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.

LINKS

Salvage Event Page on the Mile Zero Dance Website

Lowlands Project Space on Instagram

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, City

Chapters: We Knew How This Story Would End

Chapters on Whyte on August 15, 2019, the opening day of the 2019 Fringe festival.

In the 1970s, the stretch of Whyte Avenue that ran through Old Strathcona was not much of a shopping or hang-out destination. It was a place of discount stores, services like banks and gas stations, repair shops, dive bars, and a few strip clubs. By the time the 1980s came around, I was on the avenue at least once a week after high school, visiting HUB Cigar to pick up my copy of New Music Express and other British music weeklies, and a few times a year for a group outing to the Princess Theatre to see movies like Dawn of the Dead.

Then came the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. In a handful of mid-1980s years, the festival grew from a week of plays in a few theatre spaces, makeshift venues, and back alleys to a massive festival spread over several blocks. The festival, the Old Strathcona Business Association, and many interested community members built up the neighbourhood into a lively, year-round destination of boutiques, cafés, and a better class of night spots.

But gentrification and growth led to other problems. One was the proliferation of bars that left the street rowdy at night and empty during the day, addressed over the years through nightclub-led security initiatives and a municipal moratorium on bars. Another was the combination of chain stores eager to drink existing businesses’ milkshakes and landlords who were all too willing to serve them.

A new building went up at the corner of 105 Street and Whyte Ave, where a bank and gas station had stood. The first tenant in the expansive first-floor reatil space was a Sony Store, definitely a step up from the Radio Shack that was previously located down the block. But the high-end pricing of the store didn’t meet the low-end budget of the students, artists, and seniors who lived in the neighbourhood.

In the late 1990s, Old Strathcona fans and residents like me did not welcome the news that Chapters would be moving in. Walmart in the U.S. had set the precedence of a corporate big-box entity that would steamroll over existing locally owned stores, then close up when it was convenient for corporate HQ, leaving a community without any of the stores it replaced. (It was such a familiar pattern, the late 1990s sitcom That 70s Show borrowed it for a whole story arc involving the father’s unemployment due to the arrival of a giant “Pricemart” franchise.)

It took two decades, but Chapters is finally completing the familiar narrative, leaving the neighbourhood after it contributed to the premature closures of both Orlando Books and Greenwoods Books. In 2015, Jacqueline Dumas wrote about the factors that went into her decision to close her store, Orlando Books, for the Edmonton Queer History Project. She did not specifically mention Chapters, but did include the fact that she’d already moved the store east from its original location closer to Garneau due to rising rents.

Chapters’ prominent presence was most obviously a bold challenge to Greenwoods Books. The family-run store had a prime location on Whyte Avenue by the eastbound 104th Street bus stop, and, for a time, a second location in the building off Whyte that now houses some personal care studios and shops next to Planet Organic. (That building is itself the result of gentrification, having previously been home to Prudham Building Supplies.) I vividly remember being in the new Greenwoods, which was huge, well-stocked, beautiful, and had a wonderful children’s section, when a couple of tourists walked in. They said it was nice, but they were looking for the DVD section and knick knacks. In short, they were looking for Chapters.

After Chapters’ imminent closure made the news, I read a lot of fond remembrances on Twitter by people who had never known another new-release bookstore on Whyte Avenue. A few people said they would miss Chapters as an actual bookstore, and one that supported local authors. But most tweeters made mention of browsing the shelves, using the washrooms, having a place for kids to play, and hanging out for a coffee. They were essentially describing a library with a café. Chapters was evidently not selling enough books or knick knacks to run a library and public washroom on Whyte Avenue.

I also read some disparaging comments about the replacement tenant, Winners. I’m not thrilled that it will be competing against the nearby, underrated Army and Navy (some of my favourite pieces of clothing are from A & N Boutique!), but is Winners out of character for the neighbourhood? It’s certainly not a business that screams 1914, the heyday of Old Strathcona, but it’s not far off from the large, corporate tenants that have established themselves on that corner. Winners is just the next step on the retail ladder that detractors feared: an even larger, even more generic chain store. Granted, it does have a better general housewares section than anything in the neighbourhood since Call the Kettle Black moved to High Street. It won’t be a venue for local writers, but Winners might serve the neighbourhood’s needs as well as Chapters — as long it has enough washrooms.

Arts, City, Reviews

DIS: Thumbs That Type and Swipe

Some of the images by Drew Zeiba &  Chris James for the DIS Collective series, Onboarding: Thumbs that Type and Swipe (2018), at Plug-In ICA, Winnipeg. Photo by Suzette Chan.

This past summer, I visited Winnipeg for the first time in years. I lived there for a winter in the 1980s. I had never experienced a colder winter in my life—and I’m from Edmonton! However, the people were warm and the cultural scene was a hotbed (see: Guy Maddin, the Crash Test Dummies, Carol Shields). So I’ve always had a place in my heart for the city.

Thirty years later, the city seemed to be as creative as ever (I arrived during their Fringe theatre festival), and I saw some great art, including a fascinating exhibit at the Plug-In Institute for Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The show featured the work of the DIS collective, which pushes the envelope of “edutainment”. I had an opportunity to write about the show for the Fall 2018 issue of Luma, a quarterly online publication about independent film and media art.

Here’s a link to my review of Thumbs That Type and Swipe. Be sure to check out the embedded videos!