David Cooper is renowned for the skill with which he captures energy and light in photographs and film. But the multiple-award-winning artist was not appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020 only for his “innovative contributions to Canadian performance photography,” but also “for his dedicated mentorship of emerging artists.” One of the many ways in which he has shown that dedication is his support of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community in which he is based.
Cooper has taken countless photographs for the DTES Heart of the City Festival since the annual festival began 19 years ago, and for Vancouver Moving Theatre – the festival’s main presenter, along with Carnegie Community Centre and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians – for at least three decades. The festival photo sessions at his studio have been community-building gatherings and the festival provides copies of their photos to the culturally and socially diverse artists who live, perform and create in the neighbourhood. This year’s Heart of the City takes place Oct. 26-Nov. 6, with more than 100 events throughout the DTES and online.
It was Vancouver Moving Theatre co-founder Terry Hunter who introduced Cooper to the Heart of the City Festival, since it involved artists, writers, singers and storytellers and Cooper’s career has always been in the arts. Though that wasn’t always where his interest lay.
“I started training at U of T [University of Toronto] for architecture,” Cooper told the Independent. “It was a five-year undergraduate program and I came out west after my second year, as a break. I’ve always had a camera but never had formal photography training beyond a summer course at Banff when I was a teenager. Through a friend, I checked out a local theatre company to see if they needed any photos taken. Eventually, I was given a chance to shoot a play at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, directed by Christopher Newton. They were really excited about the results from a dress rehearsal and offered me a job. I spent four years there in the publicity department, also creating posters and marketing material.”
Cooper is from Forest Hill in Toronto. He grew up in a conservative Jewish neighbourhood. “I went to Hebrew school but I stopped practising Judaism when I moved out west from my family,” he said. “I still go back for special occasions and joined the JCC here in Vancouver.”
As a theatre, dance and music photographer for more than 40 years, Cooper’s photos and videos have publicized more than 60 companies throughout Canada and the United States. The Shaw Festival, Bard on the Beach, Arts Club Theatre, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, 605 Collective, Karen Flamenco Company, Vancouver Opera, Vancouver Symphony, Electra Women’s Choir, Chor Leoni Men’s Choir, Spirit of the West and Uzume Taiko Drummers are just a dozen-plus of the groups with which he has worked. He has been a stills photographer for several TV series and his dance videos have been shown internationally. In addition, he teaches and mentors students, holds workshops for both amateur and professional photographers, and photographs for theatre and dance schools.
Among the many recognitions Cooper has garnered, he received a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award in 1995 for his outstanding contribution to the Vancouver arts community and was elected a pioneer member of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I’ve mostly been a theatre photographer, shooting live shows,” said Cooper. “I spent 15 years shooting film and transitioned to digital in 2001. It was a Canada Council grant in 1978 that took me to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to learn more about ballet and I spent two weeks in class and rehearsals documenting the process.”
Firefly Books in Ontario recently published the coffee table book David Cooper Body of Work: Theatre and Dance Photography. Each of the 500 copies published includes a limited-edition print signed by Cooper.
“I have worked with a great graphic designer and art director, Scott McKowen, for 30 years, photographing marketing materials for the Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival, Yale Repertory Theatre, Canadian Stage, Theatre Calgary and others together,” said Cooper of how the publication came to be. “He suggested we compile all our work into a book and include my dance work that is separate from the theatre.”
According to Firefly’s website, the book includes essays on Cooper’s theatre photography (by Newton, artistic director emeritus of the Shaw Festival), on his dance images (by Vancouver writer and arts commentator Max Wyman) and on his marketing images (by McKowen). Ballet dancer Evelyn Hart “has contributed an appreciation, and Cooper himself discusses the most intimate relationship between photographer and subject – portraiture.”
When asked what the most gratifying parts of his career are, Cooper told the Independent: “Working with talented performers. Getting to travel all across Canada and the U.S. shooting for different arts organizations.”
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.”
The theme for this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is “This Gives Us Strength.” One of the more than 50 events that will take place over the festival’s 12 days is Spotlight on the East End on Oct. 30, 8:30 p.m. Curated by artist-in-residence Khari Wendell McClelland, the online presentation will feature “the compelling creativity and strength of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside-involved artists and residents who illuminate the vitality, relevance and resilience of our neighbourhood and its rich traditions, cultural roots and music.” Among those artists is klezmer-punk accordionist Geoff Berner, with whom JI readers will be familiar.
JI: You released Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis late last year (jewishindependent.ca/honestly-jewish-and-radical) and you also had a new musical, then COVID hit. What have you been doing creatively over this time?
GB: I just finished working on a lovely project for KlezKanada with the great theatre artist Jenny Romaine and a lot of other talented folks. It’s called Vu Bistu Geven? (Where Have You Been?) and it’s about figuring out the history of the land that KlezKanada takes place on. It was commissioned for their 25th anniversary. It felt particularly right to work with Trina Stacey, a Kanien’kéha singer, researcher and teacher. We talked a lot during the making of the piece about the value of recovering our ancestors’ languages, in order to find a way to think outside of capitalism and colonialism.
JI: You were scheduled to perform an outdoors concert in Roberts Creek Sept. 11. Did that happen? In what ways does an in-person audience affect your performance?
GB: Yep, that concert went off nicely. Everyone was outdoors and properly distanced. The folks in Roberts Creek are lovely. I’ve played only two other shows like that since the pandemic, one at a park in Vancouver, for Alan Zisman, and another in Chilliwack at the Tractor Grease. It sure was nice to play live again. It’s been a bit of a strain these past months, not being able to do the thing I’ve devoted my life to doing. I miss that magic human connection that only live music can do.
JI: What inspires you to participate in events like the DTES Heart of the City Festival?
GB: What inspires me is the honour to be invited. I’ve tried to be a friend to folks in the DTES, opposing displacement by City Hall-backed developers, fighting to stop the war on drugs, fighting against legislated poverty, and other stuff. It means a lot that I’m allowed to be part of things.
JI: Chelm is a recurring theme/subject in your work. If you had to offer “advice from Chelm” for people coping right now, what might that be?
GB: Advice from Chelm? Well, Chelm was the “Village of Fools” of Jewish legend, but in fact it was a real place, where the people had to struggle to survive. They weren’t fools at all, just ordinary people trying to live. Several fine Yiddish poets came from Chelm. So the advice from Chelm is, the real fools are people who look down on communities of other human beings.
JI: You helped start the BC Ecosocialist Party. Any opinions on the election you’d like to share?
GB: I have real hopes for the BC Ecosocialists. B.C. voters need to at least have the choice to be able to vote for people who will actually stand up against LNG, Site C, legislated poverty, colonialism and the war on drugs.
Geoff Berner will help open this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Oct. 24. (photo by Genevieve Buechner)
Recently back from Ontario, where he joined Orkestar Kriminal for a few shows, singer-songwriter and accordionist Geoff Berner will help launch the 15th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Oct. 24.
Berner will be part of Songs of Justice, Songs of Hope, an evening of activist songs, led by musician, composer and conductor Earle Peach and featuring Solidarity Notes Labour Choir, among others. Berner will perform a solo set, but, he told the Independent, “I’m open to some collaboration with the choir, if that’s something they’d like to do.”
Berner has worked with Peach before.
“We’ve both lived in Vancouver for decades. We’ve both been active in left-wing politics and stuff in Vancouver for a long time,” said Berner. “I’ve played events with the Solidarity Notes Choir over the years. We have a lot of ideas in common.”
Heart of the City comprises more than 100 events at 40-plus locations around the Downtown Eastside over 12 days. Presented by Vancouver Moving Theatre with Carnegie Community Centre, the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians and many community partners, this year’s theme is “Seeds of Justice, Seeds of Hope,” celebrating the community’s “history of advocacy for human rights and social justice.” The website notes there will be “music, stories, songs, poetry, cultural celebrations, films, theatre, dance, spoken word, workshops, discussions, gallery exhibitions, mixed media, art talks, history talks and history walks.”
About his decision to participate in festivals like Heart of the City, Berner said, “You can feel it when an event or a music venue is not about money, but about building community and getting strength from music and culture. This is one of those.”
Berner has had a busy year. In September 2017, he released a new album, Canadiana Grotesquica, and his second novel, The Fiddler is a Good Woman, came out in October 2017. In addition to performances throughout British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada, a European tour took him to many cities over several months. This coming November, he’s headed to Seattle and Los Angeles, with other dates no doubt in the planning.
In the latest news post on his website (Sept. 14), Berner welcomes everyone back to the September routine, “whether it’s a New Year for you, or not.”
While he makes “resolutions all the time, not only at Rosh Hashanah,” Berner said, “My routine is that I write songs, make an album about once every two years, and then tour around North America and Europe trying to spread the album as far and wide as I can. Then I do it all again. It’s a good job.”
True to form, Berner will head into the studio in January to get a new album ready for October 2019. It will be produced by Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, with whom Berner has worked since 2010.
“He is a valuable editor and idea generator,” said Berner of Dolgin. “He knows more about the recording studio, more about musical arrangement and more about Jewish music, especially klezmer music, than I do. So that all comes in pretty handy. And if he tells me, ‘no, you shouldn’t do that,’ he’s almost always right.”
People curious about what the album might sound like should mark their calendars for the Heart of the City opening. “There will be some brand new material from me at this festival,” Berner told the Independent. “See you at the show, I hope!”
The free Oct. 24 launch event takes place at Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main St., at 7 p.m.
Also participating in the festival is Vetta Chamber Music, with Seasons of the Sea, which melds contemporary classical music by local composer Jeffrey Ryan with a narrative written by Rosemary Georgeson. The original work, performed by Vetta Chamber Music and Georgeson, “describes the seasons on and by the sea, and is inspired by the 13 moon season of the Coast Salish peoples who used the tides and seasons of the sea as their calendar.” The show takes place Oct. 28, 3 p.m., at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, 578 Carrall St., and is admission by donation to the garden.