Arts, Visual Art

A Day at the Art Gallery of Alberta

October is almost over, so I’m sharing some photos I took at the Art Gallery of Alberta on October 16. I was there to see Ballet Edmonton perform, but I stayed to enjoy several exhibits. First good thing: the weather was glorious.

“Soak, Stripe, Splatter: Collecting Colour at the AGA” includes some of my favourite pieces in their collection by artists such as Arlene Stamp, Kenneth Noland, and Jack Bush. Here I am obscuring Claude Tousignant’s “Gong 80”.

Beautiful pieces by Alex Janvier, Mary Scott, Gloria Mok, and Geoffrey Hunter. (My friend Deb Bachman for scale.)

My friend Harley Morman’s show, “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” is a ton of fun! It featured toys and artifacts that would make people of a certain age feel nostalgic for their childhood. There were a couple of mobiles with large mirrors, reinforcing a theme of reflection. 

Harley used lenticular images to trace shifting perspectives that reflect changes in age, and, in Harley’s case, gender.

The “ROYGBIV” exhibit featured colour studies through art installations. “Hyperlings” by the artist Shoplifter (real name Hrafnildur Arardóttir) features colourful, fuzzy stalactites in a room meant to elicit comfort and joy. It succeeded!

Arts, City, Dance, Reviews

SALVAGE: A Dance/Installation Art Collaboration

My friends and I cast shadows an installation by Mao Projects and Chris Savage called “Time Zones”. Photo by Suzette Chan.

September 17, 2021 was Day 1 of Salvage, a three-night collaboration between Mile Zero Dance and the Lowlands Project Space.

The Lowlands is a unique venue: the back yards of two adjacent bungalows in the Highlands neighbourhood of north Edmonton. Several pieces of installation art were set up in the adjoining back yards. They also set up three formal stages. One traditional one in one yard; one wrapped around a tree between the two yards; and a round stage in one of the front yards.

However, the performers on the first night defined other performance spaces: on lawn, on a cement walk, in a patch of dirt, around a fire pit. 

Jason Romero performing at SALVAGE, a dance and installation art collaboration between Mile Zero Dance and the Lowlands Project Space. Photo by Suzette Chan.

The first work was a solo performance by Jason Romero, set to recorded contemporary music from around the globe. It was a sensuous, grounded performance. At one point, he was seen through colourful hanging window frames of an art installation. At another, he danced on a patch of fresh soil that my friends and I had avoided stepping on, lest it had been newly seeded. Instead of being a garden, it was actually a stage for Romero, who who danced on and in the patch, coating himself in dirt, flinging it about, either to shake off excess, or to share its richness. No matter where he performed, or the genre or language of music, Romero’s movement vocabulary seemed to communicate who he is in this place at this time. 

Katherine Semchuk and Julian Anderson-Bowes performing at SALVAGE, a dance and installation art collaboration between Mile Zero Dance and the Lowlands Project Space. Photo by Suzette Chan.

The second work was by dancer Katherine Semchuk with musician Julian Anderson-Bowes. They combined dance improvisation and jazz improvisation in a performance which started on the front yard stage with a table and chair, to the middle of the yards around a fire pit, to the back of one of the yards on a formal stage with light sticks. They defined space and spatial relations throughout the set. Because there was no fixed seating, we were able to follow them from staging area to staging area, often being close enough to watch the pair watch each other as they improvised. They started low-key, but built up to a spectacular end, as they moved from no light to fire light to electric light, and as Anderson-Bowes’ music went from acoustic to electronically processed. Semchuk’s performance was bold throughout, but became epic–one could say incandescent–by the time she wielded lightsticks like ancient weapons.

This was the first live dance performance I’ve seen since February 29, 2020. It was a spectacular evening of art and dance, made all the more memorable by the mild autumn weather and the opportunity to see friends and artists I haven’t seen in person in 18 months. 

Day 2 and Day 3 of Salvage are on tonight and tomorrow afternoon. If you can’t make it to the venue, you can live-stream them. That’s what I plan to do, and I can’t wait.


Salvage Event Page on the Mile Zero Dance Website

Lowlands Project Space on Instagram

Arts, Music

BTS’s Butter: All the playas get movin’

In which I dust off this blog with a fun summer song

It’s been almost a year since I posted here. What happened? Well, there was this pandemic…. COVID-19 stopped in-person live events cold, and this blog was set up to highlight live performances and gallery shows as a way to get me out of the house. 

Local arts companies eventually found their way online, adapting pre-planned shows, including interactive ones, such as last May’s Tracks: Message Received. Soon, shows were entirely written, performed, and presented during the pandemic. Some productions went live to air; others were live to tape; some combined film, dance, and post-production decisions. I enjoyed many of these. Although they did not get me out of the  house, or even my living room, they did give me the feeling of being in attendance. The entire field of the performing arts pivoted and took viewers and participants like me along with them as they explored expanded definitions of “liveness”.

I first came across the concept of “liveness” in the book K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance by UCLA theatre professor Suk-Young Kim. She wrote: “This book is mainly concerned with a more theoretical investigation of ‘liveness’ as a technological, ideological, and affective mode in which human subjects interact with other human and nonhuman subjects in the digital age.” The book was published in pandemic-free 2018, but I found it indispensable for understanding the new virtual environment in which performing art was presented during the pandemic of 2020 and 2021.

Joining ARMY

The reason I read the book was to understand the reason I never ran out of entertainment during the pandemic: BTS.

I had been aware of the group for a few years, but only started to to pay attention in early 2020 when images and songs from their just-released new album were being circulated by fans of the mega-popular Chinese series, The Untamed. I was already a few months late to that show, but made up for it over the Christmas/New Year season of 2019-20. Numerous fans wondered if The Untamed zombie character Wen Ning had inspired the look sported by BTS’s V in the music video for the single, “ON”. There was also a popular Untamed fanvid set to the album cut, “Moon”. With so many collisions in this fandom, something was clearly up.

I promised friends that I would check out BTS “when I had time.” Then the pandemic hit, and along with it, semi-lockdown orders. It seemed like a good time to look into BTS. What was the worse that could happen?

Cut to: today. I have an ARMY membership, several albums, streaming playlists, hours of Run BTS! logged, an ARMY bomb, a season’s greeting stationery set, and a cupsleeve from a local ARMY event to celebrate the December birthdays of Jin and V.

Coming late to a fandom can be daunting. In its eight years since debut, BTS has produced hundreds of songs (in three languages) and thousands of music videos, live performances, dance practices, and spontaneous live videos through which members spoke directly with fans.

So to become a BTS fan at this late stage of their eight-year career is to experience all their live events to catch up on BTS now is to experience all their work and events simultaneously. And because I’ve experienced this while being advised to stay-at-home, I did not go out to see their movie; I did not hang around to chat at the cupsleeve event; I did not organize a birthday party with a BTS soundtrack. Almost all of my interaction with their work is through my computer. They’re here, all live, all the time, of all times.

Which brings me to “Butter”

Video: BTS’s “Butter”, 2021

“Butter” is BTS’s second all-English single, following on their first U.S. radio hit, “Dynamite”. BTS has actually been very popular in the U.S. for years. In 2014, hundreds of fans lined up for their first U.S. showcase. In 2015, BTS landed an album on the main Billboard chart. In 2019, they charted three #1 album debuts, the first group to do so since the Beatles.

BTS should need no introduction now, but they do. The success of “Dynamite” and “Butter” seems to prove that they’ve been kept off mainstream radio in Canada and the U.S. because their songs are mostly in Korean. (They also have enough Japanese songs to issue this month’s BTS: The Best compilation of Japanese hits.) 

RM has said that “Butter” has no heavy message, but the song and the video are still meaningful. It’s a more in-depth introduction to the band, a statement of their purpose, and their history. To me, “Dynamite” is the musical equivalent of the band’s iconic group greeting to audiences and interviewers, which translates to: “Two, three, we are BTS!” In this analogy, “Butter” is the part when each member states his name. 

Before I get to my notes on “Butter”, I was influenced by interpretations posted by columnist Lainey Liu  and the tweeter GM Cantave. Liu noted that the colour of butter is yellow, a word that’s been used to shame Asians, but the biggest band on the planet has now reclaimed it. Cantave wrote about the three storylines in “Butter”: BTS flirts with the listener, comments on the music industry, and sends a love letter to ARMY. I am simplifying, so please check out the links. Liu and Cantave’s well articulated ideas were in the back of my mind as I made note of my responses to “Butter”.

Notes on “Butter”

Jung Kook in “Butter”, 2021

“Butter” opens with beats that reminded me and many others of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust’, and is followed by the lines, “Smooth like butter/Like a criminal undercover”, which was reminiscent of “Criminal” by Michael Jackson. These reverential references to Queen and Michael Jackson invite listeners to compare BTS to those superstars. As a child of the 70s, I have no trouble placing BTS in the same bracket as Queen and Michael Jackson. My first memory of Michael Jackson was from Jackson 5ive cartoons on Saturday morning. I never imaged that he would become a solo star as iconic as Elvis Presley. When I first heard Queen on Top 40 radio, I thought they were a curiosity, but they proved to have massive mainstream appeal. I did not know about BTS when they started. I imagine there are a lot of people who are surprised that this group that was atypical of hip hop or idol groups have become the biggest band on the planet. But I do know that by the time BTS, Michael Jackson, and Queen held multiple-night concerts at Wembley Stadium (to choose just one milestone of success), they all had deep, bestselling catalogues and a global presence.

V in “Butter”, 2021

V’s entire section here is both a tease and a taunt. He’s flirting with the listener and flexing at an industry that underestimated BTS. By saying “I owe it all to my mother”, V brags about his natural gifts as a singer and visual, and pushes back against negative preconceptions about both idol singers and Asians. K-pop scene performers are often stereotyped as being inauthentic and “made” by plastic surgery, auto-tune, and a “factory” system. It’s a form of techno-orientalism, the association of Asian people with robots or synthetic life-forms, and Asian culture with unindividuated cogs in an efficient machine. These are stereotypes that this sexy, dishevelled, born-of-woman V defies.

V in “Butter”, 2021

Who’s sweating? The industry? ARMY? Probably both, but for different values of “like that”. Btw, I’ve made a YouTube playlist of V’s lollipop trilogy.

Jin in “Butter”, 2021

Jin then sings the pre-chorus: “Oh when I look in the mirror / I’ll melt your heart into 2 / I got that superstar glow so”. This amused me because it reminds me of Jin’s “Worldwide Handsome” persona, which is basically a comedic bit in which he acts like an unrepentant narcissist. He gave an amazing in-character anger to Indian interviewer Sakshma Srivastav when she asked recently if his looks overshadowed his talent.

Jung Kook in “Butter”, 2021

After their mugshots, the chorus begins, and the boys are on stage in full colour (I think of this as a subtle allusion to the pandemic: they’re fine on their own, but they live in full colour when they’re on stage). In this section, Jung Kook plants a kiss on the back of his hand, where he has a tattoo of a purple heart, a significant symbol for BTS and ARMY. When he sings “high like the moon”, I think about how it’s canon in the BTS universe, the band is the moon and ARMY is the Earth. You can see it in Jin’s performance of “Moon” at the Map of the Soul: ON:E concert and in the poster for their Muster Sowoozoo concerts on June 13 and 14. In the Sowoozoo poster, the boys hold what appear to be balloons in the likeness of the planets in our solar system. The only planet missing is the Earth, which is their foundation. 

Jimin in “Butter”, 2021

When Jimin sings, “Let me show you ’cause talk is cheap”, it’s hard not to think of the high-octane, shows they’ve put on, even for three-minute appearances on U.S. award shows. But rather than a demonstrative gesture that indicates he’s showing something, he puts his finger to his lips in the international gesture for “be quiet”. He’s dancing and singing; it’s up to the audience to really look and listen.

V in “Butter”, 2021

V makes a reference to Usher’s hit, “U Got It Bad “, bringing the nostalgic vibes up to 2009. It’s a line that has entertained everyone, including Usher, who took on the BTS “Butter” challenge on Tik Tok. This scene is nostalgic for ARMY, too. The last time V was in an elevator, in the video for “Dope”, he was literally in short pants.

V in “Dope”, 2015

“Dope” was a 2015 single which was also an introductory anthem. It was a bigger hit globally than it was in Korea, and the band followed up its success with their first international tour. In “Dope”, V took the elevator down to join the others, who all seem to be gathering after their day jobs to commiserate/perform/excel together. Six years later, in “Butter”, V takes the elevator up to meet ARMY.

RM in “Butter”, 2021

During the dance break section, each member is shown alone in the elevator freestyling. It’s a great way for each member to show (because talk is cheap) an aspect of his personality through dance. Jimin’s moves are sleek and confident. RM powers through his section. V went for comedy. Jung Kook is dramatic. j-hope takes up the whole space and dances with every fibre of his body. SUGA sways with cool vibes. Jin’s larger-than-life World Wide Handsome personality has larger-than-life moves.

SUGA in “Butter”, 2021

SUGA raps, “No ice on my wrist”, and to prove it, shows his wrists, which are devoid of expensive watches, but festooned with friendship bracelets. He doesn’t need flashy accoutrements, not when he has “that right body and that right mind”. SUGA came from humble beginnings, and joined a company in its lean days. But sheer talent and determination drove their success.

BTS spells ARMY in “Butter”, 2021

Many bands have loyal fans, but who else can say they have an ARMY? Okay, KISS had one. It was the only fan club I remember being spoken about by name. However, it was not like ARMY (which stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth). The relationship between BTS and ARMY is fascinating. I loved learning about it. First, I learned that it is common for Korean idol groups to name their fan clubs, and to have a high level of engagement with them through fan meetings and the like. However, because BTS came from a small company which was on the verge of bankruptcy in BTS’s early years, the band survived with the support of ARMY, who voted, streamed, and bought music and concert tickets to keep the band going. ARMYs could also relate to BTS, who regularly sang about the pressures felt by Korea’s “sampo generation”, which is mentioned in “Dope” (international millennial and Generation Z could also relate). ARMY is often mischaracterized as being screaming teens, and harshly judged for it, but BTS never fall for the “crazy fan” questions the Western media loves to ask them. ARMY feels that BTS understands them, and BTS feels that they would be alone it it weren’t for ARMY. So after BTS introduces themselves to the general public in “Butter”, they literally spell out the importance of ARMY as part of the band.

j-hope in “Butter”, 2021

To be honest, I had misgivings about the line, “We don’t stop.” I grew up with the stereotype of scary Asian invasions in comics, on TV, and in the news (specifically, the effects of geopolitical domino theory on Asia, which had a very real effect on BTS’s homeland, Korea). But j-hope sings this line with a welcoming smile, and leads a group of individuals we have now met through their dancing, rapping, singing, and style.

BTS does not stop. They have persevered through near-bankruptcy, industry disrespect, local media indifference, international media intransigence, racism, and a global pandemic. BTS is a remarkable group, and the members and ARMY seem to be remarkable people. I wish I had gotten to them sooner, but as SUGA once said, “Don’t feel regretful that you weren’t there since our debut, because every moment feels just like when we first debuted. The day when you first met us, is the day we debuted.”

BTS has expanded the concept of “liveness” in this respect, too.

Arts, City, Reviews

Tracks: Message Received

Since mid-March the arts scene around town has mostly been a series of cancellation announcements. Our province is in lockdown mode. Businesses are starting to re-open, but the ban on large gatherings of people will last some time.

Art galleries have been closed for two months. Most performing arts seasons ended early. The Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival has been cancelled. Teatro la Quindicina has postponed its entire 2020 summer season. The Citadel Theatre has added a note to their website letting people know that their 2020-21 season is subject to change in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

However, this does not mean that there has been no art. Galleries and museums hosted virtual tours, the Metro Cinema hosts movie nights where you stream new releases through their portal, and NeWest Books has hosted book launches online.

When it comes to scheduling arts events, I’m fond of saying “there is too much going on!” That has not changed. There is too much going on even in in this pandemic!

I’m not sure if it’s because we’re all supposed to have “nothing to do”, but I find it even more stressful than usual to choose between art events. The reality for me is that I’m working from home full time, so the number of hours available to me for events has not changed. But with artists and arts organizations figuring out how to do or present their work virtually, the arts calendar is overflowing again.

On April 29, Mile Zero Dance pivoted to video conferencing to present Dance Blitz, a scheduled mixed program that ended with a joyous dance party which was just what all the participating shut-ins needed. The lockdown also changed the nature of the artist-in-residence project that was in progress. Thea Patterson presented her project performance of Silverlings on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.)

I didn’t get a chance to see that show this afternoon, but I saw a different project that began as a stage show and ended up being staged via video: the Fringe Theatre off-season show Tracks, which was supposed to be presented at the Backstage Theatre. The work would have been an environmental one: the stage is located inside a building that housed a turnabout for streetcar trains in Edmonton (the Edmonton Radial Railway Society operates a museum in the building), and just outside the theatre is the Strathcona terminus for a historical streetcar ride that goes downtown to the legislature.

Tracks is a which-way performance anthology directed by Beth Dart and tied together by the stories of Mac Brock, who told us about some personal epiphanies he had about himself while encountering trains. Raised in Saskatchewan, the first time he ever took a train was when he moved to Toronto and took the subway. I was charmed by his description of the trains (they looked like giant toaster ovens to his prairie eyes), and moved by his meditations of what it means to be a storyteller when you aren’t that confident in your stories, or, more fundamentally, in the significance of your own personal experience. But we need these stories. We need to know that our experiences are unique, yet shared, and that they’re real and matter.

Throughout the afternoon, Mac gave us two sets of performances to choose from, so it was not possible to see all the performances (unless you had two tickets and two computers — I wish I had thought of that before!). This was probably the plan for the live performance: to get the audience to participate by making a choice. We were further engaged by a feature that let us communicate with the performers via online messages. That was the other interesting aspect of this video presentation: it was all live. The performers were in the space of their choosing — or maybe just the space they happened to be in when the quarantine order came down. So while we were not all in the theatre, we were all, or almost all, in the same place: at home.

Two performances stood out for me. One was by Mustafa Rafiq, who I got to know while covering the noise music scene in Edmonton last year. His segment was wordless, but nevertheless, he communicated experiences that resonated strongly during this lockdown. He was under the covers of his bed the entire time. The room was dark, except for a bright, colour-changing spotlight. At first, we see his arm extending a violin bow to play a guitar that was slung in front of the curtains. Next, he went from the prone position to a kneeling one, all the while playing a saxophone and still under the covers. You could just feel the weight of the blanket pressing down the urge to create, but also the desire to shield the self from the spotlight, especially when you may be conspicuously alone.

The second performance that will stay with me was Hayley Moorhouse’s more logos-based segment. She asked us questions that we answered; hearing her read back the answers in real time made viewers feel seen (I’m not just guessing: someone typed that in). I’m not sure what the experience would have been like in a theatre, and I didn’t hear any of my comments read, but to see and hear someone read your comment back to you on video would be like being featured on a TV show. Like Mac, Hayley also reflected on the concept and the desire to communicate. She said it was like floating around “Sandra Bullock-style” in space, throwing out a distress signal and having someone receive it on the other end. It’s like that sense of relief that character felt, first of all of not being alone, and second, of the possibility of being saved or somehow having your circumstances or perspective change.

I really appreciated those sentiments and thank the creative team for bringing this to us through new ways of communicating. Message received.

Arts, Reviews

2019 Fall Dance Card

Autumn 2019 was a bit of a blur for me as I suffered two rounds of a viral cold while juggling a busy schedule. I did get out to some performances, but did not manage to write about them. I’ll say a few words now for prosperity, and also because I still think about these performances.

Work: Eve 2050
Artist: Van Grimde Corps Secrets
Date: Friday, October 18, 2019
Venue: Triffo Theatre, MacEwan University

Promo photo of “Eve 2050” (c) Van Grimde Corps Secrets

Last summer, I saw Isabelle van Grimde’s dance film Eve 2050 at DYSCORPIA: Future Intersections of the Body and Technology, a massive visual art exhibit at the University of Alberta’s Enterprise Gallery. The exhibit was curated by Marilène Oliver, whose sculptures can be seen in the film, and who wanted to further explore the themes of the film.

As the title implies, the film version of Eve 2050 is about humanity in the future. It was also the first part of a triptych of performances by van Grimde’s company, Van Grimde Corps Secrets. The second work was a Montreal performance installation in which dancers and audience members co-mingled. The last part of the triptych was a stage performance which debuted in Montreal, and was subsequently presented in Edmonton in October as part of the Brian Webb Dance Company’s current season.

I attended the first of two performances of Eve 2050 at Triffo Theatre. Walking into the auditorium, it was apparent to even those who had not seen the film that the evening was going to be about the interaction between humans and machines. A dancer was already on stage. A vertical beam of light from the stage was scanning the audience.

What followed was not merely an adaptation of the film, which was about cyborgs and human-machine hybridization. The stage performance focused on artificial intelligence and other technological inventions that have allowed humans to extend their presence beyond their bodies. Van Grimde carried over some of the dance vocabulary seen in the film and added a layer of interactive technology. Using infrared technology that was invisible to the audience, dancers triggered and interacted dynamically with seemingly 3D images, including Marilène Oliver’s full-body MRI (which Edmontonians would have seen in the Dyscorpia exhibt) and an architectural rendering which was like a mind palace come to life.

The nine-member dance company was far from overwhelmed by the technology, whether digital or analogue. (One of my favourite “special effects” was a scrim in a door frame with a dancer on either side, suggesting a full-length mirror or a portal to another possible existences or selves.) Fittingly, as they were performing in the the birth city of Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan, Van Grimde Corps Secrets’s symbiotic relationship with technology was both the means and the meaning of the work.

Work: Chapter One
Artist: Ballet Edmonton
Date: Friday, October 25, 2019
Venue: Triffo Theatre, MacEwan University

Promo photo of Ballet Edmonton performing “The Rite” (c) Ballet Edmonton

Ballet Edmonton’s first show of the season was also the first time I’d seen the company since it changed its name from Citie Ballet and hired dancer and choreographer Wen Wei Wang as its new artistic director in 2018.

For the 2019-20 season, Wang has put together three shows, each numbered as a chapter, rather than named. Chapter One was performed on October 25 to 27 (I attended the October 25 performance) and featured two ensemble pieces with themes of seasonal change.

The evening began with Forêts by Serge Bennathan with sound design featuring sounds of the forest by Karissa Barry and Wade Staples. All the dancers wore black outfits, but each one was a little different, so we could tell the trees from the forest. Forêts was a work of pure motion and sound that prompted me to reminisce about the way being in the forest can feel like a reassuring hug, and also a privilege to witness the dynamics within its environment.

The second piece was The Rite, choreographed by Shay Kuebler. Inspired by The Rite of Spring, the 1913 ballet by Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky, The Rite did not cause the audience to riot, but it did portray cycles of nature with choreography that rejects formal stuffiness and embraces organic movements. At first, the ensemble appeared and moved as a huddled mass. Gradually, they flew apart, like fall leaves in the wind, until one dancer portrayed a full life cycle. In the end, the other dancers huddled around her, as if taking her back into the ground, ending the piece as it began, and setting up for the next renewal.

Kuebler will be bringing his company, Shay Kuebler Radical System Art, back to Triffo Theatre on February 14 and 15, 2020, as part of the Brian Webb Dance Company’s season.

I should mention that Ballet Edmonton and Brian Webb Dance Company are collaborating, sharing flip sides of the season souvenir booklet and other resources. It’s a fantastic development, as the two companies perform in the same theatre and offer complementary takes on dance, with Ballet Edmonton presenting modern ballet and Brian Webb Dance Company presenting avant garde dance.

Work: Sara Does a Solo
Artist: Sara Porter
Date: Friday, December 13, 2019
Venue: Mile Zero Dance

Promo photo of Sara Porter performing “Sara Does a Dance” (c) Sara Porter

Mile Zero Dance has been doing interesting things with its new storefront space in Little Italy (10816 – 95 Street). It hosts daytime yoga and dance classes, evening dance performances, and all-day exhibits of art in its front lobby.

The evening performances vary from its Dirt City Cabaret series of experimental work to full-length work by the company and by guests. In December, I attended the opening night performance of Sara Does a Solo by Toronto’s Sara Porter, who had also spent the week conducting workshops at Mile Zero.

Porter walked in and welcomed us after we were seated in the intimate space (it’s a dance studio with folding chairs set out on the same level as the performance area). The house lights remained up as her greetings slid into an introduction, and then into the first monologue of the piece. There was no formal boundary between the three pieces of communication, and this was intentional.

Normally, I would introduce an artist with their area of practice. I might have written, “Porter is a dancer and writer”, or, “Porter is a writer and dancer”, but Porter’s piece questions the idea of occupational labels and identity. Porter, who has taken breaks from dancing, made a statement, then amended it, reviving the tenses, challenging the urge to pinpoint an artist’s activities on a static timeline. She said, “I was a dancer. I could have been a dancer. I will have been a dancer.”

The piece reflected the fluidity in her life. From the audience’s point of view, the program was delightfully unpredictable. Porter would follow a story with a movement piece. She would pull a seemingly endless stream of dresses out of a suitcase and wear them all. She would perform a dance to a silent soundtrack. But nothing felt out of place. Everything was about who she was as an artist.

Sara Does a Solo was a combination of memoir, theatre, and dance. She managed to keep you in the story while she deconstructed the story. At no point did being reminded that I was watching the construction of a story kick me out of the story emotionally. She had a way of keeping the audience reeled in. For example, in telling the story of how she met singer Mary Margaret O’Hara (a personal favourite of mine, so I appreciated the story and the MMOH music included in the piece), Porter repeated the beginning of Sara Does a Solo.

At the Q&A after the show, Porter said that she created Sara Does a Solo five years ago. She hasn’t revised it, so as an actor, she’s playing herself from five years ago. “You have to find a way to make [the work] come alive for now.” Sara Porter found the way.

Arts, Reviews

UltraViolet with Jane Berry

UltraViolet (Chenoa Anderson, Roger Admiral, Allison Balcetis, Amy Nicholson) with Jane Berry on stage at McDougall United Church on November 23, 2019. Photo by Suzette Chan.

UltraViolet with Guest Vocalist and Composer Jane Berry
November 23, 2019
McDougall United Church
Presented by New Music Edmonton

On November 23, 2019, New Music Edmonton invited me to their first concert of the season. The featured group was UltraViolet, a quartet featuring Chenoa Anderson on flute, Allison Balcetis on saxophone, Amy Nicholson on cello, and Roger Admiral on piano.

On this occasion, they were joined by Jane Berry, who provided vocals on all five pieces performed that night, including her own composition.

I’m going to walk through the program from beginning to end because it made for a perfect evening, starting with the venue. McDougall United Church was built in 1910 with oak interiors and maple floors. It has been used as a church continuously, but has been a concert venue from the start. Its grand opening on January 20, 1911 featured a 50-person choir, and a pipe organ was installed the following year. Opera, symphonies, and recitals have taken place there. (This description summarizes a report by Lawrence Herzog and Molly Staley as part of the Edmonton City as Museum Project). This is all to say that the space is storied and cozy, which complemented and contrasted with the adventurous new music on the program.

The evening opened with John Cage’s “Living Room Music” (1940). The musicians sat on comfy reading chairs and “played” everyday objects of their choosing. They made music with magazine, wooden stools, books on a bench, and a two-by-four, among other items. They took text fragments of “The World Is Round”, a children’s book by Gertrude Stein, and gave it a sound-poem reading. Cage probably didn’t call for vehicular traffic to be incorporated into the piece, but the noise of cars driving past the church became another quotidian source of sound in the performance.

The second piece was “Tanzer Lieder” by Quebec composer Ana Sokolovic. The composition is built around poems written by Francisco Tanzer in German, French, and English (to honour the languages of the members of Trio Phoenix, for which the piece was written) . The natural echo in the McDougall sanctuary added a “special effect” to Berry’s vocals, and her harmonizing with Amy Nicholson’s cello was divine.

Next, Berry sang and hummed her own composition, “The Break”. With lyrics about living with bipolar disorder, the song was gorgeous and haunting, particularly when she sang the words “catch me when I’m falling”, or the repeated phrase, “I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying”, or the poignant line, “If I told you a flower grew in the darkness, would you believe it?” “The Break” resonated both musically and emotionally.

After the intermission, the ensemble performed “The Woman and the Lyre”, a five-movement piece based on poetry fragments by Sappho. The composer, Alyssa Aska, used translations by Canadian poet Bliss Carmen (1861 to 1929). This was the only piece of the night with an electroacoustic element, as Berry’s vocals were processed live from the mic. It also had a performative aspect. At one point, Roger Admiral got up and plucked piano wire as if they were strings on a lyre. The piece also called upon Berry to pace across the stage nervously, perhaps reflecting the anxiety of the poet. I thought the action was also a metaphor for the tightrope the musicians were walking in presenting a fully realized contemporary piece of work based on fragments for which we do not have a full context. Satisfyingly, the piece ended on a sure and sublime note.

Finally, UltraViolet performed five movements from Frederic Rzewski’s 1986 composition, “Chains”. If the Sappho piece had a historical flavour, “Chain” was unnervingly topical. Jane Berry sat on one of the comfy armchairs which made an appearance at the start of the program. This time, she was holding a copy of the National Post, and literally reading the news: Trump, the provincial budget, university funding, the Climate Strike march, oh boy! Berry begin to break down the words until they were music, while the Chenoa Anderson and Allison Balcetis coaxed their wind instruments to make sounds like early morning bird calls. The ensemble referred back to the John Cage piece by incorporating everyday objects once again to make music, this time there was a wrench, and a stapler, and a set of keys on a lanyard. Berry provided a physical performance as she did in the Alyssa Aska piece, but instead of pacing, she sat in the chair, building a structure with Jenga blocks, until she dramatically swiped it all off the table.

“Chains” was the perfect book-end to “Living Room Music”, with elements that brought “Tanzer Lieder”, “The Break”, and “The Woman and the Lyre: Sapphic Cycle” to mind. Kudos to UltraViolet for a well-considered, fun, and beautifully performed program.


UltraViolet was named in honour of the late Edmonton composer Violet Archer. The ensemble is especially interested in performing brand new work, and have pledged “to maintain gender parity in our programming and commissioning.” Check out video of performances of three new works on their website.

New Music Edmonton presents a number of shows during the year. They host a series called NME at The Aviary: New Music, New Voices (the next one is on January 16, 2020) and an annual spring music festival called Now Hear This, which will take place on March 19 to 22, 2020. Details about these shows are on the New Music Edmonton website.

Arts, Reviews

Sweaty Palms and Electrifying Sounds

Matthew Cardinal at the tin-roofed, flocked-wallpapered, chenille-drapped 9910 on October 11, 2019. Photo by Suzette Chan.

Last week, Edmonton musician Mustafa Rafiq announced that he would be putting his music curation activities as Sweaty Palms on hiatus while he takes some time off to travel and explore music scenes in Europe.

I met Mustafa this summer while preparing a two-part article on the sound art scene in Edmonton for Luma Quarterly (part one went live in August; my interview with Mustafa appears in November). I was impressed with his commitment to bringing local and international experimental acts to Edmonton stages. He’s presented hundreds of different kinds of shows in different venues, but as someone who doesn’t drive and has a day job, I appreciate his efforts to put on centrally located shows with early start- and end-times. I’ve been avoiding gigs because they just start too late for me, so I was happy to check out some of the venues I’ve been missing out on.

I managed to catch two of the last Sweaty Palms gigs of 2019. The first was on October 11, an electronica triple-bill at 9910. It was my first visit to this downstairs space under The Common. I liked the brothel-esque aesthetic! I sat in one of the banquettes along the wall, opting for comfort over better sightlines, but I am the type of person who closes their eyes once the music gets going.

First up was Matthew Cardinal, a member of nehiywak who also has a solo act. His set ebbed and flowed between being atmospheric and bringing in more of a dance beat. There were passages marked by notes that rang the top end of the hearing range, followed by booming sounds that we could feel through the floor: it was a head-to-toe experience of sound.

Next was Jonathan Kawchuk, who set up what looked like a ping-pong table. He stood on one end with his back to my side of the audience (my viewing angle actually let me see Kawchuk reflected in a mirror on the other side of the room); another musician (I didn’t get his name) was at the other end of the table. Instead of ping-pong paddles, they wielded iPads which seemed to control both the music and a bank of lights above the audience. The sound and light alternated between being soothing and being unsettling, which really brought to mind how little it can take to nudge a person (okay, me) out of their comfort zone.

The final act of the evening was Kara-Lis Coverdale. Coverdale’s set-up was minimal—just her, her sequencer, and a tight spotlight on her fingers—but the music she produced was maximal. Her set came in strong with complex, layered sounds. It evoked images of air travel for me. For the friend who accompanied me, Coverdale’s music specifically evoked Montreal, where my friend had recently vacationed, and where Coverdale is based. I’m sure everyone in the room had different thoughts. The point is, Coverdale’s epic set allowed listeners to dream or meditate on a huge scale.

Kelly Ruth at The Almanac on October 16, 2019. Photo by Suzette Chan.

Less than a week after the triple-bill at 9910, Sweaty Palms in conjunction with New Music Edmonton co-presented a special double bill at The Almanac on October 16. I’ve been to The Almanac for poetry readings. The front of the restaurant is a bistro; the back is a pub set-up where they hold events. This show was an experimental, noise gig featuring two “supergroups”. Opening the night was the duo of Allison Balcetis playing saxophone and Kelly Ruth operating a weaving loom equipped with contact mics running through a sequencer. I interviewed Kelly (also for Luma Quarterly) about her use of a weaving loom to make music, and this was my first time seeing her play. She used a weaving shuttle and her fingers to get sound out of the loom. Maybe because it was October, but the images their set inspired were of wandering through a mansion, exploring the biggest rooms and the smallest corners, and perhaps finding an egress to a batcave or to the outdoors in the end.

The visiting headliners at the Almanac gig were Montreal’s Sound of the Mountain with special guests from Japan, Tetuzi Akiyuma and Toshimaru Nakamura. This was a spectacular set with a reed instrumentalist and a guitarist on either side of two synth players. The synth and guitar evoked visions of machine-built cities, with the reed instruments evoking the breaths and voices of humans who design and live in them.

I feel really fortunate to have caught these shows, and only wish that I’d caught more Sweaty Palms productions over the past few years. I’m looking forward to whatever Mustafa will bring back from his travels.

Follow Mustafa Rafiq at

Arts, Reviews

Silent Sky

Silent Sky opens the 2019-20 Walterdale Playhouse season.

On Saturday, I saw the Walterdale Playhouse production of Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson, about Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th century astronomer who discovered a relationship between the brightness of a star and the intervals of its blinking. She realized this could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the stars, and between the stars.

Henrietta worked in an all-female group (the principal investigator actually called it a “math harem”) of “computers” (a tradition that extended to the 1960s mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures) who did the grunt work of analyzing glass photographic plates made from the big observational telescope at Harvard. Women were not allowed to peer out of the telescope itself. The play depicted how much Henrietta and her colleagues loved the work, despite the small-mindedness of the male faculty.

The patriarchal establishment is represented by a fictional character named Shaw, who also serves both a love interest for Henrietta and as a metaphor for Henrietta’s complicated relationship with the research field as it was then administered. Shaw embodies the saying, “You can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much!” At one point, he asserts that there is nothing beyond than the Milky Way, despite the evidence Henrietta has amassed to indicate otherwise. He insists that science must follow a logical path, quoting Newton’s phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

But a narrow interpretation of the phrase does not allow for innovation, differing viewpoints, or plain luck. Happily, the play avoids reductive characterizations. While Shaw stood in for the scientific establishment, Henrietta’s fictional sister, Margaret, stood in for the small-town domestic life that Henrietta might have been expected to lead. Both Shaw and Margaret comes around to acknowledge the value of Henrietta’s grand pursuit of truth, no matter how large and how shattering it may be.

A pre-show glimpse of the stage. Set and lighting design by Beyeta Hackborn.

Although the subject of Silent Sky is scientific discovery, music has a large role in the play. It’s used as a metaphor for Henrietta’s scientific theories, and the set is ingeniously dressed in suggest both musical scales and constellations. (Hats off to Beyata Hackborn, the show’s set designer and lighting designer.)

Director Kim Mattice Wanat, founder and artistic director of Opera NUOVA, knows her way around music. She weaves the Congregationalist hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” through out the play, pulling together all the notes and themes of the show. She also works with a wonderful cast. Lauren Hughes is bright and undaunted as Henrietta. Joy van de Ligt provided music and grounded foil as Margaret. Susanne Ritchie and Samantha Woolsey are both fun and authoritative as Henrietta’s non-fiction “harem” mates, Wiliamina Fleming (who discovered the first white dwarf star) and Annie Jump Cannon (who created a classification system of the stars and became a leader of the suffragette movement). Matt Mihilewicz brought physical humour and a believable change in sensibility as Shaw.

I saw the show with three physicists, including one astronomer. The production impressed us all. Four stars for Silent Sky!

Silent Sky is at the Walterdale Theatre until October 12.

Arts, Reviews

Fringe 2019: Where the Wild Things Fringed

The 2019 Fringe Festival ended before I could post about all the shows I saw!

Although the last shows I saw were sold out for most or all of their runs, none were being held over, surprisingly. They were just lightning in a bottle: blink and you’ll have missed a show that will go down in Fringe annals as one of the great ones. The shows I wanted to make note of are:

Over at 12th Night, Liz Nicholls reported that the Fringe reported record ticket sales for indoor shows. This is great. There were many years where it seemed like the outdoor happenings would overshadow what began as a theatre festival. I was on site for an hour or two for seven of the ten days of the festival, and it looked like street performers were pulling in good crowds, while the beer and wine tents seemed to be doing steady business. Of course, mine was a very small, observational sample, so it would be interesting to know the breakdown of ticket sales and whether performers and vendors felt they did well at the festival.

Personally, I saw a lot of great shows, hung out with friends, and ate well, all without much stress. That’s all I ask from a Fringe!

Arts, Reviews

Fringe 2019: Flora and Fawna Have Beaver Fever (and So Does Fleurette)

I have warm memories of Flora and Fawna’s debut at the Fringe five years ago. Flora (Darrin Hagen) and Fawna (Trevor Schmidt) were in character as 10-year-olds in Girl Guide-like uniforms even before the show began, greeting people in line, handing out little kits that we would later use to make friendship bracelets with the person sitting next to us. The person next to me was a friend of a friend, whom I now count as a friend of my own.

[ASIDE] We decided to go to this year’s show together, but I got there early and he got there just as the doors were closing. The front house manager declared, “It’s a Fringe miracle!”

The title of the sequel, Flora & Fawna Have Beaver Fever (and So Does Fleurette), seemed like set-up of for an hour of double-entendres–and it was! But the play was also about friendship. The first play was about the beginnings of a friendship. This one was about friendship reaching another stage. Fleurette, the scene-stealing supporting character from the original play, is revealed to be moving away (Brian Dooley, who plays Fleurette, moved from Edmonton to Montreal IRL).

The news is a blow to Flora and Fawna, the founders of the NaturElles, a group for misfits (and “no mean girls”!) until they realize that Fleurette can start a chapter of the NaturElle Girls in Quebec!

The original Flora & Fawna play has been produced several times in Alberta, including on main stages and once at a teen camp in Okotoks with three boys playing the girls. The secret to F&F’s success is the characters’ optimism and resilience in the face of social awkwardness, family issues, and world problems that are just entering the girls’ radar.

Each show also features an audience participation portion, in which audience members recruited from the line-up are invited on stage to play summer camp-inspired games. The audience participation games may not be essential to the plot, but they’re essential to the show’s narrative. Flora and Fawna make being at the Fringe seem like being at summer camp, where the people you befriend for a week due to shared weirdo interests can become your friends for life.

Thanks to the whole Guys in Disguise team. As long as they keep making Flora and Fawna shows, I’ll be coming back for s’mores.

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