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Sharing their culture – with song, dance and heart

Every performance of the Le La La dancers repeats a form that goes back thousands of years. But it takes this Victoria company and its director George Me’las Taylor to make the Kwakwaka’wakw (kwa kwa key wok) songs and dances new again.

Taylor’s willingness to share his culture is powered by a prodigious talent. He’s a showman. He’s a singer and drummer and knows how to wear a mask and animate it.

Last Saturday on the stage of the Victoria Aboriginal Cultural Festival, Taylor, born in Alert Bay, B.C., was in full voice, singing, drumming and introducing the dances.

“We perform these dances,” he said, not just for spectacle, “but because they belong to us.”

He meant “belong” in both a cultural and a family sense. In the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, a dance and the mask that identifies it is the property of a particular family, passed on by inheritance or marriage. That means at any occasion that demands a potlatch, such as a birth, death or marriage, the family members can enact the dances they own. Some dances are considered sacred and are witnessed only in the context of a potlatch.

Since I first saw them perform in Toronto in 2006, Le La La (it means travelling from here to there) has only grown stronger at a kind of storytelling that’s at once specific to the spiritualism of the Kwakwaka’wakw and universally understood. Taylor’s nation has inhabited the northern tip of Vancouver Island, nearby islands and coastal inlets for millennia. Two of George and Melanie Taylor’s sons, Jason, 32, and Jarid, 29, have always danced with Le La La. Today the company also includes nephews and grand-nephews and grandson Lason Taylor, who is 5 years old. Melanie is the company manager.

The Kwakwaka’wakw are renowned artists whose reputation extends back to the time of Contact and includes important carvers such as the late Mungo Martin and his grandson Chief Tony Hunt. The full intent of the masks is only revealed when they are danced. Introducing Wild Woman of the Woods or Dzunukwa, Taylor tells the story of a haunting character represented with a mask featuring a hook nose and big red lips. She’s known as a bringer of wealth, but like many a mythical creature she has a dark side. Children were warned not to wander into the woods in case Dzunukwa might be abroad. She likes to snatch up young ones and take them home to eat. A Le La La dancer in a fur suit, wearing the magnificent mask, bears a cedar bark basket on his back – all the better for carrying home small children.

Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, possesses great strength and can make himself invisible. One interpretation has it that Bukwus might offer food that a wise person would refuse, because it is Bukwus’ habit to consume the souls of the living. Bukwus might also be an aboriginal interpretation of Big Foot.

Le La La’s Bukwus enters the stage in an outfit that looks like moss; he is truly scary. The transformation dance is an opportunity to see how dancers really do take on the identity of the animals and spirits they depict. On Saturday, 18-year-old Calvin Charlie-Dawson performed this dance with great agility, surrounded as he transformed himself by dancers Ethan Taylor and Jarid Taylor, wearing button blankets.

As a director at large of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, George Taylor has an official role as an ambassador for first nations culture. And ever since establishing Le La La in 1987 he has been taking the message of friendship and unity around the world, from Europe, to China and Mexico and all points of the North American compass.

“My father always told me to be proud to be first nations, and I am proud. But I am also a proud Canadian,” Taylor tells his audience. He means it and he lives it. In fact he says it again.

Family, pride, love, respect, harmony and peace. These are the values that Le La La stands for.

Photos, clockwise from top left: Haida chief Lance Baker, George Me’las Taylor, Jenna Lancaster; Calvin Charlie Dawson as the Raven with Jarid Taylor; Ethan Taylor dancing the Nun the bear; Lason Taylor; Andy Everson of K’ómoks First Nation and Ethan Taylor.

See George Taylor at the prow of a canoe at the opening of Victoria’s aboriginal cultural festival: http://www.cheknews.ca/aboriginal-festival-kicks-off-traditional-canoe-landing-189217/

For more about the company go to www.lelaladancers.com

 

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Hands across the water

Watching first nations’ artists carve their works is nothing new for Victoria, where Thunderbird Park, around the corner from the legislative buildings, was the site of a carving shed from its opening in 1941.

But it’s not every day that a Coast Salish artist sits down for a demonstration with carver friends from the Iatmul tribe in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Elaine Monds, founder and director of Alcheringa Gallery on Yates Street in Victoria, has been facilitating such cross-cultural interactions for a number of years.  And it was on her premises that three carvers were at work with their tools on Saturday, showing visitors how it’s done.

This was the fourth visit to Vancouver Island for Claytus Yambon, who is well acquainted with artist John Marston of Ladysmith. In 2009, the two of them participated in a project called Hailans to Ailans which paired Papua New Guinea aboriginal artists and their Northwest Coast counterparts. Near Marston’s home, Yambon and Marston carved a magnificent red cedar war canoe called “Bummdianmari” (one mind, one people), that features a prow with female image and a stylized alligator. The sides of the canoe display carvings integrating the motifs of both cultures.

“It was the most unexpected thing that ever happened in my life,” said Yambon of that first venture into another Pacific art tradition. He was whittling away at a swamp hen, a creature that is central to the Iatmul way of life. “They are what we survive on.” Beside him, Marston was in the early stages of carving a mask out of a large disk of alder. For him too the exchange with the Papua New Guineans, which took him to Yambon’s village in Sepik, was a life-changer.  “It expanded not only my art practice but my life’s horizons. Witnessing a culture that is relatively intact from ancient times to today was pretty moving for me.”

Both his parents were carvers, said Marston, as is his brother Luke. “We work with alder when its green, as it dries it gets harder and changes colour. This mask will be dark brown when it’s finished.” The smooth face, which will ultimately incorporate both female and male aspects, showed a remarkable serenity.

Edward Dumoi, also from Sepik, was carving a cat. It was his first time in British Columbia. “I’m self-taught,” said Dumoi, noting that his father who died when Edward was young had been an artist. Dumoi’s work bridges the traditional and the contemporary. Domestic cats are a favourite subject, carved with the same panache as his totemic finials for houseposts. He can see the effects of the cultural exchanges that have been going on across the Pacific. “After John had been to visit us, I noticed that he’d used some of our stylings in his work. Maybe I’ll do the same,” he said, with a broad grin.

 

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Hogging it: Rosenblatt and Callaghan

Stomachs UniteDrawing #11Chow DownDrawing #18

It’s anything but hogwash: an intellectual and artistic engagement between two CanLit titans entitled Hoggwash, because Joe Rosenblatt’s letters are addressed to James Hogg, Barry Callaghan’s alter ego and poetic protagonist. The release of the book, published by Exile Editions and subtitled The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, is accompanied by an exhibition of Callaghan’s and Rosenblatt’s drawings and paintings on at the GN Studio in Oakville until May 11.

The works displayed on two walls at GN Studio are all new. (Those pieces reproduced in the book are no longer in the artists’ possession.)These pictures seem to converse across the room. Callaghan’s surrealistic, Dali-esque beings, all feet and lips and teeth, address Rosenblatt’s birds, cats, fish, dogs and other half-human creatures with much on their minds, and not all of it philosophic.

Hoggwash began with a proposal from Rosenblatt.  “Ten years ago I suggested to Barry that I would like to write to the leading protagonist in his epic poem, James Hogg and ask him a series of philosophical questions, pointed questions, as to the birth, or reincarnation of Hogg who emerges on an ice floe in Toronto Harbour and is set upon by thugs and crucified. Barry as Hogg would answer my questions, referring to our mutual friend Barry Callaghan.”

The epistles would also serve as a forum for the two authors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, poetry and literature in general. The result (full disclosure; I acted as copy editor) is a unique Canadian literary document and a lively entertainment.

Callaghan sets the pace for Hoggwash in an opening Q&A with Rosenblatt, quoting liberally from Rosenblatt’s poetry. “You seem to me to be a blue angel, always in a delirium of poems and in this delirium you are, over and over again, born like death, with burning branches growing . . . .”

Rosenblatt describes himself as a “disillusioned romantic” and admits to a strange kind of voyeurism, the study of bees and their pollinating ways. Hogg is captured in a poem as a man living through “an endless winter of endless / nights, . . . sitting / squat hour after hour by a seal hole in the ice, / waiting for the snout of the seal . . . .” Hogg is in some ways the straight man to Rosenblatt’s remarks on Hogg’s musings about Martin Heidegger, God, the Virgin Mary and his Toronto subway Stations of the Cross. As for Callaghan, Hogg remarks, he “can be a bit of a gadabout and a rounder.”

This is not the first time either poet has emerged as a visual artist to be reckoned with. Writing about Callaghan’s Hogg works for an Ottawa exhibition, artist Vera Frenkel identified him as “a naturally skilled draughtsman.” Drawing and painting were something he did from an early age, prompting a poet visiting the Morley Callaghan household to ask what his son was to be, “poet or painter?”  But like Rosenblatt, Callaghan needs a theme and Hogg (the actual James Hogg immigrated to Upper Canada in 1824 from Glasgow) has provided him with lots of inspiration.

Among the Callaghan watercolours on display at GN, a large picture of limbs and lips locking, called “Hogg Remembers the All of their Love,” is a tender depiction of two lovers. Other paintings are more in-your-face, even sinister, such as “Hogg in Purgatory” or “Hogg Pursued by Devils in Hell.” These Hogg paintings are expressive in their jumble of body extremities and Janus-like visages of the earthly/heavenly polarities in Hogg’s thinking.

Drawing and painting is more of a constant pursuit for Rosenblatt, who has a solo show concurrently running at Yumart Gallery in Toronto. Making his artist’s statement, the poet says, “In my drawings personalities grow exactly like limbs . . . . Those creatures in my landscape carry my genetic material. . . . The drawing paper demands its form. It wants to be fed and craves for limbs. And perhaps a spiritual envelope called the soul.” At GN you can see in Rosenblatt’s black-and-white drawings accentuated with bright splotches of paint that the hand that draws the lines is the same one whence Rosenblatt’s thoughts proceed on paper. “Stomachs Unite” is a good illustration of the Stoma principle under discussion in Hoggwash. Other works, such as “Chow Down” and “Eat or Be Eaten” could be visual equivalents of his ripostes to Hogg.

There’s plenty of food for thought in Hoggwash, both the book and the art works; readers and viewers might well demand a sequel.

“Hoggwash: The Exhibition,” April 16 to May  11, gnstudio / contemporary art, 123 Lakeshore Road West, Oakville, ON

“Angels, Demons and Spirits,” works by Joe Rosenblatt, May 7 to 28 at Yumart Gallery,  401 Richmond St. West, Suite B20, Toronto, ON

Hoggwash: The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, Exile Editions, 118 pages, $17.95 pbk.

Art work courtesy of the artists, from top: “Stomachs Unite”; “Compared to What,” Drawing #11; “Chow Down”; “Compared to What” Drawing #18

 

 

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Wunderbar play-acting from Wunderbaum

Wunderbaum Looking for Paul (c) Steven A. Gunther 06

Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome

Wunderbaum

World Stage, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

April 27 to 30, 2016

The buttplug in the title of this show is not entirely a red herring, but enough about that for now.

First, about Paul. He is Paul McCarthy, a 70-year-old Los Angeles sculptor and performance artist. His work often bears an implicit critique of American consumerist society.Quite a few of his works can be found in public spaces in Europe. The “buttplug gnome” is the name given by Rotterdammers to “Santa Claus,” a sculpture McCarthy made in 2001. For some years, it has stood prominently in the Eendrachtsplein square in Rotterdam. The dwarf-like Santa bears a Christmas tree in his right hand, shaped like a – there is no mistaking it – buttplug.

Needless to say, some citizens take offence at this work, innocent though it first appears. It’s a particular issue for Inez van Dam, who lives in a sunny apartment above the bookstore she owns on the Eendrachtsplein, where the sight of the buttplug gnome is absolutely unavoidable.

Wunderbaum, the Dutch Flemish company from the Netherlands, is as cunning as Paul McCarthy. The show opens when Californian Daniel Frankl introduces himself – awkwardly – telling us how he got involved with Wunderbaum when the collective was awarded a $20,000 residency in Los Angeles to create a theatrical piece. He is the middle man between the Netherlanders and Paul McCarthy, who is to be the subject of their production.

Frankl calls to the stage Inez van Dam, who is sitting in the audience. She bears a sheaf of notes that she reads from, rambling on about herself as images appear on the screen above her, not always in synch with her talk. The message: Inez hates the big black gnome with its big black anal dildo, it’s inappropriate, it spoils her view and she resents the American intrusion into her city’s culture.

Beside her, five white chairs with microphone stands foretell a dreadful evening. What transpires, after three more actors come on stage, is a reading of emails comprising an account of what happens after the troupe goes to LA, with Inez. Threaded through this discussion is a mind-numbing debate on the merits and demerits of the arts funding model in the US and in Holland.

Walter, Matijs and Marleen, along with Daniel and Inez, take their seats, each bearing a sheaf of printouts. At first the email messages, along the lines of Daniel’s “I’m extremely excited about this project. European theatre is edgier and richer because you have the money to spend on the process,” make a tedious exercise in revealing the creative process. Then things heat up: Marleen bursts out with a message to Inez:  “Are you willing to show your cunt on stage?” Inez has professed an abhorrence of even being on a public stage.

Slowly, from gestures and looks that pass between the email correspondents, drama begins to erupt. Marleen is the most vociferous: she wants to do a real show, maybe Streetcar Named Desire. Walter gets a wild notion of involving Lady Gaga. Daniel shuts him down, warning that Los Angelinos are fed up with celebrity-stalking. They get laughs from the audience as things grow more intriguing, Marleen flirting online with Daniel; others suggesting a meet in the hotel pool. Drinking becomes a running gag. Inez looks for a way out of the project.

Just when it appears that no show will materialize, stagehands are called to remove the chairs and mikes and the cast exits stage left. The crude bunk and bed, an open toilet and the child’s wading pool that have been lying in darkness throughout the email reading are now highlighted. The time-lapse video of  an LA intersection that has been running on the screen is now projected on the back wall of the stage. Women with cameras are summoned, to create live video of the action.

Matijs enters in a long t-shirt, wearing big ears on his concealed face, a ratty blond wig and huge puffy hands. He makes for the toilet and pulls down his underwear. Walter comes in with a wooden sword in a pirate outfit, yelling “room service” over and over again, as he too de-pants. Marleen is in a skimpy black dress and high heels. Daniel is a chef wheeling a cart with bottles of ketchup, mayonnaise, chocolate syrup and a bowl of spaghetti. Inez is collared and chained to a post.

What follows, in this makeshift hotel setting, is a piece of performance art that resembles the sort of thing Paul McCarthy might do. You know you’re not in the real Hollywood, though, because the men are frontally nude and the women remain dressed. It’s a food fight writ large as the stage and the actors are covered in fake feces, ketchup, whipcream, spaghetti  and liquid chocolate. The Wunderbaum collective – Walter Bart, Yannick Noomen, Matijs Jansen, Maartje Remmers and Marleen Scholten – has pulled off a wonder.  And yes, there are actions with dill pickles that bring to mind that infamous buttplug.

Photo: Santa Claus and Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome.

Credit for Wunderbaum photo: Steven A. Gunther

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Indigenous dance from two sides

NGS 1 - Angie Cheng & Karina Iraola - Credit Marc J ChalifouxIndigenous Dance Double Bill

Luu hlotitxw: Spirit Transforming by Dancers Damelahamid

NGS (Native Girl Syndrome) by Lara Kramer

Native Earth Performing Arts and DanceWorks CoWorks

Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto

April 21 to 23, 2016

Native Earth Performing Arts presents two indigenous dances that are poles apart, both geographically and culturally.

Luu hlotitxw: Spirit Transforming is based on traditional Pacific northwest Gitxsan dancing, singing and storytelling about a young man’s self-realization as he meets life’s challenges. NGS (Native Girl Syndrome) is purely contemporary in form, based on the degrading urban experience of the choreographer’s grandmother; it is a journey into alienation and self-destruction. Both need to be seen.

In Luu hlotitxw, Rebecca Baker, choreographer Margaret Grenier and Jeanette Kotowich enter the stage in long fringed dresses, button blankets emblazoned with totems, beaded headbands, moccasins, leg wrappers and decorated dorsal fins sticking out of their backs. These are the spirits of the orca and they move in ways to suggest the playful rising and diving of the Pacific killer whales – seen life-size in a video projected on the back screen. They chant as they move with silent footfalls in circular patterns.

Nigel Grenier sings too, in melodic phrases repeated with slight alterations (“yay ha hay /yo ha ho”). On first entry he bears a large bear mask in front of his face. The women surround him as he returns, bare-chested, to kneel on stage. They place cedar fronds in front of him. These are understood to be healing or protective.

The young man paints a black X on his chest with a paste given him by one of the women. He wears a second mask on re-entry, like the face of a small hunted animal. It is marvellous to see how these masks are animated by the dancer’s movement, so we sense without being told what this story is all about.  Another figure, a warrior with a very elaborate mask, comes in. The warrior attaches little heads to his mask, making him more animal-like and fierce, while the young man removes pieces of his mask to reveal the human beneath. In a clever bit of staging, we see him as a silouette on the screen depicting a forest, taking his rightful place in the universe.

In Montreal choreographer Lara Kramer’s dance for Angie Cheng and Karina Iraola, NGS, the women of the street, drugged, drunk or beaten down, are made faceless, their hair or their headwear obscuring their identities. This is a powerful reminder of the missing or murdered aboriginal women of Canada: unknown and unsought. The ubiquitous duct tape is a symbol of how they piece together a precarious existence.

Dressed like hookers in assorted found and damaged items, they stagger about, Iraola pushing a stroller and Cheng leaning over an old pram with a native symbol painted on it. At the back of the stage, a huge plastic tarp hangs in the rough shape of a teepee. Iraola makes her way  to music that goes from a loud, scratchy din to rock songs, such as “These Eyes,” to heavy metal music and drumming to something with the ironic lyric “…walk easy, walk slow.” In a head-hanging stupor, Iraola dresses in fake fur and huddles under her makeshift tent. Cheng, bare-breasted for part of her perambulations, rolls out a Canadian flag with a native image over the maple leaf. From one of her bags, she pulls out plastic miniatures of people and animals and places them in neat rows on the flag, as if this would make a home.

NGS takes a stereotype, magnifies it and flings it in our faces. The long silence at the end, as the two performers lay hunched over in the dark, is particularly affecting.

 

Top: Angie Cheng & Karina Iraola  Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Below: Dancers Damelahamid  Photo by Derek Dix

Damelahamid 6 - Credit Derek Dix