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

http://www.citadelcie.com

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

Gallery

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. 

http://www.sergebennathan.com

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 (bacnyc.org)

Gallery

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

Dancing the Black diaspora


Politically, economically and socially, 2020 was a disaster year. A global pandemic was backdrop to an eruption of violence and oppression suffered by people of colour and indigenous nations. But those hardships have given rise to an artistic expression of pride and determination.

Among the many artists who’ve been hard at work while theatres are dark is Esie Mensah, a Toronto dancer, choreographer, director and educator who comes with an impressive resumé that includes work with Rihanna, Drake, Arcade Fire and the Toronto Raptors, and a Dora nomination for her work Shades.

She has made TESSEL, the title taken from the word tessellate, which means to form a pattern of shapes that fit together lyrically and visually.  The dance film, co-commissioned by Fall for Dance North and Harbourfront Centre, is both a showcase and a podium for 14 Black Canadian performers whose voices we hear over scenes of them dancing – in just about every dance genre you’d normally see on a stage. It is released online today, June 1, the first anniversary of Blackout Tuesday, a day in 2020 when arts organizations stopped their regular programming as a protest against racism.

“Art is a protection ritual,” says a man speaking over footage of Halifax performer Liliona Quarmyne dancing a willowy solo at dusk on a beach, the waves lapping behind her. “Dance is a protection ritual. So every time you dance you are creating a protection ritual for yourself.”

The narrative of this 15-minute film was stitched together from snippets of seven hours of conversations orchestrated by Mensah.

Viewers will easily identify with many of the voices heard here. “I’m learning what love really means,” a female voice explains. “I’m really trying to think about change and what that looks like,” says another. A man states, “When you hire me to do something, you hire all of me, not just what you see visibly.”

A range of genres, ages and Canadian regions are represented here among dancers who are not widely known in the theatre, except for elder statesman Ronald A. Taylor, moving stylishly in front of the pillars of Princes’ Gates at Toronto’s Exhibition Place.

Many revelations occur in this short piece, derived from the opening of hearts and minds among the 14 performers. “When you have what is called a ‘service heart’, you are constantly giving to and serving other people,” says a woman’s voice over the face and movements of Toronto performer Natasha Powell.

TESSEL boasts high production values. Voices overlay voices; Lisa La Touche’s tap-dancing feet overlay dances by Livona Ellis and Powell. Some dances are punctuated with a simple gesture, such as the fist that turns into a hand over the heart, an image created by Eugene “GeNie” Baffoe of Winnipeg.

One statement refers to the ancestors, making a moment when the black diaspora and the indigenous peoples of Canada express common cause through dance. It is, after all, the oldest storytelling form. Two Vancouver dancers, Kevin Fraser and Livona Ellis, indeed live on the unceded territories of the Musqueam Squamish Sleil-Waututh nations.

This is a work that often moves. “Nothing we give is without value,” we hear from a man’s voice, over video of Alexandra “Spicey” Landé dancing in her Montreal loft. Amen to that.

TESSEL premieres on Tuesday June 1, 2021 and is streaming free at: www.tessel.film. Links to the film can be found on the websites of the many co-presenters, including Citadel + Compagnie and dance immersion.

Photo of Esie Mensah by Mikka Gia

imagineNATIVE: a feast of a film fest

The imagineNATIVE film + media arts festival gets better and better, morphing easily in 2020 into a cyber affair with lots to click on. Two feature films make this year’s fest a feast for readers as well as media consumers.  Cree/ Métis director Loretta Todd co-wrote and directed Monkey Beach, a sensitive adaptation of Eden Robinson’s 2000 novel of the same name. It’s the story of Lisa Hill who has fled her Haisla village of Kitamaat for life in the big city of Vancouver and returns to undergo a healing process and come to terms with her personal past. What you need to know is that Lisa is gifted with the power to communicate with the dead. The script creaks a little, but performances by Grace Dove, Adam Beach, Glen Gould and especially Tina Lameman make up for such faults.

Thomas King wrote the book that Métis/Algonquin director actor Michelle Latimer, adapted for the screen, as Inconvenient Indian.  An NFB/90th Parallel co-production, already lauded with the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Inconvenient Indian is nothing short of brilliant. Latimer cast King in a starring position, as a movie-goer riding in the back of a Co-op cab. As King tells the story of Coyote and the duck feathers, his driver transforms into a grinning coyote. And so it goes, a riveting documentary that brings the undeniable truths of An Inconvenient Indian to the big screen.

The 21st imagineNATIVE festival presents work from 153 Indigenous artists from 13 countries and 97 Indigenous nations. In addition to 10 feature films, organizers have put together four short film programs, two guest-curated programs and one artist spotlight, on Cree video artist Thirza Cuthand with a screening of her video Thirza Cuthand is an Indian within the Meaning of the Indian Act.

This year’s winner of the August Schellenberg Award of Excellence is Squamish BC actor Lorne Cardinal, a well known thespian who performed in Schellenberg’s all-indigenous production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre. He’ll be presented with the award on Sunday, October 25, when all the other festival prizes are handed out.

In addition to the annual art crawl, imagineNATIVE sponsors exhibitions, industry talks, a pitch session and a keynote address from Tantoo Cardinal.

Here are some films that make this year’s festival particularly appealing. Shadow of Dumont is a feature film from Métis director Trevor Cameron, who sets out from Toronto to look for his roots in the story of Gabriel Dumont, leader of the 1885 Métis uprising in Saskatchewan. Brother, I Cry, written and directed by Jessie Anthony, a Haudenosaunee woman born and raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, looks at how cultural practices play a part in healing those suffering the pain of addiction. A Canadian premiere, Māori/Pasifika director/producer Kiel McNaughton’s The Legend of Baron To’a is the story of a young Tongan man dealing with the legacy of a superstar father who was a wrestler. Atua is a New Zealand film that imagines Atua Kahu, the last man standing in a world destroyed by disease. The film, directed and written by Brown Bitty Muaupoko, Ngai Tara, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Huia, came out of NATIVE Slam, an international collaborative event that gives indigenous directors 72 hours to make a movie together.

ImagineNATIVE runs through Sunday October 25. For information on tickets, free events and daily schedules, go to https://festival.imaginenative.org/in2020

Photo: Still from Inconvenient Indian

The laureate of zoom and sway

There is a lot to be said for the spontaneity and unexpected intimacy of a live reading on Zoom, especially for fans of poet bill bissett. Yes, it would be better to be in the same room as bissett as he performs his poems, but in any conventional setting would we have had the chance to meet his beloved companion, the cat called boo boo? Not likely.

A live online bissett event on May 27, organized and hosted by University of Glasgow poet and lecturer Colin Herd, started at 8 a.m. for a listener on Vancouver Island. Joining in, we could see bill, in a white t-shirt stamped with the word “breth” and a green John Deere baseball cap, chatting casually with a Zoom attendee in a nearby frame.  The backdrop for his reading was a white wall hung with more than a dozen of bissett’s eye-poppingly colourful, symbolist canvases.

The location was, bissett told us, “a little house by the river” somewhere north of Toronto, where he’d gone with his cat just before the pandemic imposed self-isolation. bissett had been preparing for a big reading tour that was subsequently cancelled because of COVID-19. The paintings, small enough to pack for air travel, constitute his movable set.

Host Herd introduced the poet, whose oeuvre encompasses more than 60 books and innumerable drawings and paintings, as the “laureate of zoom and sway,” words that aptly anticipated bissett’s musical delivery. Reading poems from his 2019 book breth /th treez uv lunaria (Talonbooks) and from a suite he’s working on under the title Meditations from Gold Mountain, bissett, holding a sheaf of printed pages, launched into something akin to an oratorio.

Embedded in the sound/concrete poetry movement since his earliest published works in the 1960s, bissett is always advancing his unique, multi-faceted art form. This excerpt from a recent “pome” adheres to the bissett orthography:

whn what happns

n th day is continuing
n th day is continu
n th day is contin
n th day is cont
n th day is
n th day
n th
n
what he sd n what he sd n what he sd
n what he sd  n what he sd n what he
sd n what he sd n what he sd n what
he sd n he sd n he sd n he sd n he

But reading and listening to bissett’s work are two entirely different experiences. Chanting, humming, mouthing sounds like a jazz singer in scat mode, bissett brings the lyrics alive in unexpected ways. Segueing seamlessly from a recitative about “the bugs on the windshield” to a casual observation, “I haven’t lost my sense of humours,” this poet/painter is a marvel.

Forthright, genuine, alive in the moment, bissett at 80 is as vital and as vital to our culture as ever he was.

breth /th treez uv lunaria (Talonbooks, 2019)