Merewyn Comeau and Raes Calvert in Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish, which is on the Chutzpah! stage Nov. 18-19. (photo by Javier Sotres)
For the first time, the Chutzpah! Festival, which was launched in 2001, is presenting programming specifically targeted to young people, families and educators. Dan and Claudia Zanes will be live in concert Nov. 13-14 and Joseph A. Dandurand’s Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish will be presented by Axis Theatre Nov. 18-19. Both events take place at the Rothstein Theatre.
“One of my first strategic goals when I joined Chutzpah! was to launch a programming stream for young people and families,” said Jessica Gutteridge, managing artistic director of the festival since 2020. “I have a background in theatre for young audiences, and this is an area of performing arts that I find very rich and interesting…. I think the best way to keep the performing arts vibrant into the future is to share exciting and stimulating arts experiences with young people so that they can grow into the audiences of tomorrow. And finding ways of sharing these experiences across generations makes for wonderful bonding between kids and their parents, grandparents, caregivers and mentors, but also gives the adults in the audience a memorable and enjoyable experience. I’m also a passionate proponent of arts education, so finding opportunities for teachers to bring performing arts into their teaching is meaningful to me.”
Dan Zanes is a Grammy award-winning children’s performer and Claudia Zanes is a music therapist/jazz vocalist. The couple has been “making music with each other since the day they met in the fall of 2016.” Their Nov. 14 performance is for schools and the Nov. 13 show is open for all.
“Dan Zanes, to put it bluntly, was a key reason I survived the music playing in my children’s rooms when I had young kids,” said Gutteridge about her choice of performers for this program. “I think he’s just a spectacular musician and storyteller that all ages can enjoy, and his partnership with Claudia Zanes makes even more gorgeous and meaningful music. I appreciate that Dan and Claudia are committed to making their performances sensory-friendly and accessible, and in sharing messages of love, solidarity and social justice, that are timely and important.”
As with the concert, the Nov. 18 production of Th’owxiya is for schools and the Nov. 19 show welcomes everyone, with the caveat that the ogress might be scary to some young children. The play, recommended for ages 5 and up, recounts a Kwantlen First Nations tale, “the legend of the basket ogress, Th’owxiya, an old hungry spirit that inhabits a feast dish full of bountiful delicious foods, and sly Mouse (Kw’at’el), who is caught stealing cheese from this feast dish. To appease an angry Th’owxiya, Kw’at’el embarks on a journey to find two children for the ogress to eat, or else!” The work features “traditional Coast Salish and Sto:lo music, masks and imagery” and audiences will learn “how Raven (Sqeweqs), Bear (Spa:th) and Sasquatch (Sasq’ets) trick a hungry spirit and save Kw’at’el and their family from becoming the feast.”
Both the concert and the play run about an hour, and all performances take place at 11 a.m.
While the concert and play are two programs specifically aimed at young audiences, Gutteridge said many of the Chutzpah! performances “are appropriate for general audiences, and we hope that youth and teens in particular will join us for some of them. For example, Persian Jewish Cooking with Ayelet Latovich, Music at the Centre of the River, and the Joan Beckow Legacy Project – which will feature youth performers from Perry Ehrlich’s Showstoppers – are all programs that all ages can enjoy together. Programs like Jacqueline Saper’s presentation of her memoir of growing up Jewish in Tehran and the Site: Yizkor project may offer teens engaging ways of learning and contextualizing current events and history.”
In a similar vein, Gutteridge added, “Adults should feel just as welcome as kids to come and enjoy these shows – truly these are experiences that are relevant and enjoyable for all ages. If any families who would wish to join us for these events feel that their financial situation does not permit them to attend, please contact our box office. We have an allocation of tickets set aside so that cost is not a barrier to sharing these experiences with young people.”
Arash Khakpour and Alexis Fletcher première All my being is a dark verse (working title) Nov. 9-10 at the Rothstein Theatre. (photo by Peter Smida)
This year’s Chutzpah! Festival, which takes place Nov. 3-24, highlights Persian culture. The decision to feature Persian artists and stories – which was made well before the protests that erupted in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police last month – seems even more important and relevant now.
“When the festival was offered the opportunity to support the creation of a new dance work by Alexis Fletcher in collaboration with Arash Khakpour, two Vancouver artists I admire and enjoy working with, I began to explore the resonances between Persian artists and stories of both Jewish and Muslim background,” Jessica Gutteridge, Chutzpah! artistic managing director, told the Independent. “These communities are culturally rich and have been intertwined for a very long time, while at the same time in lesser and greater political tension over the course of history. The festival’s mandate includes exploring what Jewish culture has in common with non-Jewish communities, and bringing artists of different backgrounds into conversation, so I thought it would be interesting to pull on this thread and bring Jewish and non-Jewish artists and culture into a themed programming thread.”
The two main programs of the thread are the Nov. 9-10 world première of Fletcher and Khakpour’s All my being is a dark verse (working title), which was developed through an artistic residency at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre, and the Nov. 23 concert by Israeli singer, songwriter and actress Liraz Charhi.
Two digitally streamed programs round out the offerings. On Nov. 14, Jacqueline Saper, author of From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran, will speak and answer questions about Jewish life in Iran pre- and post-Revolution. And, on Nov. 21, Israeli chef Ayelet Latovich will present “a menu drawn from the Persian Jewish heritage of her mother’s family, which includes her grandmother, Kohrshid Hoshmand, a well-known and beloved figure in the Iranian community in Tel Aviv.”
“The festival has always provided public outreach opportunities, ranging from master classes to workshops to public conversations with artists,” said Gutteridge about these events. In addition to the Persian-themed outreach, Chutzpah! is partnering with rice & beans theatre’s DBLSPK program to offer a public workshop of Tamara Micner’s new Yiddish panto-in-progress, Yankl & Der Beanstalk.
“We have a broad array of workshops to choose from as well,” Gutteridge continued. “David Buchbinder, Mark Rubin and Michael Ward-Bergeman will lead a creative workshop focused on making intercultural connections. Edith Tankus will bring clowning techniques for self-expression in a workshop tailored to parents and caregivers. Liz Glazer will lead a workshop on how to tap into your funny side and create comedy for the stage. And Maya Ciarrocchi will lead a series of workshops sharing the practice of Yizkor books as a means of remembering and mourning the lost people and places of our lives, that will lead into the final performance of the Site: Yizkor project.”
Life, love, longing, death
All my being is a dark verse is inspired by the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (1934-1967), whose poetry was controversial enough in its expression of personal freedom to have been banned for almost a decade after the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979. The project combines Farrokhzad’s poetry, the work of local artist Nargess Jalali Delia and the dance choreographed and performed by Fletcher and Khakpour. The shows will include a program of Persian storytelling curated by the Flame.
“I discovered Forugh’s poetry through Nargess, when I was helping her prepare for a visual art exhibit in 2020,” said Fletcher. “Nargess had a painting that captivated me, which I learned was inspired by Forugh’s beautiful poem, ‘Inaugurating the Garden.’ When I read the poem for the first time, I was moved to tears and felt so much of my own life inside Forugh’s words. From there, I started to research the work of this poet and felt viscerally connected to her work. When I began dreaming of creating a response through movement, I approached Arash – an artist I greatly admire and have always wanted to work with. We decided to create and perform together, and to bring together a mix of Persian and non-Persian artists to complete our team, including costume design, original music composition, lighting design, and translation work between Farsi and English.
“Both Arash and Nargess have welcomed me into their culture, language and their very personal connection with Forugh in the most generous of ways,” said Fletcher.
“I am excited to connect with an artist who comes from a completely different movement background from my own, and yet who shares so many of the same interests and curiosities about the place that dance holds in the world, what it can offer and how it can bring people together in unique ways,” said Khakpour.
“Growing up in Iran,” he continued, “I was reading Forugh’s poems at the young age of 11, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to because her open-minded and dark-natured poems were not seen as ‘appropriate,’ and this experience had a profound effect on me. Forugh’s words were a revelation to read, something that someone wrote so many years ago and yet which seemed to speak directly to my fears and desires as if the words were both coming from me, and as if they were meant only for me.
“After moving to Canada at the age of 15,” he said, “I lost that connection to Forugh’s poetry, but now I am at a place that I feel the need to reconnect to her work again and integrate my love for her work, the knowledge and the sentiment it awakens in my dance practice.”
Currently, the pair are working with four of Farrokhzad’s poems: “The Wall,” “Reborn,” “Inaugurating the Garden” and “Window.”
“Forugh’s work is full of life, love and longing, yet full of death,” explained Khakpour. “I know from growing up in Iran that many people around me talked about her work as a forbidden reality, too forward, or too much – and the ways in which we should be talking, and the ways in which we should not be talking, as men and women. Forugh defied all of these binaries and all of this drew me to her magical poetry and body of work.
“As I was growing up, I have felt that similar feeling of defying the norms about myself, in terms of pursuing a dance career at all, as a man, which has many stigmas attached to it in my culture. I feel the same now as an artist at times.
“Forugh awakens the courage in us to be courageous,” he added. “This has always drawn me to Forugh’s work; her rigorous, rebellious nature has inspired many generations of artists since her death. Her writing, although being specific, is also timeless, transcends across cultures, and is full of humanity and love that goes beyond borders and ideologies. She longed for a world that could address and heal humanity’s pain.
“I think Alexis and I are drawn to Forugh and her work for these unapologetic tendencies and yet her humble nature of being, writing and expressing on the page. We strive for the same things in dance and choreography and long for a world that can address and heal its pain.”
“We both see dance as poetry in motion; a universal way of channeling poetry into the body and sharing that with the audience,” said Fletcher. “We believe this universality, along with the multidisciplinary and cross-cultural nature of this project, is a fertile ground that can draw new audiences to dance and connect different audiences to each other.”
Fletcher quoted from Rosanna Warren’s The Art of Translation: “The psychic health of an individual resides in the capacity to recognize and welcome the ‘Other.’” She explained that she and Khakpour “will use the act of translation as a practice of empathy; a way for artists and audiences to come together and lift the multiple veils of language, culture and ways of being that can obscure ‘the other,’ revealing the universality of our shared human experience, with language, visual art, dance and live performance as ways of ‘lifting the veil.’
“Expanding on the above,” she said, “we are curious about how we can use the practice of duet, including our partnership as performers, as a vehicle of exploration of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ and how this project can be a platform for this resonant conversation. This sparks our interest because, to execute duet skilfully and on an emotional level, one must delve into the other’s perspective more deeply…. We have the unique privilege of sharing this type of intimacy and connection with others as dancers because our bodies, especially in duet, are our physical and literal instruments: we must literally soften and yield our bodies and minds to give or receive the weight of another. We must take time to look into each other’s eyes and allow the other’s body to enter our private, personal space, learning what the impulses, dynamics, instincts and thought processes of that other person are. We must give each other patience and care for the relationship and choreography to work. We must acknowledge different subjective opinions and points of view. We feel that duet is a direct practice platform through which to investigate the myriad ways one can be in an empathic relationship with another.”
A dream come true
“Music in my life is the most important thing,” Charhi told the Independent. “When I started to create, to sing and to songwrite in Farsi, I knew that I had a message to be a little voice for the Iranian muted women. I knew that would be a continuation to the women from my family who are muted themselves. It wasn’t a question that I would do that. It’s not about me – I deeply feel I’m the pipe to tell a story.”
On Oct. 7, Charhi releases her third album in Farsi. Called Roya – a vision, a fantasy, a dream – she recorded it with Iranian musicians in Istanbul. “It was an extremely emotional journey I cannot even express with words,” she said, “but we made a wonderful album with wonderful meaning and we all share the same dreams together.”
Charhi collaborated secretly with several Iranian artists – singers, writers, instrumentalists – on her second album in Farsi. Secrecy was necessary because of the political situation.
“Recording my album Zan (woman in Farsi) and collaborating with Iranian musicians was a dream come true,” she said. “I felt that I can give and be artistically freed, especially because I felt that we needed to meet and to create together. [That] we love each other with no boundaries is a fact we wanted to spread to the world. There are bridges we can build despite this crazy situation and we have the power to make a change.”
Charhi chose the name Zan for that album, she said, “because it’s all about women’s freedom I sing about. Struggling and, on the other hand, rejoicing, singing and dancing, making little by little resolution, which is very, very relevant to what’s going on today in Iran.”
Charhi’s first Iranian album was Naz, which, she said means “coquettish manners.” It has been described as a “rebellious soundtrack.”
“It’s about being a good Iranian woman, using all her charm and politeness to get what she wants from her man and still stay determined,” she explained.
Charhi’s parents emigrated to Israel in the 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution, and Israel is where Charhi was born, in Ramla, in 1978.
“My music is built out of layers of my heritage, Israeli and Iranian,” she said, “and so I knew always I wanted to use traditional Iranian instruments and to mix them with my psychedelic music that I love so much [from] the Iranian ’70s.”
She also has released two albums in Hebrew, one self-titled, the other Rak Lecha Mutar(Only You’re Allowed).
As an actress, Charhi garnered a nomination for best actress from the Israeli Film Academy for her role in the 2004 Israeli film Turn Left at the End of the World. She has acted in theatre, television and film, including playing the love interest of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the movie A Late Quartet (2012), the role of Frida Kahlo in a production by the national theatre of Israel (2017) and an Israeli Mossad agent in the Israeli TV series Tehran (2020).
When I first entered the Zack Gallery to view its new show, the Chai Quilt, my first impression was that it was an amateur show. Only one wall of the gallery featured art, and it looked like the work of a kindergarten class, with several exceptions. I soon found out that that is indeed what it is!
In talking to gallery director Hope Forstenzer, I learned that this exhibit is different from most of the shows the gallery has produced. Many of the amateur artists are actually 3 to 5 years old and attend the JCC’s preschool.
“We sent out a call for participation in this show to everyone on the mailing lists of the JCC and the gallery,” said Forstenzer. “I wanted this show to connect the gallery to the community, to make it a mixed show. Whenever someone expressed an interest, we gave them the fabric squares and the craft kits. Some families received four or five squares for every family member. Our preschool at the centre had several, too. A few professional artists also responded to the call, as did some of the JCC staff.”
The show takes place in conjunction with the JCC’s Festival of Israeli Culture and, therefore, shares the festival’s theme, which is celebrating life – chai, in Hebrew.
“We asked everyone to create their own celebration of life and spring,” explained Forstenzer. “No matter how hard the pandemic hit us all, there is still life worth celebrating.”
When the squares came back from the artists, Forstenzer created a quilt of them on one long wall of the gallery, a continuous artistic surface reflecting community members’ united vision of life. “The squares touch sides,” she said. “Even if we can’t meet because of the pandemic, we’re still in this together. Our art brings us together.”
The show’s unique blend of professional and amateur artists means there are several profound differences from previous Zack shows. One of those differences is that there are no name cards. If a participant signed their square, everyone can see their name; if not, the square’s creator is anonymous.
Another difference is that the show started a week later than planned.
“Many of the participants are families with children,” said Forstenzer. “They kept calling me and asking for more time. Even now, when the show is open, the squares are still trickling in. There are already over 70 on the wall. I had three new ones today, waiting on my desk, and more are coming, I’m sure. I’m going to add them on to the end of the quilt as they come.”
The show, or rather the quilt, grows daily; resembling a living organism. And, it also changes. As I was speaking to Forstenzer, one of the participants, Jessica Gutteridge, artistic director of the Rothstein Theatre, came into the gallery. She wanted to rotate her square, which was already on the gallery wall. “It would look better the other way,” she offered, and Forstenzer agreed.
“I was excited to have an opportunity to participate in this community art project,” Gutteridge said. “Although my professional artistic practice is in the theatre, I have been involved as a hobbyist and student in visual arts and crafts, particularly needlework, for most of my life. During the early part of the pandemic, Hope and I created a virtual drop-in community art program called the Creative Kibbitz. It was based on a project I had started – to invite people to my home to socialize and make creative work. This show was a nice way to extend that work, and a theme based on celebrating life and renewal seemed very appropriate and inspiring in this moment.”
Although Gutteridge has never participated in a Zack show before, her pink square with its jolly cherry blossoms looks like it belongs on the gallery’s wall. “Cherry blossom time is one of my favourite moments of the year,” she said. “It is so ethereally beautiful for the short time it lasts. To me, it captures the rebirth of spring perfectly and the stirring of new life. I decided to make a spray of cherry blossoms using two of my favourite media, yarn and rhinestones, in an effort to make something that captures the shimmer and sparkle of spring.”
In addition to needlework, the quilt pieces have been made using an astounding variety of media. Photo collages and paintings. Feathers and beads and felt flowers. Dried leaves and confetti paper ribbons. Letters and abstract glitter splashes. Buttons and lace.
The creator of one square, which has dancers in lacy costumes, is Beryl Israel, a retired teacher. “I am a member of the fantastic JCC Circle of Friends program,” she said in an email interview. “Up to the start of COVID, I taught tap dancing at one of the local community centres.” Her love of dancing poured into her contribution to this show.
“My motivation for this work was to concentrate on the happiness and positivity around us in a gentle, hopeful way, with the inspiration from the dancing figures of Matisse,” she explained. “I wanted to record some of my old dress fabrics, laces from my mother, favourite photos, handmade paper, flowers, etc., plus the use of acrylic paints and stitching, which resulted in my composition.”
The imagination all the artists infused into their squares seems to know no bounds, as if they wanted to say, the ways in which we each see life is different, but, together, we can create a life as diverse and colourful as the Chai Quilt on the wall of the Zack Gallery.
The quilt is on exhibit until May 14.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].