Tag: joy

Cracking Open

Heather Ogden in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger

There’s always something special about seeing The Nutcracker every December. The story of two children who, joined by stable boy Peter, enter a magical Christmas land, is a perennial favorite, and a compulsory part of many ballet companies’ holiday programming. The work, first premiered in 1892, features a libretto adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the National Ballet of Canada’s annual production, which features dancing bears, skittering chefs, and a sword-wielding King (of rodents, that is) —  is a feast for the eyes and ears. James Kudelka, choreographer and librettist, has created a visual feast that captures the glittering beauty of a snowy Christmas but still retains all the warmth and merriment of the season, with the perfect mix of grand and intimate movements reflecting Tchaikovsky’s famous score.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, and opening night, the company featured its first Peter, Rex Harrington, along with his partner, Bob Hope, as Cannon Dolls (various “dolls” through the years have included Toronto Mayor John Tory, author Margaret Atwood, skater Kurt Browning, and astronaut Chris Hadfield). The show, which is an opulent riff on Russian design motifs (it even features a giant, decorated egg from which the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges), is a clever blend of old and new, European and North American, art and entertainment, and it’s these integrations that make it so successful. You know you’re seeing something artful and beautiful (Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs are truly stunning), but at the same time, you can’t help but smile, even chuckle, at the panoply of delights being presented, whether it’s the dancing horse, skating bears (my personal favorite) or the giant Christmas tree, with its gracefully waving branches and bobbing baubles.

Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

It’s equally heartening to see students of all ages from the National Ballet School onstage, proudly strutting their stuff; such a buoyant presence gives one hope for not only the future of the art form, but for cultural presentation and passion. Ninety-eight students in total are featured in the production; they’re from the Ballet School as well as local Toronto schools. That’s an incredible achievement in and of itself —I imagine the backstage area of the Four Seasons Centre this time of year to be something akin to organized chaos— so full kudos are in order to National Ballet School Rehearsal Director Laural Toto and assistant Patrick Kastoff, as well as Stage Managers Jeff Morris and Lillane Stillwell, and Assistant Stage Manager Michael Lewandowski. Thumbs way up.

As with any proper professional production, none of the backstage chaos is, ever sensed onstage. The audience is left to wonder over the myriad of riches being presented, and, because of this richness, there’s always something new for us to consider and marvel over. This year I felt drawn to the team of young male dancers who have an especially impressive ensemble number near the beginning of the show. From my own vantage point, 2015 has been a year littered with numerous (and frequently painful) examples of machismo gone awry, so watching this year’s presentation of The Nutcracker, it was deeply refreshing to note the young male dancers and their smiles, their light-footedness, their utter lack of self-consciousness. This isn’t to say ballet can’t be macho — ballet history is littered with many dancers, male and female in fact, who have channelled a particular brand of raw power that has thrilled audiences over the decades — but there was something, for me, awfully touching about seeing young boys onstage, engaging in an art form frequently thought of as “girlie,” from of a purely joyous, non-gendered place. “I love doing this!” their bodies seemed to hum, “I love it!”

McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

Greatly complementing this pure instinct on opening night was dancer McGee Maddox, who, as Peter, radiated a cuddly, floppy-haired boyishness in his impressive turns, pas-de-deux routines, and great leaps of James Kudelka’s choreography. Less swagger and more sweetness, Maddox is a lovely, deeply likable stage presence, the perfect fit for a production that is candy-apple sweet and spicy-cider cozy. Joining him was Heather Ogden’s Sugar Plum Fairy (a gorgeously warm performance) and Robert Stephen’s Uncle Nikolai, whose great leaps and dizzying turns nicely integrated both commanding authority and playful whimsy. There’s something so special about walking out of a production feeling plain old good, and in this, the National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker absolutely excels. Smiles are in short supply these days, on both epic and intimate levels; it’s nice to have a work that channels pure joy, unapologetically. We need it.

Remember Laughter?

This blog was started as a means of celebrating a sense of “play,” both in work and in life. Lately that element has gone sorely missing in my life.

Amidst stresses personal and professional, playfulness is often the first thing to be jettisoned; it’s as if the dour responsibilities of adulthood stand diametrically opposed to smiling whimsy of play. Why is this? Why do we dump fun things when the going gets tough? Maybe we have to give ourselves permission to have fun, without any guilt “oh-I-should-really-be-doing…” Maybe we have to give up our inherent need to please everyone around us. Maybe we have to throw open the door to a tiny bit of fun chaos every now and again.

An old friend visited recently, which afforded the opportunity of pulling out some old toys we used to share, enjoy, and occasionally war over as kids. In that magical moment, all the trappings of our dour adult lives got put aside: the complicated jobs, the painful relationships, the pressing money issues, the maybe-maybe-not plans for tomorrow, the droning ugly siren’s call of Monday morning. Silliness and imagination took precedence; neural pathways of joy were blasted open in a joyous expression of carefree loveliness. Nothing else mattered but living in the moment of our shared creativity. It wasn’t a drunken series of incidents, either; amidst bites of tomatoey veal and sips of red wine, there erupted much laughter, as we posed superheroes and bits of every day ephemera in a sort of cacophony of cartoon surrealism. Our old worried selves became carefree kids once more.

I’m thinking about those moments of play a lot right now as I face a particularly stressful series of situations yawning, with ugly, hooked fangs, before me this coming week. Something about the joy of that experience feels light, instructive -redemptive, even -and beautifully pristine, as if I can always return to the warm, nurturing arms of play. Those arms are never really as far away as I’d imagine. I don’t have to wait for the proverbial “tinkle trunk” to access that joyousness: it’s already there. Just takes a bit of reminding, a bit of time away from the computer, thinking everything has to be done right away, this very instant. Allowing myself permission to laugh freely at silly things is good. Giving myself permission to smile is grand. Discovering I had the keys to the kingdom all along is a shock. There’s a sort of divinity at work I’d never imagined.

A few superheroes still sit on the kitchen table. Far from being false idols, they’re talismans, reminders, fortifiers. Cheerleaders for play. Adulthood doesn’t have to be all misery; sometimes it’s good to allow play in to brighten up the room, the week, the grey pallor of grown-up-hood. I’m glad I did. We plan, God laughs. Maybe it’s time I started laughing more.

I Will… Follow.

One of the most delightful evenings in theater in recent memory began with a chat about Spider Man: Turn The Dark Off. My companion had seen the much-gossiped-about Broadway show in December, and … she had a few opinions. I haven’t seen the show, and in all fairness, it hasn’t technically opened, so I’ll refrain from commenting, but I will say that our conversation ended with the lights going down, and there beginning a show that couldn’t have been more different in terms of its technical demands.

The Fantasticks doesn’t have any high-flying stunts or special effects. At one point, a painted wooden moon is hung by hand and later flipped, to become a coppery, painted sun; in another moment, a quasi-Spanish would-be kidnapper makes a dramatic leap off of a less-than-perilous (try three inch) perch. And in a piece of absolute stage hilarity, we witness a grand (if joint-challenged) stage actor making a slow exit… out of a wooden box. As I said, hardly high-tech. But it’s these small moments that makes the show so special.

The Fantasticks emanates joy. That simple quality is frequently the hardest thing to try to get right in musical theater, especially without looking like you worked for it; as Michael Cohl et al might tell you, you can go through millions trying to make things look effortless, but that one quality – joy -can remain frustratingly elusive. Simplicity -or the illusion of it -can be a powerful element to making an audience believe in the magic of live theater. Toronto company Soulpepper Theatre are currently staging a gorgeous, elegantly simple production that plays up the meta-theatrical elements of the 1960 piece while simultaneously reveling in the joyful heart that beats, quietly and consistently, at its center.

The work, with book and lyric by Tom Jones (not that Tom Jones) and music by Harvey Schmidt, is the world’s longest-running musical, with an off-Broadway run of 42 years (or 17,162 performances). It’s loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s first play and concerns two lovelorn teens and their dueling fathers. Now, you may be scratching your head (as I admittedly did) and saying, “But how can this be so successful? I don’t know the music!” Ah, but you do. Try to remember the kind of September / when life was slow / and oh-so-mellow… and if you remember / then follow…

See? You do so know it. The Fantasticks has become so ubiquitous culturally that it’s almost taken for granted. Almost. In director Joseph Ziegler‘s careful, capable hands, no small detail is overlooked, no moment overplayed, no pause too long. Everything in the Soulpepper production (running through March 24th) feels simple and effortless. It undoubtedly isn’t -musical theater is always hard -but we, the audience don’t see that. Result? Joy. But you knew that.

Krystin Pellerin, perhaps best-known in Canada for her role as the tough-as-nails cop Leslie Bennett on CBC TV’s Republic of Doyle, plays the young, wide-eyed Luisa in The Fantasticks, with the kind of exuberant zeal that you can’t take your eyes off of. Along with her impressive theater CV, Krystin has done a raft of film and TV work -and, as I found out, has one hell of a good singing voice. The Newfoundland native and I recently exchanged ideas about love, voice, and the joy of being a Fantastick.


What was your first thought when you were approached to play Luisa?

I was thrilled when (Soulpepper Artistic Director/actor) Albert (Schultz) and Joe (Ziegler) asked me to play Luisa. I was a huge fan of the musical and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. I was immediately on-board. One of the biggest challenges for me was balancing all the different elements in my mind and in my body.

Initially it felt quite daunting but luckily (musical director) Paul Sportelli and (choreographer) Tim French were there to help us all along and explain how to live within the convention. I learned that I need to keep three brains at work through out the show for singing, acting and dancing and that at different times in the show I need to negotiate how to spend my energy and thought in order to fulfill all the elements involved.

Playing Luisa, one could easily fall into a pastiche of “cute young singing girl” or an ironic winkyness; what did you feel was important to emphasize in terms of making her sincere?

I felt it was important to connect with Luisa’s sense of wonder and determination and her elation that comes with being in love at 16. She also experiences great heartbreak and confusion in her growing up with El Gallo (Albert Schultz). These are all feelings that I was able to identify with and it helped me to stay anchored in the role.

Was there any one role you drew from in approaching this role?

I’m also playing Emily in Our Town this season so she has been in my mind through out the whole process. Her and Luisa sort of co-exist in my brain. I feel that there are a lot of similarities between them. They live in completely different worlds obviously but they are both strong young bright passionate women who learn that what they had longed for most was right in front of them the whole time. They both experience a rough awakening: Luisa, when she is shown the world and abandoned by El Gallo, and Emily when she is allowed to return to her life for one ordinary day. Luisa and Emily inform and complement each other a great deal I think.

I haven’t heard you sing before – what’s that like?

It feels wonderful to be singing again. Luisa is a big sing but the amount of growth that I experienced in rehearsal was amazing and Paul Sportelli was such a huge support to me.

I would love to do more, absolutely 🙂

How does your stage history with Jeff Lillico (who plays Matt, Luisa’s love) influence your interpretation?

Jeff and I will also be playing opposite each other in Our Town and that will be our third time playing lovers together. I feel like we know each other really well in a very specific way. We’re usually on the same page when it comes to scenes, we can talk things out very easily and get to the bottom of it a little quicker maybe because we’ve worked together so much. I’m finding that our stage history allows us to play more freely. I feel at ease with him and I think that helps the performance.

When you go from TV and back to the stage, is there a certain amount of nervousness, or nervous anticipation, at performing live in front of people again?

I was really excited to shift from playing a cop to playing a princess. It’s a complete reversal of roles and media and I think it’s the best thing I could have done. There are a normal amount of nerves that come with performing live again but I think it’s invigorating and I think it’s important to come back ‘home’.

I am loving the bouncing back and forth right now. I feel like I am being stretched and I think a lot of good comes from being out of your comfort zone.

Photo credits:
Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Krystin Pellerin photo by Sandy Nicholson

December, Baby

Birthdays are always time for me to reflect. This one feels better than others, probably because I’ve been thinking I am the actual age I’m turning through most of the year. Always being one step ahead makes the actual date feel like less of a shock. Birthdays as a kid -complete with party dress, streamers & ice cream cake -are fun but their effect feels less temporary; the older one gets, the more one feels the wear of time bearing down, and the feeling one ought to be doing something awfully important -or at least, focused. Right now I’m focusing on the champagne that’s being uncorked at the end of the day. It’s a start, right?

I’ve also been thinking of the events that have colored many a December -deaths, both recent and not, as well as births. Sharing a birthday month with Christmas, no matter your religion, is a d-r-a-g. I used to tell my mother as a child that I wanted to celebrate my birthday in July with a pool party; now I’m overjoyed if people even remember, let alone take the time to write me, or to write on that eponymous modern mode of communication, the ever-present Facebook wall (which many have done, and thank you very kindly). It’s cheering and surreal, all at once.

Two of my favorite artists, people who music I grew up with, were born this month. Though the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s birth is disputed (possibly December 16th; he was baptized the 17th) his effect on the music world… well, earth-shattering. Plunking at the piano as a kid, LVB was always my go-to guy; I aimed to, and eventually did play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, along with other (very hard, but very awesome) works. I struggled to manoeuvre my small hands over the wide swaths of ivory; I swore and gnashed teeth when I couldn’t put this note down with that one, let alone reach that other one. Ouch.

At some point, I knew my hands weren’t made to play his work (or indeed, much classical at all) but that realization didn’t dim my passion for those beautiful, indescribable sounds. I loved the energy and anger of his work; as an adolescent I swooned over the romantic melodies and dramatic qualities. I’d write great swaths of poetry while blasting the Seventh symphony, or one of the Concertos, especially the onerously misnamed Emperor. Really, I loved it all. I had a gigantic poster of Beethoven on my bedroom wall. He was my rock star. Dead? Whatever. Ugly? Whatever. I skipped my high school prom to go to a big symphonic gala featuring the famous (and mysteriously powerful) Ninth. LVB understood the frustrated anger seething through my veins and expressed it in powerful, bang-whoosh flights of orchestral mastery.

While I still love the manic, raging energy that emanates from his work with the force of a million waterfalls, I also adore (and swoon) over his capacity for tenderness. The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto has been a favorite for over fifteen years, and indeed, it still is. I’ve done a lot to this piece of music: sighed, cried, drawn, written, meditated, driven in the dead of night, walked on an autumnal afternoon, cooked, and stared out windows on silently-falling snow. I should probably do that last one again before the season ends. I’m especially happy to share Daniel Barenboim‘s interpretation (above) as I think he really, truly captures the intricate beauty without getting bogged down in technicality; there’s a lovely blend of poetry and fussiness here, but ultimately, as you’ll hear, one definitely trumps over the other through sheer emotionalism. The charming unconscious-eyebrow-raises of Barenboim’s tells you everything you need to know about how deeply this piece reaches into the nether-regions of the soul, pulling out things you didn’t know, or want to acknowledge, gently, if firmly, ever profoundly plumbing depths that may not see the light of day again -or until you listen to it next.

That sense of keen emotional beauty is what makes my second December-born artist so special. He excelled at it, just as much as he excelled at joy. Frank Sinatra would’ve been 95 on December 12th. More than any other, this man profoundly shaped the way I experienced popular music; he opened doors into expression and interpretation not using any external instrument (as I’d been trained to do), but via his own body -via that remarkable voice he’d been blessed with, which alternated between tenor and baritone with effortless ease, wrapping like a cashmere glove around songs notes, and octaves, caressing ears, minds, and hearts across generations.

My first exposure to Sinatra (and to much jazz, both vocal and instrumental) was as a teenager. I was at the house of my mother’s smart, cool, downtown friends and looking through their CDs (remember those?) when I came across his stuff. Naturally, I’d heard of Francis Albert. I’d heard his work, and I knew him from the celebrity roasts on television. My mother was (is) a bigger fan of Dean Martin‘s work, so it was familiarity-via-association. Once I put on the CDs … that was it. I was hooked. My Sinatra obsession continued well into my twenties (and beyond), when I picked up his masterful, profoundly sad, hugely powerful albums from the 1950s: Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?. His poetic, masterful singing of “I’m A Fool To Want You”, written about Ava Gardner (who subsequently took her place among my gloriously surreal, beautiful collection of heroes), as well as songs like “Lonely Town”, “Angel Eyes” and the famous “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” still stop my heart in my chest. Each is a revelation, a prayer, a blessing, darkness, and light, all at once.

Much as Sinatra excelled at expressing pain, he was equally good at doing happy, something a lot of singer and artists don’t succeeed at; as I recently said on television, painting in white is hard. Few do it well, with any effect that isn’t sickeningly saccharine or cloyingly cheesy. Sinatra pulled it off with just the right mix of joy and smarts. Albums like Swing Easy!, Come Fly With Me, Ring-A-Ding, and Nice And Easy demonstrate a man who can just as easily access pure, simple joy -in singing and in sound -as fear, anger, and loneliness. Sinatra-Basie and It Might As Well Be Swing (with Quincy Jones) are landmark recordings; they also have a place as two of my most cherished albums, ever. Musical mastery has never sounded better, or more obvious.

I had a recent upset at not being able to find my treasured collection of Sinatra holiday hits, if only because I love –love -his interpretation of one particular winter classic. Thank goodness for the internet:

Silly, smart, smarmy, playful, loving, celebratory… I hear a full embrace of life when I hear this song.

Maybe that’s why I love both LVB and Sinatra so much: they represent the pinnacle of artistic mastery and creative human expression, integrating all the colours of the human experience with a zeal I, and many, can immediately recognize and occassionally identify with. As to December babies… we might forget their birthdays, but we never forget them.

Use It, Don’t Abuse It

Okay, trite but still, important:

I’ve recently been considering the importance of playfulness, particularly since I was so woefully bereft of it in my twenties. One particular moment, when I first moved overseas, still strikes me as a time when I probably should’ve called up the playful/childlike/imaginative spirit, but didn’t -cowed, I suppose, by insecurity, self-consciousness, and worried what my friend at the time would’ve thought. But once that junk gets cleared away -the need for acceptance, the drive for appeasement -the sense of being a child again is allowed to shine through.

After all, if you’re a kid, do you really care what others think? At a certain point, sure, the self-consciousness kicks in. But before that, there’s a joyous, free time when the world is yawning open with possibility and wonder -it’s the spirit I tend to revel in whenever I engage in any kind of creative activity. Using my imagination in that child-like spirit makes me more productive to plough through adult stuff later on, too. It clears out the clutter, makes me calmer, happier, and more ready to embrace the myriad of people, experiences, and expressions this world has to offer.

So yay Elmo! Going to use my imagination now to sketch, write, and perhaps see about putting together my next painting -based not on a flight of fancy, but on an incredible photograph of women in Afghanistan protesting recently. There’s no way I could’ve even approached this subject matter in the past. Now however, there’s a weird kind of a calm, combined with an inner riot -a sort of neat yin and yang, I guess. We’ll see. I’m staying open to the possibilities, and using imagination, yes, combined with awareness. So far, so good.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén