A poignant love letter to a Vietnamese Mom

“I’m not Chinese. If I were Chinese I’d look a lot like this but less Vietnamese. . . My last name is “Nguyen” and not New Yen. Vietnamese is a tonal language. You need a special muscle to hit that “Ng” sound and that muscle is called “tolerance”.

With this bit of gentle confrontation, actor and comedian Franco Nguyen opens Good Morning, Viet Mom, playing now at Toronto’s Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum. It is a very clever show, Nguyen holding his audience in his affectionate grip with a script he wrote himself.

First produced at the 2017 Toronto Fringe and the 2018 Next Stage Festival, Viet Mom is freshly mounted by Cahoots Theatre with a bigger production team. Director Byron Abalos has sharpened the edges of the show with choreographed movement by Andrea Mapili and Kevin Matthew Wong’s video and still projections, some displayed in a monitor shaped like a suitcase.

Good Morning Viet Mom is a love story. It came into being on a trip Nguyen, a Second City alumni and sketch comedy artist, made with his mother Dieu to Vietnam around 2012. It was his first time there, his mother’s return after 28 years, and the purpose was to visit Nguyen’s elderly grandmother.

Nguyen saw for the first time how much his mother had sacrificed for him after bringing her son, a babe in arms, to Canada. She worked in a factory in Toronto, generously sending money back home, even as her Winnipeg-born teenager – whose Vietnamese is too basic to really converse in a deep way with his mother – would be demanding a flashy pair of the newest Nikes. And getting them.

Viet Mom is Nguyen’s response to his loving, generous mother, saying in a poignant piece of theatre what he could not say in her language. The actor deploys his stand-up chops to describe frequent visits to Honest Ed’s, one-stop shopping for his mother, an emporium that looked like “a clown had sex with Dollarama.”

With self-deprecating humour, Nguyen tells of his coming of age as the son of an Asian immigrant, giving himself the hip-hop handle of Nip Dog. The laughs fall away as the performer segues to a tearful memory of profound gratitude when, as we see in his videos, Nguyen takes a journey of the heart to find out who his mother and his Vietnamese family really is.

This mom, just back from a visit with her journalist daughter in Hanoi, is grateful to have witnessed, through Canadian-Vietnamese eyes, all that a cross-cultural family can mean.

Good Morning Viet Mom

Written and performed by Franco Nguyen

A Cahoots Theatre Production

At Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, until March 3, 2019

Photo of Franco Nguyen by Dahlia Katz

I am woman, flesh and spirit

The keening begins before the house lights are down. Out of the darkness, a shrill cry, rising in pitch, louder until it’s a glass-shattering single high note held unendurably long. In a slow-motion film fade-in, a  figure can be glimpsed in the murky space, naked arms raised high and wide like a Thunderbird totem pole. Then, with a clack of a switch, we are struck with the glare of a stagelights so strong we have to shield our eyes. Before us, stage front and centre, staring steadily into the middle distance stands Paige Culley, naked but for a pair of blue jeans, which she ever so slowly begins to unzip and partially remove, squatting down as if to pull them off then changing her mind. She moves to a cross-legged position upstage on the dance pad, a big rectangle made of pale blue Styrofoam sheets shiny with some kind of body oil. She removes removes the jeans completely now, emerging like a newborn from a shed skin. Lying full out, she begins to slowly roll along the slick surface, literally painting the floor with her body as she outlines the perimeter of the dancepad, upstage right, across the back and downstage left.

Pour, at 60 minutes long, is as much performance art as dance. Culley’s sculptural movements, mostly on the floor, are agonizingly slow, inviting us to contemplate the body as a three-dimensional work of art. Conceived and directed by Montreal-based dancer/choreographer Daina Ashbee, the show prompts thoughts of missing and murdered indigenous women. Ashbee found the perfect interpreter for the piece in Culley, a BC-born, Montreal -based dancer who has worked closely with Dancemakers and Compagnie Marie Chouinard.

Ashbee, whose heritage is Cree and Dutch, was trained in Vancouver and has made her name as an up-and-coming choreographer on the stages of Montreal, Europe and Mexico. She is currently artist-in-residence at Agora de la danse in Montreal and describes her choreography as “an investigation of the body in order to address the subconscious. . . and bring awareness of my own thoughts and processes. Articulating this awareness through choreography helps to uncover my connection to the environment, the earth and to my ancestors.”

This connection is clear, as Culley, now well oiled, lies supine on the floor and begins a rhythmic pounding of her elbows on the floor, replicating the beats of an Indian drumming circle. Culley’s strength and control is empowering. She is fierce in her exertions as she rolls first from one side to another. She pounds with her hips, each of her buttocks, then her torso, then full body, like a mermaid, flapping prostrate on the shore. There are sounds too – an earthy groan of connection to some primal force.

Then standing tall, dripping with sweat and oil, her face enflamed, Culley begins a slow sideways shuffle with her back to us, crossing the stage from left to right and back again, completing enclosure of the performance space that she began with her body rolls. This ritualistic enclosure defines the territory of the self, inviolate, never to be overlooked. As the dancer turns to face us once again before being plunged in darkness, that direct gaze offers us her full spiritual and physical presence, a gift to be sure.

Take a look here: https://vimeo.com/241325669

Pour

Conceived and directed by Daina Ashbee

Performed by Paige Culley

A To Live Presentation in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and the Theatre Centre

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto until February 24, 2019

 

 

Dancing explosively into the light

   From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Such sentiments – and a whole lot more – have inspired the spectacular and often profound multimedia production that is who we are in the dark. The Peggy Baker Dance project that premiered last night at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre grew out of a short 2015 work, fractured black, that marked the first collaboration between Baker and dynamic violinist Sarah Neufeld, a member of Arcade Fire and the Montreal ensemble Bell Orchestre.

Baker’s best performances have centred on a live interaction between solo musician and dancer or dancers. For who we are in the dark, Baker pairs Neufeld with Arcade Fire master drummer Jeremy Gara, on a riser upstage. The show builds like the progress of a chemical reaction as eight dancers move through a space of electric possibility. Gala’s drumming is synched to Jeremy Mimnagh’s surging black and white projections on the stage-high back scrim, while Marc Parent’s incisive strobes, like criss-crossed bars of neon light, animate a stage bathed in mood-altering ultraviolet, turquoise and nightshade colours.

Kate Holden, the premiere interpreter of Baker’s choreographic vision, leads us into the fray, as Sarah Fregeau, Mairi Greig, Nicole Rose Bond, Benjamin Kamino, Sahara Morimoto, David Norsworthy and Jarrett Siddall form a well rehearsed and coordinated ensemble.

Who are we in the dark? We’re scared, we’re secretive, combative, sexual, intimate – we’re in touch with our id. All is expressed in Baker’s muscular, enclosing and repelling movements and Fides Krucker’s vocalography: the dancers’ growls of satisfaction or apprehension, howls of pain, murmurs of animal pleasure or mewls of a creature looking for its mother, as they move in ensemble like a mob driven by the collective unconscious.

The huge, furiously painted canvas hangings of the recently deceased Montreal artist John Heward add another layer to who we are in the dark. One hangs on the wall above the musicians and never moves. Others, displaying Gestalt images such a circle or a crude house or mountain, drop down into the performance space, where the dancers tear them and move through them as if they constituted another form of music.

A chilling, electric hum rises and falls through the piece as Gara’s primal, syncopated drum rhythms and Neufeld’s scissoring violin bow, alternately frantic and soothing, drive the dancers. Four same-sex and male-female couples express their love in dance. In one still moment, Neufeld does a vigorous violin solo in a spotlit cone, in conversation with a line of dancers, Holden in the forefront, leaning in to the music with beautiful Baker sweeping arms and elongated torso and legs. As the music, lightshow and projections rise to a crescendo, the scrim turns into a rainbow-coloured swirl of paint, a backdrop for Sarah Fregeau, who enters in a pearl grey costume, as if she’s found enlightenment.

These are dark times and great art can lead us toward the light at the end of the tunnel. who we are in the dark was made possible with cash from the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund and the dare-to-dream determination of CanStage executive producer Sherrie Johnson. Baker and her collaborators have mounted a show that reveals just how big they can go given the right budget.

who we are in the dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Peggy Baker

Composition and live music by Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara

A Peggy Baker Dance Projects production presented by Canadian Stage with Fall for Dance North

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until Feb 24; Montreal’s Thêâtre Maisonneuve, Feb 27-March 2; Hamilton’s McMaster University, March 6; Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity, March 9; Whitehorse’s Yukon Arts Centre, March 13; and Kingston’s Grand Theatre, April 9, 2019

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

 

 

 

 

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Up and down the Mekong Delta

 

For anyone captivated by the idea a tropical river cruise, a trip on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta doesn’t disappoint. On board the vintage, wooden-sided Bassac II, I was channelling Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen.

The Mekong Delta, end point of the 4,500-kilometre-long river that has its source in the mountains of Tibet, is known as Vietnam’s rice bowl. The Mekong here is called Song Cuu Long, the River of Nine Dragons, for its many branches on the vast delta. The two main tributaries, watery highways for serious freight transportation, are the Hau Giang (Lower River) or Bassac River, and the Tien Giang or Upper River. My daughter Jenny and I elected to take the day cruise up to Can Tho and back down on the Bassac, boarding at Cai Be, a bustling port that’s a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City.

The delta is a populous part of the country, both on and off the water. We grew used to the sounds of karaoke voices pumping out from villages behind a wall of thick jungle greenery as we steamed upstream over lush outgrowths of water lilies. In the towns on the delta, people inhabit stilted houses on the river banks, or they ply their wares at floating markets, as tourist cameras flash. Thirsty? You can order up a fresh coconut cut and served by the lady who poles her launch between larger craft offering onions, potatoes, greens, fish, meat, whatever. The floating merchants live on their boats too.

Our guide Anh took us ashore to walk a short path into a village where homes were surrounded with pens for pigs, ducks and chickens. Fruits cultivated here include bananas, jack fruit, mangoes, papaya and much more. Along the way we learned how Vietnamese growers in the south can get three harvests of rice out of the huge paddies that cover the delta. It’s women’s work, we heard, as Anh pulled no punches about life in the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Women here in the south also raise the children and keep house.

Throughout Vietnam these days, it’s Mammon over Marx. Despite a roaring economy, with annual GDP growth of more than 6 percent, the average citizen must work very hard to make ends meet. There are no government pensions, no medicare and those who wish proper health care and education for their children must pay for it, sometimes in bribes to insure proper care in hospital. The hoarded-up (prior to Tet celebrations) huge statue of Ho Chi Minh in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City became a symbol of how far this communist state has strayed from the ideals established by its first leader. Ho Chi Minh, who served as president of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, died before his country achieved victory in the American War and reunification of the north and south parts of the country, which didn’t happen until July 2, 1976.

Amid the buzz of construction and commerce – universal in Vietnam – there is room for peace and prayer in some spectacular temples on the delta. Most unusual for this part of the world is in the Cao Dai temple in Cai Be. Decorated in an Eastern rococo style, the Cao Dai temple is dedicated to a religion unique to Vietnam. A fusion of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also displays elements of Christianity and Islam. Its monks and nuns all wear white and the most prominent symbol is a single eye, signifying an all-seeing divine power or God.

In Can Tho, a city with a population of 1.52 million, three outstanding temples are evidence of  the return of religion to the centre of life in a country where the communist government once banned all religious observance. The biggest and most typical of Vietnam is Pitu Kohsa Rangsay Pagoda, a massive edifice featuring huge statues of the Buddha and four levels of worship. On the top floor, the carved wooden monks, gathered as if attending the last supper, add a human touch.

A helpful young monk took us on a brief tour of the Khmer pagoda called Pitu Kohsa Rangsay, radiant in its gold leaf covering. The abbot invited us to rest, drink tea and invited questions on the practice of Theravada Buddhism, practised mainly in Cambodia. He delineated the major differences between different strands of Buddhism practised in southeast Asia. Their objectives don’t differ and when followers from different countries meet as a group, he said, “we converse in Pali, the language of the Buddha.”

Our last stop in Can Thu before reboarding Bassac II was the Chinese Ong Temple, facing the Mekong and easily identified by the Chinese characters and iconography decorating its front. Inside, disciples keep incense burning around the clock and tend to altars to different deities and local heroes. The temple was built in the 19th century for worship of Kuan Kung, a deity associated with intelligence, honesty, confidence, virtue and faithfulness. Many offerings were piled up in front of the Goddess of Fortune and the Kul-Am Buddha.

Getting There: to book a Bassac tour, go to http://www.travelvietnam.com

Photos from top left, clockwise: a Bassac touring boat, Cao Dai temple, incense in the Ong temple, a monk and law student at Pitu Kohsa Rangsay temple, a merchant hawks her wares near Can Tho

Ballet West makes classics

It’s always a treat to see an accomplished classical ballet company you’ve never seen before. Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, rises to the occasion in the program presented by Dance Victoria at the Royal Theatre, which concludes tonight.

As an opener, Sweet and Bitter, by Spanish choreographer África Guzmán, makes a good showcase for the technical abilities of eight Ballet West dancers: Emily Adams, Rex Tilton, Katlyn Addison, Jenna Rae Herrera, Chelsea Keefer, Alexander MacFarlan, Joshua Shutkind and Jordan Veit. The Friday performance, to Ezio Bosso’s alternately solemn and allegro string and piano composition, was curiously bloodless, as if the dancers had not yet engaged with their audience.  Perhaps it was the canned music, or maybe they were just warming up. But their fluid lifts, graceful entrances and exits, and classical lines were clearly evident.

Founded in 1963 by artistic director William Christensen and Utah arts patron Glenn Walker Wallace, Ballet West established a classical repertoire under Christensen, also co-founder of the San Francisco Ballet. He created the first full-length American productions of Coppélia, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, all of which Ballet West still performs.

Current artistic director Adam Sklute, former associate director of The Joffrey Ballet, conceived and produced a new Swan Lake, which opens Ballet West’s home season next week, and is very much a tribute to the Marius Petipa original. Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Rudd, performing in his farewell season, dance the White Swan Pas de Deux on the Victoria program, followed by Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell performing the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Sisk was the standout here, eyes flashing, dancing with wonderful attack, strength and defiance and executing the familiar steps and fouettés as if she really had something to tell us.

Nicolo Fonte, Ballet West’s resident choreographer, created Fox on the Doorstep in memory of his late father Lorenzo Fonte. Apparently Fonte opened the door one morning and found a small white fox on his doorstep. The choreographer later learned that at the moment of the fox’s appearance, his father had died. Fonte set Fox on the Doorstep principally to the wonderfully evocative, mostly piano music by Ólafur Arnalds (who plays Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto next Friday). Arnalds’ music, along with that of Harry Escott and Jóhan Jóhannson, makes a tapestry against which dancers Adams, Keefer, Katherine Lawrence, Gabrielle Salvatto, Sisk, Arolyn Williams, Adrian Fry, Tyler Gum, MacFarlan, O’Connell, Tilton and Veit perform duets, pas de trois, quartets and ensemble arrangements, often against the loud ticking of a clock. Lawrence, is a dynamo here as is O’Connell, rising shirtless near the end of the piece like the spirit of the missing loved one.  Fox on the Doorstep is a powerful contemporary ballet – a frisson of danger is inherent in the mens’ vests resembling shoulder holsters — that one longs to see again.

Ballet West

Presented by Dance Victoria

At the Royal Theatre, Victoria, February 1 and 2, 2019

Photo of Arolyn Williams and Chase O’Connell in Fox on the Doorstep by Beau Pearson

A bravura bear for our times

A one-man monologue, a song-and-dance routine, mime, performance art and, above all, storytelling, Bears has a unique charm that possibly only Sheldon Elter could realize.

This bear of a man of many talents is Floyd. Narrating his own tale in the third person, he identifies with the big grizzly bear, whose habitat in tar sands country is under threat. Floyd is accompanied by a chorus of seven fairy-like creatures – Shammy Belmore, Karina Cox, Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Zoë Glassman, Gianna Vacirca and Kendra Shorter — who illustrate Floyd’s story, their words either echoing his thoughts or making a running commentary as they make like sleeping bears, butterflies, alpine flowers or prairie gophers.

There’s a lot going on in Bears, which earned MacKenzie several awards, including a Dora for Outstanding New Play. He wrote the play to reconnect with his family’s Métis, Cree and Ojibwe heritage on the North Saskatchewan River. He might have had Elter in mind as he wrote, for Bears displays elements common to Elter’s hit show Métis Mutt. A stand-up comedian, actor and very entertaining guy, Elter took us from laughter to tears in that intense performance, as he does in Bears.

Bears runs from high seriousness to banality to profanity, often within one or two sentences.  When Floyd muses about grizzlies, referring to “frolicking in alpine meadows,” then tranquilized, then reduced to art installations of “their shellacked bear droppings,” the chorus chimes in with “like, shitloads.” Elter plays his dual role well. One minute he’s an indigenous man complaining how “the Feds cut our funding” for a project. The next he’s a would-be bear ravaging the forest floor for wild strawberries or chatting with woodland chickadees.

The humour ranges from satire to farce. (The bear’s sense of smell is so good “he can tell which squirrels are menstruating.”)  The chorus also indicates mood, an assist to the audience, for the script can be confusing. Monica Dottor’s choreography is quite challenging for young performers who don’t appear to have had much dance training, but the dainty, shape-shifting choristers can be amusing.

Would that the playwright had made more of the role of Mama, played by fine Cree actor Tracey Nepinak, last seen at the Belfry in a revival of The Rez Sisters. She is the calm centre, and she’s especially moving when speaking in Cree. But for chunks of the 80-minute show she’s on stage with nothing to do.

Bring your imagination if you’re coming to see Bears, for it’s a thoughtful play that requires careful interpretation. T. Erin Gruber helps that process, having created a minimal set of shiny, reflective shapes like mountains and clouds that dramatically re-engineer the space with some brilliant lighting.

Beyond avalanches, desecration of the environment and a tale of a golden eagle drowned in a toxic tailings pond, there’s a home truth to convey, a statement that applies to all communities: “We must stand together for justice in this world.” Mama says so.

Photo of Sheldon Elter and chorus by David Cooper

Bears

By Matthew MacKenzie

An Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre production

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria, until February 24, 2019

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Three days in Hanoi

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In a city of contrasts, a tourist visiting Hanoi can in the space of a few hours experience the sacred and the crassly commercial, the high anxiety of negotiating anarchic traffic and the splendid tranquility of a walk around an inner-city lake.

On this second visit to the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having already taken in the mandatory sights of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, the Imperial Citadel and historic sites such as the Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war, I got dropped off at the tiny, perfect Den Ngoc Son temple across a picturesque bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Amid the bustling preparations for the lunar new year, Tet, to come, visitors and worshippers flock to this legendary location. In the 15th century, Lê Lói, who became emperor and founder of the Lê dynasty, was on this lake when he received the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, from the Golden Turtle god, Kim Qui. Thus did Vietnam gain independence from China. Later Lê Lói returned the sword to the turtle god, giving Hoan Kiem its name, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

Next stop is the Temple of Literature, not exactly what an English major might expect, but a complex of courtyards, monuments and temples dedicated to Confucian teachings and scholars. Explanatory panels in the central courtyard present archival documents and photographs of the French occupation of the city, which started in 1873. Within 12 years, the Concession was complete and the ancient capital, first established by the invading Chinese army in the seventh century as the Red River fort, was a mirror image of a 19th-century French capital. Vietnam, forever conquered and then repelling invaders including the Chinese, the French and the Americans, or ruled over by authoritarian royal families, presents a perfect case study in the nature of power.

The Women’s Museum, on a main street in the Hoan Kiem district, earns its reputation as the best museum in the city. Outstandingly curated displays on four floors, take us through centuries of female influence from marriage and family, to women’s participation in war and revolution, to the development of women’s fashions. Most inspiring is the history of Vietnamese women’s involvement in combat from 1945 to 1975. A typical heroine is Kan Lich, who directed a female guerilla force against American troops at 18 and was honoured in 1968 as a Hero of the Nation for participating in 49 battles and bringing down an American Dakota plane.

Beyond the centre of Hanoi and well worth the short taxi ride is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where detailed reconstructions of minority habitats and customs give the visitor a very clear picture of the Vietnamese population. Fifty-three ethnic minorities, divided into five main groups, make up the contemporary population of Vietnam. The majority, Viet or Kinh peoples, account for 87 percent of the 95.5 million population (as of 2017). The arts and crafts and traditional lifestyles of minorities such as the Red Dao or the Black Hmong are all on display here, but are best appreciated with a visit to their homelands, mostly in mountainous regions of the country.

Strolling through the old quarter of Hanoi in January you’ll quickly get a taste of what a huge occasion Tet is. The coming Year of the Pig, will be very lucky for those born in such a year, and as you wind your way through busy, narrow streets some of them specializing in the sale of silver, silk, stationery or flowers, you can feel part of the celebrations. And after a day of dodging scooters and cars on the streets of Hanoi, no better place for a final stop than at Body and Soul spa, where I experienced the best massage ever.

From top: Den Ngoc Son temple; Temple of Literature; Yao family relic, Museum of Ethnology; Kan Lich, Women’s Museum

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