the recorded, the remixed, and the remediated by willfully slashing the budget for the production and dissemination of bold and challenging new live performance. I became a professor of drama in large part because my high school and university teachers exposed me at an early age to the power of the stage; this was made possible by crucial provincial and federal funding to two areas of social and cultural (and, dare I say, economic) production I care deeply about: education and the arts. In both these areas, let me suggest, your government needs to do better. We need creative solutions for the myriad of pressing social issues currently facing our province and the globe, including climate change, homelessness, and the economy. The arts teach us to think creatively, to look at problems from a different angle. In short, without a vibrant cultural community we are lost.

So much for the moral argument. Let me now turn to the economic one. I don’t need to remind you that arts and culture is a multi-billion dollar industry, that it accounts for approximately 3 ½ % of Canada’s overall GDP, that it employs tens of thousands of people in BC, and that for every dollar invested in the arts, the province earns back approximately $1.38 (as cited in the aforementioned Globe article). Your Ministry’s own research backs this up. As does the pioneering and globally respected research of Richard Florida, Professor of Business and Creativity at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In books like The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?, Florida notes that with the transition from a resource- to a knowledge- and information-based economy, and with the majority of the world’s population now living in urban “mega-regions,” the creative industries and their ancillary offshoots (especially hospitality and tourism) have now become a driving engine of virtually every national, regional, and municipal economy. Combine this with a growing movement advocating localism not just in terms of work, but also in terms of play, and one can see what good business sense it makes to invest in arts and culture in this province, providing citizens with multiple creative outlets on which to spend their money.

And yet rather than injecting more money into a sector of the economy that actually stands a chance—with the right stimulus—of thriving and turning a profit (unlike the automobile industry, for example), your government is gutting the BC Arts Council’s budget and asking the province’s cultural producers to accept this as a necessary belt-tightening measure. This seems at odds with Finance Minister Colin Hansen’s own words, in announcing one-time bridging funding of $15 million to offset a “difficult” year ahead, that “Our artists, our performers and the people who support them… the volunteers, the sponsors, the suppliers, the umbrella groups… help to shape our vision of who we are. They bring to life the concept of culture, and—just as important—bring us together, entertain us, intrigue us, and challenge us intellectually.” These laudable goals will be increasingly difficult to achieve given the current fiscal constraints, especially for fledgling organizations whose 2010 funding applications will almost surely be reassessed in light of the extra funding they received in 2009, with further slashes to their budgets.

In a related section of his budget speech, Minister Hansen cites the 2010 Cultural Olympiad as a prime example of the province’s investment in and showcasing of the arts. However, given the cuts announced by your office, I wonder how the momentum and opportunities generated by the Olympics for the cultural community will be maintained? In the spirit, once again, of engaging in constructive dialogue, let me conclude this appeal by citing the example of the previous Winter Olympic city, Turin. The government of Turin consciously identified arts and culture as the most significant legacy that would be provided from the Olympics in helping it to make a transition from a post-industrial car-manufacturing city to a service-based and creative economy. And they did so not by resting on the laurels of their historical cultural patrimony, but by consciously rebranding themselves as a contemporary art destination, building new modern art galleries, investing in various art and design biennales, and injecting cash and new infrastructure into their film and performing arts festivals. The city is now a prime destination for arts and culture patrons the world over.

Vancouver, with its abundance of creative talent, its reputation as a world-class city (known, in particular, for its photo-conceptualist art production and its cutting-edge dance), and an increasingly revitalized downtown core that would be further enhanced by being anchored between a new Vancouver Art Gallery, a refurbished Playhouse and Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and a soon-to-open Woodward’s Building, with its stunning new SFU Contemporary Arts performance facilities, has the potential to repeat and enhance upon the Turin model. It just needs the political and financial support of your government. Government investment in arts programs subsidizes audiences, makes important cultural work accessible to everyone, and provides core and related industry jobs for large sectors of our society. This has been recognized by other Canadian provinces, even in the midst of an economic recession. I urge you to demonstrate the same foresight and vision by reversing your cuts to the arts and culture sector of this province.


Peter Dickinson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Dept. of English, SFU
Nominee to the Board, PuSh Performing Arts Festival Society

Cc. Hon. Gordon Campbell, Premier of BC
Hon. Margaret MacDiarmid, MLA, Vancouver-Fairview
Hon. Spencer Herbert, MLA, Vancouver-West End