The new artistic managing director of Chutzpah!, Jessica Mann Gutteridge, faced unique challenges in presenting the festival. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“This has been a challenging time for all communities. I hope that this year’s Chutzpah! Festival can bring a sense of joy, and the communal spirit that comes from sharing performing arts experiences with others, whether at the theatre or from the comfort of home,” said artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge in a recent interview with the Jewish Independent.
This will be the first-ever Chutzpah! The Lisa Nemetz International Jewish Performing Arts Festival that people will be able to watch at home. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the performances will be available online, Nov. 21-28, with a few opportunities to attend small-audience shows that are being live-streamed from the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. Not only will this be the first Chutzpah! presented digitally in the festival’s 20-year history, but it will be the first directed by Gutteridge.
“I knew that I had an exciting and challenging year ahead of me when I took the helm of Chutzpah! from Mary-Louise Albert, who was artistic director before me for 15 years,” said Gutteridge. “I really could not have anticipated how much the world would change just three weeks later, when the pandemic shuttered the Rothstein Theatre and the entire performing arts sector. The first month or so was spent focusing on our staff’s well-being and helping the many users of our theatre to reschedule and replan all the events that had to be canceled.
“The first thing I did for the Chutzpah! Festival was to take some time to think,” she said. “My board was wonderfully supportive from Day 1 and assured me that whatever scale I felt was right would be all right with them – even if I wanted to postpone for a year. I spent a great deal of time just thinking about the purposes of the festival, how it serves the community and the relationships we have with our audiences and community of artists. Even before COVID, when I was thinking about what my first festival might look like in a transition time, I felt inspired to bring together artists who had performed in the festival in the past with new artists who I hoped would join us in the future. So, I began by reaching out to artists from both groups so that we could just start to get to know each other, and find out how everyone was responding to this unprecedented situation.”
By early summer, said Gutteridge, it became clear that the health-related restrictions with respect to the pandemic would still be in place in November, “so I began to think about how we might incorporate digital presentations into the festival, and to talk to artists who were exploring this form of performance in their work.
“I was thrilled to learn that Iris Bahr, who was in the 2019 festival, is not only a brilliant actor and stand-up comic, but is also a podcaster who interviews other artists and public intellectuals with much wit and insight. I invited her to perform her solo stand-up, but also to function as our festival host and conduct live interviews with all the festival artists,” said Gutteridge. “Because Iris divides her time between Israel, New York and Los Angeles, we knew she would have to appear digitally and, though this adds another layer of technical complexity, I think it’s such a special opportunity that the present moment brings us – to join artists from across the world and have a chance to learn more about how the pandemic is changing and shaping their creative work.”
The festival’s online-only shows will include Bahr’s stand-up comedy performance (click here for story); New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen’s Shtumer Shabes (Silent Sabbath) and former Vancouverite-current Londoner (England) Tamara Micner’s Old Friends, both of which are works-in-progress; a concert by Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus; and Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim.
There will be two shows live-streamed from the Rothstein, where limited audiences will be permitted. Ben Caplan will perform music from Old Stock, which is adapted from his music-theatre piece Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (see jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). And Chutzpah! artist-in-residence Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance) presents the world première of Hourglass. Closing out the festival are Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini (click here for story), who will be live-streaming from Brooklyn, joined by yet-to-be-announced local comedians performing at the Rothstein.
The lineup is a fraction of what it would have been if not for COVID, but Gutteridge thought it important to proceed with the event.
“Well, for starters, I’m stubborn and I like a challenge!” she said of the decision. “I also knew that we were well-positioned with staff and support to execute a creative and fulfilling festival, even though it would not look much like past festivals. In talking to colleagues inside and outside the JCC, and hearing from our community via a survey in July, I understood that there was a lot of enthusiasm to keep experiencing the kind of performing arts presentations that Chutzpah! has offered for 20 years now. And, looking ahead to dark November nights, I think we can offer a communal experience that will bring some much-needed joy.”
In addition to focusing on quality entertainment, health and safety has been at the forefront of the planning.
“We have worked carefully with health and performing arts sector experts to make sure that we are providing the safest possible experiences for audiences, staff and artists, including at our physically distanced, intimate live events at the Rothstein Theatre,” said Gutteridge. “I’m also very impressed by how our artists have risen to the challenge. Rokhl Kafrissen, the playwright of Shtumer Shabes, has been working with her cast via Zoom since April, when they presented a workshop of the play in lieu of the debut performance they were scheduled to have at LABA in New York. Our audiences will have a chance to meet the artists and see excerpts from the play, with context about the work’s meaning and creation, all performed from the artists’ individual locations. It’s a special opportunity for our audiences to peek inside the creative process.
“Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, a new dance piece with live piano accompaniment, is being created this fall at the Rothstein Theatre as part of our creative residency program. With 318 seats and a large stage, the theatre is large enough for physical distancing, and Idan is working with a skeleton crew – often just himself and the two dancers at work. The dancers, Brandon Lee Alley and Racheal Prince, are partners offstage as well as on, so they are already in a household bubble. The other dance piece, Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, comes to us from the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, where the performance was previously recorded in a studio theatre, so that health and safety protocols could be observed and the dancers could form their own bubble.”
Tickets for the festival start at $18 and are available online at chutzpahfestival.com or by phone at 604-257-5145.
Iris Bahr pulls double duty at the 2020 Chutzpah! Festival, as host and performer. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Comedien, writer, actor, director, producer and podcaster Iris Bahr will both host this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 21-28, and perform her stand-up live Nov. 26.
Known for her eclectic characters, Bahr will call on many of them as she converses with the other festival artists as part of her hosting duties.
“I’ll be conducting these conversations either as myself or as some of my characters, depending on the artist I’m speaking to,” Bahr told the Independent. “My alter egos include Shosh, the salty Israeli who has become popular on Instagram, Rae Lynn Caspar White, my ‘Southern redneck intellectual,’ and Shuli, my Orthodox character who is beyond excited to ‘dive into the arts’ for the first time.”
Many JI readers will know Bahr’s stand-up from having seen her perform at last year’s Chutzpah! The show will be somewhat different this time around.
“My stand-up will involve more crowd work and storytelling versus just straight-on stand-up to camera,” she said. “I have found that to be a more captivating and enjoyable experience for everyone involved when the audience can also engage and experience each other’s presence, it’s the closest we can get to a communal live theatrical experience in these challenging times.”
Eman El-Husseini, left, and Jess Salomon with furry family member Esther Honey El-Husseini. (photo by Mike Bryck)
Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, close out this year’s Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 28. They will live-stream from Brooklyn, and local comedians will join the event from the Rothstein Theatre.
In performance, the married Jewish-Palestinian lesbian comedy duo leans into the things that make them unique. Their chemistry is not only evident on stage, but even comes out in an email interview, where the pair play off one another like, well, a couple who knows and loves each other well.
JI: You met when you were each performing solo routines and continued in that vein, I think, even after you were married. When and why did you team up professionally as well?
Jess: It didn’t really come from us. We weren’t out in comedy until we got engaged so it was only after that, that we started making jokes about our relationship. Sometimes, we’d follow each other on a show and it became obvious who we were talking about. Like how many Jewish-Muslim-Palestinian Canadian couples that moved to America from Canada are there? Another comedy couple might be able to be on a show together and say my boyfriend did this or my girlfriend did that, and no one would connect that they were referring to one another. So, we built in this reveal and, eventually, people started asking if we were going to share the stage together. We didn’t want to, but it’s a sacrifice we make for the fans!
Eman: The first time we shared the stage was at a gig in an old synagogue turned community centre in L.A. I went on first and introduced Jess for her performance. We bantered, unprepared, on stage for about 10 minutes. We had no idea a reviewer from Tablet was in the audience and, although we individually performed for about 30 minutes separately, that 10 minutes of banter stole the show…. We didn’t think much of it but, a year later, 2018, we were in our hometown of Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival. The BBC World Service was in town to put on a comedy show. They called us and asked if we’d want to record a set together and we said, ‘absolutely not.’ First of all, they have a huge listenership and we wouldn’t be able to polish an act under such short notice and, second, no one wants or should want to work with their spouse. But, the British have a way to persuade, it must be the accent.
At the same time, because we were back in our hometown, Just for Laughs offered us two shows to do whatever we wanted. We decided to perform individually for 20 minutes and then 20 minutes together. We almost got divorced but the audience loved it! We sold out both nights and added a third. Who would have thought a duo act would be so sought after? We’ve been working together ever since, and we are still married! I think, at this point, if we ever separated, we’d have to be closeted about getting divorced.
JI: From where do you get the strength and confidence to be a stand-up comedian?
Eman: I have no idea why and how I’ve stuck with this career after my first set. I bombed so hard and, until today, continue to bomb at times, but there is truly an addictive element to making someone laugh. Even if it’s a single person in a room. Laughter is so genuine and isn’t easily had. I mean, even in our day-to-day life Jess and I will share with each other how we made a stranger laugh shopping for groceries or walking the dog. It’s so rewarding.
Jess: Making strangers laugh and then talking about it is 100% an Eman thing. Right now, we’re in an argument over a speech therapist I’m convinced she hired just to entertain while she insists she has a speech impediment that must be fixed.
Eman: I feel like my strength and confidence comes from my parents. Although my sister and I have a brother, I managed to be the favourite.
Jess: You do have a masculine energy they might be responding to.
Eman: A big reason I wanted to be a stand-up comic is because of how misrepresented and underrepresented Arabs, Muslims and particularly Palestinians are in the media. More often than not, I am the first Palestinian someone meets in real life. I feel like an ambassador of sorts, dispelling stereotypes about my people. Exposure is such a powerful tool in getting through to people and if you can make them laugh that’s a big bonus. Even if people are immediately turned off by what I represent, they are still curious to hear what I have to say. I remember headlining a show in Niagara Falls once. I had to be on stage for 45 minutes. Twenty minutes in, I realized I haven’t made a single person laugh….
Jess: I love that it took you 20 minutes! That’s confidence.
Eman: They were conservative-leaning so, I called them out, ‘Guys! I know you don’t like what I’m saying but I can tell you like me.’ That eviscerated the room! From that moment forward I knew I could never quit comedy even if I wanted to.
Jess: I tried to do a joke about the no smoking sign on the plane and quickly realized there were at least a few comics who had done the same joke. That’s when I realized it’s better when I pull from personal experience. Even if I’m not an ambassador like Eman. I’m not the first Jewish comedian people have seen.
JI: How and when did your new Crave Canada special, Marriage of Convenience, come about?
Jess: After performing in Montreal for Just for Laughs and the BBC in 2018, we kept working on our duo act and growing our audience on Instagram for our comics (@theelsalomons). We sent a tape of what grew into an hour-long show to Just for Laughs and that’s how we got booked for the Crave special.
Eman: We realized people preferred us together than individually, which is insulting considering we had about a decade each of solo experience. It’s understandable, there are so many stand-up comics but rarely any duo acts.
Jess: There’s no one I’d rather lose my individual identity for.
JI: What is the origin of the cartoons?
Eman: Jess came up with the idea. We would get such a huge response on social media when we’d write these back-and-forth status updates about each other.
Jess: Huge is relative.
Eman: People asking when the sitcom was coming out.
Jess: And, knowing that it would take awhile for us to find the time to write a pilot that was pitch-ready and be in a place where we could sell a series, a weekly cartoon on Instagram seemed like a manageable place to start to develop the character version of ourselves and, hopefully, an audience. We also have a close family friend, Jesse Brown, who just happens to be an incredible illustrator that wanted to work on this with us. So that’s how it was born.
Eman: The El-Salomons was the hashtag for our wedding, and Jesse drew us for our invitations … my mother-in-law saw them and said, “He made you look thin.”
Jess: Actually, yes, that is how it was born.
* * *
Chutzpah! starts Nov. 21. For the full lineup and tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
Mary-Louise Albert returns to the stage Nov. 19-21 in a new work by choreographer Serge Bennathan. (photo by Maxx Berkowitz)
The Dance Centre presents Mary-Louise Albert: Solo Dances/Past into Present Nov. 19-21. Jewish Independent readers will be very familiar with Mary-Louise Albert, whose resumé includes a two-decade career as a solo dance artist and dance company member, as well as 15 years directing the Chutzpah! Festival.
The JI last spoke to Albert as she was moving on from Chutzpah! to other endeavours (jewishindependent.ca/bidding-adieu-to-chutzpah). In that interview last year, Albert said, “At 64, I still have a bit of ‘oomph’ left to pursue.”
“The ‘oomph’ related to centring work and artistry, in this next journey of mine, on dance and having the energy and focus to do it well,” Albert said when the JI caught up with her in anticipation of the upcoming show. “This next phase of my working life includes not only personal dance creation and performance projects like this one, but, as well, developing new Canadian and international professional contemporary dance through the B.C. Movement Arts Society, which I co-founded and direct, that will take place in remote and rural areas of B.C. We have received the very good news of confirmed provincial and federal funding and our first series starts late spring to December 2021.
“The Solo Dances/Past into Present project was developed over the past two years. The three solos being presented were created and performed during the last six years of my 20-year professional dance career, when I was between 39 and 45 years old. Because they were created during this latter period of my dancing career, when I stopped dancing, they stopped with me. I was never really interested in choreographing so, when I stopped dancing, I didn’t look back. I was ready and wanted to head into the next chapter of my working life, which involved business school and ended with directing the Chutzpah! Festival and Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre for 15 years. We, the choreographers and myself, were all in our 40s and older and everyone moved on.
“But,” she added, “in the back of my mind, over these past years, I knew it was not right to let these beautiful dances end with me. I felt like there was ‘a little something’ still missing from this very enjoyable period of my career as a solo-commissioning dancer. A sense that something was not quite complete. It became clear that I needed to pass on the solos to this generation of outstanding female dancers and support their growth with performing options by way of building their solo repertoire. I received personal financial support from the Canada Council and BC Arts Council and this multilayered project of artistic sharing that brings two generations of dance artists together in the reconstruction of Canadian contemporary choreography began!”
Solo Dances/Past into Present features Peter Bingham’s Woman Walking (away), danced by Livona Ellis; Tedd Robinson’s oLOS, featuring Vanessa Goodman; and Allen Kaeja’s Trace Elements, performed by Rebecca Margolick. (More to come in the Nov. 13 JI.)
“The solos have not been performed since 2001 and have never been remounted and reworked,” said Albert. “As a dance professional, I feel strongly that it is important to revisit these eclectic and beautifully crafted solos and put them back in repertoire with Canadian (B.C.-based/-born/-raised) dancers who have the versatility and desire to further develop the works, enjoy and share.
“Working so intimately with Allen Kaeja, Tedd Robinson and Peter Bingham many years ago brought a level of understanding as a solo performer that I had not experienced before in such depth,” she said. “As people, they all had/have a wonderful down-to-earth approach to themselves and their work and this led to a generosity and nonjudgmental approach to their creative process with me.”
Albert said the three solos “are all very different and timeless.” She described oLOS as “a deeply intuitive and somewhat mysterious work that transports performer and audience on an inquisitive journey, via the nature-walking and naïve love of [Gustav] Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer”; Woman Walking (away) as “a journey of one, arriving or leaving, listening to memory that is gently propelling what is next for her in an exploration of a complex yet personal quest”; and Trace Elements “wishes that this work of memory of persecution was just a source of history uncovered, but the dance is as relevant today with the growth of fascism and antisemitism as it was 21 years ago when it was created.”
In addition to remounting these works with other soloists, Albert herself will be performing the première of the first phase of a new solo work, Empreintes (which means fingerprints), commissioned from Serge Bennathan.
“At the age of 65, I’m going back on stage after a 19-year hiatus. I am still a bit dumbstruck by this,” said Albert, “and will be honest that I still often find myself mentally whispering WTF? But it is part of this new dance journey of mine as a senior citizen. I’ve never shied away from challenges and listening to my soul. There are many dance artists still performing at this age but most have never stopped. This is certainly a special experience, with its range of physical and emotional exploration, to be coming back to it at the age of 65.”
Bennathan, she said, “is a profound dance artist and is a beautiful painter and poet, as well. This new work explores the layers of artistry, physical trust and depth of reflection that a new stage in life, which I am embarking on, opens up. Serge is interested in the artist in me that is now, and the work reflects this…. The simplicity, strength and internal depth of the work, and the trust we have in each other, is quite simply a gift.”
In creating a commissioned work, Bennathan said, “The process always starts by trying to feel the energy of the dancer, then trying to discover what is just behind, what is the essence of why the artist desires to do such a work. Then, once together in the studio, if I can reduce the process to one word it would be ‘listening.’ That is the most important, to be listening to the inner self of each other to create a dynamic.”
He said “the idea of Albert passing on works created for her by powerful creators to magnificent dancers is fantastic. What a beautiful and creative way to feed the texture of a community in all its dimensions.”
“I feel that Mary-Louise’s foresight and inspiration to reenvision her past solos with the original choreographers and giving them, if wanted, the freedom to also reimagine the solos on these three mid-career dancers, was brilliant,” agreed Kaeja. “Her project intrinsically melds past with present in a generational sharing for all of us involved.”
For Trace Elements, which “deals with present and past antisemitism and cultural intolerance,” Kaeja said Margolick brings “not only her natural Jewish genealogy, but her depth of self, range of talent and profound and thoughtful life experience into this creative process…. I love that Mary-Louise has also invited Serge to choreograph a new solo for her – created specifically for who she is now as an individual, dancer, creator, innovator, curator and powerhouse – is profound.”
For Kaeja, creating a commissioned work centres around the person commissioning it. “My process is called ‘structured innovations,’ whereas I create a series of parameters that are clearly defined in physicality, intent and quality and texture of the movement,” he said. “With these boundaries, the dancer begins to create movement vocabularies and physical ideas. I then invite variations to the movement suggestions, redefine these in many ways and finally create the final choreography. I have always credited the dancers as ‘created with and performed by.’”
The creative process “is different with each solo,” said Bingham. “It depends partially on what the dancer is used to. I would say that it is always collaborative and research-oriented. The search is to find a language, both verbal and physical, that becomes our focus. I stress that the search must be mutually creative, an exchange. We try physical ideas and curiosities until the piece begins to reveal itself. In short, it becomes a product of our relationship.”
Similarly, Robinson works closely with the dancers involved. “When commissioned,” he said, “I assess the room (the space) and performer (who will move in the space). I start with basic concepts that I have developed, steps that sort of help us to get to know one another. As I see how the performer(s) interpret what I show or say, then I am better able to assess the space we will cover, the space of the creation and the space that the performer will need to inhabit. From there, we work together to create.”
With regards to the piece he created with Albert, Robinson said, “It was a more technical solo than I might normally do, because Mary-Louise likes to move and move big, so that is what we incorporated, plus the small and detailed work that I often use. I also worked on some bigger dramatics and that attracted me. I liked to lip sync when I was younger, so I feel that we lip synced with our total body for this work of Mahler.”
The planning and creation process of Solo Dances/Past into Present began and was completed before COVID-19, except for her solo with Bennathan, said Albert. “There have been challenges,” she said, “as the dancers have gone back to the solos, needing studio space to rehearse for this show during the pandemic. Serge and I worked mainly in Sointula, which has an inherently blissful feel to it (and lots of humpback whales!) so it made creating during COVID easier. We also are working at the Dance Centre, as are the other dancers, which has been excellent.”
The Dance Centre has COVD-19 protocols in place. “Executive director Mirna Zagar and the entire Dance Centre staff are working tirelessly, making it possible on so many levels for artists to be able to get back into the studio and on stage and be safe,” said Albert, who also gave “a big shout out” to technical and lighting director Mimi Abrahams. “We have worked together now for over 10 years and she is truly the unsung hero that makes it all happen,” said Albert. “Her calmness and clear head gives us a grounded base as we gear up to perform in the middle of a pandemic.”
Michael Scholar Jr. directs Lungs, which is at Studio 16 Nov. 13-22. (photo from Mitch and Murray Productions)
If you’ve not been to the theatre in many months, consider treating yourself to a COVID-19-safe performance of Lungs, opening at Studio 16 in Vancouver Nov. 13, and running to Nov. 22. Michael Scholar Jr. is the Jewish director of the play, which stars real-life married couple Aaron Craven and his wife, Kate Craven, who is also a member of the Jewish community.
Audience numbers will be limited to 25 in this two-actor performance, in which the couple discusses whether or not they should have a child. The discussion takes place over many years and the debate is over whether childbearing is the morally correct choice in a world brimming with overpopulation, hatred, racism and climate change.
“The ideas and issues brought up in this piece really resonate right now in the pandemic, with regards to questions like, Are we taking care of the planet, our neighbours and ourselves?” Scholar told the Independent. “This really resonates with us as artists and, to approach this during the pandemic, seems really timely.”
Lungs was written by Duncan McMillan, a British playwright, and debuted in 2011. Aaron Craven, the co-producer and owner of the Vancouver theatre and film production company Mitch and Murray Productions, determined a two-actor play starring a husband and wife would satisfy COVID-19 safety protocols. With small audiences and barriers between the actors and audience, the show will go on.
Scholar notes that Lungs is a much-loved play to mount not just because of its relevant subject matter, but also because of its production simplicity. “The author’s notes say there’s not to be any costume changes, furniture or set pieces, so 60 scenes happen without any indication as to where and when they are,” he said. “They keep jumping forward in time and it’s up to the audience to figure out where and when they are taking place. So, theatrically, it’s a relatively simple, low-fi production.”
While there’s no overtly Jewish content, Scholar believes that to be a Jew is to wrestle with G-d and, at the heart of this play, is a wrestling match about childbearing in a morally tenuous moment in time.
For ticketing information, visit mitchandmurrayproductions.com.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Among the theatre performances around town cautiously returning to live venues is the Arts Club’s production of Buffoon, a one-man play being presented at the Granville Island Stage until Dec. 6, and featuring the contributions of two members of the Jewish community, Amir Ofek and Itai Erdal.
Buffoon is the second of three works being put on by the Arts Club this fall. The play has two different actors playing the lead in separate shows at different times, and audience size in the theatre, which can seat 400 people, is limited to a maximum of 50.
“The fall theatre trio will be the first time for audiences to see fully staged and designed shows at the Arts Club since March,” remarked Ofek, the play’s set designer, when he spoke to the Independent before the opening of the play’s run Oct. 22. “Buffoon will be a real visual feast for the audience. Seating arrangements were planned. Actors can only get so close to the audience.
“The set, lighting, costume and sound design surrounding the sole performer will take the audience on a ride into the magical world of circus,” he added.
On working in the time of COVID-19, Ofek mused, “As a designer, we work at a personal level and often have animated meetings. Now, all the conversations had to be done over the phone or, in the case of a socially distanced meeting with director Lois Anderson, in a schoolyard.”
Erdal, the lighting designer, expressed his excitement at being involved with this production, while pointing out that there are unique demands posed during the pandemic. “I am used to coming and going from the theatre. We have to be very careful now. We have to wear masks and only so many people are allowed in at a given time. Working with these safety precautions during the pandemic is a challenge. Having to do it twice with two casts of one is also a challenge,” he told the Independent.
Indo-Canadian playwright Anosh Irani’s Buffoon tells the story of Felix. Born to a circus family who prefer trapezing to parenting, he quickly learns to turn life’s hard knocks into comedy. His longing for family and home is piqued at the tender age of 7, when he falls for an older woman, aged 8 – an event that inspires his journey to becoming a true buffoon.
The show is one part of a full season for both artists. Ofek is also working on Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine for Vancouver Opera. That production had its digital première on Oct. 24.
“I am really happy to be busy now, at a time when theatre and live performance struggle to exist. I hope it is not a farewell burst of fireworks that signals the end of our time,” Ofek said.
Erdal, meanwhile, has recently designed two shows, B for Rumble Theatre and This Crazy Show for Company Vision Selective at the Queer Arts Festival, and is designing the Nov. 12-22 run of The Amaryllis for the Firehall Arts Centre. He has a photo exhibit at Luppolo Brewing, is writing a play, Check Point, for his company, Elbow Theatre, and is teaching an online course for the Musical Stage Company in Toronto.
Ofek and Erdal have collaborated in the past – on Florian Zeller’s The Father, at the Vancity Culture Lab in 2019, and on Joan MacLeod’s The Valley, in 2016 at the Arts Club.
The Arts Club stresses that the performance and rehearsal models for its fall trio of presentations were designed to be as safe as possible for artists, staff and audience members. All shows are being staged in adherence to safety guidelines established by the B.C. government, including the aforementioned cap of 50 patrons per show, staggered admission times and a mandatory mask policy (with the exception of patrons with respiratory or other health concerns). Each show has two rotating casts and crews, who do seven performances each week and rehearse in separate halls.
“Smaller, more intimate shows allow us to be nimbler than we would be with larger productions,” explained Peter Cathie White, the executive director of Arts Club. “This ‘bubble method’ of alternating casts and crews is a brand-new way of producing theatre for the Arts Club, and we hope it will become a model for performances to come.”
Other shows in the Arts Club fall lineup include No Child, to Nov. 8, about an underfunded high school in the Bronx; and the holiday comedy The Twelve Dates of Christmas, running Nov. 19-Jan. 3.
Besides the in-theatre experience, patrons have the option of purchasing tickets to a digital recording of each of the three productions, which is available to view for a limited time.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit artsclub.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Toronto-based Dana Fradkin will participate in this year’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program at Vancouver Opera long distance. (photo from Vancouver Opera)
Dana Fradkin is one of six participants chosen for this season’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program at Vancouver Opera. The multi-talented stage director has multiple interests and occupations: she is an award-winning writer, actor, filmmaker, producer and opera director.
“As a young director in the opera world, I knew I needed more education before I could truly become the director I wanted to be,” Fradkin told the Independent about her desire to become a resident in the program. “Vancouver Opera is the only young company in the country that has a stage director as part of their program, so when I saw the submission breakdown last year, I applied immediately! I had an interview in Toronto a few months later and then got the news shortly after.
“Coming from a background in classical theatre,” she said, “my understanding of classical theatre repertoire is very strong, as is my understanding of the stage, but I am still lacking in my knowledge of opera repertoire. By being part of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, I hope to learn more about numerous different classical operas and develop a deeper understanding of the Fach system (the different vocal ranges). I want to practise my leadership and directorial skills in an educational and safe environment and be ready to think on my toes and adapt to any situation.”
Adaptation was necessary for Fradkin to even participate in the program. Based in Toronto, she originally was planning on moving to Vancouver from October 2020 to May 2021. But then came COVID.
“Initially, I was coming to Vancouver as part of the young company to do scene study work with the young singers and assistant direct all three of the main stage shows,” she explained. “I was very excited about this, as the original season consisted of Carmen, Cosi Fan Tutte and Falstaff, and I was to assist a female director on all three of these shows. Now, the program has changed: it’s only from January to May 2021 and it will consist of smaller scale concerts and scene study evenings, as opposed to large-scale productions. Although I am sad to not be part of these large-scale operas, I am very excited to be at the helm of these concert series and to have the creative freedom of working on something completely new.”
Looking at the wide range of Fradkin’s work – which includes being co-producer of ActionCan Films, which specializes in Canadian action films, and co-founder of Keystone Theatre – it seems that she is compelled to try new things.
“They all definitely feed a different part of me, yet, at the same time, they all feel like part of the same thing,” she said about her varied professions and areas of interest. “I chose this world because I love storytelling and what I find fascinating is pondering how to tell a story best. Is it through music, through word, through physical theatre and comedy or through action? As a writer, I ask, do I want to tell this story through cinema or on the stage? I love all types of stories: comedies, horror, romance, war stories, heartbreak, crime, inspiring stories, etc. And what I ask myself is how do I, as an artist, fit best to tell this specific story? I love acting in theatre, writing for film and directing opera, and usually I find the best discipline for myself to fit that story.
“I find cinema and opera quite similar actually, as they are both a very visual medium and it’s so exciting to bounce between the two. I’m inspired by artists like Atom Egoyan, Julie Taymor and others who use different genres to tell a story, using the different mediums to connect most with the audience.”
Fradkin grew up in the Ottawa Jewish community and it was there that her love of performance and storytelling was ingrained.
“I went to Camp Gesher for 10 summers and was deeply active in that community during my high school years,” she said. “The first large productions I was part of were community musicals put on by the Jewish community theatre company called JCC Theatreworks. Between Grade 10 and Grade 12, I did Peter Pan, Bye Bye Birdie, Babes in Arms and Fame with them. This was my first time performing in front of a live audience and I loved it! Connecting with all these Jewish artists at a young age really taught me about community and collective creation and embracing storytelling through community. Many artists I met at JCC Theatreworks are still working in theatre today and are still dear friends.
“I also love telling Jewish stories, and the mini-series I have been writing and working on for years is a six-part series about my father’s time working with war crimes at the department of justice. He [Arnold Fradkin] was the head prosecutor of the first successful case in Canada of having a Nazi war criminal deported and it’s a story I feel very passionately about sharing with the world. I love when I meet other Jewish artists in the industry, as I always feel an instant connection with them.”
Fradkin is joined in this season’s Yulanda M. Faris program by Toronto soprano Jonelle Sills; Cranbrook, B.C., native and mezzo-soprano Amanda Weatherall; tenor Ian Cleary, originally from Chatham, Ont.; Vancouver baritone Luka Kawabata; and Vancouver-based pianist Amy Seulky Lee. The program director is Leslie Dala, who will be part of the Chutzpah! Festival this year – as pianist in choreographer Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, danced by Racheal Prince and Brandon Lee Alley. (See the next issue of the Independent, Nov. 13.)
“I’m very excited and thrilled to be part of the 2021 Vancouver Opera season and I can’t wait to share our work with the community,” said Fradkin, adding a wish that many of us have – “May we all be able to meet and play in person soon.”
For more on the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program and Vancouver Opera, visit vancouveropera.ca.
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
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Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
Wendy Bross Stuart accepted her GVPTA Career Achievement Award while playing the koto. (screenshot)
On June 29, the 38th annual Jessie Awards were celebrated virtually, with several Jewish community members among those being honoured.
The GVPTA [Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance] Career Achievement Award went to Wendy Bross Stuart, who gave her acceptance speech while playing the koto (a Japanese stringed instrument).
“Like most middle-class Jewish kids growing up in postwar New York City, I went to Broadway shows with my parents every few weeks,” she said. “I dreamed of conducting the pit orchestra and conducted many records in my living room on a regular basis.
“My first role was in Peter Pan – as Tinker Bell. I was 6 years old and three feet tall!
“I music-directed my first show – South Pacific – when I was 13, for a day camp in Tarrytown. I was given a script – no score – so I played it all by ear … in the preferred key for each of the teenage actors.
“Later, I went to a musical theatre training program in upstate New York, where I played scenes opposite a young man – named Stephen Schwartz.”
Bross Stuart did her graduate work in ethnomusicology, with a focus on Coast Salish music; research that was published, as was her later research on Northern Haida songs. She and her family lived in Japan for many years, where she continued studying traditional music for Japanese koto and shamisen, earning an advanced teaching licence.
“I’ve arranged and accompanied many Yiddish songs for voice and piano, producing four CDs with Claire Klein Osipov,” she said. “I’ve even arranged some Yiddish songs for koto and voice,” she added, noting “Yiddish was the language of my grandparents.”
“I love arranging and conducting choral music: 20 of my pieces have been published in the U.S. and Canada; most recently, an arrangement of my daughter Jessica’s composition,” she continued.
“For the last 15 years, we have co-produced and music-directed the annual Holocaust Commemorative Evening for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
“In theatre, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you. Where? At Theatre Under the Stars, the Arts Club, the Electric Company, Touchstone Theatre, Famous Artists, Blackbird Theatre, Snapshots Collective, Presentation House, the Chutzpah! Festival and 25 years at Perry Ehrlich’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!
“My husband Ron Stuart – anthropologist and filmmaker – has been with me on this journey. Our most recent collaboration is our film company: Cultural Odyssey Films. All eight of our most recent films were shot on location in South Africa over the last 10 years.
“Thank you very much for this special honour. I look forward to working with you in the near future!”
In the small theatre category, Itai Erdal and Amir Ofek won for outstanding lighting design and set design, respectively, for the Search Party’s production of The Father, while Warren Kimmel was part of the cast of Raincity Theatre’s Company, which won significant artistic achievement: outstanding innovative and immersive storytelling.
Nominees for this year’s awards included, in the large theatre category, Erdal for outstanding lighting of Savage Society’s Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey (presented by the Cultch) and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg for outstanding choreography in Cipher, presented by Arts Club Theatre Company (in partnership with Vertigo Theatre); in the small theatre category, Stephen Aberle for outstanding performance by an actor in a supporting role for his role in Slamming Door Artist Collective’s The Sea; and, for outstanding original script, Deborah Vogt for Big Sister, presented by Rapid Pitch Productions.
One could be forgiven for thinking there was a Jewish dance festival coming up, as there are so many community members participating in this year’s Dancing on the Edge, which takes place July 2-11.
Adapting to the circumstances of the pandemic, which limits public gatherings, DOTE festival producer Donna Spencer recently announced that, while it won’t be possible to present the initially planned 30-plus live performances, the festival “will be offering instead some specially curated digital programming with live-streamed performances, premières of dance films, dance discussions, four outdoor live performances in the Firehall’s courtyard and one dynamic theatre performance at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre (all live performances for very limited audiences with safety precautions in place).”
Among the featured dance companies and choreographers are, in alphabetical order, Action at a Distance (Vanessa Goodman), All Bodies Dance (Naomi Brand, with Carolina Bergonzoni), Ben Gorodetsky, Ne. Sans Opera and Dance (Idan Cohen), Radical System Art (Shay Kuebler), the response. (Amber Funk Barton) and Tara Cheyenne Performance.
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Action at a Distance is presenting Solvent, a new work created in collaboration with musician Loscil (Scott Morgan).
“I have been incorporating video footage into my work for years, and the recent time at home has provided an opportunity to generate material and experiment with new editing techniques,” said Goodman. “In some ways, this is an extension of our previous work together. Our first video collaboration was for a song on his album, Monument Builders. Since then, we have built four works together for my company Action at a Distance, including Never Still, which was presented by the Firehall Arts Centre in 2018.”
When the pandemic hit, Goodman said, “At first, I found myself grasping for something substantial to hold onto and tried to reschedule all the tours and premières that were being canceled. It was challenging to let go of everything. Eventually, I came to terms with the downtime and embraced the slow pace as best I could.”
When the need to isolate began, she said, “I started making short dance films for myself and my 96-year-old grandmother to help us stay connected. At times, it has been tough to stay motivated during the shutdown, and this was a simple way to stay creative.
“There’s no way to compare these sketches to a staged dance performance,” she said. “However, when I shifted my frame of mind and started to approach video as a whole new medium instead of an altered version of an existing piece, I became more comfortable with the idea of sharing work this way. I am very grateful to DOTE for bringing the community together to share work right now.”
Even in such times, arts and culture are “absolutely vital,” said Goodman. “Without them, we’re living in the dark ages. It is essential to have creative outlets for expression. Right now, finding connections through creativity can help cut through the isolation. Art can provide much-needed escape and levity in challenging times, as well as reframing current issues and inspiring insight around movements of essential social change.”
* * *
All Bodies Dance Project (ABDP) is bringing Ho.Me to the festival. “The film was commissioned by F-O-R-M, Festival of Recorded Movement, last year … and is a collaboration between longtime ABDP company members Carolina Bergonzoni (choreographer/director), Peggy Leung (dancer), Harmanie Rose (dancer), Mathew Chyzyk (dancer) and Vancouver-based artist Gemma Crowe (cinematographer/editor) and Alex Mah (composer),” said Brand. “Ho.Me explores themes of belonging and comfort in relation to inhabiting one’s own body. The film is comprised of three personal solos shot inside the dancers’ own apartments. In the piece, we get to see these three very different bodies dancing within the privacy of their own homes among the objects that have meaning to them.
“While the film was created long before the pandemic, the significance of moving inside our homes feels really different now since we’ve all been spending so much time inside. Many dancers have been figuring out how to turn our living spaces into places where we can also practise, explore and move, as studios haven’t been an option.”
Since the start of the pandemic, ABDP has moved some of its community dance programming online.
“We also started a weekly virtual gathering for our community of dancers in order to prevent social isolation,” said Brand. “Many of our projects have been on hold. There is so much about what we do as a company that just isn’t compatible with the necessary restrictions of COVID life. Our work is based on bringing people with different bodies, backgrounds, experiences and abilities together to move, share and make in real-time. We’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of things translate into the digital space and what things just can’t be replaced.”
She said, “Now more than ever we need community and collective experiences, as so many have been isolated during these past few months. People with disabilities in particular have experienced a lot of isolation and so we are even more committed to our purpose at All Bodies Dance Project.”
She added, “Dance is about each of our essential relationship to our own bodies. During COVID times, many of us have learned a lot about our own physical experience of moving through the world and the social choreography of physical distancing. There has been so much choreography on the sidewalks, grocery stores and, of course, in the streets during the incredible protests during this pandemic.”
* * *
Gorodetsky, who is Russian-Canadian, is one half of the political comedy duo Folk Lordz, with Cree co-creator Todd Houseman. The pair tackle racism, among other social ills, and have created a 15-part series “[r]eflecting urban-Indigenous, immigrant and activist perspectives through the lens of biting satire.” A second series of sketches is on its way, but Gorodetsky is bringing a very personal work to this year’s DOTE.
“It’s a movement video piece honouring my grandfather, Dolik (David) Lutsky. He died on April 3, 2020, and, since we could not gather for his funeral due to the pandemic, we were left to sort through our grief alone,” he shared. “One small relief was my grandmother mailing me a box of his clothes. Using these garments as performance artifacts, I created a digital video piece reimagining grieving rituals in the age of COVID.
“I explore the ceremony of wearing Dolik’s clothes and reactivating the narrative, cultural and physical threads of his life. Spoken oral histories exploring my grandfather’s immigration (I was born 10 days after they landed in Canada), identity (he was the official communist ‘propagandist’ at the coalmine he worked at in Ukraine) and faith (he went from being an ardent anti-religious communist to a practising Lubavitcher Jew) provide textual counterpoint to the dance video. The visuals themselves were all created through aerial drone photography, creating a fluid visual style for this interdisciplinary new video work. Country roads, forests and lakes frame this physical score exploring grief, memory and family history.”
Gorodetsky said, “I think if I had been able to grieve, remember and connect with my family after Dolik’s death, I would have no need to explore these ideas artistically. But, since I have not, I have a nagging need to articulate this particular pain through movement, story and visual composition.”
Since COVID, Gorodetsky has become the fulltime caregiver for his 2.5-year-old son. “Time and energy have become scarce resources,” he said, “so I’ve had to get better at working furiously fast while he naps. Focused blasts of creativity.
“Also, my family has been displaced from our home and all our possessions in Brooklyn, N.Y. We were in Kelowna (where I was teaching on a one-term contract at UBC in the performance program) when the border closed and we could not return to our home as planned. So, we’re in Waterloo, living at my sister-in-law’s house, until [who knows when]. Honestly, my mental health is brutal right now. Anxiety grips me in a way I had never experienced before, and I have had to find tactics for replenishing my depleted stores of happiness and hope. One thing that really helps is long bike rides with my son Gus. We get out of the city and follow country roads – we live near Amish country! It’s a small way to feel free, alive and empowered in the midst of these deeply destabilizing times.”
For Gorodetsky, who grew up in Metro Vancouver – in Burquitlam – “dance is a way of moving your grief around. It helps me shake the weight and sediment of catastrophe off and meet my grief as an equal, rather than as a victim.
“Gus and I developed a habit of walking to a beach or body of water, finding a big tree stump, climbing on top and dancing to a playlist called ‘Klezmer Dance Party at Home’ (lots of Klezmatics, Michael Winograd, Frank London, Socalled and Di Naye Kapelye). It’s been a real lifesaver.”
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Ne. Sans Opera and Dance’s Trionfi Amore (The Triumph of Love) was commissioned by Peter Bingham for EDAM’s Spring Choreographic Series, April 2019.
“It is a trio created for three phenomenal Vancouver-based performers, Kate Franklin, Jeremy O’Neill and Ted Littlemore,” said Cohen. “Besides being excellent dancers, these three are also trained musicians, and the piece utilizes their many talents.
“The trio is inspired by the opera Orfeo ed Euridice and is a part of my ongoing research on the theme of Orpheus,” he explained. “It speaks of love, and of the power of music and art to move, entertain and touch us. It also speaks of the power of manipulation and control on the individual and, as we prepare it for DOTE during this time, we find that new meanings present themselves to us.”
Cohen said, “The act of presenting something as abstract as the notion of love in a dance performance is quite a challenge by itself, and nowadays even more so – how do you speak of love without being able to touch, to be close to one another? Instead of looking at this as an obstacle, we choose to look at it as a source of inspiration, a new adventure. As artists, we reflect what we experience and then monitor, or direct, those notions into our actions and creative choices. My responsibility here is to stay true to the origins of this piece, but also to protect the viewers and the performers while offering art that speaks of relevant issues and current experiences.”
It hasn’t been easy.
“Ne. Sans had to stop our season and rethink and rearrange our commitments,” said Cohen. “It has been painful to see how many creative ventures that have been in the planning for quite awhile have been postponed or canceled, and to realize the ensuing financial and emotional toll…. I believe in the value and presence of arts in our community and in our lives, in countless ways, and tackle issues that I find not just relevant for myself, but that reflect on many lives. At the same time, I recognize how privileged I am to be here, in Vancouver, and to be safe and healthy.”
Whether theatre, music or dance, one thing common to all forms of live performance, said Cohen, “is that they are alive.” They all involve the human body, both “the performing bodies and the ones watching.”
“As an artist who uses movement as a primary artistic discipline,” he said, “I have a huge love and respect for the human body in its most basic form. When you learn to love and accept your body, you can truly love and respect people. That love is also where my queer identity(ies) meet my Jewish ancestry. So much hate is being inflicted on the body; if we don’t learn to love and appreciate our bodies, how can we truly love and appreciate someone else’s? How can we heal? With so much violence in our history and in our present, in a world polluted with ignorance and hate, how do we learn to love and forgive our ancestors, our pasts? The arts bear a huge responsibility. Artists need to change our priorities, acknowledge our inherited racism and create new stories.
“Ne. Sans is an organization that is centred on Western European music and dance, and my origins are in Western Europe,” he continued. “Our main goal in Ne. Sans is not to present a notion of nostalgia, romanticism and artificial beauty, but to raise the issues of violence and inequalities created by that culture, recreate its narratives and bring those up into the surface.”
In Jewish teaching, there is the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. “We can all be involved in tikkun olam at any given moment,” said Cohen, “and we need to keep adapting and correcting our values, individual or systemic. We have a responsibility to help and support one another. We have survived horrible historical events. Looking straight at our bleeding past and present: in the face of injustice, we cannot and will not stay silent.”
* * *
Kuebler, who has performed at the Chutzpah! Festival and is connected to the Jewish community through his sister’s family, will be presenting Momentum of Isolation at DOTE. Started last year, he said, “This first chapter of research is a chain of solos, for seven performers, that was developed by company artists online and in isolation.”
Given the restrictions required to control COVID, this part of “the project has taken on a much more singular focus on each artist’s personal interpretation,” said Kuebler. “As these solos were developed in home spaces and in isolation, the artists are performing their solos in smaller performance spaces – averaging six-by-nine feet – as well as performing these solos in relation to walls and surfaces in their environment.”
Of COVID’s impacts, he said, “There was certainly sadness and stress from losing work and touring opportunities. The company was two weeks away from a European tour when all the social protocols came into place. We were fortunate to receive some support and, after assessing the financial losses, we were able to move forward with a different creative practice for this phase of this project.
“The new creation practice of working online and in isolation actually revealed some very interesting new approaches and beneficial tactics. This online format had us focus on different dance techniques and improvisation tasks that could both challenge our individual movement skills and develop more group unity in movement. It also opened a window for focused study around the social content in the project.”
Kuebler said, “For myself as an artist, this time has offered me some space to ‘fill the well.’ I have been creating, traveling and supporting multiple projects simultaneously for a solid amount of time. This time in isolation, although not in the form that I would have wished for, or for anyone for that matter, has offered me space and time to just research and train…. I’ve found that, with this space, I’ve been more creative and have developed further outlets to express my creativity.”
He said, “I think that art holds a very important place in society. It offers people an escape from certain stresses and can help inspire them to find their own creativity. I believe that being creative can help you live with greater curiosity, humility and awareness of the world around you, which can make you a better member of society…. From this standpoint, I believe that art and artists gain greater relevance during challenging times and times of change.”
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Barton’s company, the response., will host a special-edition, two-day version of Dance Café, which will feature eight Vancouver-based professional dance artists during DOTE.
“Together with my administration assistant, Kaia Shukin, we have been presenting Dance Café since 2017,” said Barton. Originally, it was held once a year as an informal, free event in studio, but, since May of this year, they have been presenting professional dance artists online using Instagram Live, and did so in June, as well. Given the positive response, Barton would like to keep the free event going monthly until the end of the year, but it will depend on resources, and she hopes people will donate to help make that happen.
With the arrival of the pandemic, Barton said, “It felt like many of the things I do changed overnight. At first – and there are still many moments at present – I felt overwhelmed with the learning curve of teaching and rehearsing on platforms such as Zoom. I feel that the act of participating in these online platforms, whether you are ready to or not, forces you to be creative just by showing up. In many ways, the act of applying for grants and the typical administration side of what I and the company do haven’t changed, but the artistic side of it is what I find is in question. How can we continue and how can we share and create work in a safe environment? Those are my biggest questions right now.”
For Barton, “Art can be a reflection of what we are experiencing in the world and can act as a mirror. It can be cathartic. It can also help us escape. We are all listening to music, watching films and trying to make sense of what is happening and/or trying to make time pass by. No one can deny that their consumption of art is interwoven in the daily fabric of their lives.”
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At DOTE, Tara Cheyenne Performance will share two films made in collaboration with Allison Beda/Amuse Productions and possibly a live online performance, said Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. “These works are a continuation of my solo I can’t remember the word for I can’t remember, which premièred at the Firehall in 2018.”
For Friedenberg, life during COVID has been “up and down.”
“Some days are good – home schooling actually happens (we have an 8-year-old), I might even take an online dance class and have a virtual rehearsal with my dramaturge Melanie Yeats. Other days, making lunch and trying to figure out Grade 3 fractions is too much,” she said. “I’m not loving the many, many Zoom meetings. I feel like our brains and bodies are compromised being in front of screens so much.
“Artistically, it has been invigorating and challenging – also very frustrating and often sad, to be honest – to try to reach my audience. I was recently working on a video of past work and noticed that, in every show, I literally climb into/onto the audience. My focus right now is how do I break the fourth wall when it is a virtual fourth wall.”
When asked the importance of the arts in such a stressful social and economic period, Friedenberg said, “We absolutely need to share stories and experiences right now. I feel like it is my duty to offer levity, commentary and my own feelings in order to facilitate those moments of community and recognition. My grandfather toured Europe playing piano for Maurice Chevalier leading up to the war, then here in Canada during the war. I feel like it’s in my blood to offer what I make, especially during difficult times. I’ve been making these very silly satire videos of my character Laura Lockdown, which people are enjoying I think because they allow us to laugh at the extreme situation we are all living through.”
Friedenberg also has been recording, for almost a year now, the podcast Talking Sh*t with Tara Cheyenne.
“I interview artists about their work, their lives and how they manage,” she said. “These interviews are even more interesting in the time of COVID-19. Creativity, and how we navigate its absence in the face of difficulty is so useful for all of us. Right now, I’m leaning towards interviewing artists of colour – voices, art and ideas that need to be heard.”