Into the Little Hill runs May 19 and 20 at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. (photo by Flick Harrison)
“Into the Little Hill is a powerfully emotional opera,” soprano Heather Pawsey told the Independent.
Pawsey is the artistic director of Astrolabe Musik Theatre, which, with Simon Fraser University Woodward’s Cultural Programs, is presenting the opera’s Canadian première May 19-20. A multidisciplinary, modern take on the medieval story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Into the Hill features two singers, three dancers and live music. Written by English composer George Benjamin with libretto by Martin Crimp, Jewish community member Idan Cohen of Ne.Sans Opera and Dance is the local production’s director and choreographer.
“From the moment I first heard Into the Little Hill, I knew I had to have dancers in the production,” said Pawsey. “My company, Astrolabe Musik Theatre, has been experimenting with dance and movement in classical music, in varying degrees, for over 10 years now. Dance and movement are such normal, natural, innately human ways of expression, yet we see it so rarely in opera and classical music.”
When she heard Into the Little Hill, she said, “I literally saw the dancers in my mind … and knew that this was the perfect opera to intentionally incorporate them as amplifications of the characters, as commentators on the story, and as true partners with the singers (who are also precisely choreographed).”
After that, she was just “waiting for the perfect person with whom to work.” And she found that person in Cohen – his company, Ne.Sans, exists to reimagine and reconnect opera and dance.
“When Idan and I met in Amsterdam in 2018 on an opera I was singing and he was directing, I knew at the first rehearsal that he was the person I’d been waiting for: someone who knows music, who knows dance, who can work with professional dance artists and with singers who may have little or no dance training, and whose knowledge and experience come together in a profound understanding of the possibilities of singing and dance.”
“We’ve connected on so many levels,” said Cohen of Pawsey, who introduced him to Into the Little Hill. “Since then,” he said, “we’ve enjoyed many long conversations about this wonderful opera that is so close to both our hearts. I am so excited to finally be able to share our version of this brilliant work.”
“As far as I know,” said Pawsey, “l’Opéra de Montréal is the only other company in Canada to have produced one of George Benjamin’s operas (Written on Skin, his second). In 2014, I watched Written on Skin on MediciTV and literally got goosebumps. Singing contemporary music is a huge part of my career, yet I had never heard of this composer nor heard music anything like his: crystalline, precise, profound, spare, yet filled with emotion, colour, shadow, passion and power. I looked him up immediately and discovered that Into the Little Hill was (at that time) the only other opera he’d written…. I knew then that I had to produce (and sing!) it; that it would have dancers; and, voilà! A decade later, here we are. This opera speaks so profoundly against ‘othering.’ I know that people will come away having experienced something powerful, intense and beautiful.”
Pawsey and mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson sing all six of the opera’s characters.
“One of the things I love the most about Into the Little Hill is its exquisite precision,” said Pawsey. “Vocally, orchestrally, dramatically, dramaturgically there are no extraneous notes, no extraneous words, and the power of this concentration is intensified by having only two singers portray all the roles. We aren’t distracted by multiple singers coming on and off the stage, nor by the differing ranges and timbres of their voices – we have focus.
“We also have gender-neutrality, something that is difficult to achieve in traditional opera, where characters’ genders have historically been determined by voice-type (ie. tenor, soprano, etc.). Having only two singers sing all the roles makes gender, sexual orientation or how one presents to the world irrelevant, and leaves the make-up of the characters to each individual audience member’s imagination. As an artist, it frees me from having to imagine or recreate assumptions about how ‘men’ or ‘women’ move, behave and speak (sing), and allows me to enter fully into what that character is actually expressing. My hope is that this also helps audiences to identify more freely with the characters.”
The opera speaks to Cohen on many levels.
“As a queer artist, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, coming to Canada from Israel/Palestine, I have always valued the importance of raising voices of underserved communities and to acknowledge our troubled past, learn from it, and aspire to do better,” he said. “I chose to leave my country in search of a better future and, as I arrived in Canada in 2017, I was amazed to find how relevant the history of Canada is to my own, from multiple angles, both as the oppressed and the oppressor, often against my will.
“My work is embedded in this life experience and perspective, and I am passionate in telling classical stories through alternative lens,” he continued. “Into the Little Hill is such a powerful opera that speaks of the human condition in a very creative way. There are different ways to speak of the tragic history of Western culture, and one of the reasons I chose to be an artist is because I see the importance of speaking of the violence and hurt, and to fight against discrimination.
“This opera is such a great, complex example of the fact that there is no one source of harm, and not one source of knowledge and perspective,” he said.
Critics have generally lauded Into the Little Hill, though some have expressed concern over the way in which the story is told.
“The narrative style of this opera imposes a certain detachment or distancing,” Pawsey said. “Traditionally, opera is all about emotion – big, huge, dare I say OPERATIC emotion! Here, Martin Crimp’s libretto uses Brechtian techniques (such as the Narrator directly addressing the audience, breaking the fourth wall, etc.) to discourage the audience from becoming too emotionally involved. Brecht used these techniques to encourage a deeper focus on the socially significant aspects of the story. This is particularly relevant in this opera’s tale of ‘who are we labeling as the “rats” in our society, what are we willing to do to get rid of them and what happens when we refuse to “pay the piper,” ie. take responsibility for the consequences of our actions?’
“Detachment, distancing – this is what we, as humans, do when we label, when we ‘other,’ when we divide into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s a part of the de-humanizing process, which allows us to plan or to undertake horrific acts. But this is not to say that audiences will feel emotionless at the end of Into the Little Hill,” she stressed. “Fascinatingly, the muting of emotion evoked for individual characters and their stories makes us feel even more deeply and keenly the emotion of the story overall and how its outcome affects all the characters – and, by extension, us.”
Into the Little Hill takes place at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. Conductor Leslie Dala is music director for the production, whose orchestration includes bass flute, basset horns, mandolin and banjo. Lighting design is by Victoria Bell, with costume design by Elena Razlog. The dancers are Juolin Lee, Daria Mikhalyluk and Hana Rutka.
Into the Little Hill is a multi-disciplinary re-telling of the classic Pied Piper tale. Performances take place May 19 and 20 at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. (photo by Flick Harrison)
In partnership with Simon Fraser University’s Woodward’s Cultural Programs, Astrolabe Musik Theatre presents the Canadian première of the chamber opera Into the Little Hill, a contemporary re-telling of the Pied Piper tale, with direction and choreography by Idan Cohen of Ne.Sans Opera and Dance, and musical direction by conductor Leslie Dala. Performances take place May 19 and 20, 7:30 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre.
Into the Little Hill – by composer and classical musician George Benjamin with libretto by playwright and theatre translator Martin Crimp – is an unflinching look at our response to the “Other.” A mysterious stranger rids a town of its rats, only to also make its children disappear when his promised payment is withheld. The story evokes many questions. Who do we deem as “rats” in our society? Who gets to decide? What are we willing to do to get rid of them? And what are the consequences when we refuse to “pay the piper,” i.e. refuse to accept responsibility for the outcomes of our actions?
All six characters (the Crowd, the Stranger, the Narrator, the Minister, the Minister’s Wife and the Minister’s Child) are sung by mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson and soprano Heather Pawsey. The orchestration for this production includes bass flute, basset horns, mandolin and banjo. And, in a multi-disciplinary staging, Astrolabe’s production incorporates dancers Juolin Lee, Daria Mikhalyluk and Hana Rutka.
“It has always been my vision to have dancers as part of this intensely dramatic opera,” said Pawsey, Astrolabe’s artistic director.
Lighting design for the production is by Victoria Bell; the costume design, by Elena Razlog.
Ne.Sans Opera and Dance’s Cohen was born and raised in Israel, on Kibbutz Mizra. After being trained as a classical pianist, he studied theatre and fine arts at the Art Colony, in Israel. At the age of 20, he participated in a video-dance project by Batsheva dance company dancer Lara Bersak before joining, in 1998, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, where he danced for seven seasons. Since 2005, Cohen has been creating, performing and teaching.
Take This Waltz performers Ted Littlemore, left, and Daniel Okulitch. (photo by Victoria Bell)
Take This Waltz world premières at Rothstein Theatre Sept. 10-11.
“The concert as a whole tells a story, and each song finds its place within that story,” Idan Cohen told the Independent about Take This Waltz, which sees its world première as a Chutzpah! Plus event Sept. 10-11 at the Rothstein Theatre.
Cohen is the artistic director of Ne. Sans Opera and Dance, so it might seem odd that he’s staging a show celebrating the music of Leonard Cohen. But he’s a fan of the Canadian icon, who died in 2016, and this production piqued his interest.
“I’ve admired Cohen’s lyrics and music for years,” said Cohen, who is not related to the singer-songwriter. “So, when Daniel Okulitch, one of Canada’s most appreciated operatic baritones reached out to me to directly to produce Take This Waltz, I immediately said yes. Daniel’s vision was to look at Cohen’s music through the classical tradition of the Song Cycles (Lieds). I thought that it was a really interesting way to look at Cohen’s music through a fresh, exciting lens.”
Okulitch contacted Cohen after having created a successful online concert that included some of Leonard Cohen’s work, as well as that of other singer-songwriters, which took place via Pacific Opera Victoria in winter 2020. Okulitch wanted to add dance to the concert.
“I knew that, if I was to take this on, I would want to focus on Cohen’s body of work and say something meaningful about the times we live in,” said Idan Cohen. “Ne. Sans’ mandate is to follow the operatic tradition in the full sense of it – to create work that integrates all the classical arts of theatre, music, dance, set and costume design. It is challenging to do in this economy, but I strongly believe in this type of offering.
“It took us some time to fundraise so that we can present this work as I believe it should be presented,” he noted. “We have an ensemble of cello, violin and accordion, with stunning arrangements by Adrian Dolan, and Daniel’s voice is so rich and sensitive, that it speaks straight to the heart. Amir Ofek is designing the set, Itai Erdal creating the light design and Christine Reimer the costumes. Alongside Daniel is the dancer/musician Ted Littlemore, with whom I’ve been collaborating for almost five years, who’s such a wonderful artist. I am truly blessed, and I hope that we’ll not just do justice to Cohen’s legacy, but help audiences experience it in a different, new way.”
About that legacy, Cohen added, “I had coffee with the wonderful Vancouver-based composer Rodney Sharman the other day, to discuss a future project that we’re working on, and Rodney said something that I found to be really relevant to Take This Waltz. He said that he thinks that my body of work is a variation of two core elements: love and death. And I thought to myself, that’s life, right? Cohen got it. His wisdom is so profound that it sometimes seems as if he knew the secrets of the human soul. I think it’s because he was brutally honest, a thing that we don’t see a lot in our contemporary culture. There’s so much pain and often bitterness and anger in his work, that are then composed in such generosity and love. What a beautiful combination. My work is to honour that.”
About his collaborators on Take This Waltz, Cohen said the production started at Pacific Opera Victoria, “as an intimate, beautiful concert of various music that included just a few of Cohen’s songs, and Vancouver Opera decided to support its development and creation. Jessica Gutteridge, a wonderful human and the artistic director of Chutzpah!, has given us a very generous creative residency at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver’s JCC [to further develop the work]. It’s all live, no film or projections. I felt that Cohen’s work needs to be honest and direct. Having said that, there are quite a few surprises in the show – you’ll just have to come and see!”
Take This Waltz is being presented with Pacific Opera Victoria and Vancouver Opera, and Chutzpah!’s live music programming is supported by a grant from AmplifyBC. The Sept. 10-11 shows are also being supported by the Bierbrier family, in memory of Len Bierbrier, who was a dear friend of Chutzpah! board chair Lloyd Baron, said Gutteridge. Bierbrier was also a friend of Leonard Cohen, she said.
While most people cannot claim that level of connection to the legendary musician, many people do feel connected to him in some way. When asked to confirm that, indeed, he was not related to the singer-songwriter, Idan Cohen said, “We are all related, aren’t we? I first heard Cohen’s music through my dad and, in many ways, always felt that he is a father figure to me. So many of us feel that way about him and his music and poetry. I love him like family. Does that count?”
Ted Littlemore is one of seven dancers in the latest iteration of Idan Cohen’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which will be available online April 6-13. (photo by Flick Harrison)
The first article the Jewish Independent published about choreographer and opera director Idan Cohen was about his reimagining of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Much progress has been made in the few years since, and excerpts from the contemporary dance work will be streaming on demand April 6-13.
Cohen was a relatively recent arrival from Israel back in 2018. As artistic director of Ne. Sans Opera and Dance, which he established here in 2017, he has become a prominent part of the Vancouver arts scene. He is currently artist-in-residence at the Dance Centre, which describes Cohen’s approach to this 18th-century opera as one that interprets
“Orpheus not as a god, but as an artist – a human who looks at the complex and sometimes violent history of Western, classical opera and dance with eyes wide open, the dancing body serving as a living example of human strength and fragility.”
In the myth, poet and musician Orfeo mourns the death of his wife, Euridice, and tries to get her back from the Underworld. It is an effort fraught with challenges, not unlike creating a new artistic work.
“Staging an opera is a monumental task, and it is really exciting to have an audience who has been following this production from its inception,” Cohen told the Independent. “Alongside the Dance Centre’s residency, we were given a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, through the Piercey family – the Sheila Kathleen Piercey Fund – which enabled us to continue and present this final phase of the research, leading to the full production in 2022.
“For the past few months,” he said, “I have been rehearsing with Leslie Dala as the music director and with seven incredible dancers and five opera singers. We are presenting almost 40 minutes of a piano reduction of the score, played live by Leslie, and the singers, as a dance-opera. So you’ll get to see and listen to a live opera that is also a dance performance.”
In 2019, Ne. Sans presented Trionfi Amore, as a part of the research for Orfeo ed Euridice. That production featured Ted Littlemore, Kate Franklin and Jeremy O’Neill. For this April’s production, they are joined by dancers Hana Rutka, Rachel Meyer, Aiden Cass and Stephanie Cyr.
“The wonderful counter-tenor Shane Hanson is singing Orfeo and the chorus singers are Heather Pawsey, Tyler Simpson, Heather Molloy and William Grossman,” said Cohen. Costume designer and stylist is Evan Clayton, while Littlemore pulls double duty – not only performing, but in charge of the makeup and masks.
The number of people involved now brings its own challenges, given the continuing pandemic.
“The Dance Centre’s residency enabled us to rehearse in large spaces that allowed for our relatively big group to remain socially distanced at all times,” said Cohen. “Following COVID-19 protocols meant that we needed to be wearing masks and that the performers could not touch. I tried to look at these not as obstacles but as creative opportunities and I am very proud of what we’ve managed to achieve.”
Ever the one to look on the bright side of things, Cohen added, “It was wonderful to gather musicians and dancers and create. There’s nothing quite like it, and I hope that the result will be as pleasurable to our audience as it was to us.”
The April streaming, which will have been pre-recorded, includes a discussion with Cohen. Tickets are on a sliding scale, and can be purchased from thedancecentre.ca/event/idan-cohen.
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
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Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
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Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
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Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
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Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
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Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
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.
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Chutzpah! starts Nov. 21. For the full lineup and tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”
Dancers Jeremy O’Neill, Ted Littlemore and Kate Franklin. (photo by Idan Cohen)
Last May, Idan Cohen introduced local audiences to his reimagining of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. He will share more of this ongoing work in EDAM dance company’s Spring Choreographic Series, in which he is a guest artist, along with Jennifer McLeish-Lewis.
In six performances between April 10 and 20 at EDAM’s home at the Western Front on East 8th Avenue, Cohen and McLeish-Lewis will present new work, while EDAM, under artist director Peter Bingham, will present a directed improvisation.
“I was introduced to Peter and the EDAM family through Linda Blankstein, who I met through the DanceLab residency I took part in last May at the Dance Centre,” Cohen wrote the Independent in an email from London’s Heathrow Airport, as he waited for his flight back to Vancouver. “Among the many other roles through which Linda supports Vancouver’s arts community, she is on the board of EDAM, and was kind enough to introduce my work to Peter.
“The space and people at EDAM were very welcoming,” said Cohen, who is artistic director of Ne. Sans Opera and Dance. “Peter invited me and the performers to take his daily morning classes, and offered this wonderful opportunity for me, Ne. Sans and the artists collaborating on this piece – musicians/dancers Jeremy O’Neill, Ted Littlemore and Kate Franklin.”
The part of Orfeo ed Euridice that Cohen will showcase next week is called Trionfi Amore (in English, The Triumph of Love).
“In Greek mythology, Orpheus [Orfeo, in Greek] was a musician and a poet who had the ability to enchant all living creatures through his musical gift, and could even stop the waves of the ocean from rolling,” explained Cohen. “In an attempt to bring his newly married wife Eurydice back to life from the dead, Orfeo persuades the guardians of the underworld to allow him entry to their kingdom.
“Trionfi Amore deconstructs the key elements and motives of the story and puts it into a contemporary context. We integrate dance with a bit of live music in a piece that speaks of love, and of the power of music and art to move, entertain and touch us. We also look at the power of art to manipulate, exploring the ways in which different aspects of love can be transformed into the act of performance. I am focusing on the ‘love story’ part of the mythological tale, recreating its themes through the intimacy and fragility of the body.”