PuSh Festival 2011


There are so many adjectives I could use to describe Friday evening’s performance of Circa: breathtaking, exhilarating, funny, inventive, dramatic, mesmerising, hot – but the truth is none of them would do the performance justice. I can honestly say I have never been out of my seat to give a standing ovation so quickly.

Anyone entering the auditorium expecting to see the stage filled with the usual equipment and paraphernalia associated with circus acts might have been puzzled by the starkly lit empty stage – but this show was all about bodies. Entering the space in turn, each of the five performers moved as if discovering their bodies for the first time, along with gravity, balance, the ground and the space around them. The movement was stunning – leaping, twisting, rolling – every gesture precise and entrancing. Next came the playful discoveries of each other and what their bodies could do together – from hurling each other across the stage to climbing each others bodies and balancing on top of them. These impressive stunts drew audible gasps from the audience, but it was the slower sequences of movement that brought tears to my eyes because they were so beautiful: bodies intertwining, stretching out to moments of perfect balance, moving so slowly it created the illusion of a film being slowed down – all lit to create huge shadows on the backdrop – it was exquisite.

The solo and group numbers that followed continued to explore the relationships between bodies and the space around them, as well as the individual characteristics of each performer. There were more dramatic feats of physicality and acrobatics, but what struck me was the tenderness of movement that was evident throughout the show – even when performing lifts and throws that must have required immense physical effort, every performer managed to convey gentleness towards the other bodies they came into contact with.

If the first half of the show was about playful and often humourous self discovery and interaction, it was in the second half that the company started to explore their shadow sides, entering a darker world of power and domination and seduction. The circus equipment materialised, but it’s safe to say Circa’s aerial rope act was unlike those I had seen before. Instead of fast and furious climbing and manoeuvres followed by dramatic drops, this was slow and sensual and like witnessing someone discover for the first time the pleasure and feats their body was capable of.

The entire performance was beautifully lit with subtle projections adding to rather than distracting from the movement on stage. Also faultless was the varied soundtrack and the impeccable interplay between the music and movement. The final sequence in which a woman climbed all over a man’s bare chest in a pair of impossibly high red stilletos while pulling him around by his hair positively sizzled, and the shoes left on the empty stage as the applause rang out seemed to spell out a final reminder: if your average circus act will rush to impress you with their most daring and dramatic moves, Circa will seduce you slowly and teasingly until you are begging for more. Sublime.

Hugh Hughes is a fictional character – a persona created by Hoipolloi Artistic Director Shon Dale-Jones – on stage to tell a fictional story about a real place, but an event that never happened. I think. The truth is, after watching Floating, I’m not entirely sure what’s fictional and what’s not anymore, and I think that’s the point. With several references to a projected Luis Bunuel quote about how dwelling on fiction and our imaginations can transform them into fact, Floating posed a number of questions to its audience, the most important being: were we prepared to step off the island with Hughes and into his make-believe world?

Thursday night’s opening performance at the Arts Club was unlike anything I have experienced before. And it truly was a show you experienced, rather than watched. Objects belonging to Hugh’s Nain (Welsh for Grandmother) were passed around the audience, along with a light-up slide box containing a photograph of her, and an Icelandic volcanic rock. An audience member in the front row was given a counter and responsibility for adjusting it and holding it up for the audience to indicate each passing chapter in the story. And in one moment that PuShed (see what I did there) at the very limits of sustained audience discomfort, Hughes invited the audience to get naked with him, pausing the show and implying that it wouldn’t continue until someone took him up on the offer: “I’m not going to lie to you… it’s going to get a bit weird” he promised as the audience laughed nervously and shifted in their seats.

Floating claims to tell the story of a day when the small island of Anglesey broke free from the Welsh mainland and floated away, making it as far as the Arctic before returning to the exact place it started. This fantastical narrative is interwoven with Hughes’ own struggle to leave the island. Though with everything else going on in the show, it’s the story that gets lost. There are moments of finely crafted physical comedy and charming bumbling naivete that almost cross over into clowning, along with quick-witted audience banter as good as any stand-up comedy. Visually beautiful projections are created using a combination of old-school slide projectors and modern digital technology; and a cluttered assortment of props and costumes are used creatively to depict multiple characters and pivotal moments. There is meta-theatre and macro-theatre: Hughes holds up multiple signs and laminated flashcards spotlighting key themes and explains at length the supposed beginning-middle-end structure of the story he is about to tell. The macro comes later: while demonstrating how it felt when the island broke away from the bridge, Hughes and co-performer Sioned Rowlands focus in on the smallest details like colours of the bridge and the water, the sounds of chains clanking and stones falling into the water, and the fraying of ropes. It is a moment both genius in its creativity and hilarious in its clumsiness. But the eclectic and jumbled nature of the show is both its charm and its downfall. There is an interesting story in there – it just has to fight for attention amongst everything else going on.

Speaking to people afterwards, it seems that Floating divided opinion – some liked it, some didn’t, while some knew they had laughed a lot but weren’t quite sure what to make of it. I left certain that I had enjoyed many clever, funny, original and daring moments, but wishing they had all come together to form a more coherent show.

Floating is part of the 2011 PuSh Festival, and is on at the Arts Club until February 5th. For tickets, see the PuSh Festival website.

You don’t really know what to expect when you’re given earplugs at the entrance to a show. Something loud – sure – but loud can be a good thing or a bad thing.  In this case, loud was amazing!

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Two actors stood on a bare stage in front of two mics, wearing the same black suits. Behind them, band The Natural Born Chillers were poised to play, instruments and electronic equipment at the ready.

Suddenly, the room went completely dark. There was silence for a moment… and then the show began, with an onslaught of pounding music, billowing smoke and frenzied dancing. It’s hard to put into words the energy that was created in the room. You could feel the sound waves inside your body, vibrating with the rhythm of the music and the perfectly choreographed lighting design.

The dialogue of Bernard-Marie Koltes’ French play is delivered in Polish, but the translation written by Marian Mahor is projected onto the screen that provides the backdrop to the actors and musicians. The details of the scene are minimal – a dark alley where men and beasts roam could be a real street in a real city or a mythical underworld. The characters, known only as The Dealer and The Client, tiptoe and dance around each other linguistically and physically while discussing a deal – the exchange of some unspecified goods or services for an unknown payment. All of the lines are delivered straight out to the audience, but in the moments of physical interplay between the two, the complex nature of their relationship is revealed. They both need, crave and resent each other, and flit from fury to tenderness to nonchalance in the space of seconds. The text is strong, poetic and honest and it’s beautifuly delivered by actors Wojciech Niemczyk (The Dealer), Tomasz Nosinski (The Client). “The only thing that really matters is the fact that… you looked at me” The Dealer reminds The Client, adamantly asserting his ability to anticipate and meet any conceivable desire.

Director Radoslaw Rychcik’s “hysterical theatre” approach does not always have the desired effect: a video montage towards the end of the piece is overly long, and feels like it is trying far too hard to be shocking and edgy. The physical sequence that follows conveys far more in its subtlety, and as the piece heads towards its inevitable conclusion, the deal takes place and everything returns to its opening state with a mutual agreement that nothing took place.

The integral live soundtrack provided by the Natural Born Chillers was electrifying, you could feel the wave sound vibrations in your body, which complemented the emotional and visual aspects of the performance. Before the show began PuSh Festival Executive Director Norman Armour explained how blown away he was by Poland’s theatre scene. Having seen the show once before, he was delighted that the company were able to stop in Vancouver for the PuSh Festival during a tour taking in New York, LA, Seattle and Portland. With only four dates in Vancouver before the company heads to Chile, this is a show worth seeing while you have the chance. Saturday night’s final performance has an added bonus – The Natural Born Chillers will play a concert at Performance Works on Saturday after the show. Admission to see the band is only $5.0o.

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is a co-presentation by Pi Theatre, PuSh Festival and The Polish Cultural Institute in New York. On at Performance Works until Saturday 22nd January. For tickets, see the PuSh website.

La Marea (The Tide), part of the 2011 PuSh Festival, offers a voyeuristic glimpse into unspoken thoughts, unknown futures and secret pasts; and is at once funny, intriguing, beautiful and sad.

La Marea (The Tide)

Co-produced by Vancouver based Boca Del Lupo, this is site specific theatre at its best. Taking over an entire block of Water Street, nine scenes play out on corners, in shopfronts, at windows above eye level, and in the case of Motorcycle – pictured above – in the middle of the street. The scenes are all accompanied by projected text, and are repeated during the two hours the piece takes place each evening. The audience are free to wander around at their own pace. At Tuesday evening’s opening it seemed that the audience was made up of an even mix of people there specifically to watch the piece, and confused passing pedestrians drawn into the action. I overheard the following exchange while watching Woman Sleeping:

Small child: Why is she there? (…) Why is she there? (…) Why is she there??
Parent: She’s wondering if she should get up… I think…

Woman Sleeping

Woman Sleeping

It’s clear to see why La Marea was chosen to open this year’s PuSh Festival – Norman Armour spoke at Monday evening’s launch event about the theme of “cityness” and PuSh 2011 as a celebration of Vancouver’s 125 years, and great care has been taken to intricately weave the city into each of the nine vignettes. Touching on themes of isolation, loss and the interconnections between seemingly random incidents, as a whole it served as a reminder that every person has secrets, hopes, fears, a back story and a future. It highlighted the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, how others see us and what the future holds; and made the private public – from the beginnings and endings of relationships, to the internal monologue of a man so caught up in his own midlife crisis, he can’t decide whether the purchase that will fix everything is leather pants or an almond croissant. Several scenes captured with unnerving accuracy the way our thoughts about the future tend to veer from one extreme to the other within seconds, one moment deciding that tomorrow will be amazing – I’ll move to Spain and everything will be amazing and I’ll be happy there – to complete certainty that all hope is lost – perhaps tomorrow I’ll kill myself. The truth is not so much that the reality is somewhere in the middle, but that it is unknowable – so why do we spend so much time analysing and obsessing about it?

La Marea takes place from 7-9 pm until January 22nd on the zero-hundred block of Water Street between Abbott Street and Carall Street, and is free. Wrap up warm and head down there – it’s well worth braving the cold.

Exercise and Piano

Exercise and Piano

(For our report on the first part of the evening, see our previous post.)

Zapato Negro

Zapato Negro

Our live-blogging at Monday night’s event was thwarted by the wireless internet connection at Club Five Sixty dying, but better late than never, here’s our report on the rest of the evening.

After the speeches finished, the crowds thinned out as many took the opportunity to catch a sneak preview of La Marea in Gastown (We saw it yesterday evening , check the blog tomorrow for a review). We were still in for a treat though as Afro Cuban jazz band Zapato Negro took to the stage and launched into some seductive and infectious grooves, creating a sound that blended funk and Latin vibes and soon made the room feel full again. We couldn’t help but dance in our seats as we feverishly worked to write up our first blog post of the night.

At around nine, organisers announced that two listed performances – Theatre Replacement’s Weetube and The Chop Theatre’s Last Dance Tango Salon would be starting in the adjacent Lounge area. Like a number of theatre, art and online projects in recent years, Weetube takes things which have already been said or written and uses them as performance text. After letting the audience watch a popular Youtube video chosen from a projected playlist, actors create short scenes using the public comments posted under the video on Youtube. For the most part these were very amusing, but laughter turned to uneasy silence as we were quickly reminded that wherever public comments can be posted from behind the relative anonymity of a computer screen, racism, misogyny and homophobia will soon rear their ugly heads.

Weetube

Weetube

If you’re not a fan of audience interaction, prolonged eye contact, or dancing in public then the Last Dance Tango Salon might not be the performance for you. Audience members are invited to dance with one of four performers, while listening to their thoughts being spoken via headphones, backed by stirring tango music. Those who were too nervous to take part looked on, unaware of the stories being told and the secrets being shared in intimate moments between strangers. I was amazed how quickly I lost any inhibitions and awareness of the people watching as I took part, and was drawn into the eye contact, physical contact and breath shared while listening to the story play out. One of the unique things offered by live arts experiences is the moment of connection between performer and spectator – Last Dance gets to the heart of this exchange, distills its essence and delivers it through intense gazes and words whispered in your ears.

The Zolas

The Zolas

In the main room, local indie rock band The Zolas took to the stage, and an appreciative crowd lapped up their witty and catchy tunes, which kept everyone dancing, cheering and full of energy. They deserved a bigger crowd, but with so many shows going on at once it was hard to choose what to watch. However, the crowd grew as the other pieces finished, and the band gave a great performance that left people wanting more.

Vancouver neighbourhoods map

Vancouver neighbourhoods map

Wondering around the multi-level Club Five Sixty throughout the night attendees were treated to a number of additional performances and distractions – flamenco and contemporary dance groups, a contortionist, photographic and video previews of some of the upcoming PuSh shows being projected on the walls, and short acoustic music sets. Those who made their way through the labyrinthine downstairs washrooms were greeted by an interactive map and the invitation to submit a postcard describing the things they loved about their neighborhood. Perhaps more popular however were the two free photo booths in the main room which attracted steady queues of party goers throughout the night. We’re not sure if it was planned but the ability to watch people gleefully posing and examining their photos from the balcony in the upstairs lounge proved completely captivating.

The party went on into the night with a DJ set that filled the dance floor and had everyone forgetting it was Monday evening and we all had to be at work in the morning. It was great to see so many different people in the arts and culture industry together in one happy room. On a final note, it was impossible not to notice that the event was well populated with friendly and helpful volunteers – a reminder that events such as PuSh often rely on the many passionate permanent and temporary residents of the city who give up their time for free to support the arts.

PuSh merchandise

8:15 Second update from the PuSh Opening Gala – Opening Speeches

Following Mayor Gregor was Max Wyman, president of the PuSh Board. It was very hard to hear what he was saying unfortunately, but something that stood out was when he talked about the imp0rtance of what he calls  the ‘creative class’. He said that “sharing a cultural experience gives us more understanding of each other”. Wise words indeed!

Up next was VanCity CEO Tamara Vrooman who expressed her delight about VanCity’s contribution as a sponsor for the 125th celebration events.

Then it was Norman Armour’s turn! He saluted with a big “Hellooooo Vancouver!! As the Executive Director of the PuSh Festival, he talked about the importance of keeping the arts at the centre of our civic life and was visibly excited about sharing the stage with Vancouver’s 125th birthday celebrations. This year’s festival explores the notions of ‘cityness’ and place, and is sure to inspire many to discover all that Vancouver has to offer as a cultural hub. Norman gave a big shout-out to The Georgia Straight, CTV and all the bloggers and journalists who have played a part in getting the word out about this year’s festival; and gave a resounding rallying cry to all of those present as ambitious and passionate leaders in the arts to strive for our goals and seize opportunities in these challenging and daunting times. Our city needs us!

19.30pm First update from the PuSh Opening Gala – Mayor Gregor’s speech

(Details may be patchy as most of the speeches were inaudible until someone turned the sound up halfway through Norman Armour’s speech!)

Club Five Sixty is packed with people excited to celebrate both the launch of Vancouver’s 125th birthday celebrations (or quasquicentennial to use the correct term-just don’t ask us how to pronounce it!) and the opening of the 2011 PuSh Festival.

After some community performances (did anyone catch who they were over the noise of the crowd?) Mayor Gregor Robertson took to the stage to officially launch the City’s plans for the 125th birthday festivities – a celebration of Vancouver’s diversity: “that’s what we are all made of”.  He announced the plans for Birthday Live –  a free family event on April 6th, the official anniversary of the city’s incorporation, which will include the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron and “yes, there will be birthday cake!”; and Summer Live – three days of free performances  over multiple stages in Stanley Park taking place July 8-10th. As well as these two spotlight events, a funding program of $10 million will go towards bringing improvements and vibrancy to neighbourhoods including Gastown, Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona.

Throughout his speech, the Mayor spoke enthusiastically and proudly about the diverse communities which make up the city, and the role of the arts, culture and creative expression in giving voice to those communities and the city as a whole, as well as acting as a “huge economic driver for the city”. 2011 is set to be a fantastic year with Vancouver being named as the Cultural Capital for Canada and promises of “the most legendary PuSh Festival in history”.  There were thanks offered to the Federal Government, Heritage Canada, the PuSh Festival Board, staff and volunteers, and City Councillors, before  the Mayor signed off by thanking everyone for being here, wishing us all a great 125th year, and reminding people to check celebratevancouver125.ca for updates on all of the plans discussed tonight.

So what do you think of the Vancouver 125 plans so far? Will you be attending Birthday Live and Summer Live? Leave us a comment on this post or let us know on twitter (@escapadetheatre)!

The excitement is building… The 2011 PuSh Festival kicks off in a matter of hours. With so many varied and  exciting performances to choose from, we can’t wait to sample what’s on offer over the next few weeks. We’ll be live-blogging and tweeting from tonight’s Opening Gala at Club 56o – we’ll be updating this post throughout the evening so keep checking back for updates…

Push Festival 2011 publicity image