Tag: Toronto Page 2 of 4

No Artificiality

A recent blog post on the organization A Work Of Heart was met with huge interest, and proved very popular across the internet. People applaud the marriage of creativity and commerce, because it doesn’t smack of the patronizing attitudes that so often dominate the conversation around aid.

Far too often there is a kind of smug arrogance over the role one may’ve played in some do-good initiative or another; one becomes more interested in our laser-pointed act of generosity to The Less Fortunate (who always, it must be said, remain nameless and faceless in their poverty) than in providing empowerment to achieve a livelihood not unlike our own. Western aid is often characterized by an agenda of righteousness, utterly lacking in awareness of history or culture. Self-empowerment, self-determination, responsibility and accountability… what’s that?

FELA! may have some answers. The mega-musical, produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, revolves around the life and music of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. While Kuti may have passed away in 1997, his work -and the show itself – underlines his political and artistic legacies for audiences, both white and black, Western and non-Western, in the 21st century. Kuti’s life revolved around politics and art, the hows and why and wherefores of the two intersecting, and the power created therein to affect real change, both in his short time on earth, and past it, for all time, for all Nigerians. Kuti’s sound is a musical smorgasbord of influences; he liberally mixed the sounds of indigenous African beats (namely Yoruba drums) with big American-sounding horns and twanging James Brown-style guitars. His work even betrays Middle Eastern influence; there’s a distinctly Klezmer mood in “Mr. Follow Follow” mixed in with the funky beats and bleating horns.
In FELA! the songs as used both as plot points and party anthems, and perhaps, both; the party becomes political, and the political becomes a party. “Water No Get Enemy”, “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie” are seamlessly interwoven throughout the piece, providing dialogue and narrative drive, along with groove and timeliness. The work may take place somewhere around 1977, but FELA! is less a period piece than it is an evocation of the power of music to empower a people and a nation. One nation under a groove, indeed.
Groove isn’t something that Toronto audiences immediately respond to in the theater, however. FELA! opened at the city’s Canon Theatre at the end of October, brought to Canada by Mirvish Productions. The show’s charismatic lead, Sahr Ngaujah immediately sensed some Canadian shyness during a recent Friday night performance, and he wasn’t pleased. The accomplished build the energy, doing call-and-responses, storming off the stage James Brown-style, and getting us on our feet to dance. Ngaujah also showed off his able improv abilities when, during one of his character’s asides chatting up the wonders of igbo (or marijuana), an eager audience member shrieked “Pass!” as he lit up what looked like a gigantic joint. Ngaujah looked up with a wicked smile, clearly delighted, and began riffing on the ups and downs of reefer-sharing. It was a warm, off-the-cuff moment that underlined the human heart beating at the center of FELA! as well as the steely resolve of its title character to play by his own rules, come hell or highwater.
As in Kuti’s life, the enemy in FELA! is the violent Nigerian government of the 1970s (and arguably, beyond that time period). On a larger scale, it attacks the endemic corruption of worldwide governments by corporate interests. The decision to have an unseen enemy, rather than actual physicalized figures, renders their evil deeds -the rape of Kuti’s “Queens”, the murder of his mother -more horrific, even as it solidifies Kuti’s defiance. Giant screens on either side of the stage portray various shots from the time and from the musician’s own life; scenes of mobs, arrests, beatings, of newspaper headlines, of shots of Kuti’s compound and The Shrine (the interior of which is the setting for the musical itself) provide a history lesson, but it’s wrapped in the pulsing sound of Afrobeat, the sonic hybrid Kuti pioneered and perfected. The production’s onstage band, including the talented Morgan Price (who does tenor sax solos) ups the energy ante, and provides able solemnity where needed. Captivating performances by the work’s female leads balance out the machismo. British actor Melanie Marshall does a stunning turn as Fela’s mother Funmilayo Kuti, her coloratura soprano soaring as she inspires her son even past the grave. L.A.-based actor Paulette Ivory is a force of nature as Sandra, Fela’s American wife. Whether she’s standing with hand on hip, head cocked, or belting out “Lover” in her strong pop-inflected voice, Ivory’s presence is, as we suspect with Sandra, one to be reckoned with.
Interestingly, Toronto critics, amidst their praise of the popular Tony Award-winning work, noted the lack of portraying Kuti’s polygamy, and the fact FELA! is lacking in physicalized bad guys – but those criticisms ignore what this work is really about: one man using his art to fight for change. The finale encapsulates the twin impulses toward art and politics that characterized Kuti’s life, combinining his untimely passing with that of other key political figures. It’s eerie -and eye-opening -to witness coffin after coffin being carried onstage and piled artfully in one corner, each coffin bearing the name of either a murdered figure (like Ken Saro-Wiwa), or a company (like Shell Oil) who must die so that The Shrine (aka Nigeria) might live. One understands more clearly the legacy Kuti left, not only for his own country, not only for his fans, but for people who are fighting for justice, dignity, empowerment, and respect.
Those issues are crystalline in their presentation, but they aren’t delivered with any didacticism or smugness. FELA! is too smart for that. Instead, the show is education via entertainment, enlightenment through electrical musical energy. The Torontonians at the Canon knew some of the songs, and could be heard (softly) singing the words or humming along. The subtext was understood, but they couldn’t help but get lost in the music. That’s the power of art, well done and well-executed. If only this marvelous Mirvish Production was playing longer than two weeks -this is precisely the kind of entertaining, electrifying, timely programming Toronto theatre needs. If you’re in the polite Canadian city, make time between now and Sunday (its closing day) to see FELA! -and make sure you shout, dance, and make noise. Not to be charitable – just because it feels so damn good.
Photo credits:
Top photo: Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton
Middle photo: Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever ©Monique Carboni
Bottom photo: Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! ©Monique Carboni

Bravo, Olar!

Art Battle is many things: dramatic, thought-provoking, theatrical, joyous, challenging, surreal. It’s also a great place to see the work of emerging artists.

My eye was recently caught at the last Art Battle by Iulia Olar, a Romanian-born, Toronto-based artist who was participating. Her gorgeous, vibrant cityscapes were joyously retina-ripping, and I felt honored to be witnessing the creation of not one but two beautiful renderings of Toronto’s skyline.

The way Iulia paints – a mix of focus, intuition, feeling and detail -reflects a deeply poetic sense of both her environment and the people in it. Her dance between brushes and palette knives, wielding one, then the other, with a seamless integration of head and heart, smuding here, dabbing there, was a magical thing, akin to the spinning tango dancers I’d see Sundays in Union Square. As with so many arts, either a person has a gift to develop, or they don’t. Learning the steps, mixing the colors -they take practise, of course -but it’s up to the individual to properly use those energies, with a mix of pinpoint precision and passionate abandon. Iulia does both.

So it was an honor to have this Q&A with her, and to learn more about someone whose talent is bursting with the living of life, moment by moment, stroke by stroke.

How did you first get interested in painting?

I came to Canada as a poet, with three books in my luggage. After three years I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, so I decided to express myself through painting.I started to paint on September 19th, 2009: I went to the store, bought canvases, paints, brushes, and took books from the library… and here I am! I have to admit, I took one year of drawing lessons -that was a long time ago -but never, ever did I paint. I want to remain for as long as possible a self-taught artist. It’s so natural and much less stressful.

I also have a wonderful husband, a wonderful son and a wonderful friend. They encouraged me from the first moment. Terry Mardini (my friend) bought over forty paintings -and she exhibited them in her apartment. What a friend! I am very lucky.

Believe me or not, every time I sell a painting I say :”Forgive me, Vincent!” (Vincent Van Gogh). That’s my story with painting . You know, I see myself doing this for the rest of my life.

How does being involved in Art Battle help your artistic development?

I consider participation at Art Battle a unique experience that every painter should have. You can test yourself and the public’s reaction towards your art, right on the spot. There, you have to give your best in twenty minutes. Leonardo Da Vinci spent seven years giving us the Mona Lisa -and only a few rich people benefit from that type of art. It’s not possible (to work that way) anymore. The modern artist has to be there for the people, right away -there is no time to wait.

Who are some of your favorite painters and why?

I adore Vincent Van Gogh. He felt that is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. Because he risked his health and his life for his work: “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” Because he sold one (one!) painting in his entire life but, this, couldn’t stop him from painting. What an artist!

Why acrylic paint? Would you consider other media?

I like acrylic because it’s an extremely liberating medium. Its versatility is actually its best quality; use it like oil paint, watercolour or gouache. Acrylics gained my favour because they offer many advantages: great colour, a fastness that doesn’t fade or yellow or harden with age (or crack), it dries much faster then oil paint too, so it’s great for studio work. I use more acrylic paint because I don’t feel like considering other media… but who knows? Maybe in the future.

You seem to do a lot of cityscapes; what’s the attraction, creatively?

As an artist, you must learn to trust your own feelings, judgment and analysis about what you like and why. Ambivalence in your approach will lead to an ambivalence response from the viewer. You don’t have to please all the people by somehow finding the average line.

Yes, I can say, Toronto’s skyline attracts me because of that insolent CN tower that lances my sky. Sky bleeds, suffers. People stay at home. Nobody to be seen on the streets. The water: second reality, refuses to capture the mirror image, makes another one more subtle.

This theme reveals my love and my hate, my choleric side. A solitary seagull flies -the guardian of the city. The strong colors I use add life and dynamic they are projections of the people not of the town itself. I also paint flowers, landscapes, family members when I am in the “quiet mood”

What’s next in terms of your work and where can we see it?

I have plans to create a website where I’ll post all my work and keep in touch with friends, and try to participate as much as I can in public events, art galleries, etc. This is a never-ending story for me and I feel very engaged with every single detail. I start to count my life in days that I paint well. Who knows one day I’ll have my own studio, students and I will make my art my entire occupation.

Artsy

I feel like a kind of “us versus them” war is happening in Toronto right now -between people who lives in different regions, who engage in different social activities, who are interested in different things. Can’t we all just get along?

Look! Hear! is a monthly cultural event that happens in the city; its last one, November 30th, was held in the historic Distillery District. The next one happens tomorrow night, in the very-same, neato spot. In the words of the people organizing Look! Hear!, it aims to promote “some of the most exciting and up and coming artists and musicians Toronto has to offer, in the unique and raw space that is the Stirling Room Catacombs.” It closes with a live art auction at midnight.

Art? Catacombs? Auction? Cool! Or at least I think so; unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend November 30th but I definitely plan on following this group. I learned about it through artist Chris Pemberton, whom I interviewed as one of the co-founders of the immensely popular Art Battle. Chris is a great artist in his own right, as the photos here attest; they’re from his super summer exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel.

Now, there are a lot of people in the city who are taking the “us vs them” approach, specifically within the political sphere as a direct result of November’s mayoral race. Chris feels like one of those people who’s trying to break that barrier; would one group of people make it to the Gladstone Hotel, or Look! Hear! if they knew about it? Does that make the groups of people who do go to such venues and events x or y (or *gasp* z)? Should any of that matter when it comes to art? Questions worth debating at any time, in any place. My exchange with Chris demonstrates the heart of connection that lies within the kind of art I like best.

How does your work fit in with the other arts happening at Look! Hear! ?

Look Hear is a special event. Elements such as visual and sound arts are combined to bring an awareness to the space for the evening. I’ve done my best to offer paintings that represent my vision and passion, and let the curator design the rest. Should it fit? Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, if done with care, disjunction is beautiful too.

What does this kind of one-night event give you, as a working artist, in both the short and long-terms?

In the short term it gives the opportunity to share my ideas with a focused community. A special event like Look! Hear! brings people together to be a part of one night, and the enthusiasm becomes a tangible part of experience and the experience of my art. In the long term, it’s an opportunity to connect with the ideas of other people, and to inform my future work or creative process, which is my living process also.

Why do you think it’s a vital event for local artists in the city?

Every artistic element at Look! Hear! is being offered as a best effort in a beautiful venue, produced by a great team. It’s the type of event that supports and creates as it becomes real. I’ve worked with (producer/curator) Morgan Booth on other projects; she has a knack for success and is delightful to work with. I believe Morgan got the artists she wanted, Sarah Eagen and Andrew Dunn Clarke have really impressed me, it’s exciting to show work together.

How does it work with your role as a co-founder of Art Battle?

I’ve really felt a sense of community involvement since we started Art Battle. We’ve met so many passionate and innovative people, it’s inspiring me to maintain my own voice. There’s a lot of work in between shows, whether that’s an Art Battle or an exhibit, it’s important to maintain confidence and creativity. Working and communicating with people who share the same efforts and excitement is how it works. It’s a great fit.

Your exhibit at the Gladstone had a lot of blues and oranges, & was very textural -how long did it take you to find your ‘voice’ artistically? How much is that an ongoing process?

It’s definitely an ongoing process, but if you are true to yourself and what you want to express, the work will always be true, although the voice changes tone over time. My paintings are the paintings that I want to live with -that is my guide.

How do you think events like Look! Hear! & Art Battle foster the culture of a city?

The culture of Toronto will be as rich as we make it. Events like Look Hear and Art Battle bring attention, experience and inspiration to the arts community and beyond. I believe culture is in constant motion, some things take longer to change, some times things shift quickly. The arts often tells us where we have been, sometimes tells us where we are, and occasionally where we are going. I hope that excitement and the connection of good people is where we are going. That’s the culture I want to be a part of.

Raising The Bard


Toronto’s amazing, inspiring Art Of Time Ensemble has been presenting its unique vision of music, dance, theatre, and literature now for twelve years. They’ve featured the works of Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Gavin Bryars, Erich Korngold, and many, many others in concerts that combine music, art, theatre, and dance, to create a hybrid form unto itself. What’s more, the Ensemble has involved some of Canada’s biggest names from the arts world to accomplish their task of shedding light on old and new masters alike.

Their incredible rendering of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (which I wrote about back in March) was so popular, it was presented as part of this year’s Summerworks Theatre Festival, and is on track to be part of Soulpepper Theatre Company’s season in 2011. The Art Of Time toured with former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page plus songstress Sarah Slean; award-winning author Michael Ondaatje is among their most devoted followers and has, on occasion, participated in concerts doing readings. He says of them:

Art of Time leaps over the usual barriers of culture. So Schumann and Tolstoy can rub shoulders with Ginsberg and our best contemporary musicians. The result is entertainment that is often thrilling, often full of insights—as in the old values of art that delight and instruct.

I’ve spent many happy evenings at their shows, scratching head, cradling heart, listening; the phrase “human being” never seemed more real and alive than at an Art Of Time show.

Their next work, coming up this week, is called If Music Be… -a tribute of sorts to William Shakespeare, featuring, among many others, the poetic footwork of Peggy Baker and the acting talents of Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock, plus, as ever, the expert musical accompaniment of the Ensemble themselves. The last If Music Be… was presented in Toronto in March 2008.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around Shakespeare and the blend of Bard and Ensemble with two key figures for the evening: Andrew Burashko, who is the group’s Artistic Director, and actor/director/dramaturge David Ferry, who directs If Music Be…, which runs at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre December 9th through 11th.

Why Shakespeare?

Andrew:

I’ve always been in awe of Shakespeare’s limitless play and poetry. To me he represents the most dazzling example of virtuosity. Also, he has influenced so many artists and inspired so much diverse art – high and low – music, theater, literature, dance. In that sense, he is the perfect subject for Art of Time – a subject that connects so many of the artistic disciplines.

David:

Well as many of the authors quoted in this piece say, (Shakespeare) invented us in so many ways; he created arguably our sense of the human being.

How difficult was the process of choosing accompanying music?

Andrew:

It was actually the reverse: I began with the music and dance inspired by Shakespeare, and then selected the sources that inspired the music and dance. To over-simplify, I thought it might be fascinating to see/hear this amazing stuff together with the source material. In other words, to show this music and dance on the heels of the actual scenes that inspired them – to see the Shakespeare as he wrote it, followed by interpretations of the same material in the forms of music and dance.

How would you describe the connection between Shakespeare and music?

Andrew:

I guess the most obvious would be the music and richness in his language, but even more than that, his ability to express the ineffable – to tug at the heart strings by transcending the limitations of words.

You have an eclectic mix of artists taking part; how much did their talents shape the program?

Andrew:

Everything begins and ends with the content – the material. I chose the artists I thought could best deliver the material. I thought of Peggy (Baker)’s piece before I thought of Peggy. In fact, I was surprised that she wanted to dance it herself. She’s been slowing down – cutting the more physically demanding pieces from her repertoire as a dancer. I wasn’t expecting her to be up for it.

David:

Peggy is a long-time collaborator with Andrew, as is James Kudelka. My suggestions were (actors) Tim (Campbell), Marc (Bendavid), Cara (Ricketts). Ted (Dykstra) and Lucy (Peacock) have done the material before.

How does this version of If Music Be… differ from the one you directed a few years ago?

David:

The core material is the same, with some modifications and the structuring of the material. Also, this time actors will not read but have material memorized, (which allows for) different staging. (There are) some music changes as well, (like the) addition of the Wainright pieces and Dykstra song. The relationships with the actors are deeper, as relationships are wont to grow with time.

Andrew, you come from a very music-centric background, David comes from a very theatre-centric background. Do you meet in the middle (or not)?

Andrew:

David is someone I like and respect. Also, he really gets what Art of Time is about. I compiled all the material and asked him to come in and put everything together in terms of staging and flow. He’s not messing with the content at all, and I’m staying out of his way in determining the show’s overall look and feel. I would love for all these disparate elements to come together to form a whole – that’s his job.

For people more familiar with Shakepeare done at places like the Stratford Festival, what does If Music Be… offer?

Andrew:

This show is just as much about the work Shakespeare inspired as it is about his own work. In that sense, the audience will exposed to a lot more than Shakespeare. It’s a look at his work and what it led to down the years.

David:

I like to think of the evening as high-class Ed Sullivan: a great variety of fine artists that make for a stimulating, thought-provoking, accessible and entertaining night at the theatre.

Sparkle, With An Edge

I’m not the biggest fan of movie-to-anything adaptations. It’s unfair, but productions tend to become laden with so many expectations and comparisons so as to sink the show before a note is sung. Lord Of The Rings is a case in point: the 2006-2007 musical suffered in comparison to Peter Jackson‘s epic film series of the early aughties. No matter how silly, small-minded, and un-visionary it may be, people who’ve seen a movie are going to come to its theatrical counterpart expecting to see some kind of approximation. How excellent then, that the musical version of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert does so well in that regard, and, in the process, carves out its own totally-fabulous niche.

Maybe it’s because the splashy work is made up of fun 70s and 80s tunes. Maybe it’s the fact the nature of the work (moving between the exquisiteness of intentional artifice and serious themes) lends itself to the visual. Maybe it’s strong direction, acting, choreography, and design. Or maybe it’s a combination of the all of the above. Seriously, this show’s a winner in all its glittery, glammy glory; it’s fun, fabulous, and stuffed with real feelings. I can’t think of a better way to light up a dark Toronto winter than to scamper down King Street, platform heels and all, to see it in all its disco-ball, swirling-bus glory. It’s really that good.

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical made its North American debut Tuesday night in Toronto. It carries high hopes on its sparkly platform shoes -or make that shoe, which sits aloft the bus (“Priscilla”) which the characters travel in across Australia. The story adheres closely to the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, loud costumes, lewd language, and lots –lots -of buff, sexy men. Mitzi (also known as “Tick”), the hyper Felicia, and the classy transexual Bernadette travel across the country to play a casino in Alice Springs. It’s there Mitzi/Tick reunites with his long-lost wife and the son he’s never met. The musical version has added a few sparkling elements, including three angel-like figures who pop down from the top of the stage and belt out 70s and 80s pop numbers with aplomb, like sparkly muses floating above the performers’ heads. The show’s music is entirely made up of pop-radio favorites, including predictable (if dancey) hits like Madonna’s “Material Girl”, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. As if to emphasize the glam, there’s a huge sparkly shoe, and disco ball, that go into the audience, along with a few pounds of confetti and plenty of risque costumes (yes, bare-bum-exposing), all of which make the show feel less of a theatre piece than a Pride party in the Princess of Wales Theatre. In staid, conservative-theatre-loving Toronto, that can only be a good thing.

Will Swenson gives a tender, touching performance as a man trying to reconcile various aspects of his past and present with his ever-fluid identities -as father, performer, and gay man; his duet with son Benjamin (Luke Mannikus) was genuinely throat-lump inducing, even with the amusing pseudo-Elvis impersonations. “You Were Always On My Mind” feels both camp and touching at once -and it’s rare the two can co-exist peacefully in any cultural moment, let alone in a musical where camp is considered de rigeur. As the catty Felicia, performer Nick Adams ups the camp ante to 100, ferociously throwing out one-line bon mots and dancing like his life depends on it. He proves himself both a huge comic relief and a deeply magnetic stage presence.

Anger, abs, and tears aside, I found Tony Sheldon’s performance as the elder stateswoman of the troupe most moving; he didn’t have the bitter bite of Terence Stamp‘s filmic counterpart (see? comparisons are inevitable!) but instead conveyed a remarkable combination of dignity, warmth, and longing. Having played Bernadette over one thousand times onstage, and with a lengthy list of theatre credits (including performing in works by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim), Sheldon brings a refreshing sense of balance, toning down the campy, outlandish qualities of the show. An older man playing a tranny, toning things down? True. More than anyone, Sheldon clearly conveys the sense of outsider-ness the troupe face in the wider world. Hiding behind big sunglasses, long, blonde hair, and louche outfits a la Lauren Bacall, there’s a remarkable sense of sadness combined with faint vestiges of hope. Sheldon shares a nice chemistry with Canadian actor C. David Johnson (as a kind mechanic), and conveys confident poise, particularly when coming to the defence of Felicia after he’s been beaten up in the tough town of Coober Pedy. Bernadette’s response to a rough cowboy’s rude demand is perfectly executed, and superbly delivered. Ouch.

While it would be easy for the performers to fall back on Thomson’s eye-popping design, but thanks to Phillips’ instinctual direction and the strong chemistry between the three leads, that thankfully doesn’t happen. But it must be said: the set is a magnificent thing to behold, as is that sparkly bus of the title. Designer Thomson borrows liberally from the rock and roll world in his use of LED screens and colour. It was interesting, in watching the show, to see just how much the music-and-theatre worlds collide Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Remnants of past tours involving artists as diverse of Parliament Funkadelic, Madonna, David Bowie, and even U2 were discernible in the set, lighting, and costume design. There is a definite element of rock-pop concert to the proceedings here, adding a party-like atmosphere, and keeping nicely in-step with Mirvish’s other big production, Rock of Ages, which is currently playing down the street.

With gorgeous visuals, jaw-dropping costumes, genuinely joyful performances, energetic choreography, and peppy musical arrangements, one is nudged into the realms of beautiful fantasy here, even as we’re pushed out of that fantasy and shown a much uglier side. The decision to not flinch away from hatred is brave. Showing the nasty lettering that gets spray-painted on the side of Priscilla following a performance the gals give in another small town they travel through allows for a vital bitter edge amidst the sugar. Likewise, keeping the salty language of the film version shows tremendous respect to the source, as well as to the essential nature of the characters being portrayed. Like the movie, the work examines the ugliness of homophobia without dwelling on it. By the end, the definition of ‘family’ -in all its complications and challenges -has been stretched and moulded into something much deeper and wider than any of the characters could’ve imagined at the start. If you’re in Toronto, take your feather boa’d self to the Princess of Wales for some solid, first-rate theatre; if you’re not in Toronto, well… get in that bus. Just remember to bring your dancing shoes.

Photo credits:

Top Photo: Company: Foreground (l to r) Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams in the North American premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical Photo by Joan Marcus.

Middle Photo: Will Swenson and Luke Mannikus in the North American premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bottom Photo: Tony Sheldon as Bernadette by Tristram Kenton.

The Art Of The Duel

Today marks the one-year anniversary of heads, the salon-style speaking event I helped to co-organize. It featured Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy and Chung Wong of Givernation, as well as the first public edition of Art Battle, a competitive event that pitted two painters against one another in a timed event that the public could view and, once the pieces were complete, vote on.

While heads didn’t survive, Art Battle has rocketed into the stratosphere of popularity within Toronto’s cultural community. It’s so popular in fact, that the popular weekly Now Toronto is running a live feed of tonight’s event starting at 8pm ET.

The premise is simple: pit two painters against one another, live, for a specific amount of time (usually twenty minutes). When finished, the observers get to vote on a favorite, which is then auctioned off. The losing painting… can sometimes meet an ugly end. Or not. There are three rounds, and the public has the opportunity of being in one of those rounds. Fun? Scary? Nuts? Brilliant? All of the above.

I had the opportunity of interviewing the co-founders of Art Battle, Simon Plashkes and Chris Pemberton, about the hows and whys around pitting painters (sometimes well-known, sometimes not; sometimes not even painters) against one another in a public arena.

Toronto’s Art Battle by CateKusti

I have to admit, I’ve never been 100% sold on the idea of putting painters within a competitive arena. The very nature of it -people gawking and talking, holding cold beers and varying expectations, combined with the added pressure of an unforgiving stopwatch -means the essential nature of the artist’s output will be vastly different to what they’d produce in an actual studio. But who’s to judge which is better? That’s an interesting question worth exploring. And there is something fortifying about the level of community input and involvement Art Battle has consciously sought. I love the fact that Art Battle has encouraged those who’ve never put brush to canvas before to give it a try (both publicly and not). It’s equally heartening to see the curiosity Torontonians have shown towards Art Battle, rendering it the big success it is now.

Kudos to Simon, Chris, the entire Art Battle team -and not least of all to all the artists, past, present, and future, who continue to re-define that most contentious of words -“art” -and what our relationship to it is. Bravo.

Photo courtesy of Art Battle Toronto.

The Grind

So much seen and done over the past week. Nuit Blanche, the opening of the Canadian Opera Company season, and the Brickworks Picnic within the last few days (to say nothing of the myriad of wonderful people I’ve interviewed on-air recently) … you’d think I’d choose something more timely to write about than a concert that’s still over a month away. But thanks to a fabulous Twitter contact and a bit of online listening (along with a whack of sentimentality), well … sometimes the music chooses us, softly crooning -or in this case, mawkishly shrieking -a chorus of angular ‘musts’ and jagged ‘nows’ -as in, Write Something Now. Sometimes I ignore that call; sometimes I toss away the turgid details of everyday life away and just dance. Then I pour a glass of something wonderful and write.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was not the first band I saw solo -but the first time I saw Nick Cave et al I did happen to be solo. The difference is fine but important. Special is the artist (or collection of artists) that I’ll merrily throw away social anxiety to become purposely lost in the Enchanted Forest of Noise. But Cave is that special breed of artist. Recently I came across a review I breathlessly typed up many moons ago for an international music zine. In those dot-matrix filled pages, I enthused, admired, mused, and wondered at the sonic noise/poetic genius of the Bad Seeds. At the time Nick Cave had a sizeable troupe with him; not only was he joined by original members Mick Harvey, Martyn Casey, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, & the ever-amazing Blixa Bargeld, but he was joined by two musicians who, in retrospect, changed the course of his -and their (and possibly even my) creative output. Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos added a creepy, dramatic, other-worldly feel to an already-raucous musical outfit. I remember beeing especially impressed with Ellis’ stomping and passionate embrace of his violin, conjuring evil, twisted spirits, whacking his instrument’s wooden body and plucking its strings, a possessed look on his (then-handsome) face.

I came away from the evening with a wholly new appreciation of musicianship, the art of the band as a concept, and the joy of spontaneously solo-show-going. There was something about being alone that rendered me much more open to everything. It was as if my aural/emotional/spiritual absorbative powers increased twenty-fold. And, as a woman, I was suddenly free to expore -and embrace -the amazing power of my own aggression within a positive context. Even now, more than a decade later, that night lives within me. And re-reading my young and breathless review makes me want to step out of my grown-upish, self-imposed (and kind of boring) safety zone, even just for one night, to jump and dance through that mad forest of sonic mayhem again.

The internet gods seems to be with me. A few nights ago, I engaged in an online conversation about Cave’s other band, Grinderman, and the wonders of their live set. I’d been debating going to Grinderman’s concert here in Toronto in November. There are so many “unlike” factors: I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, and I most definitely don’t like being pushed and shoved. My short stature renders me a near-target for boots-in-the-head and obnoxious tall people who can’t dance standing in front of me. That’s to say nothing of the wild, horrific social anxiety I feel when entering a club gig alone -it’s like there’s a sticker on my head reading”Lone Thirty-Something Woman Lacking A Relationship.” I bring little but my opinions and big hair; the heels stay firmly in the closet. But social anxiety and the fear of being judged melt away like butter in a hot frying pan the minute an artist (or group of artists) I love takes to the stage. The magical, and frankly, sexy melange of lights, costumes, body language, sound, and frankly, the knowledge there’s a few hundred (or thousand) sweaty bodies behind me is, all together, deeply, almost dangerously intoxicating. I wind up staying awake long after such experiences, staring out windows, drawing, sipping wines and trying not to leap to easy definitions or categories. Some experiences are too deep for that.

But try my darndest I did back when I first saw the Bad Seeds. That sense of joy, that freedom, that wiping away of time and space and social anxieties … they touch on something profound about the power of art, and the role it plays in shaping identities. I think I’ll go see Grinderman. Maybe I’ll write a breathy blog. Or maybe, this time, I’ll savour the experience like a tasty, sweet bonbon enjoyed in a dark, silent room. Either way, being a part of the magical sound of Nick Cave and (as I put it in 1998) his “band of unmerry men” will always be a treat. I may not be able to come down and write about it for a while, though. And that’s probably a good thing.

TED’s My X -Or Not.

The famed TED has come to Toronto -or rather, it did last year, in “X” form. Those who’ve attended Idea City for a while might argue the brainy TED idea arrived in this city a long time ago -but as Dan Jacob pointed out to me in a recent broadcast chat, TEDx Toronto is a free event. Free, if also chosen by committee.

Jacob is the co-founder of TEDx Toronto, happening Thursday. Attendance to the conference is free, but potential attendees had to fill out a questionnaire and prove why they should be there. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of this being any less elite than a hefty price tag, but taking a look at the eclectic roster of speakers, it must be conceded that the event is truly a good-hearted, well-intended celebration of Toronto in all its various shades and angles. Why would you want people there who only know how to draw in one colour (or worse, can’t draw at all?) There’s a poet, a playwright, a CEO, an author, an adventurer… and much more. The frisson of creative, seeming-opposites in a room-full of young, curious people committed to ideological exploration feels like it might produce something… good.

Speaking with Jacob was a fantastic experience, especially since (big reveal) I have attended Idea City in the past, and been invited to a TED in the United States. I’m always intrigued by why people want to jump, feet first, into such a heady (or seemingly-heady) event. The young co-founder was clear about the intentions behind starting TEDx here, and about why the city needed it. I admire his bright-eyed optimism and open embrace of the unknown -I’m sure those qualities have -and will -colour TEDx Toronto.

TEDX Toronto, Two Years On by CateKusti

On the outside, sure these kinds of conferences do seem like a bunch of geeks (or snoots, or hipsters, or all three) talking about SEO and online ventures, and throwing around buzzwords like social engineering and crowdsourcing. Occasionally, they are -but more often, they’re not. And the theme of this year’s TEDx Toronto conference might pull you away from that horn-rimmed/I-pod-toting/American-Apparel-wearing stereotype; it’s called “A Call To Action” -and the breadth of speakers Jacob has lined up feels like a fulfillment of that call. I think Jacob’s answers will surprise and inspire, just like the event itself will for those lucky enough to be going.

For those who aren’t, video from the conference will be posted soon. Hold your TEDs -not your noses. It doesn’t cost anything to get a bigger brain.

Inside Looking Out

The latest offering from Soulpepper Theatre Company‘s venerable Academy is the lovely, whimsical work Window on Toronto. With a mix of movement, dialogue, and music, the show is a brisk 50-minute dip into the world of the Big Smoke through the eyes -make that window -of a hot dog vendor parked at Toronto’s City Hall.

While director Laszlo Marton states in the program notes that “I love Toronto” and the show has its focus in the Canadian city, in watching the work, it’s entirely conceivable that the series of scenes and vignettes presented could be from any large urban area. There’s a beautiful universality to the range of people and experiences that Marton and the Academy present to us, from the surreal to the gross to the touching; everything one might experience over the course of a day, a month, a year, in a city is here, if only we look.

A big part of this emotional resonance comes from the huge range of characters the eight-member troupe play: flirty girls, corporate Bay Street types, homeless people, workmen, yuppies, activists, musicians, immigrants, eccentrics, even friendly fast-food competition. They’re all here, refreshingly free of predictable stereotypes. The choice of using the music of Aram Khachaturian further conveys the international flavour of the work. After all, there are any number of local, beloved bands that could’ve stepped up (Broken Social Scene, anyone?) but with Marton at the helm, Window On Toronto takes on a uniquely worldly air. Yes, it is intended to be squarely in Toronto, but… it’s really everywhere.

The show maintains the Hungarian director’s European flair for timeless imprecision -which, in turn, gives Toronto a kind of European quality (take that, Montreal!). The famous “Saber Dance” is played a few times as cast members hurriedly move back and forth, in circles, up, down, and whirling into pace, within the frame of the vendor’s window, though the show starts simply enough, with raindrops covering the window. Marton adds a nice, meta-theatrical touch, by having the vendor himself (Jason Patrick Rothery, named, appropriately, “Jason”) sit in the front row seat, in effect becoming the audience to a continuous cavalcade of drama, comedy, and absurdity that unfolds before him over the course of a year.

That cavalcade includes a series of recurring, and deeply fascinating, characters. These include a Korean immigrant (played by Ins Choi) who befriends the vendor, and regularly comes around, first to introduce his wife, and later, his baby. There’s a braided flirty girl who loves sauerkraut (Karen Rae). There’s a quietly menacing man on a bike who comes to the window, looks around the window, silently takes notes, and rides off (Gregory Prest). There’s a lawyer-type who keeps our fearless vendor apprised of the ever-changing social situation, and leaves with a mantra-like “call me!” (Brendan Wall). There’s a hungry-looking woman in a hijab with a baby in her arms (Tatjana Cornij). There’s a protestor with hurting eyes (Ryan Field). There’s a potential love interest (Raquel Duffy) whose own pregnancy offers a quietly poignant moment. There’s a gay couple (who display remarkable “skating” skills during the winter scene, which comes complete with Strauss music to accompany). There are also impressive musical interludes performed by the cast. Touching on mime and even commedia traditions, these interludes aren’t so much diversions as they are vignettes in and of themselves. The play of colour, light, and shadow in these moments is truly inspiring, and offers some poetic grace amidst the urban hustle, in the same way that stopping and sitting on a park bench in Nathan Phillips Square -or any piazza – might.

Director Marton, together with designer Ken Mackenzie, gracefully make use of the small square in the middle of the stage, utilizing all manner of colour, texture, light, and shape. Faces, bodies, and various objects (except, interestingly, food or money) are placed in and around the frame, offering us a small peek at the world. White gloves pop up in one vignette, with thumbs and forefingers acting as hungry mouths. Eyes peek from around the top sides. What’s shown is every bit as interesting as what isn’t; bikes go by, people rollerblade, there are shouts and laughs and various bits of drama that remind us about all the untold stories in any given urban area. With one small window, Mackenzie effectively conveys the vast expanse of the space around City Hall through one heck of a great design that incorporates a number of different elements. For instance, when a piano is (mistakenly) delivered to the vendor, it’s conveniently used in that particular vignette, and in subsequent scenes, both within and without the frame proper. Its music echoes past the walls of the set, going past a visual experience of theatre and embracing an intimate aural one. Never has the music of the city seemed so obvious or lovely.

Along with noise and energy, there are moments of quiet and contemplation. There’s something enchanting in these moments -past the comedy, the chaos, and the bustle. It’s like a reminder to all of us who rush between emails, Starbucks, meetings, and bars: just stop, sit, listen, and look at the world around you. Maybe you’ll chomp on a hot dog. Listen, look, feel. It’s so simple. That is the magic of Window On Toronto, and indeed, of urban life everywhere.

Production pho
to (middle) by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Starry Night

Considering Toronto is cold at least half the year (if not more), anytime there’s an opportunity to get outside, in the nice weather, to … do stuff (read: anything!)… us locals take it. We’ll even sit on a beach that isn’t a real beach.

One of these carpe-diem-esque activities in watching movies out of doors. True, other locations around the city have had this very-same activity -including screenings at the loud and cruelly bright (and equally chaotic and utterly manky) Yonge-Dundas Square. I love Y-D Square for live music shows and some other live events (World Cup time is always interesting… if a bit dangerous if you’re a small woman) but for movies? Hmm. Would it be silly of me to want something intimate in an outdoor arena? Or is that being a bit… outre?

Enter Open Roof Films. Started by a group of art-minded Torontonians (including Michael MacMillan, former Executive Chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis), the series has a special focus on showcasing Canadian talent, as well as building community among the vast network of Toronto’s numerous cultural and economic pseudo-villages. I interviewed one of the founders of this newly-minted series a couple weeks back on the radio, and during that interview I was told the series is based on a similar idea out of New York City, and arose from that, as well as casual conversations between people who just… love movies (a lot), and, like me, were seeking a way of bringing people with similar passions together. Seated in a group, illuminated by a screen’s glow and a canopy of stars, one becomes enraptured with the night, the sound, the music, and the crowd. Really, you can’t much more intimate.

Part of what gives the Open Roof Film series this special brand of intimacy is its location; situated in the parking lot of a local brewery, the space is nestled between a raised highway (and Lake Ontario) to the south (and yes, you can actually see the lake), the thick-set brick building of the Amsterdam Brewery to the West, and a massive screen and sound system to the north . The East opens to the spectacular light show of the CN Tower and the cluster of skyscraper in the financial district. You’re close enough to the lake that you can actually see stars when the sky darkens. A gaggle of portable chairs is set up where the seriously filmy-minded can situate themselves, while a wide bar runs the length of space at the back, for the more social among us. It’s a nice set-up that encourages interaction and conversation, while providing a respectful option for those who want to sit and concentrate.

Not that there was a whole lot of that happening the night I attended. This Movie Is Broken, the film featuring band Broken Social Scene, was being screened, and the evening had the distinct feel of a gigantic party, much like the band’s own concerts. Observing the crowd swaying and smiling (some even danced), I couldn’t help but wonder how many had (or hadn’t) gone to see Bruce MacDonald’s movie when it was shown in a cinema proper. How much did being outside on a beautiful summer night influence their decision to see it? To go to a place where they could drink beer, smoke, dance with their girl/boyfriends, and laugh and chat with their friends? Probably a whole lot.

This Movie Is Broken is just the sort of film that was perfect for an outdoor film series; with a romantic storyline interspersed with some genuinely excellent concert footage (taken from a Toronto show last year), MacDonald’s dreamy, gorgeous homage to love and music was a genius choice to play at Open Roof Films, and a great example of the power of outdoor event to draw disparate group of people together. While the age of attendees ranged from anywhere between 25 and 40, there was no “average” anything (other than the challenging parking, which is de rigeur in Toronto, alas). There was a nice casual vibe to the entire evening, even though the audience maintained a respectful (ahem, Canadian) silence through much of the movie’s running time.

It was interesting when, peeking through the brewery windows (that lead to the loos) at one point, seeing the tiny dots of enraptured faces sitting mute and staring at a screen as the CN Tower flashed sades of blue and red past them. It says something about the power of cinema, music, and togetherness that simply can’t be replicated in a multiplex. Combined with the gorgeous after-film visuals of artist Brian T. Moore and the shining skyline, one couldn’t help but be intoxicated. Noise, motion, light, stillness, silence -and lots of gravel: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful romance… or maybe a re-introduction to an old lover -movie-going -I thought I’d forgotten the smell and taste and touch of. What bliss.

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