Saturday, May 3, 2014

In Toronto

I'm in Toronto for a conference, though I confess I haven't been attending much of it. Instead, I've been braving the unseasonably cold and damp weather to take in some visual art and theatre. On the former front, I went to see the Francis Bacon and Henry Moore show at the AGO today. Not the very best works by Bacon, which is perhaps to be expected (though the Crucifixion triptych from the 1980s was on display, as well as several studies for his pope series). And I think the curators rely a little too much on the visual correlation between the twisted human figures in each artist's works, without accounting for differences in medium. Still, it does allow the AGO to take advantage of their vast Moore collection in a new (and, of course, ideally blockbuster) way. And it was very instructive to learn of Moore's experience of the Blitz as an official war artist, and to see the sketches he made of the sleeping bodies massed so tightly together in the Tube stations--prototypes for several of his later reclining sculptures. Interspersed amongst these sketches are several amazing photographs by Bill Brandt taken of London (both above ground and underground), so many in fact that one almost feels he should be included as the third master in the title of the show.

On the fifth floor, while taking in the Elevated show, I ran into Geoffrey Farmer, in town for a site visit relating to a show that he will install in July in the AGO's dedicated Moore rooms--and that, from what I understood, will recreate how those rooms originally looked. We also had a brief chat about Herzog and de Meuron being named the design team for the proposed new VAG. Geoffrey was pleased with the announcement, made just as I was leaving Vancouver.

My visit coincides with the opening of the Contact Photography Festival, and on Thursday morning I ambled down to Ryerson University's Image Centre. The big draw there is the work of another Vancouver artist, Stan Douglas having won the 2013 Scotiabank Photography Award, and thus getting one of main presentation shows from the sponsors of the Festival. And while it was certainly a treat to see Douglas's impeccably composed and historically sourced large-scale photos on display, including the wonderful panorama "Every Building on 100 East Hastings," I was more taken by a small show conceived by students in Ryerson's MA program in film and photography preservation and collections management. Called Curious Anarchy, it features a selection of "photographic objects" (from photos of/as objects to an assortment of postcards, curios, and jewelry, including a 19th-century mourning bracelet with a tiny black and white daguerreotype of the deceased). The displayed works all come from the private collection of Maia-Mari Sutnik, longtime curator of photography at the AGO, and an adjunct instructor in Ryerson's program. The exquisite show was at once a fascinating glimpse into the history of photography, the catholic and conceptually astute tastes of Sutnik, and the curatorial acumen of the Ryerson students.

Last night I also managed to crash the official Contact opening party at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Well, truth be told, it was free and open to the public--but I still felt like an outsider sipping my wine and moving invisibly among all the arty hipsters of Queen Streeet West. The two shows on view, Material Self and In Character, were well worth the effort and were linked via the twin themes of identity and performance.

Then I scooted further west along Queen to the new digs of the Theatre Centre to take in Death Married My Daughter, one of three new one-acts running in rep as part of TC's Independent Creators Cooperative, in which they have matched up two seasoned companies with three emerging ones to create original works of physical theatre for their new Incubator space. Sidebar on recent Toronto theatrical pairings: I had been scheduled to see Michael Hollingsworth's critically lauded Trudeau and the FLQ at Soulpepper's Tank Theatre (they're co-producing with Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor's VideoCabaret) on Wednesday night; but the ride into the city from the airport proved to be almost as epic as the flight from Vancouver, so that by the time I got to my hotel I had no way of making curtain. I mention this only because the non-naturalist style and revisionist satire of Hollingsworth's Small Huts plays (of which Trudeau is the 19th installment) is something it has in common with Death. Conceived and performed by Play It Again Productions' Nina Gilmour and Danya Buonastella, in collaboration with Theatre Smith-Gilmour's Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour, the play unfolds in classic bouffon style (Buonastella and Nina Gilmour are recent graduates of the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, whereas Smith and Dean Gilmour trained more than thirty years ago with Gaulier's compatriot in clowning, Jacques Lecoq). In this case, our menacing jesters are none other than Desdemona and Ophelia, back from the dead and out for some feminist revenge.

Nothing is off limits for these two furies, from roasting their own babies to skewering (quite literally) a patriarchal culture in which misogyny and militarism are of a piece. And, in true bouffon style, the performers and their co-directors have great fun burlesquing the equally male high art canon. This is most effective when Desedemoma (Gilmour) and Ophelia (Buonastella) reenact their death scenes. The former's is delivered as a virtuosic lipsynch to Verdi's Otello, which has the effect, via its concentration of the acoustic register on the dominance of the male voice in the scene, of reflecting back to us how our pity for these characters is divided disproportionately between the victim and the perpetrator of patriarchal violence. Likewise, Ophelia's drowning, played to wonderful physical effect by Buonastella, becomes the occasion for yet more violence to be done to her body, with Gilmour using a male Ken doll to deliver Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" speech from atop Ophelia's corpse.

As trained clowns, Gilmour and Buonastella are wonderful vocal mimics and fearlessly adept physical perfomers (the scene where Gilmour manipulates Buonastella's limbs like a puppet while delivering Ophelia's "Willow" speech from behind her body as Buonastella mouths the words was a wonder to behold); however, they and their dramaturgical mentors are also expert social critics, daring to take on in the ongoing backlash against feminism any and all taboos relating to the marginalization of women. In a town where the biggest clown of them all, Rob Ford (whose latest ignominy has coincided with my trip), continues to get away with his insultingly masculinist bigotry, that is even more fearless.

Concluding side note: also attending last night's show was my colleague and longtime Leaky Heaven dramaturg, Michele Valiquette, in town to visit her daughter, and thus the second Vancouverite I ran into in Hogtown in one day. The traffic between the two cities emanating from the Theatre Centre extends even further if one considers that not only is PuSh planning to present Smith and Dean Gilmour's adaptation of As I Lay Dying at next year's festival, but that we've also recently poached the TC's managing director, Roxanne Duncan.


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