Newton throws a bang-up birthday party

Ask Newton Moraes — celebrating 25 years of the company that bears his name — how he got into dance in Brazil and the first word that comes out of his mouth is “Bob”. By that he means the late Bob Shirley, an anthropologist from the University of Toronto whose studies were concentrated in Brazil.

“I met Bob in 1985. I was studying physical education at Unisinos University in Porto Alegre.” They became friends and later, partners. Moraes, who had done some samba dancing, admired a company called Ballet Phoenix. “He said, ‘Why don’t you start taking class with them? So I did and I took some jazz and some ballet classes.”

He recalls with fondness the 86-year-old dancer, Tony Petzholds, who taught the ballet classes. “She was a fabulous dancer. She was doing a penché and I couldn’t believe this woman had her leg up here (he demonstrates). ‘This is how it is supposed to be done,’ she said. Even the dancers in the company would look at her and say, ‘holy fuck’.”

While still living in Porto Alegre Moraes also took lessons from a jazz dancer, Annette Lubisco. Three years after meeting Newton, Bob had to return to his job at U of T. But the two kept in touch. By 1991, Moraes was dancing in Porto Alegre and even teaching. On a visit, Bob said, “Newton, you are very talented. I should take you to Canada. Believe me, you are going to love it.”

So in 1991, with minimal dance experience, no English and few prospects for work, Newton — thanks to a letter Bob wrote to immigration authorities – was granted a visa and moved in with the anthropology professor in Toronto. Right away he enrolled in English classes during the day and dance classes at Toronto Dance Theatre at night. He auditioned for the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and in 1992 was accepted. Then, like a hot wind in winter, Newton Moraes burst upon the dance scene.

“Six months later, I was on stage.” Toronto Dance Theatre was performing Court of Miracles at the Premiere Dance Theatre (now the Fleck) and they brought in students, including the first-year men, to fill out the cast. “There I was performing with Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo.”

Students at the TDT School were encouraged to create. “I started to make my little choreographies for the student shows at the Coffee House. And Trish Beatty said, ‘You have something to share: carry on.’ ”

By 1994, with Bob Shirley’s assistance, Newton and the students mounted a show at the George Ignatieff Theatre on the UofT campus. It was all free and the theatre was packed. Soon, he was dancing at the Fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists and even got a gig at the Music Gallery. The first time I saw Newton dance, it was a solo based on his batuque religion. Scantily clad, moving slowly and deliberately on the FfIDA stage, he was spellbinding, doing something I had never seen before.

More lessons, in jazz, invitations to perform at German festivals, a stint at York University and more networking led to the formation of Newton Moraes Dance Theatre presenting its first show May 22 and 23, 1997. The company continued into the new millennium, funded through a combination of Bob’s generosity, government grants, teaching classes in Afro-Brazilian dance and Newton’s willingness to take on day jobs, usually as a cleaner.

Over the years, Newton Moraes Dance Theatre has employed dozens of dancers and given work to outstanding dance professionals, including Sharon DiGenova, lighting designer for the anniversary show Life Under My Skin. His Brazilian influences and dance foundation have always been detectable in his choreography, especially in works such as Brazil: The Land of Tears and Soul, from 2013. Nevertheless, Moraes credits major mentors such as Denise Fujiwara, Danny Grossman and choreographer/dancer Jean Sasportes, the long-time Pina Bausch associate, for his growth as a choreographer.

Life Under My Skin has been in development for months. Collaborating with composer Edgardo Moreno and the troupe of eight dancers, Newton built a dance that asks the universal questions about why artists are forced to create and how they survive when money is scarce. Questions Newton himself knows the answers to. Funding from the Toronto Arts council, Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts has also enabled the creation of a documentary film about the company. It’s going to be a bang-up birthday for Newton Moraes Dance Theatre.

Life Under My Skin

By Newton Moraes Dance Theatre

Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, 8 pm, November 24-26, 2022

Photo of dancers Maggie Armstrong, Daniela Carmona, Emilio Colalillo, Rumi Jeraj, Aryana Malekzadeh, Jianna Neufeld, Andrea Rojas, Brendan De Santis by David Hou.

Kaeja d’Dance going strong and stronger at 31

“Kaeja d’Dance is driven by a commitment to innovation in the performing arts through the expression of dance and gesture. We explore identity, personal stories and the complexity of the human experience . . . [through] mediums of live performance, dance film and community engagement.”

The mission statement is no mere window-dressing. On the 31st anniversary of the company they formed, in the 37th year of their relationship, Allen and Karen Kaeja are innovating as much as ever. For this dance company, curiosity and imagination have allowed the participants – dancers, composers, filmmakers and directors always their co-creators – to evolve according to the opportunities presented to them.

From November 11 to 13 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Kaeja d’Dance presents 31, a double bill that in several ways sums up the themes and direction the company has taken since its founding. In both pieces – Allen’s I am the Child of… and Karen’s TouchX – it is possible to see the fruits of a commitment to innovation and community involvement.

On Zoom from their home in Toronto, the married couple, parents to 29-year-old Aniya and 24-year-old Mika, give a clear account of how they got to this production.

Speaking about innovation, Allen, who came to dance through the martial arts, says of 31, “we are the first dance company in Canada to fully integrate immersive AR in a dance stage production. And Karen’s work is totally cutting edge in the integration of community and professional dancers.”

If there’s a rough division of labour here, Allen’s focus has been on making dance film and technological innovation, Karen’s on collaborating with community. Both have been heavily involved in dance training, which is an ongoing practice for the company, offering workshops to schools, professional dancers and individuals with no prior dance training. As co-artistic creators, they’ve racked up more than forty awards, created more than 200 original works and 35 dance films. They’ve also published EXPRESS DANCE: Educators’ Resource to Teaching Dance.

“We have worked with hundreds and hundreds of dancers over the 31 years. People who brought their beautiful talents to our work,” says Karen. The annual summer series Porch View Dances, inaugurated in 2012, is an example of the meaningful community engagement the Kaejas strive for.

After turning the porches and front yards of Toronto’s Seaton Village into outdoor stages, Porch View has also expanded to other cities. The project, says Karen, is about “honouring people who live in the community we’re working with, revealing the stories that live in the houses and bringing those stories alive on the front porches and front yards, working with professional choreographers.“ The format involves a tour guide who leads the audience around the neighbourhood telling stories from the area, “some true, some less true.”

The development, over seven years, of TouchX is allied to Karen’s work with communities. “It is based on an exploration of touch in all its fabulous and not so fabulous aspects. The fragility of touch, the agency of touch, the wanted touch, the unwanted touch and all the different kinds of responses that touch can evoke.” A late arrival to dance, Karen was drawn to its sensorial aspects at age 18. She alludes to childhood trauma when she talks about how enrolment in York University’s dance program led to a fascination with improvisation and contact dance.

For TouchX, Karen invited different generations of community participant dancers to join the professional dancers on stage. Needless to say, the pandemic, with its enforced social distancing shed a new light on the importance of touch in all our lives. “It’s great,” says Karen of COVID strictures, “because it’s pushed the work. It’s been wonderfully challenging.”

I am the Child of … had its genesis in a Facebook post Allen put up in 2015, reacting to the Harper government’s determination to stop middle eastern refugees from coming to Canada. “I am the child of a refugee,” it was titled. Allen told the story of his father, Morton Norris, a holocaust survivor whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He sought to enter Canada and a cousin warned him, “They don’t want our kind here.” But when the government of that day fell, Allen’s father was admitted to Canada. His story exemplifies the value that refugees bring to whatever country they land in. “What do refugees do? My father built a world; he built a community; he made a new family. He was made an honorary police officer because of his work in the community.”

Bruce Barton, a performance director, dramaturg and creator based in Calgary, has worked with Allen Kaeja on five productions. With I am the Child of… they have been co-creators from the outset of workshops and residencies that built the show, which engages 13 dancers, eight live and on stage, five who exist in augmented reality. Audience members for Child are encouraged to bring their devices, for an enhanced experience of the show.

The Kaejas had experimented with AR for a site-specific commission from ArtworxTO that had to go virtual after a new wave of COVID imposed lockdowns. But for this show, says Barton, he and Allen were entering uncharted territory: creating the appearance of live and AR dancers interacting on stage.

“We had to be sure that the AR aspects were thoroughly integrated thematically into the piece, and not just a novelty,” says Barton, who with his partner Pil Hansen (one of Karen’s dramaturgs for TouchX) is an artistic director of Vertical City Performance. To achieve this goal, they engaged Toasterlab, a Toronto-based outfit with experience in using “extended reality” in performance. Edgardo Moreno, who has been composing sound and music for Kaeja d’Dance for thirty years, has created a soundscape for Child that employs the performers voices in speech and song, with no instrumentation.

Allen’s genius, Barton says, is in creating a framework for the dancers to explore different themes in the piece, one of which is “how we connect, or fail to connect, with one another through the stories we tell about ourselves.” (See links below to trailers.)

So, much to celebrate. And when asked what they are looking forward to as Kaeja d’Dance heads into the future, both artistic directors are pretty sure they won’t run out of ideas. What’s more, says Karen, it is vital to engage with younger generations, as the company tends to do.

“Thank goodness for them,” she notes, “because we more mature artists have a lot to learn from their new thinking.”

Kaeja d’Dance: 31 (TouchX + I am the Child of …)

November 11 and 12 at 7:30 pm, Nov. 13 at 2 pm

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

Links to trailers:

Photo of I am the Child of…: Aria Evans, Karen Kaeja, Ethan Kim, Geanderson Mello, Mio Sakamoto

Photographer: Kevin Jones

Fall for Dance North takes over Toronto

Nothing says accessible more enticingly than a $15 ticket to a live performance. That price point is the key to the success of Fall for Dance North, as it launches its eighth festival (September 17 to October 8) across multiple venues indoors and out, live and digital, diverse as dance can be in form and artistic origins.

Fall for Dance North (FFDN) is modelled on New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival, which began in 2004, and like that festival is designed to build new audiences for dance. But says FFDN artistic director Ilter Ibrahimof, the Toronto festival has developed its own identity, both commissioning new work and drawing on partnerships — this year with 13 arts organizations — to present three weeks of dance – a huge growth from the initial three-day event held in Toronto’s Meridian Hall.

This year’s festival marks a return to live performances after two years of pandemic restrictions. It’s what motivates Ibrahimof, a theatre person from his earliest awareness, growing up in Istanbul. “Wwe’re bringing people closer to these amazing performers who are magicians and athletes and superheroes. To put that dedication to performance and artistry and beauty in front of people is very exciting.”

Yet the pandemic prompted innovation for FFDN, allowing programming to expand digitally with livestream events, film, podcasts and to introduce outdoor presentations, all featured in this year’s festival.

Heirloom, the outdoor performance series inaugurated last year, launches the fest this year with a high-energy display of dance, juggling and sleight-of-hand magic entitled In Blue Rooms. Choreographers Zack Martel and Santiago Rivera both have training in circus arts and their show, performed by four accomplished Montreal jugglers and dancers, is bound to bombard the senses. Musicians Michael Bridge (accordion), Daniel Hamin Go (cello) and Brad Cherwin (clarinet) accompany the dancers live in what is described as “witty repartee between music and physical storytelling.” Heirloom plays at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on Sept. 17, the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto on Sept. 20, the Leacock Museum in Orillia on Sept. 22 and the Peterborough Square courtyard on September 25.

On the mainstage at Meridian Hall, from Oct. 6 to 8, the FFDN signature program Arise promises to be an exciting and eclectic feast of movement and music. Softly Losing, Softly Gaining, a commissioned piece from Toronto tap choreographer Dianne Montgomery is up first, followed by Kau Hea A Hiiaka a work based on traditional Hawaiian hula created by Honolulu artist Kaleo Trinidad. The second half of the evening leads off with a screening of Zipangu, a short film by Michael Greyeyes, accompanied by the Soundstreams’ Ensemble. The grand finale is the title work, Arise, a ballet created by Jera Wolfe, performed by 110 students from Canada’s National Ballet School.

Phoenix-based Indigenous Enterprise performs the Canadian premiere of Indigenous Liberation on Oct. 7 and 8 in the Theatre at the Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University. Combining traditional pow-wow dancing with video, feather- and beadwork for a jubilant performance from seven Indigenous creators Indigenous Liberation aims to inspire and herald a time of reconciliation.

More dance discoveries await night owls who take in three different Night Shift programs from Sept. 29 to Oct.1 at the Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance on Parliament St. in Toronto. Produced by Citadel + Compagnie and co-presented with FFDN, Night Shift showcases nine world premieres from a diverse group of Ontario dancers.

FFDN 2021-2022 artists-in-residence Natasha Powell and Kimberley Cooper are behind three shows of jazz dance and music at the Theatre of the Creative School (Sept. 30 to Oct. 2). Powell and an all-female cast premiere Margarita, an homage to old-time chorus girls and Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks perform Cooper’s Family of Jazz. After each show, audience members are invited to join the dancers and musicians on stage for a round of social dancing.

And there’s much more in this full-immersion dance festival. 8-Count, a short dance film series screens Sept. 23 and 24 and on Oct. 3 at Meridian Hall, FFDN presents Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas, a documentary film about the making of the extraordinary ballet made for the National Ballet of Canada. Union Station is the setting for The Big Social; admission is free for a lindy-hop and jazz dance workshop followed by social dancing. A lunchtime preview and background discussion of Indigenous Liberation at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Oct. 6 is also free.

Program details, festival packages and single tickets are available at

Photo by Bruce Zinger: Arise by Jera Wolfe


CORPUS, moving, moves us

Singing in five-part harmony, making the music of the spheres, the five singing goddesses proceeding along Toronto’s Esplanade were a welcome sight for bystanders on May 25. This was the premiere of Divine Interventions, the latest production from CORPUS.

“There comes a time in every story when it feels like hope is lost,” states the introduction on the company website. “Everything is going wrong, all options have been exhausted, and the only thing left to do is pray for divine interventions.” That’s a sentiment most of us who’ve lived through the COVID-19 pandemic can relate to.

“We’ve been working on this piece for two years,” says artistic director and CORPUS co-founder David Danzon. That means in lockdown and rehearsing in masks. Danzon commissioned composer Anika Johnson to create new songs that form the score sung by Barbara Fulton, TrudyLee Gayle, Barbara Johnston, Tracy Michailidis and Michelle Yu. Choreographer Bonnie Kim and company member Matthew O’Connor collaborated with Danzon to achieve a trademark CORPUS spectacle — surrealism, delivered with wit and whimsy.

“They are five really talented, amazing singers, who also happen to be great movers,” says Danzon. They sang a capella, on and off their tricycle, winding up in the courtyard at Berkeley Castle at the end of the Esplanade. The four nights of the Toronto processional show found audiences eager for joyful and meaningful human interaction.

This spring and summer CORPUS is back on the road after a two-year hiatus, with engagements in San Diego, Norway, Sweden, Germany and France before returning to Canada for an August gig in Quebec. Among the shows they’re touring is the enduring Les Moutons, first seen in a Toronto park in 2003. You can get a taste of it in this video: Les moutons – Corpus Dance Projects

One might say Danzon, who was born in France, has come full circle since co-founding CORPUS with Dusk Dances artistic director Sylvie Bouchard in 1997. They arrived on the scene in 1996, creating A Flock of Flyers, for Dusk Dances. The premise was playful: “Due to severe budget cutbacks, the 217th Canadian Flying Squadron has been left without any planes . . .” Danzon, in the part of squadron leader, led the performers, costumed in leather helmets like World War I flying aces, in a show of a kind never seen before in Toronto. You can watch it here:

Danzon moved to Toronto with his parents and brother when he was 15. After the family returned to France, he remained and after high school enrolled in York University’s theatre program. But he was not destined for the indoor stage. “It’s a curious thing, he says of his career path. “I grew up on street theatre, because I had an aunt who was part of a well known Paris theatre company in the 70s and 80s. They were doing a lot of street performances in France. In the 60s there was a big thing about taking theatre outside the traditional four walls; a lot of festivals developed and it became a kind of form unto itself.”

Danzon has been leading CORPUS tours abroad since the early 2000s. This year company will go back to Japan, a country among the 34 they’ve performed in where they are particularly popular. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of street festivals in Europe in the summer, says Danzon. Plenty to keep inspiring this street artist extraordinaire.

Photos, courtesy CORPUS, from left: A Flock of Flyers, Divine Interventions, La Bulle

Prudence and Ron: a winning combination

Priscilla Tempest. Remember that name: you are going to be hearing more from this 20-something publicist for The Savoy hotel, given her tendency to be on the scene when dead bodies are found on the premises.

Priscilla is the protagonist of Death at the Savoy, a murder mystery co-authored by Ron Base and Prudence Emery. It is out this month from Douglas & McIntyre and readers are bound to be hooked. The second Priscilla Tempest mystery, Scandal at the Savoy, is already written and a third is underway.

An intrepid Canadian who lands herself a job as press liaison at London’s famous Savoy hotel in the 1960s, Priscilla was born out of Prudence Emery’s memoir Nanaimo Girl, published by Cormorant Books in 2020.

“Ron called me after he’d read Nanaimo Girl and said he thought the Savoy section could be the makings of a good mystery,” says Emery, sitting in her Victoria BC living-room. Base was a young freelance writer in the 1970s when Prudence used to call him up from various movie sets and offer him interviews with big stars. Later, he became the Toronto Star’s movie critic, took a turn in LA as a scriptwriter and began writing novels, publishing Magic Man with St. Martin’s Press in 2006.

Base, now author of a 13-book series featuring The Sanibel Sunset Detective (West-End Books), recalls how Nanaimo Girl’s adventures at the Savoy inspired him. “I had no idea Prudence led such a glamorous life during those five years [1968 to 1973] at the Savoy. I thought, plucky heroine working in the press office, celebrities, dead bodies in the hotel — that could really work.”

So he called and said, “How would you like to collaborate on a mystery novel with me?” On the other end of the line, Prudence wasn’t so sure. “My first instinct was to say no, because a murder mystery is not like a memoir where you have all the material; it takes a lot of imagination and cleverness to plot. But then I thought, well why not?”

And so Priscilla took shape (Prudence came up with the first name and Ron came up with Tempest), Ron imagining and plotting and Prudence verifying or suggesting details and plot twists. And so, with a little help from Zoom, two old pals have been co-writing a book while living 3,000 kilometres apart.

“Prudence and I always had a great rapport,” says Ron. “She dragged me all over the place: a snowbank in Barkerville with Rod Steiger (Klondike Fever); to Israel for the filming of It Rained All Night the Day I Left with Tony Curtis; and she got me kissed by Ann-Margret (Middle Age Crazy).

Collaboration, new to both authors, was a matter of rekindling their long-time rapport, says Base. “Prudence was the guardian of all things Savoy. Anything we couldn’t get squared away, Prudence had people who could help us. When it came to the Colonel Mustard-candlestick-in-the-library stuff, I knew what to do. But the original plot, and the idea of poisoning was hers.

“This became a great collaboration. I would send her pages and she would send them back. Basically it was a lot of fun and I never think of writing novels as fun.” No surprise that the Ponti company has optioned film and TV rights for Death at the Savoy and agent Bill Hanna has secured a two-book audiobook deal for the authors.

Most fun for the reader are the celebrity characters in Death at the Savoy, all of the real personages now dead. Noël Coward, who befriends Priscilla, plays a crucial role in the plot. Richard Burton makes drunken advances to Priscilla in the back of a Rolls Royce, in between drunken arguments with Elizabeth Taylor. Princess Margaret doesn’t actually make an appearance, but her assignations at the Savoy are crucial to the murder plot.

But, hey, no spoilers here. You’ll just have to buy the book.

Death at the Savoy; A Priscilla Tempest Mystery

By Ron Base and Prudence Emery

Douglas & McIntyre, $18.95

Photo of Prudence Emery by Sara Matthews; Ron Base photo by Katherine Lenhoff

The Miserere Project

In 1981 David Earle created a dance inspired by Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei Deus, composed in 1638 for services in the Sistine Chapel. Miserere was first performed by Toronto Dance Theatre, the company founded by Earle, Peter Randazzo and Patricia Beatty, as part of a program entitled Exit, Nightfall, Miserere.

Danielle Baskerville, inspired by Earle’s choreography, which is set to the profoundly moving choral piece, has produced The Miserere Project for Citadel + Compagnie’s Bright Nights series. She commissioned three choreographers to reinterpret Earle’s piece and Earle recast the work himself. The 90-minute show, available as a livestream recording through May 23, is pretty dazzling.

Earle’s reimagining of his own choreography compresses the original in a dance performed by Sierra Chin Sawdy, Robert Kingsbury, Anh Nguyen, Bee Pallomina and Evadne Kelly. The dancers move in sync, often clasping hands as one beautifully transforming unit of five.

As with the original, Earle choreographs a piece of architecture, the movements slow and deliberate, but mesmerizing. The contrapuntal structure of the music, performed by two choirs of four and five singers respectively, is echoed in the formations that call to mind a cathedral dome, angels and prayer. These dancers — at one point on the floor to create a five-point star — are well rehearsed and interpret the music with all the solemnity and celebration it deserves. The piece is true to Earle’s desire to pass on learning and training: “I was fortunate to see many strong works by such luminaries as Martha Graham and José Limon in my first years as a creator.”

Baskerville called on Penny Couchie, an Anishinaabe dancer and choreographer whose ancestry is the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, as the second interpreter of Earle’s piece. Couchie made a dance film featuring herself, Sid Bobb, Animikiikwe Couchie-Waukey, Michaela Washburn and Christine Friday.

The film opens and closes on an overhead shot of the four dancers in winter wear sprawled on the surface of a frozen lake. A voiceover narration accompanies the film, the choral music serving as a score to a series of solos. “Love fights” is the title and the refrain in a poetic recitation of historic struggle: “A war was waged against our people . . . I engage in rage,” a female voice intones.  One woman dancer does a solo waist deep in lake water, throwing up a fantail of water with her head. Another solo involves a slow slide into the water’s edge from a bank of crusty, melting snow. Couchie’s theme is consistent with Earle’s intentions: united we stand; divided we fall.

Brodie Stevenson, an accomplished dancer and choreographer from British Columbia, choreographed “Inter Alios,” performed by Drew Berry, Sierra Chin Sawdy, Irvin Chow, Connor Mitton and Tyra Temple Smith. This Miserere is an intelligent response to Earle’s show in the broad context of modern dance. The dancers, in blue, black and white costumes and stocking feet, make an impersonation of the music, in strong, tight formations such as one in which the dancers form crucifix shapes on the floor. As with the original Miserere, we get the feeling of a quintet of dancers embodying one transforming creature.

The collective Same as Sister (S.A.S), based in Toronto and New York City, comprises Toronto-born sisters Briana Brown-Tipley and Hilary Brown-Istrefi. They created “This is NOT a Remount.” It’s difficult to comprehend this interdisciplinary collage meant to be a behind-the-scenes look at Miserere. But perhaps the salient point behind this hodgepodge of video and live performance from talking dancers is that Earle’s original dance was made for 15 dancers, three of whom later died of AIDS-related causes.

In any case, The Miserere Project is a fascinating dance endeavour that one hopes will not die with this month’s performance at the Citadel.

The Miserere Project

Produced by Danielle Baskerville for Citadel + Compagnie

May 18 to 23, 2022

Photo of Brodie Stevenson’s “Inter Alios” courtesy of Citadel + Compagnie


Serge Bennathan: Paintings for the Soul

A broad, enticing smile is Serge Bennathan’s default expression. I beam back when we meet at a Broadway intersection in Vancouver. Bennathan, best known as a choreographer, has more than dance on his mind these days.

For the last several years, this jack of all arts has been turning out beautiful, intriguing and alluring watercolour paintings and showing them on his website.

It all began, says Bennathan, at the time when he was artistic director of Dancemakers. He got into the habit of writing, in a poetic way, and sketching when creating new dance works. He took his talent public for the first time in 1999, with a little book featuring an amusing cartoon character, The Other Moon of Mr. Figlio.

Becoming a full-time visual artist, Bennathan says in his delicious French accent, was an organic process. Nothing in a long career in the performing arts – he is still active in his choreographic work for the world’s major opera companies – was pre-planned.

Born in the village of L’Aigle in Normandy in 1957, Bennathan first saw an occupation for himself when his parents took him to see an operetta. Encouraged to learn dancing, he took his first ballet lesson in 1966, the only boy in his class. Bennathan’s father was in the military and the family moved frequently, but talented teachers were available in locations as disparate as Perpignan and Paris. Young Serge was curious enough to seize an opportunity whenever he saw one.

One day in 1975 in Paris, after being publicly admonished by his ballet teacher for arriving late prior to the end-of-year recital, Bennathan happened to notice a sign saying Roland Petit was auditioning new dancers for the Ballet National de Marseille. Only three dancers would be chosen from a field of 200 applicants. Serge was confident he’d make the cut. He didn’t. Shocked, he waited behind after all the other dancers had left the rehearsal hall. “Roland looked at me and said, ‘come, I’ll take you.’ ” To this day, Bennathan doesn’t know why. “I had a bad technique but I could jump really high. Roland would come close to me and say ‘Saute, saute’ and I would jump, with my hair flying.”

Bennathan’s first visit to Canada was on a tour with Ballet Marseille. Karen Kain was one of the guest artists they employed in the cities they visited. Petit encouraged Bennathan to be a choreographer, but when a dance he created did not get budgeted to include his preferred, Bennathan decided to leave. Invited by Rosella Hightower to take up a creative residence in Cannes, he settled there and later started his own company. After money troubles closed the company, Bennathan chose to immigrate to Canada. He arrived in Montreal in 1985 with a suitcase and a thousand dollars.

Luck and sharpened instincts took him like the wind from Montreal to Ottawa, where he had a very fruitful time with La Groupe de la Place Royale, to Vancouver and to Toronto to head up Dancemakers, where he served as artistic director from 1990 to 2006. When it was time to leave, he returned to Vancouver, creating dances as an independent choreographer under the name Les Productions Figlio.

Serge’s Vancouver bedroom serves as his painting studio.  He has a drawing board near the window and his pictures are stacked on shelves in the corner. He can paint anywhere, which is important for a peripatetic man like him. “When I was 13 years old I wanted to be a monk, to have this space of silence. Now I’m there,” he says.

Bennathan explains the origins of the pictures he is pulling out. “I am attracted to this right now,” he says of a painting with mountains and a night sky. The constellations and the stars are only visible to people who live outside cities, as he does when he returns to a little house he owns in Normandy.

Then there’s the Courageous Villages series of paintings, beautiful renditions of fortified towns that have lasted for centuries. He shows an unsold one of St. Paul de Vence, the place in the south of France that has always attracted artists, most famously Picasso, Chagall and Alexander Calder. These pictures, rich in a thickly laid watercolour paint, are dazzling in their colours, particularly red. (Full disclosure: I bought one of Bennathan’s paintings, Dance is My Freedom.)

A pandemic series called Giants feature huge figures on bare landscapes. A newish picture, “Zone Libre,” has an element of the giants, in the form of a huge seated figure draped in the Ukrainian flag.

Bennathan calls his art Paintings for the Soul, because he thinks maybe the pictures might help viewers in a gently healing way. He finds he needs to be of service somehow. “Painting is what I can give to people.” It’s obvious, in any case, that the inspiration for these watercolour pictures comes from some place deep within him.

Instagram: serge.bennathan

Facebook: Serge Bennathan

From top left, clockwise: Zone Libre, Quand Calder et Chagall Illuminaent St. Paul de Vence, Serge Bennathan, Creating the Music of Our Lives

A hearty serving of satire and drama

Serving Elizabeth is a smash hit, well worth the 22 months’ wait to see live theatre again.

Out of a simple premise, playwright Marcia Johnson has forged an entertainingly complex production, full of satire, humour, drama, politics and provocative ideas.

Watching the first season of The Crown on Netflix in November 2016, Johnson was struck by the absence of any speaking roles for Kenyans in the episode covering Princess Elizabeth’s tour to their country in February 1952. The Crown screenwriter Peter Morgan’s dramatic focus was all on the royals and other white faces, as this was the occasion when Elizabeth’s father King George VI died, making her overnight the Queen of England and the Commonwealth.

Nigel Shawn Williams has his finest hour directing Serving Elizabeth, which premiered as a co-production of Western Canada Theatre and Thousand Islands Playhouse in February 2020. Cast and crew have worked this show to perfection.

In a village near the Nyeri Royal Lodge, a pompous Englishman (Ryan Hollyman) arrives at a tiny restaurant where he gets friendly service from Faith (Sia Foryoh) and an angry reception from her mother, the cook Mercy (Lucinda Davis). Turns out, after only briefly sampling the dishes served, that Lester Talbot, secretary to Princess Elizabeth, has come to offer Mercy an important job serving food to unnamed English dignitaries. Mercy will have none of it; only five years earlier she had participated in a women’s march protesting injustices done them by white settlers. The women were fined and rendered silent. But Faith is disappointed enough in her mother’s refusal to forge Mum’s signature on a contract big enough to guarantee Faith’s university education.

Ingeniously switching scenes through a swinging proscenium arch, the actors perform choreographed prop replacement to recreate a TV production office in London where Tia (Foryoh) is a Canadian intern learning about scriptwriting while doing a gofer job for Robin (Amanda Lisman), a politically charged lesbian and television showrunner. The problem at hand: Oscar-winning Brit playwright and screenwriter Maurice Gilder (Hollyman) has just turned in a dreadfully colonial, tacky script for a series about Queen Elizabeth, starting with the Kenyan episode.

Strangely, Kenyan-born Tia is not enthused about a trip to the country of her birth for the upcoming shoot. “But it’s part of your heritage,” says Robin. “So is the plague,” Tia responds.

Love interest comes in the form of a chauffeur to Lester Talbot, a man named Montague (“I have a French name,” he boasts to Faith.) Nathan D. Simmons plays Montague and then reappears in the TV production office as Steven, auditioning for the abominable Gilder script, which involves kissing the feet of a princess. This time he is smitten by Tia. We begin to see where this generational plot is going.

A highlight in the swiftly moving two-hour production is the scene where the BBC has just announced the death of the king. Princess Elizabeth (Lisman) is in the lodge awaiting the return of Prince Philip from an outing. Talbot doesn’t want his princess to hear the news on the radio and charges Mercy — now in white uniform and trained in proper comportment before royals — to keep Elizabeth occupied so that she may learn the news from her husband. Lisman’s princess is high-handed at first, but Davis unleashes Mercy’s fury in an attack on the princess, spelling out all the harms, including the death of her husband, that imperialism has brought to her and her compatriots. “It is refreshing to have someone speak to me as an ordinary person,” says the enlightened princess. Mercy extends her arm for a handshake.

Johnson made some intriguing choices in creating this play. The Kenyans sound more Jamaican than African, but the actors speak effortlessly and therefore sound completely authentic. Johnson gives Tia a backstory that reflects Sia Foryoh’s own birth and early childhood in Sierra Leone and Senegal, accurately reflecting 21st-century  global culture in contrast to the imperialism that lingers in Gilder, the pompous screenwriter.

And Johnson and her director pull off a tricky meta scene, showing Gilder reading potential revisions to his script while upstage Faith and Mercy perform it. Such business gets a lot of help from set designer Camellia Koo, composer, sound designer Joelysa Pankanea and costume designer Vanessa Magic.

Serving Elizabeth serves its audience very well indeed.

Serving Elizabeth

By Marcia Johnson

Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams

At the Belfry Theatre in Victoria BC until December 19, 2021

Photo of Lucinda Davis and Sia Foryoh as Mercy and Faith by Peter Pokorny

Gardening and the joy of volunteering

I am an avid gardener, thanks to my membership in the Fernwood Community Garden in Victoria. I’ve had a plot there for 10 years and each year I get a bigger yield and reduce my need to buy food. Membership in the FCG comes with a requirement to grow fruit and vegetables organically. As well, we are all obliged to give five hours a year to maintain the common areas of garden, such as the flower, fruit and herb gardens. Some gardeners who rent plots in the allotment space shared with the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre go way beyond these obligations and are noticeably present, in the growing season, doing what needs to be done without any prompting.

Dominique Sevin, born in Orleans, France, is a sculptor who moved to Victoria in 1998.  She used to take waitressing jobs or clean offices at night to support her artmaking.  In the early 2000s, she got a plot in the Chambers Street garden. “I had no experience at all in gardening,” says Sevin. Claude Moreau, a knowledgeable gardener, occupied a nearby plot. He got Sevin off to a roaring start as a dedicated grower. Most days during the growing season Sevin can be found in the FCG tending to the common herb plot she maintains, trimming a rose bush or weeding the brick circle. This year she took on the task of pruning the bay leaf bush, with help from Paul Huxtable. Instinct drew Dominique to helping out. “Volunteering in the garden is for me associated with harmony. I find it really displeasing when something gets overgrown. And the brick circle looks so much better when it’s weeded.”

Bernadette Letchford was born in Toronto, but her family moved to BC before she was a year old. Her grandparents owned a farm outside Prince George and that city was where Bernadette grew up. Later in life she moved to Victoria and got a job as a researcher for the provincial government. In 2010, she joined the Fernwood Community Garden and for three years served on the Coordinating Group. Letchford was not new to growing things. “I remember gardening with my dad. We lived in a house on two acres and had a big vegetable garden.” Volunteering came naturally. “It’s part of being in a community. It’s just what you do.” Lately Letchford has been, with some expert advice, trapping rats that have infested the compost bins she maintains. In 2020, when the garden was under COVID restrictions, she and Annie Kitchen took the initiative to plant a few plots that were empty and donate the harvest to Fernwood’s Neighbourhood Resource Centre for distribution to low-income families. Gardening in the FCG is also Bernadette’s social life. “Some days I do more talking than gardening.” Ever modest, she points out others in the garden who give without being asked, such as Sabrina Nutchey, who this year rented a truck at her own expense to bring in a ladder so gardeners could pick the pears when they ripened.

Gary Johnson got a plot in the garden in 2018. A registered massage therapist from Creston BC, Johnson arrived in Victoria in 2010. He is the newest member of the Coordinating Group (Alison Delosky and Susan Walker are the others) and has proved to be the kind of guy who steps up at every opportunity, such as helping organize a July work party in the FCG or offering to help with paving pathways, something he knows about from jobs in landscaping. “My knowledge of gardening was pretty minimal,” says Gary about joining the FCG. “I had picked berries and I was familiar with a shovel. And my wife, Gina Chase, taught me a few things; she used to work in a nursery.

“But I asked questions of the gardeners around me, such as Claude and Bernadette.” Soon he had a thriving plot and when asked to join the Coordinating Group was willing to do it despite a busy schedule. Gary got his first taste of volunteerism with Canada World Youth and remembers his mother as a community volunteer. “My mum was involved in all kinds of things in Creston.”

Annie Kitchen is the life of the party at the FCG. Born in Trail, BC, she has lived in Victoria for 40 years. Before retirement, Kitchen worked as a risk consultant for Island Health. With her trademark laugh, she recalls her first efforts at gardening; it was in an allotment garden in Gordon Head. “I even tried growing peanuts.” After she became a single parent to her son, she began growing vegetables and fruits in pots around her home. After being on the FCG waitlist for four years, Kitchen and her partner Nigel Sinclair took over a plot in 2018 and transformed it, building new surrounds and erecting a beautiful looking trellis. Nigel has contributed his carpentry and handyman skills to projects such as paving around the watering stations and Annie has served on the Coordinating Group. She continues to contribute wherever she sees a need, such as redrawing the garden map and identifying the gardeners working each plot. Volunteering has always part of her life. Even as a single mother, Annie found ways to help others. “If you see a need, jump in. I do all sorts of crazy stuff,” she says, remembering a time she offered to paint bedrooms for people who’d finally found affordable housing. “With volunteering you always get more out of it than you put in.”

Photo from left: Bernadette Letchford, Annie Kitchen, Gary Johnson, Dominique Sevin

Orcas are us

We were walking along a trail by Becher Bay in Sooke, BC when my friend got a glimpse of something rising out of the waves. I looked out and there it was again, arching and then straight up – a huge dorsal fin, signifying a male orca cruising the local waters.

Such sights are common around Victoria, where whale-watching is a popular tourist attraction. I remember when I was a student on a walk to a high point in Saanich seeing under the water the backs of three orcas swimming Haro Strait.

That first viewing is always magical. No wonder indigenous peoples identified closely with the creature we used to call a killer whale. The Kwaguilth believed orcas embodied the spirits of great chiefs.

Once a captive source of entertainment in outdoor aquariums, orcas have long been studied, but many questions remain. This much is clear in the exhibit Orcas: Our Shared Future at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.

Prompted by a tragic occurrence in 2018 when Talequah (J35), a female orca, travelled the Salish Sea bearing up her stillborn calf, museum curators have mounted a show that would encompass the pressing question of how to save the Southern Resident pod of orcas that have been so threatened by shipping traffic, commercial fishing and just plain habitat deterioration.

Starting with the sensible premise, that all living things on a threatened planet have a shared future, museum staff assembled life-size replicas of orcas, a video loop recreating an underwater environment, artefacts, art objects and interactive displays, such as a video demonstration of how underwater noises impact the sensitive sonar systems of these very advanced creatures.  

More than a dozen distinct types of orcas – from the toothed family of whales known as cetaceans – are found in colder waters around the world. On the northwest coast of North America, the fish eaters are Resident whales. The mammal-eating orcas are Transients or Bigg’s whales. Rarely seen orcas that occupy the open ocean and mainly eat sharks are known as Offshores.

Among the many surprising facts to learn about whales is their prehistoric origin; billions of years ago, they were land creatures that plunged into the oceans and evolved over eons into the biggest marine mammals we know today.

The Residents that live around the southern tip of Vancouver Island live in pods, the mothers and calves travelling together, and are individually known to marine researchers by their markings — such as the underside white saddlepatch, or a notch out of a fin. Canadian scientist Michael Bigg created the identification system using a letter for each pod and a number attached to each individual animal. The three distinct Southern Resident pods are J, K and L. Whales get names too: Luna / Tsu’xiit (L98) was a playful young orca who got separated from his pod in 2006. Efforts were made to return him to his mates, but Luna became a casualty after he swam into the propeller of a tugboat.

Taxonomically speaking, orcas, like humans, are apex predators, at the top of the food chain. They have language too; anyone who has whale watched up in the Broughton Archipelago has listened to the conversations captured on underwater microphones. Scientists have tracked different orca dialects attached to different pods.

Equally thrilling is the art that has emerged from Salish, Haida and Kwaguilth carvers commemorating the killer whale. Artifacts from the museum’s collections, such as ceremonial bowls and masks, are on display. Particularly revealing is a video of Richard Hunt showing how he carves a whale mask with moving parts manipulated by a dancer to make a swimming motion.

In a room near the end, visitors are invited to get engaged in saving the orcas, having viewed photos and graphs of marine decimation the world over, through strangulation from fishing nets, overfishing of whale food and human degradation of our oceans.

Orcas: Our Shared Future runs at the Royal BC Museum through January 9, 2022

A tantalizing taste of live dance to come

American dancer/choreographer Kyle Marshall gives us a taste of what it will be like to see dance live in a theatre once again in Stellar, a production streaming on the digital platform of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City until June 21.

“A feeling of being in space,” that is, weightless, was a starting point for Marshall who worked through improvisation to create Stellar with his fellow performers.

Watching Stellar makes one a witness to creation in progress. In the best contemporary dance tradition, the dancers provide the movements; the viewer interprets the body language.

As the lights come up, Marshall, Bree Breeden and Ariana Speight emerge out of darkness, costumed in tie-dyed hoodies and loose pants. They might be out in space, so light do they appear. Sound designer Kwami Winfield, on stage playing and working the control board to convey interstellar sounds, makes a fourth performer.

An opening single note, as if played on a saxophone or trumpet, sounds over the dancers as they gradually form an orbit on the black box stage. The trio is walking, then running, skipping, striding with little hops or taking steps common to social dancing.

Marshall calls Stellar a work of speculative fiction, the music inspired by John Coltrane and American jazz performer and composer Sun Ra. The loose baggy costumes designed by Malcolm-x Betts are colourful and evoke the ‘60s era of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. There is lots of play, but strength and confidence in the solo moments especially.  

Winfield plays with a string of shells that make a sea sound as Marshall, Breeden and Speight start to dance together in a loose pas de trois. The thing about the central form this dance takes – the circle – is that there is no leader in a circle formation.

Soon hands and feet make the rhythms a one-two-three-four beat that seems to take over from the music until Winfield comes back with live drumming that is synched to the claps and foot-stomping.

The camera affords advantages in not only directing our gaze, but allowing for multiplication and overlapping of imagery so that at points three dancers become six.

This dance is short and open-ended, perhaps to be continued when we can all sit together in a theatre once more.

Stellar streams for free until June 21 at Kyle Marshall — Baryshnikov Arts Center Digital (


Modernist Vancouver a hub for artists and designers

Even to a British Columbian born and bred, the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition Modern in the Making: Post-war Craft and Design comes as a big revelation, for the depth and breadth of modernist design from the late 1940s to the early 1960s on show here.

Curated by VAG interim director Daina Augaitis, guest curator Allan Collier
and associate curator Stephanie Rebick, this exhibition is a well integrated assemblage of 300 items including furniture, ceramics, fashion, textiles and jewelry by a long list of makers from Barbara Baanders to Chuck Yip, including West Coast indigenous artists such as Haida carver Robert Davidson and Nuu-chah-nulth weaver Nellie Jacobson.

Like most VAG shows, this one is very viewer-friendly. The curators have built a context for the works on display, citing international timelines and defining trends such as pop art or abstraction that link these BC artists and designers and show how much of their time they were.

Near the beginning of the exhibition is an elegantly tailored day suit in deep green wool gabardine made by Madame Julia Visgak in Vancouver in 1949. Nearby is a 1946 armchair made of moulded plywood, by Mouldcraft Plywoods in North Vancouver. Both pieces exemplify a force that was driving new design and manufacture at the time: post-war reconstruction.

The show’s many examples of pottery, furniture, clothing and decor from the 1950s and 1960s remind us of far-reaching influences such as Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919. “Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts,” he stated. A stylish clock radio sits on a block surrounded by ceramics of the time. The objects all seems to fit together like the pieces of a puzzle — the Cowichan Indian sweater, the Kwagulth masks and a glass-topped, steel-framed coffee table appear at home together, as they are all expressions of modernist art and design.

Doris Shadbolt, a curator and art critic, is celebrated here as an artist. Her 1950s silver jewelry, inspired by the same African imagery that prompted European movements such as Cubism, are exemplified in two brooches and a pendant, labelled “Human-form”.

Wayne Ngan, the Hornby Island artist who died earlier this year, earns his place in a group display of 1960s and 1970s ceramic by Jan Grove, Gathie Falk, Stanley Clark, Robert Weghtsteen and Jean Marie Weakland, with a raku pot using an old salt glaze.

Modern in the Making is a show that rewards leisurely viewing. Where else are you likely to see how Dzunuk’wa dishes from a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch and Evelyn Roth’s crocheted Video Armour could have been created in the same region in the same time period?

From top left: Evelyn Roth in Video Armour, 1972; Doris Shadbolt, silver Human-form Pendant, 1955; unknown Nuu-chah-nulth weaver, Ucluelet basket, 1944; Helmut Krutz, fold-down couch, c. 1955

Modern in the Making runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 3, 2021

Raising the roof with red-hot ballet

As thunder snow and lightning engulfed Toronto on opening night, the energy of dozens of dancers on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre felt sufficient to lift the roof off – and indeed lifted the National Ballet of Canada’s opening-night audience multiple times out of their seats.

The mixed program, which resumes March 22 and 23, is all about the new and the renewed. In her first season as NBoC artistic director, Hope Muir has shown dedication to new work, new choreographers and development of a dynamic and thrilling cadre of performers.

This mixed program — something old (George Balanchine’s Symphony in C), something new (Rena Butler’s Alleged Dances) and something new to the National Ballet (David Dawson’s Anima Animus) – engages one’s imagination like no other dance show in recent memory.

George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1947 and first performed by the NBoC in November 1984, is dazzlingly renewed with this staging, the last for dancer and Balanchine répétiteur Joysanne Sidimus, who is retiring from her work as a Balanchine interpreter for the National Ballet for the last 38 years. In its lightness of mood and step, its speed and its clean lines and stripped-down classicism, Symphony in C embodies the spirit of modernism that Balanchine brought to ballet. The four movements of the ballet, challenging in the precision needed for difficult pas de deux and pas de trois, are here outstandingly executed by pairs Koto Ishihara and Harrison James, Genevieve Penn Nabity and Ben Rudisin, Jenna Savella and Naoya Ebe and Tina Pereira with Keaton Leier.

Rena Butler, a Chicagoan who shares with Muir a history at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and is the 2019 recipient of the Princess Grace Award for Choreography, more than meets expectations with her first piece for the National Ballet, Alleged Dances. Butler engendered a piece in which the ballet’s dancers share the stage with a live string quartet (Aaron Schwebel, Jamie Kruspe, Joshua Greenlaw and Olga Laktionova) that shifts on its platform across the stage as they play American composer John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), creating a spectacle of red-hot, sexy and sassy dance, at once playful and awe-inspiring.  Siphesihle November performs the part of a playground leader, as Teagan Richman-Taylor, Noah Parets, Tina Pereira, Alexander Skinner, Josh Hall, Emma Oullet, Tene Ward and Arielle Miralles, play a game of tag involving pigtail-pulling, or hide-and-seek, or truth or dare. Alleged Dances is a high-octane, ever transforming romp that borrows from social dance and at some points looked like a country hoedown. Hogan McLaughlin’s blazing red, minimal costumes brilliantly highlight the singular movement of each performer.

The ten dancers who made David Dawson’s Anima Animus their own upped the bar even higher, supercharged as they were with the emotion-filled music of the late Italian composer Ezio Bosso. The British choreographer, associate artist at Het Nationale Ballet and associate choreographer for Semperoper Ballett, is a prolific contemporary dancemaker with whom Muir has frequently collaborated. Having been moved by the San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 premiere performance of Anima Animus by the San Francisco Ballet, Muir was eager to bring Dawson’s work to the National Ballet as an opportunity for the dancers to deepen their individual capabilities.

As hinted in its title, Anima Animus mixes up traditional ballet gendering, with the women, particularly Calley Skalnik, doing as much of the heavy lifting as the men in what was a beautifully, organically constructed performance, seemingly evolving before our eyes and ears. All the enduring elements of ballet – especially the pure joy of movement and partnering – were present, the dancers’ movements emphasized in Yumiko Takeshima’s unisex costuming that outlined each undulating spine. For all the abstraction of set and costume, the piece appeared to grow as if in nature, establishing a fragile order and following the geometry of desire toward a culminating exultation.

Anima Animus & Alleged Dances & Symphony in C

Choreography by David Dawson, Rena Butler and George Balanchine

Performed by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto

March 22 and 23, 2023

Photo of Tina Pereira and Siphesihle November in Alleged Dances by Bruce Zinger, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada

Remounting a play about regeneration

Talk about dramatic catharsis. The Belfry Theatre’s remount of Yvette Nolan’s enduring play The Unplugging takes us through the pain of exclusion and the suffering of shunned women, through to survival, remembering and reconnection to community. Filled with music and laughter and ending with a kitchen party musical jam, this unplugging opens up the heart and brings a lump to the throat. But those were tears of joy.

“It is, I guess, a reconciliation play. That’s not what I was thinking when I wrote it. But I’m a half-breed, right?” Yvette Nolan, chatting on Zoom from Stratford, where she’s teaching the young artists of the Birmingham Conservatory, comes across as a thoughtful, generous writer with a buoyant spirit and a sense of wonder about life and other’s lives.

“The source material is an Athabaskan story called “Two Old Women” told by an Alaskan Gwich’in woman,” says Nolan in an interview recorded for the Canadian Theatre Museum.

“It’s an old story — pre-contact, generations ago. Two old women, in a time of need are banished from their community because they are old and grumpy and useless. Instead of dying they must go inside themselves and remember their traditional knowledge and in order to survive.”  Learning that the banished elders are thriving and not dead, their band sends an emissary to bring them back home.

As Nolan was adapting the tale for a 21st century context, a series of warnings, from the Toronto blackout of 2003, to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to the extreme weather events contributed to an apocalyptic vision: a complete collapse of the world’s electrical grid. In the aftermath, two older women, Elena and Bernadette — 60-ish and 50-something respectively — are cast out of a cult-like, post-digital community ruled by the Laird. Director Reneltta Arluk has chosen to cast Bernadette as non-Indigenous, cementing the theme of reconciliation.

The Unplugging plots Elena and Bern’s journey in lunar fashion from Sugar Moon to Bear Moon to Pink Moon, from despair to survival to hope and joy. Elena, who has been forcibly detached from her daughter and grandson, regains her indigeneity, her traditional knowledge. She ponders what was lost when the grid went down: “Think of all the information that disappeared, in a blink. All the things we stopped writing down and putting into books, all the things we stopped teaching our children, all the things we need to know now, like, what is the shelf life of tea.” Elena’s recovery of her indigenous skills and knowledge is done in concert with Bern’s recovery of her female vitality. She acts as a goad to Elena in her lowest moments and finds her inner strength. Along with it, she regains the joy of touch sexual congress with Seamus, the young man who suddenly shows up in the women’s forest sanctuary, an abandoned summer cabin.

Nolan, born in 1961 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where her Irish-born father was teaching in the penitentiary there, moved with her family to Winnipeg when she was six. As a young ballet student in the school of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, she found her calling after seeing the ballet’s adaptation of George Ryga’s 1970 play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

“It was the first time I recognized that our stories – Indigenous people’s stories – could be told on those big stages. It didn’t matter to me that Rita Joe and Jamie Paul were danced by a Spanish dancer and an Italian. What I learned in that moment was the power of theatre to raise people’s stories, to make my stories visible.”

The playwright, dramaturg, director and educator – a stellar artistic director of Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts company from 2003 to 2011 – admits there’s something of her mum in Elena. Nolan’s Algonquin mother, Helen Thundercloud née Chabot, was born and raised in Kitigan Zibi, a reserve at Maniwaki, north of Ottawa.

“She had no formal education. She was sent to residential school in Spanish, Ontario and then Kenora in the 50’s.” Despite the lack of necessary schooling, Helen could speak three languages: Algonquin  French and English.  As Yvette, born when her mother was only 17 or 18, sees it, her mother grew up in one patriarchy, married into another and then had to endure the ultimate colonial experience: the harsh racism of pure laine Quebeckers whose references to her as “une sauvage” she all too painfully understood.

Helen Chabot met Yvette’s immigrant father, son of a Sinn Fein fighter, after he’d fled to Canada from a seaside town outside Dublin, refusing to be conscripted into the English army.  “He was my mother’s math teacher, ten years older than his student.” They grew together out of a shared sense of colonial oppression. “When she graduated from the residential school, the nuns gave them a little wedding.”  But the struggle continued for Kevin Nolan.  As he was always trying to find a better job, they moved often and Yvette, elder sister to two younger brothers, witnessed the scorching anti-Indigenous racism of the prairie provinces. But today, Nolan has happily settled in Saskatoon. “I’ve got some really special feelings about Saskatchewan, these days.”

The Belfry’s production of The Unplugging is also a kind of homecoming: the show had its premiere in October 2012 at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. Director Arluk, an Inuvialuk/Dene/Cree raised by her grandparents on a trap line in the Northwest Territories, once put up a production of The Unplugging  for her own Akpik Theatre in Whitehorse. This time for the Belfry she went for maximum celebration, bringing in Krystle Pederson, a Cree/Metis actor, singer and songwriter as sound designer. On opening night, Pederson warmed up the audience with a full-throated rendition of “Red River Valley” then took her place on set among the trees, playing musical interludes she composed.  Daniela Masellis’s emblematic forest set and lighting enclose the action for what is a very intimate play.  All three actors — Lois Anderson as Bern, aaron wells as Seamus and Marsha Knight as Elena – are outstanding in their roles, making the play very physical and dancey. Winnipeg’s Marsha Knight as Elena really anchors this show, embodying a proud, motherly spirit of reconnection and hope for reviving the broken dreams of unity among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.  

The Unplugging

Written by Yvette Nolan

Directed by Reneltta Arluk

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria BC until March 3, 2023

Photos, clockwise, from left: Marsha Knight as Elena, Lois Anderson as Bern, čačumḥi – aaron wells as Seamus; playwright Yvette Nolan. Photo credit: Don Craig

“I’m worried about your health…it seems to be improving.”

In its opening moments, Morris Panych’s Vigil is a straightforward black comedy about a man visiting his aunt on her deathbed. It’s a good text for a stand-up comic. Then as we get into the second act it’s pure theatre of the absurd. Looking back after the curtain comes down, you realize that Panych wasn’t just riffing on death and dying. He nailed another universal theme: the need to feel loved and accepted.

Panych himself directed the first production of Vigil, which took place at the Belfry Theatre in 1995. Glynis Leyshon was the Belfry’s artistic director then. Twenty-seven years later she has returned to the Belfry to direct this production. She shows a sure hand indeed. In the intervening years, Vigil took over lots of theatres in Canada and abroad. Of the many Panych plays – he’s written upwards of thirty of them – this one sticks in the mind like no other.

“Why are you looking at me like that. I’m your nephew. Okay – so I didn’t visit you for thirty years.” This is Kemp, played by Anton Lipovetsky, addressing Grace, who sits silent in her bed propped up by pillows. As Grace, Nicola Lipman must act without words, which she does very well.

It soon becomes clear that Kemp is more interested in his aunt’s death, and how it might benefit him than in tending to her in her final days. Bearing a clipboard, he proffers a will for her signature: “You are leaving it all to me.” The vigil lasts days, then weeks, then passes the year mark.

Kemp puts on a sham show of concern. “What am I supposed to wear to your service?” he asks. “Let’s not talk about anything depressing. Do you want to be cremated?” Grace, her meals served to her bed, alternately smiles, nods, rolls her eyes and occasionally hurls something her nephew.

Vigil is a well honed play. Nearly all the spoken words are Kemp’s. He rambles from self-interest to self-pity to genuine concern, in the process confessing to crimes committed against him by an alcoholic mother. Unfortunately, Lipovetsky doesn’t express the nuances, delivering all his lines at much the same pitch and tone. Maybe he’ll grow into the part with the help of enthusiastic audiences. He can certainly move well.

Lipman makes an excellent bed-ridden aunt, except when her nephew is absent from the room. Then she’s delightfully spry, at one point circumambulating around her bed doing lunges and lifting (invisible) weights.

Ken MacDonald’s set is key to the action, with its aged walls, windows and doors skewed at crazy angles. The Belfry production underscores the durability of Panych’s plays. Long may he reign, in Gilbert Reid’s words, as “a driving force in the Vancouver and Toronto theatre communities.”


By Morris Panych

Directed by Glynis Leyshon

The Belfry, Victoria BC

Live performances through December 11

Live-streamed November 29 to December 4

Photos of Anton Lipovetsky and Nicola Lipman by Emily Cooper