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)

A child’s paradise regained

“This is a story about childhood. It’s in at least two languages, some spoken, some not . . . We’ll remember . . . falling off your bicycle, stealing money off your mother’s dressing table . . . .”

A man sits with a book on his lap stage left as two dancers enter the space, then put on harlequin costumes and proceed to (artfully) cavort like children at play. Seen on one’s computer screen, this is Les Paradis Perdus / Remix, a delightfully layered online presentation, featuring commentary from the four participants.

Laurence Lemieux created the duet in 2005 for herself and Bill Coleman, commissioning Christopher Butterfield to compose music based on childhood memories Lemieux submitted to him. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not arrived, Jimmy and Juliette Coleman, the couple’s very able dancers, were to perform Les Paradis Perdus at the Citadel on May 14.

Swallowing her disappointment at the theatrical shutdown, Lemieux, artistic director of Citadel + Compagnie, has mounted a 10-week online performance series that began on April 28. Every Tuesday at 2 pm EDT until June 30, a new work is released on www.citadelcie.com. The series so far has included work by Naishi Wang and Sabina Perry.

Les Paradis Perdus / Remix went up May 12, introduced with a cyber conversation among Lemieux, Butterfield and Luke Garwood and Erin Poole, the dancers who performed Les Paradis in 2015.

When what performers need most – bodies in seats watching them – is not available, what can one do to bring an element of spontaneity to a production? What the CetC team wanted most to avoid was presenting a relic of a show; hence the remix, a newly edited version of the recording.

On a shared screen we see Lemieux’s handwritten notes for Butterfield’s score. The composer tells us he removed certain syllables to create his score. In the recording we can see and hear him, intoning lines like a choir singer or standing with a furled roll of paper to speak as if through a megaphone.

Meanwhile, Garwood and Poole, entering in street clothes, appear to regress as they don their joker/harlequin costumes, reproducing the spirit of childhood and adolescence in Lemieux’s inventive choreography.

On the Zoom screen, Poole reflects on how an audience might adapt to the reality of lockdown entertainment. “I wonder if one might watch (at home) from under the covers,” she says, remembering another childhood transgression: reading stories with a flashlight after lights-out.

Next up on the Citadel + Compagnie online series: unmoored by Peggy Baker and Sarah Chase (May 19) and Malcolm by James Kudelka (May 26)

Watch here: https://www.citadelcie.com/les-paradis-perdus-remix-citadel-online/

Photo of Erin Poole and Luke Garwood by Jeremy Mimnagh

 

 

Sheep in step in quarantine

While the COVID-19 lockdown has allowed some of us to discover our inner artist and thus alleviate the suffering from no human contact (within two metres), creators–performers in particular–are sufferers in quarantine because they can’t engage with a live audience. But CORPUS, the company of dancers and actors best known for shows such as A Flock of Flyers and Les Moutons (The Sheep), has found a way to deliver a live performance online: Sheep in Quarantine.

Sunday’s Zoom performance, shot in bedrooms and living-rooms in Vienna, Ottawa, Montreal, London and Toronto and in a French field in Bournazel, went off without a hitch – a real feat, as any non-professional who’s tried to sing or talk along with others on teleconferencing applications will know.

As it turns out, computer technology gives this company scope for even more fun in the production of its precise, surreal theatrical tableaux. Artistic director David Danzon, who co-founded CORPUS in 1997 with Sylvie Bouchard, is the shepherd in surgical mask who dozes off, half-eaten baguette beside him, on the hill overlooking his grazing sheep. Cud-chewing performers Michael Caldwell, Robert Feetham, Anika Johnson, Indrit Kasapi, Jolyane Langlois, Matthew O’Connor, Emily Poirier, Takako Segawa, Carla Soto and Kaitlin Torrance – all of them accomplished dancer/actors with more than a dash of clown technique – are first seen getting into their bulbous sheep costumes and warming up with pliés and stretches in their urban abodes.

To the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” the shepherd’s dream proceeds. Fat-thighed, floppy-eared sheep twirl in delicate pirouettes and execute graceful, hoof-handed portes-au-bras in their rooms on two continents. The point where they all approach their webcams for simultaneous face and bum close-ups is hilarious. Then comes the wolf, appearing in what was a Zoom frame of grass and is suddenly a room featuring a grey sofa. Our shepherd awakes, of course, for the sheep count (teeth-clicking their names) and all’s well that ends well. CORPUS isn’t the first or the only group to deliver a synchronized live performance on Zoom, but like everything else this troupe does, Sheep in Quarantine is a stellar, one-of-a-kind event. A recording of the show will be posted on http://www.corpus.ca.

Sheep in Quarantine, A Live Zoom Performance for Strange Times

Directed by David Danzon

Produced by the CORPUS production team of Janin Goldman, Carolin Lindner and Paulina Speltz

Costumes by Joanne Leblanc

Photo of Anika Johnson by Brandon Brackenbury

Romeo and Juliet unbound

It’s hard to think of any 20th-century ballet score more exhilarating than Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, composed in 1935. Ever since the critically acclaimed 1940 Kirov production of the ballet, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, any classical company worth mentioning has mounted this achingly romantic ballet based on William Shakespeare’s 1597 tragedy of star-crossed lovers.

Romeo is a Montague and Juliet is a Capulet. They fall in love amid a running feud between their families. Shakespeare set the scene: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,”

The Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created a new production of Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada in 2011. Distinctly different from John Cranko’s R&J performed by the National Ballet from 1964, this production comes shorn of naturalistic elements, relying instead on Richard Hudson’s minimalist but emblematic, towering sets.

Given the splendid performance of the Prokofiev score by the National Ballet’s orchestra under the direction of David Briskin, Ratmansky’s decluttering lets the dancers and the music tell the story in vivid ways.

The opening scene featuring Guillaume Côté as a happy-go-lucky teenaged Romeo who is a reader – hence a dreamer – does the important work of establishing character. Compared with previous R&J productions,  much more dancing with more challenging and quicker steps is going on here.

Romeo’s pals Mercutio and Benvolio soon join him and we see the bond among the three young companions. Jack Bertinshaw’s Mercutio is fleet-of-foot, playful and springs into the air like a jack-in-the-box. Skylar Campbell’s Benvolio matches him for agility but presents a more down-to-earth character.

It is up to Piotr Stancyzk as Tybalt to establish the enmity between the two families. He is all fire and fury, bounding into the town square as if his sword was already drawn.

The beauty of Hudson’s costuming in this R&J is that garments give immediate readings of who is a noble, who’s a peasant or servant; who’s allied to Montagues (red) and who’s with the Capulets (blue). The heavy renaissance gowns and robes of the lords and ladies make them move in a stately fashion.

In the square, friendly and not-so-friendly swordplay brings Lord and Lady Montague and their Capulet counterparts into the fray. It takes the commanding figure of the Duke of Verona (Jonathan Renna) to come in and demand peace for the sake of the city-state of Verona. As the square clears, two young corpses lay on the ground, much to the grief of their kinsmen and women.

Meanwhile, Elena Lobsanova as young Juliet attended in her bedroom by her beloved nurse (Lorna Geddes), is playful, barely more than a child. Her mother, a very effective Stephanie Hutchison as Lady Capulet, indicates it is time for Juliet to marry and soon a stiff-looking Paris (Ben Rudisin) will be introduced as her husband-to-be.

The Capulet ball, a crucial scene for Romeo and Juliet, is quite stripped down, favouring the encounter between Romeo and Juliet in a series of pas de deux and solos that emphasize their youth, naivete and, eventually, inner turmoil. Côté’s strength and attack is complemented with a tender side. Lobsanova’s willowy, fluid form gives a strong impression of being swept away on the wings of love.

The drama of the two characters is heightened in the scene after Romeo has killed Tybalt and comes to Juliet’s bedside. Romeo’s heart is heavy, not just because they must part, but with the knowledge he has eliminated Juliet’s cousin.

Similarly, as Friar Laurence, Peter Ottmann makes clear with a minimum of gestures the crisis-of-conscience he’s suffering.

Such dramatic moments throughout this Romeo and Juliet means a moving experience for the audience and what must be a very satisfying performance for the dancers.

Romeo and Juliet

Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky

Music by Sergei Prokofiev

Set and costumes by Richard Hudson; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton

Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, until March 22

Photo of Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova as Romeo and Juliet by Aleksandar Antonijevic

 

Technically proficient, hilariously funny

In its early years – the mid-70s — Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was a troupe of comical drag queens with chest hair dressed in tutus and teetering in point shoes. Leap forward to the Trocks’ 2020 North American tour, which took them to Toronto’s Winter Garden on March 7 and 8, and we see an even funnier, much more skilled company of dancers who can do the classical ballet moves, en pointe or off, to a professional standard.

That may be because nearly all the current performers in the company joined between 2014 and 2019. Only Robert Carter (Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov) has been a Trock since the 90s.

Also seen in Toronto as uninvited guest artist Brooke Lynn Hytes is Brock Hayhoe, a graduate of Canada’s National Ballet School. She was a Trock from 2008 to 2012, and this is her first time back on stage with the company since then.

And how funny are these new Trocks? Let us count the ways.

First, they spoof classical story ballet as no other company can. “Dying Swan,” the 1905 solo made for Anna Pavlova, is a Trockadero signature role. In technical terms, Vanya Verikosa, aka Brook Lynn Hytes, performed the feather-spewing role to the usual applause, laughter and endless curtain calls pretty flawlessly. Artistic director Tory Dobrin has tightened up the screws on these dances, adding nuance, subtler gestures and opportunities for split-second timing.

Secondly, the Trocks’ performances make witty satire of the 19th-century story ballet. The opening excerpt from Act II of Swan Lake, another Trock standard, featured a stunning Prince Siegfried performed by Vladimir Legupski (Duane Gosa, a Chicago-born graduate of the Ailey School) clowning with Benno (Mikhail Mypansarov/Yeric Valentino), his hapless but ambitious page, and handling a klutzy Queen of the Swans, performed by Nadia Doumiafeyva (New Yorker Philip Martin-Nielson).

The mimes – pointing at the ring finger, clutching the heart, swooning in fear – are taken to an extreme. To the sound of splashing and quacks, the tutu-ed swans flap their wings desperately trying to get airborne and swim the crawl to escape their predators. Yuri Smirnov (Robert Carter) made an evil but incongruously happy Von Rothbart, prancing around in Tudoresque pantaloons.

A third trope, which gets funnier as the show goes on, is the spectacle of men playing women playing men. Vladimir Legupski (Chicago-born, Ailey-trained Duane Gosa) is a towering Prince Siegfried in false eyelashes and richly rouged lips in Swan Lake. As Helen Hightower, this dancer takes the role of rivalrous prima ballerina Fanny Cerrito, in Le Grand Pas de Quatre.

Fourthly, everyone loves a clown and the Trocks boast some of the best. Guzella Verbitskaya (Bostonian Jack Furlong Jr) appears as a slightly chunky ballerina, always out of step with her ensemble and, a consummate buffoon, doing a sensational pratfall, or waving to someone in the audience when she should be focused on her dance steps.

However you like your laughs, this company, which played to a delighted sold-out Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, is bound to please.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Presented by Show One Productions at the Winter Garden Theatre,

Toronto, March 7 and 8, 2020

Photo of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s Swan Lake by Sascha Vaughn.

 

Angels, rockers and a dying courtesan

“I felt like I was falling in the vastness of it all.” This is Crystal Pite recalling a childhood fascination with the cosmos. That, and a lighting technique by Pite’s set designer Jay Gower Taylor were all the impetus she needed to create Angels’ Atlas, a piece that premiered on opening night of the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program.

As the curtain comes up, Gower’s cosmos hangs over the dancers – 37 of them folded over in baby pose – like an all-white shimmering Aurora Borealis.

Pite is a master of the moving tableau and Angels’ Atlas comprises some of her best. The dancers are costumed in loose split pants, some with fabric panels that make them look like sarongs. They move in unison as huge shimmering mass, like an underwater school of fish as the light reflects off their bodies with each turn.

The motif of ascendance and descendance builds a feeling of transformation and the connection between the heavens and Earth.

Siphesihle November, man of the moment throughout this program, was one of the starring solos in Angels’ Atlas. Muscular, quick-footed partnering between Heather Ogden and Harrison James, Jordana Daumec and Spencer Hack, Hack and Donald Thom made this half-hour co-production with Ballett Zürich unforgettable.

Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, last performed here in 2015, opened the mixed program as if to say, this is what contemporary ballet dancers of the highest caliber can do. Set to a score by Joby Talbot and Jack White of the White Stripes, the piece opens on loud dissonance, progresses through lyrical to romantic and back to big brass in an arrangement of songs including “Aluminum” “Blue Orchid” and “Transit of Venus.”

McGregor’s understanding of what a body can do – see his choreography for Thom Yorke in the Radiohead video of “Lotus Flower” – is paramount in witnessing Chroma, which The Royal Balled premiered in 2006.

Set in a white, L-shaped dance space with a wide picture window behind from which dancers entered, Chroma puts dancers Skylar Campbell, Heather Ogden, a very lithe and happy Tanya Howard, Svetlana Lunkina and others to the test. They come off winningly.

At first it is disconcerting to see the men wearing the same flowy teddies as the women. Then as two men partner each other, it all makes sense: dance transcends gender divides and achieves a harmony akin to a perfectly blended colour palette.

The middle work, Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, was first performed in 1963 by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Telling the story of an ill-used courtesan jealously loved by a nobleman named Armand, the ballet hasn’t aged well.

But as a showcase for Greta Hodgkinson in her final performances with the National Ballet, it sets off her acting ability, her beautiful arm movement and her virtuoso dancing. Guillaume Côté plays the lover Armand with ease; Jonathan Renna makes a Duke with attitude, and Piotr Stanczyk, woefully underemployed here, is Armand’s father in this melodramatic, over-orchestrated short piece to a Franz Liszt piano sonata. One might prefer to keep Hodgkinson in mind for her performances in Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, The Four Seasons and ballets by John Cranko, Jiří Kylián and Glen Tetley.

 

Angels’ Atlas, with Chroma and Marguerite and Armand

Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until March 7

Photo of artists of the National Ballet in Angels’ Atlas by Karolina Kuras

A popstar’s failure opens the door to success

Vivek Shraya makes a convincing case for How to Fail as a Popstar. But she’s a success in the “I Did It My Way” mold. On the evidence of this show, Shraya is a terrific writer and performer, with a great voice and a gift for mimicry.

Popstar, a world premiere at Berkeley Street Theatre, was written by the self-described queer, trans, brown performer. And Shraya made it as an author, with the bestselling I’m Afraid of Men.

A straightforward tale of failed dreams, this one-woman show is spiked with satire, jokes and laugh-out-loud impersonations of the people in the Canadian music industry who helped Shraya along on her way to failure. And songs, which she performs in period moves choreographed by William Yong.

Covering all the gender bases, she enters in a full-length spangly gold cape over a black shorts jumpsuit, in glittering black high-tops and sparkling eye shadow to set off her abundant long blond hair; we don’t miss the chest hair peeking through her V-neck top. “I did not become God. I never got to perform with Madonna,” she says in reference to her youthful ambitions.

It’s a long story. Vivek, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up and went to school in Edmonton. He was teased, called faggot. He was geeky. But he had his own style, which girls at his junior high school approved of — and a voice. “You were chosen,” Vivek remembers thinking at services in the Sai Baba Temple. “I could feel my own divinity.” To demonstrate, she sits cross-legged on the stage and sings a bhajan, one of the hundreds he/she learned at the temple.

In the section entitled “The Judge”, Shraya gets a lot of laughs with her portrayal of Edmonton as a city of malls. The Youth Talent Quest, which she finally won at 19, wound up in the West Edmonton mall in the biggest food court. Vivek’s win, after many tries, was for a song of her own, “Madrid.” The judges, most of them older women in “floral blouses with shoulder pads,” had a suggestion. “Have you ever considered wearing leather pants like Ricky Martin?”

Eventually, Shraya gets the break she needs to “get the fuck out of Edmonton” and with a $20,000 loan, guaranteed by her parents, starts recording her songs with a Toronto manager. Her temporary housing was in the apartment of an assistant to the manager who calls herself Mama Carla. “I should have done my research,” Shraya tells us. Mama Carla’s luxury apartment turns out to be in Mississauga and every time the budding popstar starts asking questions about his progress, Mama Carla demands a backrub.

There is much more delight, honesty and poignancy. Defeated by the Toronto music scene, Vivek decided she was going back to Edmonton. Vivek’s mother was so accepting she asked her son if he was sure he has finished what he must do in Toronto.

The end of the show is a recitation of forty reasons why Vivek failed as a pop star. “Number one: I was born in Edmonton . . .”

Failure is relative. Shraya actually reached a stepping-stone to musical success with a Polaris prize nomination for an album made with Queer Songbook Orchestra: Part-Time Woman. And she needn’t worry about failure from here on in.

How to Fail as a Popstar

Written and performed by Vivek Shraya

Directed by Brendan Healy

Choreography by William Yong; sound design by James Bunton

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu; lighting design by C.J. Astronomo

Photo of Vivek Shraya by Dahlia Katz