Luminato 2018 Theatre Review: RIOT (THISISPOPBABY)

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The Irish theme at this year’s Luminato Festival continues with RIOT. The production is the brainchild of THISISPOPBABY (aka Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon), a company that bills itself as having one foot in high art and the other in trash culture. Their mandate is to produce high-octane shows that blur the lines between circus, comedy, burlesque, dance and nightclub. Clearly Luminato programmed RIOT to attract the younger demographic, and the audience was filled with twenty and thirtysomethings out to have a good time. (The bar was kept open throughout the performance.)

So where does an old broad like me fit in with the ethos of RIOT? Not too well, I’m afraid. The format features acts that are on a loop as the 11 performers keep recycling themselves. The MC – Panti – one of Ireland’s foremost drag queens, garbled her words to an irritating degree. I’m sure there were things I could have laughed at if I could make out what she was saying. The language that I did take in, however, made me feel she wasn’t naughty enough. In other words, a pretty flat performance.

The street poetry segments performed by Kate Brennan were too long, and her three sets were way too many because she slowed down the show. Both Panti and Brennan were given rants designed to warm the cockles of liberal hearts and piss on corporate culture, while encouraging the audience to forge their own path and fuck destiny. Admittedly, I did like Brennen’s warning that the purpose of RIOT was to be a “theatre grenade“ (a phrase I plan to steal). Nonetheless, by the end of the show, these socio/political tirades had become so strident that I felt I had been hit over the head with a politically correct sledgehammer. As a mellow filler throughout the show, four singers appeared from time to time performing innocuous original pop songs composed by Alma Kelliher.

RIOT is not without its charms, however. Two acrobats (Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally) who call themselves Lords of Strut are hilarious. Their act is built upon one guy balancing in various poses upon the other. My absolutely favourite laugh-out-loud moment was when one of the Struts handed out swimming noodles to audience members, and invited them to come up on the stage and whip his cohort who was dressed as Jesus. I was surprised by the intensity of the noodle-holders as they really laid into the poor guy with gusto.

Ronan Brady who bills himself as a physical artist is a prime example of Irish beefcake. He performed his eye-catching aerial routines on a giant hoop and hanging leather straps, throwing in a clever striptease in the bargain. As each jockstrap was removed, it revealed an even skimpier one beneath, and just as it came to show-all time, Panti whistled him off the stage. Also entertaining were movement artists Up and Over It (aka Peter Harding and Suzanne Cleary) who did an eye-catching, lightning-fast, rhythmic hand-dance on a table while adding in Irish step dance with their feet below.

Even though I complain about Kate Brennan above, her middle set was an earnest rendering of street poet Emmet Kirwan’s poignant Heartache, a feminist tale about an Irish teenager who has to bring up her baby on her own. Apparently it’s quite famous and has a wide viewership on YouTube as performed by Kirwan. And finally, a very odd sequence of the show should be mentioned. As Brady performed calm and quiet manoeuvres in his giant hoop, the voiceover of an elderly man talked about problems with his iPod and Apple customer support in Bangalore. This phone call, anchored in the reality of today, leads the man to remember more innocent times when there were no dreams of iPods. It was an affecting moment even though completely out of place given the bumptious nature of RIOT.

For this show the Tanenbaum Opera Centre has been transformed into what Luminato calls the Festival Cabaret Room. Surrounding the stage are nightclub tables, with bleacher seating behind. The atmosphere is a sound and light show with pulsing music, flashing lights and colourful costumes. In fairness, I should say that the crowd gave RIOT a sort-of standing ovation, a lot of the crowd that is, but not all. I have been to spiegel tent shows such as RIOT and loved every minute of them. Unfortunately, RIOT is too much of a mixed bag to be totally successful.

 Luminato 2018, RIOT (THISISPOPBABY), created and directed by Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon, Festival Cabaret Room, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Jun. 5 to 16.

 

 

 

Luminato 2018 Dancetheatre Review: Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (Teac Damsa

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Alex Leonhartsberger and Rachel Poirier
Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

The point of a festival is seeing performing arts that are different or unique to showings in your own town – or why have a festival at all? With this statement as a dictum, let’s look at one of the opening shows of Luminato 2018 – Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. As it happens, the production is perfect festival fare.

The dancetheatre piece is the brainchild of writer, director, choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, artistic director of the Irish-based company Teac Damsa (Gaelic for House of the Dance). Keegan-Dolan’s mandate, according to the program notes, is to forge a deeper connection to Ireland’s cultural roots, native traditions, language and rich musical heritage. In Swan Lake, he manages to do just that and more.

The best way to describe Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is a fusion of dark contemporary reality, Irish story-telling and mythology, and the plot of Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet (the latter providing the sub-structure of the piece). The locale has been moved to the Irish midlands from a dark Germanic forest. Instead of the restless Prince Siegfried, we have the deeply depressed, suicidal 36-year-old Jimmy O’Reilly (Austrian Alex Leonhartsberger). Everyone thinks Jimmy is “mental” because he’s being treated with opioids. The swan queen Odette (French Rachel Poirier) is now a young girl, Finola, who has been sexually abused by the local priest, and transformed by him, along with her three younger sisters, into mute swans to ensure their silence. The evil sorcerer von Rothbart is incarnated into the perverted priest, a shifty, opportunistic county councillor, and a trigger-happy policeman.

Mikel Murfi
Photo: Marie-Laure Briane

Charismatic actor Mikel Murfi who plays all three roles is listed in the program as The Holy Man, an ironic label if ever there was one. He is also the narrator who describes the events throughout, and his compelling performance anchors the production. He also has a fourth role. As the audience enters the theatre, Murfi, garbed only in loincloth underpants, has a rope around his neck attached to a concrete block. He is baa-ing (like a sheep) or bleating (like a goat) – he sounds and moves like both – but whichever you believe he is, his symbolism dictates man as animal which can be read in many ways, from sacrificial lamb or Judas goat, to unbridled male bestiality.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman
Photo: Marie-Laure Briane

The only other speaking role is Jimmy’s wheelchair-bound, arthritic mother Nancy O’Reilly played by Australian dance icon Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, who is apparently 83-years-old. Nancy, in a way, causes Jimmy’s acute depression. He still hasn’t got over his father’s death a year ago, when she announces she wants to tear down the old homestead, which Jimmy loves, and replace it with a modern, but characterless council house. Like the Queen Mother in the original Swan Lake, Nancy organizes Jimmy’s birthday party, which includes eligible young women because she wants to see him married. Instead of a bow and arrows, Jimmy gets his father’s shotgun as a present.

The Dublin-based Nordic/Irish folk band, with the wonderful name of Slow Moving Clouds, provides the haunting original score which is one of the glories of the work. Kudos to violinist Danny Diamond, cellist Mary Barnecutt and Finnish-born Aki, who plays the nyckelharpa, an ancient Swedish traditional folk instrument, which produces a mournful sound much like a hurdy-gurdy. These three musicians together produce the saddest music imaginable.

The dance component is a constant under The Holy Man’s storytelling. Keegan-Dolan has fashioned choreography that is more folk and ritual than it is recognizable contemporary dance or ballet. Besides Jimmy and Finola, the cast contains three female and three male dancers who help augment the story line through dance. Traditional is a good way to describe the movement with its circles and synchronization.

Sabine Dargent’s set design is suitably stark – just four ladders of varying heights holding the bedraggled wings of the swans, and a back riser for the musicians. Hyemi Shin’s black and white costume design carries on the bleakness of the mood. It should be mentioned that there is humour in the piece, although it is of the noir type, such as Keegan-Dolan’s choreography for three possible brides at the party who are grotesquely portrayed by men.

Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The show abounds in clever symbolic imagery. Jimmy’s beloved homestead is represented by several concrete blocks and Keegan-Dolan has given his character startling movement patterns over, on and around these blocks. The four swans’ enchantment is shown by their being cocooned within a sheet of white plastic. Whether Jimmy sees Finola for real, or as part of his opioid-induced vision, their two pas de deux are heart-wrenching, even traumatic. Their solace is fleeting. Finola may have stopped Jimmy from killing himself, but, needless to say, their story ends badly with Jimmy shot to death by the Garda.

As for the work’s contemporary themes – clinical depression, the opioid crisis, and clergy abuse are ripped out of today’s headlines. In fact, Keegan-Dolan has included a rather poetic program note about depression, and moving past it, and to prove that there is light beyond the darkness – just as the original Swan Lake ends with the apotheosis of Siegfried and his Swan Queen ascending to heaven, Keegan-Dolan has created an apotheosis of his own. The entire cast of actors, dancers and musicians swirl around the stage in a frenzy, hurling a deluge of white feathers every which way until they are barely visible in the whiteout.

Luminato 2018, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (Teac Damsa), written, directed and choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, Bluma Appel Theatre, Jun. 6 to 10.

 

 

 

 

Musings – Ontario Election 2018

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On the night Donald Trump was elected, comedienne Jenna Friedman on a late night talk show summed up the situation perfectly with – “We’re fucked.” Never did I think that I would be in the same boat with a meathead elected as premier in my own province. Now it’s my turn to say, “We’re fucked.”

The only smart Ontario voters live in Toronto. I’m talking about the old Toronto, the real Toronto without Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, all of which might as well be in the 905 belt. They are suburbs, not city. No Doug ford here. He didn’t deliver Toronto. All eight downtown ridings voted NDP.

I want to start a separatist movement. I want Toronto to secede from Ontario – just the old Toronto, the real Toronto. We who live in the city are at the mercy of Luddites and nincompoops. I am not a loyal Ontarian, not after this election.

Let’s feel sorry for the arts. We’re in for a rough four years. There probably won’t be an Ontario Arts Council by the time the Ford regime is through.

This is what passes for culture in the Ford family. One of Doug Ford’s bottle blonde daughters plays lingerie football. Yes there is an actual league. She tried out for the  Toronto team and posted her delight at making the cut. The outfit consists of a skimpy show-all bra and panties plus football gear – and she’s proud of it. I’m not kiddidng about this. Look it up.

I have always considered Doug Ford as his late brother Rob’s enabler. If Rob was an embarrassment, what are we in for now?

Remember that Doug Ford referred to Justin Trudeau as a “camp counselor” in a sneering reference to the latter’s leadership quality. He’s going to take us back to the Mike Harris/Stephen Harper days.

And let us not forget that Rob Ford wouldn’t march in the Pride Parade. He didn’t want the Rainbow flag flown at city hall either, if I remember correctly. Brother Doug is also a probable bigot.

Welcome to Trumpland, Canada style. The American moron has now a northern foothold.

Did anyone think that Doug Ford was drunk as he made his rambling acceptance speech?

And finally, attention Doug Ford voters. Remember the Chinese curse – be careful what you wish for. Ontario bad.

Dance Review: National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame (An Homage to Norman McLaren)

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Dance Review: The National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame directed by Robert Lepage & choreographed by Guillaume Côté

Photo: Karolina Kuras

The world premiere of the National Ballet of Canada’s Frame by Frame left me stunned and speechless, the former due to the work’s eye-popping, even mind-boggling, visual assault on the senses, the latter because words can’t possibly capture the piece’s immense canvas of creativity. In short – Frame by Frame is a work of genius (directed by Robert Lepage and choreographed by Guillaume Côté) about a man of genius (Norman Mclaren).

The ballet is an homage to McLaren (1914-1987), the great film pioneer and founder of the animation department of The National Film Board of Canada, who made the name of the organization famous throughout the world. In fact, there is an oft-repeated belief in Hollywood circles that whoever is accepting an Oscar for best animated short subject, it is probably a Canadian.

I realize it is bad journalism for the writer to impose herself as first person into a review, but for this production, I can’t help myself. Viewing Frame by Frame is an intense personal experience. At the opening night, the bond between the stage events and the audience was so strong it was palpable. We were willing and able, so to speak. Our job was to react, and we did with enthusiastic response throughout the dance. The audience was totally alive, and I’ve never seen its like before at the ballet. We energetically clapped at the end of each scene, and tossed in whistles and whoops when we really, really liked something, not to mention our wholehearted laughter at some of the more humorous elements.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

The work itself is built around a succession of short vignettes devoted to a McLaren film, and usually highlighting one of his many collaborators. For example, we see McLaren (Jack Bertinshaw) and Evelyn Lambart (Greta Hodgkinson) portraying, in movement, their innovative technique of creating images directly on filmstrip for Begone Dull Care (1949), while behind them is projected an explosion of colours from the film. In fact, several of McLaren’s famous movies are actually recreated on stage, notably Neighbours (1952) and A Chairy Tale (1957). Some scenes also focus on McLaren’s personal life such as his relationship with his life partner, actor, director, producer Guy Glover (Félix Paquet). Clearly, this ballet has made second soloist Bertinshaw a star given his luminous performance, and the young dancer was inundated with a rousing chorus of cheers during his solo bows.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

At over two hours without an intermission, the piece is overlong, and at some point, my inner clock was telling me that Lepage needed a ruthless editor. Lepage, however, has always taken his own sweet time when it comes to showcasing his creative imagination and critics be damned. And to be truthful, just which of the divine cameos would you throw out? – and the answer is, absolutely nothing. Each of the scenes is a gem, bursting with a radiance of imagination that demands to be seen.

Lepage is one of Canada’s theatrical superstars with a world-wide following. His name is also synonymous with technology, and Frame by Frame is a tour-de-force of the astonishing images that can happen when lighting, video and projections meet live action. The play with light and shadow on a dancer’s body is eye-popping. Particularly fetching is when this production actually copies McLaren’s animation techniques and out does McLaren at his own game! At times it is even impossible to tell what is real life and what is recorded. Each vignette has its own breath-taking singularity. One prime example is the scene where NFB founder John Grierson (Tomas Shramek) meets with McLaren and Glover to invite them to join his organization. The three men are seated at a table while an overhead camera captures on a big screen their lively conversation portrayed by the patterns made by three pairs of hands. (See what I mean? These words just don’t cut it in describing the brilliance of the vignette.)

Photo: David Leclerc

Which brings us to choreographer Côté, the National’s choreographic associate, who has covered himself in glory with this ballet. His modus operandi is a combination of McLaren’s actual movement from his films and Côté’s own original steps. In the latter case, he has come up with unique movement for each vignette and there is never a hint of repetition. Completely delightful, for example, is the choreography for McLaren when he is in the throes of imagining a new animation technique. Bertinshaw’s body shimmies and shakes with supple ease while his arms twirl in circles. He is literally a whirling dervish with every part of him breathlessly alive and alert. He is the quintessential cartoon character with a light bulb over his head. Because Côté intimately knows the National’s dancers, he is able to cast judiciously, and in return, the company does him proud. In summary, Côté’s choreography is at the heart of the piece as it embraces McLaren as creator and collaborator. Solos, pas de deux, ensembles – every movement detail seems a perfect proportion of expression.

During the curtain calls, and there were many, I counted 19 performers and 13 members of the creative team. I don’t have the words to convey the triumph of the score, sets, costumes, and particularly the lighting and video designs. To do these elements justice would be an overwhelming task. Lepage always works with an army of collaborators when he is developing a new work for his Ex Machina company, and clearly, for Frame by Frame, he brought along his A-team.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

Collectively, Lepage, Côté et al. have created one of the greatest ballets ever made in Canada/fait au Canada. It is a masterpiece.

Frame by Frame, The National Ballet of Canada, directed by Robert Lepage, choreographed by Guillaume Côté, Four Seasons Centre, Jun. 1 to 10, 2018.

 

Link to Frame by Frame tickets: https://national.ballet.ca/Productions/2017-18-Season/Frame-by-Frame.

 

Interview – Greta Hodgkinson, principal dancer, The National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame

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Photo: David Leclerc

Interview with Greta Hodgkinson, principal dancer, The National Ballet of Canada, about the new Robert Lepage/Guillaume Côté work, Frame by Frame.

INTRODUCTION

The most highly anticipated dance event of the year has to be Frame by Frame, an homage to the life and work of film pioneer Norman McLaren, created by theatre icon Robert Lepage and choreographer Guillaume Côté. The production premieres on June 1.

Lepage’s name is spoken with reverence throughout the world. He is a genuine polymath, a director, writer, experimenter and innovator – in short., a creative genius. Fellow Québecois Côté is a principal dancer and associate choreographer with the National Ballet who has been much in demand throughout the world as a dance artist. Latterly, he has turned his hand to choreography, with a penchant for taking on difficult subjects that he vividly transforms into movement. Together, Lepage and Côté could be called theatrical royalty.

As for the idolized McLaren (1914-1987), the Scots-born filmmaker was brought to Montreal in 1941 by John Grierson, the founder of The National Film Board of Canada. McLaren went on to make the NFB famous world-wide for the new techniques he developed for both live action and animation. One of his most famous innovations was drawing directly on raw film stock. A quintessential McLaren work is the anti-war Neighbours (1952), which won a well-deserved Oscar for its brilliant fusion of live actors and animated images. And then there are his captivating dance films – Pas de Deux (1968), Ballet Adagio (1972) and Narcissus (1983) – which transformed movement into magical flights of imagination through McLaren’s breath-taking, pioneering use of the camera.

In the following interview, National principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson talks about being part of this all-important new dance work.

THE INTERVIEW

Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic

Did you know who Norman McLaren was before this piece?

I’m not sure any of us did. I had seen his film Pas de Deux at the ballet school, but I hadn’t put a name to it.

I was surprised to find out that Frame by Frame actually has named characters on stage. I thought it would be strictly about McLaren’s work.

It’s not a straight bio, but we do get glimpses of the people in his life. The main concentration is an overview of his pioneering film techniques, which we see through twenty or so vignettes. At certain points, the characters come in and collaborate with him. They are like cameo roles. Each vignette is about five or six minutes long and is self-contained in and of itself. When all the vignettes were in place, we then ran the show to see which scenes worked where. It’s actually a small cast in ballet terms with only sixteen dancers, so there were issues with costume changes etc.

You portray Evelyn Lambart who was one of McLaren’s collaborators. What do you know about her?

Evelyn was first a student of his before she became a close collaborator. As McLaren got more into movement fusion, she branched out on her own. She is now considered a great animation pioneer. For the film Begone Dull Care (1949) she and McLaren painted directly on filmstrips. In the dance vignette you see Evelyn and McLaren paint, cut, paste and edit. The vignette captures us in the act of creation. McLaren’s work was all analogue. He didn’t have any of the digital software available today.

Was there any character development on your part?

Not really. Because the scenes are so short, Jack Bertinshaw, who portrays McLaren, and I, have to establish our relationship – the dynamic between us – right from the start. I had to come in knowing who Evelyn was and what she meant to McLaren.

So are you only in the one scene?

No. Characters are brought back to life, so to speak. I also dance in ensemble pieces.

How did Robert and Guillaume divide the work?

You could say that they were co-bosses, but Robert was the concept man. It is really his show, and in developing the vignettes, he was meticulous in portraying the truth about McLaren. In other words, all the scenes are true to life. For example, all the costumes in the film sequences are taken directly from the films. Robert directed exits and entrances, action sequences, and life scenes etc., while Guillaume created all the dance movement.

What’s Guillaume’s choreography like?

He actually used a lot of different styles depending on the vignette. For example, he created jazzy movement to reflect jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s score for Beyond Dull Care. As a general description, I’d say the choreography is a mix of contemporary ballet and modern dance.

Lepage always takes years to develop his pieces. You must have been working on Frame by Frame for a long time.

In fact it’s been three years. The first workshop was in 2015.

What’s it like to experience the Lepage development technique?

Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov

Working with him was incredible. Robert surrounded us with a totally creative environment. We literally started off with a blank canvas. We first sat around a table and watched McLaren’s films. Robert’s main interest was translating McLaren to the stage. He encouraged us to come up with ideas on how to put McLaren into movement. If they didn’t work, he’d throw them out and we’d try something else. That is not how a big ballet company works. Usually the choreographer comes in and sets a piece in a matter of weeks. There’s no real input from the dancers. We’re also usually dealing with stories and characters in the large narrative ballets. But from the very beginning of developing Frame by Frame, Robert outlined very clearly that the inspiration for this piece was McLaren’s films, which was something new to us.

The name Lepage is synonymous with technology. How is your scene affected?

The lighting effects are wild, particularly how they are used on our bodies. We’re also playing against footage of Beyond Dull Care. It’s really difficult to describe.

What do you want the audience to take away from this dance piece?

First, I want them to recognize Frame by Frame as an homage to Norman McLaren and his work. I also want them to experience something different at the ballet, because this piece is a complete departure from anything we’ve ever done. They will also see the genius of Robert Lepage because the piece contains technology that the National has never worked with before.

Any final thoughts?

All the dancers are excited. Creating Frame by Frame was like being in a lab. We kept learning one new thing after another.

(The world premiere of Frame by Frame takes place on June 1 and runs at the Four Seasons Centre until June 10, 2018. Take note: there is no intermission. The link for tickets and info, http://paulacitron.ca/interviews/interview-greta-hodgkinson-principal-dancer-national-ballet-canada-frame-frame/.)