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.