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Svetlana Dvoretsky: The Woman Behind Theatre

A Russian-Canadian Impresario

Have you ever heard of the word “impresario”? That’s someone who organizes and maybe even finances performing arts events, including concerts, plays, ballets, operas, and more. It’s a very risky profession, and likely not one taught in arts management programs. And yet, impresarios are in part responsible for expanding our interests in the arts precisely because they always stand on the cliff of audience expectations. An impresario calculates the risks with bringing in various performers, and if the risk doesn’t pay out, the impresario loses out, often quite a lot. But it’s a risk impresarios like Svetlana Dvoretsky, owner of Show One Productions, are willing to take. Why? Because they love the arts so much.

Who Is Svetlana Dvoretsky?

Her name is likely unfamiliar to you, but you should get to know her: she’s one of the movers and shakers in the Toronto arts scene, and she’s ready to take risks.

Born in Russia, Dvoretsky spent eight years studying piano. It inspired her to make a living in the arts, but not as a performer. Instead, she moved to Canada and eventually—by accident—became an impresario. 

Studying piano in Russia means something almost entirely different to studying piano in North America. Dvoretsky’s music education included not only direct piano instruction but also hours devoted to other aspects of music, like music history and conducting. After school, she’d spend four to five hours a day, four days a week at her music school. By the time she emigrated here, she had an appreciation for music that only a few dedicated music students in Canada likely possess.

Arts Culture in Canada

When I speak to people who’ve immigrated here, I often hear a common lament: that arts programming in Canada is weak. My local newspaper backs me up in this impression. Despite my living in an area with almost 500,000 people, the arts section in our local daily is only two pages long, with ads occupying about a quarter of that space, at least once a week. On good days, it’s a few pages long, but with even more ads.

Another example: Canada, to my knowledge, has only one magazine devoted to dance (the other one folded earlier this year). Moreover, if I enter into small talk about something arts related, it’s usually a movie, TV show, or pop artist, and rarely about relatively unknown shows or acts.

So why become an arts impresario? Good question.

Music and Pop Culture

It’s probably easiest to see the development of pop culture through music: the Dave Clark Five has a vastly different sound from Drake. But that could only happen because those artists (and the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, between them) learned and experimented to develop an audience.

In the world of the performing arts, like dance and theatre, it’s impresarios who help bring this experimentation to the fore to expose these artists to a broader audience than the artists could do by themselves.

Dvoretsky and Experimentation

For Dvoretsky, that experimentation often is bringing Russian artists to Canada. These names in the Russian world are huge, and yet they may be unknown to us, meaning we’re much less likely to go.

But this year, Dvoretsky brought a world-famous name to Toronto: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The show was called Brodsky/Baryshnikov.Which you’d think would have the entire dance world flocking to Toronto.

But Baryshnikov wasn’t here to dance; he was performing poetry by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, a friend of his, in Russian. Although Baryshnikov was no newbie to acting, he has always first and foremost been known as a dancer.

So, Baryshnikov in a one-man show in Russian about poetry?

Dvoretsky’s risk paid off: according to The Toronto Star, all four shows sold out.

Dvoretsky’s Latest Risk: Clowning

One clown inside a plastic bubble; another clown bounces a large bubble on a stick.
Photo by Pascal Ito

The latest show Dvoretsky is bringing to Toronto is called Slava’s Snowshow. Its package may be unfamiliar and “untrendy” to many viewers: instead of talking actors, the show’s stars are clowns. Instead of a well-known story, none is advertised. And yet, despite these problems, the show has been on the road since 1993 (with breaks in between, of course), spent six years on Broadway, called London’s West End home for a time, and has performed in dozens of countries around the world. It’s won a Drama Desk Award and Laurence Olivier Award and in 2009 was nominated for a Tony Award.

Clowning is an art form that, as I understand it, connects the deepest parts of the performer with their audience. Clowning is perhaps less about putting on a personality, the way stage acting is, and more about bringing out something hidden within you and sharing it with the audience. Some people have fears of clowns, others consider them relics of a bygone era.

But not Dvoretsky.

To present art, you have to be confident in what you’re presenting, and Dvoretsky’s confidence about this show is unshakeable.

“This show makes people kinder, at least for a little while,” she says. “That is guaranteed. Those two hours are guaranteed. The rest is up to the person. It’s an emotional and visual spectacle. It’s really, really amazing.”

And emotional, visual spectacle that guarantees to make you a kinder person, at least for those two hours.

Sounds like the perfect, snowy, winter night, doesn’t it? Only you get to sit in the comfort of a warm theatre, sharing the experience with thousands of others.

Slava’s Snowshow runs December 7 to 16, 2018 in the Bluma Appel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.

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Exploring Creativity by Exposing Yourself More

Actor/dancer Trevor Copp is looking up at a bright light

Engage With Your Art Form

Theatre guru Trevor Copp has a bowl of theatre tickets, roughly 1,200 of them. The bowl makes its stage appearance when Copp judges the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly the Sears Drama Festival): it contains one way of exploring creativity, and he has a reason for placing this bowl under the limelight at this moment.

The bowls contains the tickets of all the theatre shows he himself has seen. Copp tells the students, “There’s three things that we need to become great creators. We need to study the work, we need to do the work, and here’s the third one that is completely inadequately done: we need to see the work. […]”

He then adds, “These tickets did more for me than my master’s degree did, more than all this other stuff I did. This is actually the work right here. This seeing pieces over and over again.”

Copp founded Burlington’s Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009, a professional company emphasizing original, issue-driven, and highly physical work. He has been a professional actor, dancer, director, choreographer, educator, theatre devisor, and arts advocate for over 15 years, and his work ranges from classical to contemporary, performing in over 30 cities nationally and internationally and at numerous professional theatre festivals. His TED Talk, “Ballroom Dancing that Breaks Gender Roles,” has received almost 620,000 views on the TED website at time of writing.

Develop Creativity by Experiencing Creativity

Copp has built a meaningful, sustainable life out of his love for the arts, and he’s learned a few things. Being creative doesn’t mean just producing: you also have to join the conversation.

“You can get a degree in theatre without seeing a play. It’s just this thing that’s baffling to me,” says Copp.

I’m going to say it now, and you’ll hear it from me again, and Copp will say further down in this blog post: being creative isn’t some random talent that some are born with and others aren’t. We all have it, but you have to engage with it, and one way of doing that is by taking in others’ creative endeavours.

So, if you think that young artists are exposed to thousands of hours of creativity that you as a working adult just don’t have time to engage in, think again.

“The thing that I absolutely rail about,” says Copp, “is the lack of student artists attending art. The lack of young actors seeing acting, the young dancers seeing dance.”

Afraid of the Negative?

Seeing other works not only feeds your ideas, but by helping you discern what you do and don’t like, you’re learning more about yourself. The reason I returned to part-time grad studies this year was to be forced to read things I normally wouldn’t read.

(That includes Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, but having to force my way through that monstrosity of a book is teaching me about craft, storytelling, character creation…all of it…not to mention persistence.)

As you see various artistic works, some will speak to you, some will not, just like Grass’s writing absolutely does not speak to me. That’s okay, and that’s part of the conversation you need to engage in. I believe that society in general is losing the art of meaningful conversation, which includes respectfully explaining why you don’t like something. This isn’t your grandmother’s meatloaf we’re talking about here, this is art, in the broad sense of the word.

Neil Gaiman on Arthur

If you have kids, you probably watched Marc Brown’s Arthur at some point in time. Did you see the Arthur episode with Neil Gaiman? Sue Ellen, the cat, is at a book signing. Neil Gaiman asks her if she’s a writer, but because she writes and draws, she doesn’t know where she fits in. He tells her about graphic novels, something he’s also done, so she reads one and becomes inspired to work on one herself. As she begins exploring creativity, she creates a story.

Her friends don’t understand her work, though, and she becomes discouraged. Gaiman consoles her, saying that her friends are clearly interested in her story, even if they don’t understand it or even like it. She takes his advice to heart and continues creating.

In other words, her work has begun a conversation, but it could only happen because she engaged in conversation first, both literally (by talking to Gaiman) and figuratively (by reading a graphic novel, something she’d never heard of before).

(If you want an easy book to read about developing your own voice, read Arthur Writes a Story, by Marc Brown.)

But You Don’t Have to Publish

Sue Ellen likely hopes to publish someday, but you don’t have to. Ever. You can create your own art (painting, dancing, composing, drawing, whatever) in your own private space, where no eyes will ever cast their gaze upon it.

And that’s totally fine!

But in order to help you develop your sense of who you are and how your voice sounds, you need to expose yourself to others’ art and let it touch you.

Vulnerability and Art

Of the works that speak to you, some will really hit you, sometimes in surprising ways. In my experience, that “hit” is to my most vulnerable spot, the spot I need to open up in my writing so that it’s Lori the Author writing and not Lori the Copywriter.

“We’re in a culture that doesn’t sit you down and make you look at your vulnerability and make you ask questions about it,” says Copp.

Opening up your vulnerability in your art doesn’t mean you have to let out your deep secrets. This isn’t Catholic confession we’re talking about here: you’re exploring creativity. Therefore, it’s about opening up the parts of you that are scared to come out. This will likely never be one massive explosion of exposed vulnerability: it’ll be a trickle.

And again, that’s okay!

Encourage that trickle by returning to your art and seeing if you can notice where you’ve closed up and need to open yourself. I notice it in my work where I suddenly have my protagonist move into a scene that doesn’t naturally flow with the story.

“We have this incredible facility for healing,” says Copp, “and that facility, I think, really comes about for the people who are creating and continue connecting themselves to their [artistic] work. If you’re just technical and talented, and you ride on that, you won’t go through that journey.”

Exploring Creativity Isn’t a Crap Shoot

As I keep emphasizing, creativity isn’t some random talent you’re either born with or aren’t, and Copp sees things the same way. In fact, he feels that people born with a strong talent in a skill often misconstrued as creativity can actually fall into a trap that hinders their creativity.

“I think that our cultural assumptions, that someone who is born with an artistic talent is creative, is faulty,” he says. “That they were born with grace and flexibility and balance, all those things, none of that makes them creative.”

Again, just because some people are born with certain aptitudes does not make them creative. You have to explore creativity, not just replicate it.

“The fact that you can land a quadruple [pirouette], good for you. That doesn’t make you a creative person,” Copp emphasizes (like I do).

“I think highly talented artists have this danger where the talent skips the part where their work is in dialogue with their actual life, with their emotional, spiritual, intellectual life. It can skip all that because they’re too talented.”

Two men in ballroom dancing positions, with a tuxedo jacket on a mannequin behind them.
Jeff Fox (l) and Trevor Copp (r) in First Dance, produced by Tottering Biped Theatre

Copp’s own biography is a case in point: he went into theatre first for personal development. Born with an identical twin, Copp grew up so close with someone that he didn’t always need to express himself; he and his twin just knew what the other was thinking. Once he hit adolescence, though, he realized that the rest of the world didn’t communicate the way he and his twin brother did, and he had to learn to bring himself outside of himself.

In other words, studying acting was never about an inborn skill he had.

“I pride myself on being an untalented performer. In school, I was never the lead, never got the awards, I never got any of that. I was just a person who was like, ‘I think this is how I want to grow up.’”

Creativity = Art + Life

For Copp, his real life and his onstage life had to match. For example, Copp used to find it difficult to express anger in real life, and that transferred to the stage: he couldn’t act angry, either.

“I don’t know how to do something onstage and not do it in my life,” he says. “I associate creativity with forcing yourself to lock those two together: ‘What’s happening in my life, what’s happening onstage, how do I make sure that the two are in correspondence?’”

So, if you’re holding back on exploring your creativity because you believe you don’t have the talent, then erase that belief from your head right now. Instead, replace it with joining the conversation.

That might mean going to a local church that offers noon-hour concerts, or attending more art or live theatre shows, or joining a book club. You’ll learn more by this extensive exposure than you ever could if you’d been born with the artistic skills you’re trying to cultivate in your own life.

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Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla: How a Dancer Becomes a Producer

With Change on the Horizon, Cadilla Moved Towards It

Life is full of transitions, and I won’t bore you with a list of all the usual ones. But as you explore your creativity, remember that transitions can happen here, too. Bored with painting? Try writing. Need to move more? Try dancing. Need to move less? Try painting. Professional creatives go through transitions, too, and if they’re lucky, it’s by choice. For Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla, creator of the new CBC mini-series mockumentary Off Kilter, that’s what happened.

Reaching Dreams Early

Cadilla had reached the height of his professional dance career, dancing as a principal dancer for Nacho Duarto in Spain.“It was like a dream come true,” Cadilla says of getting that job back in 2004. But three years into his dream job, things began to change. Cadilla started to get a little bored with performing on stage and knew he needed something more fulfilling. Moreover, he knew he’d have to transition eventually—all dancers do—and he didn’t want to wait for his body to give up first.

Just by chance, Cadilla took a script-writing class, where he had to write and film a short autobiographical film on whatever he wanted to. Being a stage professional himself, he filmed a short on stage fright.

“I just had a crappy camcorder and I edited it on iMovie, and it did really well in film festivals,” he says. That’s when he realized he had an eye for framing and a knack for storytelling. “So I really became curious.”

Cadilla continued dancing for another year or two and opted to try acting. But even after completing one year at the Oxford School of Drama, something was still missing.

“As much as I enjoy performing—I’d been performing for so long—it wasn’t that I didn’t find it fulfilling, it’s that I was kind of tired of being on the the receiving end of someone else’s opinion as it pertains to whether I was going to get a job or not.”

The Main Difference for Cadilla Between On Stage and Off Stage

Performers are all subject to the same process: being selected isn’t just based on their ability. As aware as I was of that (and it was part of the reason I didn’t want to even attempt a professional dance career), it stared me in the face a few years ago when I took my son to see the So You Think You Can Dance tour. Suddenly, the camera wasn’t there to “smoothen things out” and each dancer’s true strengths and weaknesses shouted at me like a seller at a market.

“You can’t pitch yourself as an actor or dancer,” Cadilla says, “but it works as a writer because you pitch a project. Everyone’s looking for a good story, so that gave me much more of an outlet.”

The thing with transitions is that they don’t have to be all or nothing, and they weren’t for Cadilla. Although not all of his productions involve dance, Off Kilter is a comedy set in the dance world, and Cadilla draws heavily from his experiences.

Bringing Dance in Front of the Camera

“I wanted anything related to dance, anything that happens in the studio, I wanted it to be something that a real dancer looks at and says, ‘Okay, that’s really what happened. That’s really what they say. That’s really what they do. That’s really the workflow.’”

 If all I’d heard about the new series was that it was a dance comedy, I likely wouldn’t have tuned in. Sure, a comedy about the dance world is new, but I find almost all dance shows are about some young dancer trying to make it. For example:

  • Center Stage: 12 teens enrol in the American Ballet Academy and aspire to future dance careers.
  • Billy Elliot: a young boy from a mining town tries to get in to the Royal Ballet .
  • A Chorus Line: lots of dancers audition for a few spots in a show.

There’s Dance Academy, Save the Last Dance (the protagonist wanted to be a professional dancer until things were cut short), Black Swan (she wants the lead in Swan Lake), Dirty Dancing, Flashdance…the list goes on. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s generally the plot line.

Off Kilter is Definitely On Topic

Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla as Milton Frank, taking a shower in "Off Kilter."Instead of giving us more of the above but just funny, Cadilla took what he had seen in the dance world and fed it into these eight short episodes. For example, you’ll see an “old” ballerina (she’s only 39) whose body is starting to break down on her, but she has to support a child at home and deal with her ex-husband’s young new girlfriend.

“I enjoyed Black Swan,” Cadilla says, “but I can tell you that there isn’t a single soloist at the American Ballet Theatre that lives at home with her mom in a pink room with teddy bears. Those women are made of hardened steel because at a company like ABT or The National [Ballet of Canada], the workload is so intense.”

And instead of focussing the show on a young dancer, Cadilla turned the lens on to an aging choreographer, played by Cadilla himself, trying to make a comeback after a plagiarism scandal in the 90s.

I found the whole take refreshingly creative.

How Does Cadilla Create?

So let’s bring this post to a close with my favourite question: Does Cadilla have any last thoughts on creativity before we finish our interview?

“One thing that’s really important for me in terms of how I create is that I always take the time to not do anything. The way that I write is that I sit down and just start writing. And I take pauses. I’ll have a cup of coffee, and I’ll think.”

Although Cadilla understands the allure and the need of social media, he’s not big on it himself.

“If we’re constantly looking for that chemical stimuli we get whenever we get a like on something, you’re never going to be able to slow down and let your own creativity develop. Because it’s a slow process. It’s something that takes the time to just sit down and ponder,” he says.

I told him how much I agreed with him. One change I made several years ago was to stop watching TV while in the kitchen, even if I was washing dishes. It lets me mull over problems I’m experiencing in my own creative projects, and, maybe more importantly, lets my brain not think about something for a change.

(I still watch something if I’m ironing, though: that one’s hard to give up.)

As you explore your creative side, don’t be afraid to try different creative outlets. Creativity flows through us from one medium to the next, and Cadilla has embraced that flow fully.

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Mitchell Cushman is on a Curious Voyage

It’s another Hollywood cliché (I seem to be taking a lot of digs at Hollywood lately): the loner who wants to risk it all for his (sometimes her) goal, and no matter what anyone says, he (sometimes she) will punch through all that negativity and succeed. But is that what real creativity looks like?

“I do my best work in collaboration,” says risk-taking Toronto-based producer, director, and artistic director Mitchell Cushman.

Cushman is anything by the stereotypical loner who’ll risk it all. When speaking with him on the phone, he sounded…normal. You know, conversational, a little introspective, comfortable talking about work. And then there’s this thing called collaboration—a word usually saved for job descriptions—that he thrives on.

Working With Humans

For Cushman, collaboration is his path to dreaming big. Not big as in lots of money (though maybe he wants that), and not big as in a huge house (but maybe he wants that, too), but big as in big ideas.

Take, for example, his 2015 project Brantwood: 1920-2020. Done in collaboration (there’s that word again) with Julie Tepperman and Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project, it’s a play that consists of approximately 15 hours of material.

No, this wasn’t Goethe’s Faust plays rebooted; it was a site-specific production that was staged in an old three-storey, 20,000-square-foot school building, with different scenes taking place in different rooms throughout the entire space. Audience members could roam about and peer in on any scene they wanted to. A bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but you could decide when the adventure continued.

Dreaming Large

“I’ve always been attracted to work that allows you to dream on a large canvas,” he says. So when Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak needed someone to join him on a crazy project, he called Cushman.

Headshot of Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak.
Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak. Photo by Scott Cooper.

The crazy idea is called The Curious Voyage, costs between $1,950 and $3,600 plus flights and meals, and spans two continents. My first thought was, “Theatres have a hard time selling tickets for $35 a piece sometimes. Who’s going to pay this much for a theatre show?”

The Risk: “The Curious Voyage”

And that’s where the risk comes in. The Curious Voyage is a three-day experience that immerses the audience in a theatrical experience that starts in Barrie, Ontario, on day 1. On day 2, they’re shuttled to Pearson International Airport, where they’ll fly to London, England. On day 3, they’ll get to watch a Tony Award-winning musical, whose title is being kept a secret.

I told Cushman that I don’t know if I would jump on board for that kind of price. What if the musical was Kiss of the Spider Woman? That’s the last musical I’d want to spend over $4,000 on.

“I can tell you it’s not Kiss of the Spider Woman, if that’s scaring you off,” he said. Whether to advertise the musical or keep it a secret was debated, but keeping it zipped was the final decision.

Surprise!

“We’re offering them an unexpected experience where you should never know what’s going to happen next,” Cushman explains. “We felt that our potential to get underneath people’s skin with the project would be a lot stronger if they didn’t know what they were in for.”

Before you worry if you’re about to be slimed on stage in front of your fiancée or asked to eat cheese curds like a cat, the FAQ for the show confirms that, although audience members are meant to participate in the experience, no one will be asked to do anything potentially demeaning or embarrassing.

Details of a Big Project

Headshot of Curious Voyage Co-Director  and DopoLavoroTeatrale Artistic Director Daniele Bartolini.
Florence/Toronto Director Daniele Bartolini. Photo by Philip Zave.

Cushman’s job in this wild adventure is to direct The Musical That Must Not Be Named, in London. Director Daniele Bartolini will look after the Ontario elements of the production. There’s of course an entire production team involved, with Spivak heading it all. When I asked Cushman about the logistics of pulling off a project like this, he could only say, “A lot of equally enthusiastic, equally crazy people working on it together.”

Not even his musical in London will be “normal.” The little clue he did give me about the musical is that it’s one that normally requires a big theatre and will be staged in a very intimate setting. Audience count is limited to 36 per Curious Voyage (there are several trips).

Granted, most musicals I’ve seen need a big theatre, so that’s not much of a hint. In my mind, I’m thinking Les Mis in my living room perhaps, or Phantom in my office, minus the crashing chandelier. Would either musical be as powerful if you could see everyone’s wig lines? Hmm…

Is There an Audience for This?

Cushman finds it’s hard to make any kind of art, and that it can be harder to find the right people to come and see it. Add such a large ticket price, and your potential audience becomes incredibly small.

“But also, I find that if you’re offering people an experience that they feel like they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives, then you actually start getting people’s attention. The hardest thing in theatre is to be anonymous,” he says.

Audience Expectations May be Changing

I associate theatre with leaving the house, sitting in some large, cavernous room, and sitting back and enjoying the show. But Cushman thinks times have changed.

“There’s all sorts of research, especially for the Millennial generation, that people are spending less money on physical things and more money on experiences,” he says. He believes the time could not be better to offer immersive theatre, because it harnesses the power of the live performance.

Cushman + Big Ideas = Collaboration

But it takes a lot of work—and a lot of collaboration—to pull off ideas like these. His work with Tepperman on Brantwood took place over two years, beginning with three months in an apartment working out the concept. More collaborators entered the scene after those three months.

“It’s about surrounding yourself with the right artists who all have equal buy-in and all have different vantage points, so that every part of the piece is an integrated experience,” he explains.

Collaboration for Your Art

This blog is meant to help you explore your own creativity. In recent months, I’ve introduced you to several professional creators, talked about their work, and given you a glimpse into their creative world. How do you approach your art? Is it in the closet, where no one can see it? Do you talk to anyone about it? Ask anyone for help?

Mitchell Cushman can create big precisely because he collaborates so much. He has an extensive history of immersive and site-specific productions and some pretty big ideas. “So Spivak knew I wouldn’t be scared off by the scope of what he was looking to do.”

Don’t let your big ideas scare you off. Finding the right people to help move your creation along can give you the confidence you need to pull it off.

Details:

Talk Is Free Theatre presents: The Curious Voyage

October 23 to November 10, 2018

Performances begin every second day

$1,950 single / $3,600 double plus flights & meals

curiousvoyage.com

1. 705.792.1949 ext. 122

Tickets on sale only from May 8-June 27, 2018

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Art is Exploration: Sasha Ivanochko’s Double Bill at The Citadel

Last time, I talked about how art isn’t only about those Hollywood-movie moments of inspiration, that ideas can take time to develop. But why? What makes it so difficult to develop an idea? Montreal-based choreographer Sasha Ivanochko’s work can provide us with the answer.

Exploring Complex Ideas

It’s the exploration process. Art is exploration. Creativity, whether in art, at your job, or in your kid’s notebook doodles, is exploration. For Ivanochko, that meant spending several years developing two pieces, Mirror Staging the Seeing Place and Modern Woman in Search of Soul, showing at The Citadel in Toronto from June 6-9, 2018.

“These works are just what I’m thinking about,” she said in our phone interview.

So, what is she thinking about? Women and the stereotypes surrounding their bodies. It’s a complex, centuries-old theme that can’t be pulled apart and thrown onto a stage in a matter or hours or over a weekend. Mirror Staging took a solid two years to complete, Ivanochko told me, and she developed Modern Woman on and off over four years.

Experimenting With Exploration

Exploration #1: Mirror Staging the Seeing Place

In Mirror Staging the Seeing Place, independent dance artist Kristy Kennedy dances most of the performance facing a wall of mirrors in the dance studio. The audience, able to see themselves, of course, too, sees Kennedy’s body captured and reflected by the mirror.

Ivancohko described it as a dancer dancing, that there’s nothing theatrical about this piece. “It’s a dancer performing dance moves and also movement that a person would recognize as kind of typical behaviour of certain people,” she said.

Dancer in an angry position against a mirror. From Sasha Ivanochko's
From “Mirror Staging the Seeing Place.” Photo by Tyler Pengelly.

Exploration #2: Modern Woman in Search of Soul

The second piece performed that evening, by award-winning Toronto Dance Theatre member Alana Elmer, is Modern Woman in Search of Soul, “the angry sister” to Mirror Staging.

“It’s text-driven, and the dancer verbally solicits and kind of directs the audience to describe what the dancer is doing,” Ivanochko explained. This performance is the piece’s world première and will be live-streamed by renowned choreographer, filmmaker, and creative technologist Jacob Niedzwiecki.

As you can probably tell, these are both experimental pieces and Ivanochko is quick to point out that she’s working “with an outstanding team.” But notice that she doesn’t shy away from grand ideas like these. Even when she was turned down for funding for one of the pieces, she didn’t stop. Her application to the Quebec Arts Council was refused. “The feedback from one of the jury members at that point was that the topic was cliché. Which is appalling when you consider what’s going on now,” she said.

#metoo, Women, and Stereotypes

Both shows could not be shown at a better time. Although the #metoo movement carries sadness in it, it also carries triumph: women are speaking up about a subject that has long been pushed back to hushed corners of our society. Artists like Sasha Ivanochko are now bringing these topics to the fore.

But if you’re expecting the pieces to be loud statements about the ordeals of women, Ivanochko emphasizes they aren’t: “The dancers are really deeply embodying these ideas. So, it doesn’t come across as superficial. And, generally, with Mirror Staging, because it has been performed twice now for audiences, and we’ve done studio showings for Modern Woman, people are generally quite moved by the dancers as they allow these stereotypes to pass through their bodies.”

Pass through their bodies. I like that: it’s a way of describing that these stereotypes exist but it also acknowledges they don’t have to be permanent.

“These works aren’t for women, they aren’t for men,” she emphasizes. They are an exploration of her thoughts on the subject of stereotypes and women.

Exploring Takes Time and Patience

Which brings us back to where we started: exploration and Ivanochko’s thoughts.

Maybe you explore your personal life through writing in your journal. Or perhaps you explore different ideas in your graphic designs. Maybe your topic of exploration is relationships, and that’s why you love acting when time allows for it.

But at some point in time, you plateau, you feel as though your creativity has hit an impasse and fear won’t develop any further. That’s where I’d encourage you to explore even more.

If you’re struggling to find your creative voice, remember that professionals take years to develop theirs. Do not use that observation to knock you down, á la “I’ll never get this right.” (Was it Grover who’d smash his head into the piano in frustration?) Use it as encouragement: “I need to be patient with myself. I have a full-time job and family responsibilities, but I can do this. It’ll just take some time.”

When Ivanochko started out, she found she had too many things to say, and an early mentor told her she needed to focus. But with time, she learned to have patience and trust her instinct.

Mirror Staging and Modern Woman are the result of that trust. She ignored the feedback from one grant committee juror and continued to explore these ideas, simply because she felt compelled to.

If you’re stuck in front of your medium of choice, whether it be a piece of paper, a computer screen, a music or dance studio in your basement or elsewhere, and you’re stuck in a rut of ideas, give yourself time to explore. What do you think about the topic at the centre of your creation?

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Inspiration Isn’t a Eureka Moment: Laurence Lemieux’s “Looking for Elvis”

One myth I want to take down with this interview is the romanticized image of inspiration. Yes, we all get eureka moments: I have plenty of them. However, in my case, they’re never actually good ideas. Instead, those moments of inspiration are actually doors to the real idea, but I get too caught up in those moments to make use of the gateway they are it. (Which hurts when you realize you need to delete half your novel because it’s full of eureka moments.)

Laurence Lemieux also puts to bed the myth that inspiration comes in a flash of lightning. She’s the artistic director of Citadel+Compagnie and the choreographer of Looking for Elvis, which plays at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018, alongside renowned Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s work The Man in Black.

The idea for Looking for Elvis began back in 2012, when Lemieux travelled to Graceland as part of a road trip to Nashville with her daughter to celebrate a milestone birthday.

“It was not at all what I thought it would be,” Lemieux says about Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. She was expecting a mansion. “And you get there and it’s a little home.” (I agree with her: I had the same experience when I visited in my teens.)

But visiting Graceland opened up her artist’s mind: “I could imagine living in that home, because even though it was the 70s, it was really cozy. And I was like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy?’ I wanted to know more about Elvis.”

It’s not that Lemieux didn’t know who he was—she has always been a fan but “not like a crazy fan,” she says. But who was the man behind the performer?

She believes all performers experience what Elvis must have experienced, though admittedly usually to a smaller extent.

“You do a great show, people clap, you take a bow, you feel like a million bucks, you take your make-up off, you go home, and, you know, you eat a sandwich. The glamour is really sometimes in the moment on stage and then your life is actually not that,” she says.

Even though the question was planted with this visit, Lemieux says she didn’t have the idea at that time to choreograph a show that would answer it. She did listen to more of his music, but not even then did she have the moment of inspiration. It took a commission from another local dance company before she realized she might be on to something. Later, when Kudelka was remounting The Man in Black, Lemieux felt the two pieces would complement each other nicely for a show.

Lemieux never saw Elvis in a negative light. He wasn’t “fat” or “tacky” in her mind. Instead, she believes Elvis had a talent, and everyone wanted to make money off him: “They want money, so they want him to perform. So the damage that does to the person himself, that’s what I wanted to look at,” Lemieux says. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating: Michael Jackson, Prince, and many more.

Cast of Citadel + Compagnie's "Looking for Elvis"
“Look for Elvis.” Photo by John Lauener

To Lemieux, if Elvis were an office worker, he would have probably been sent home for a few weeks to rest and recuperate. I’d have to agree with her on that: a sick employee could actually cost a company money, whereas sending them home for awhile and having their short-term disability insurance cover the bill would save money. With performers, it’s the opposite: A performer can really be “here today, gone tomorrow,” and if the performer doesn’t perform, then the entourage doesn’t get paid.

Each choreographer has their own way of working. Some know exactly what they want and direct the dancers accordingly, whereas others have ideas in their mind and work with the dancers to embody those ideas on stage. Lemieux’s style more closely matches the latter group. She directs the movement but has her dancers find their own personal journey through it. “But I tell them emotionally where it should be sitting,” she says. “I tell them who they are in that moment and what they should be thinking. So, I give them a lot of feedback on their character more than the actual steps. Sometimes I think I direct them more like I would an actor.”

Kudelka has been the resident choreographer at Citadel+Compagnie for ten years now. Former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, the New York Times has called him “ballet’s most original choreographer.” The Man in Black, though, is not what comes to mind when you think of ballet. A homage to Johnny Cash, the work’s backbone is four dancers in cowboy boots. In contrast to Looking for Elvis, which Lemieux describes as more emotional, The Man in Black is Kudelka’s response to the music as a score. (Kudelka was not available for an interview, so I couldn’t ask him how the idea for this piece came about.)

James Kudelka's "The Man in Black." Citadel + Compagnie
“The Man in Black.” Photo by John Lauener

The beauty of creativity is exploration: Lemieux describes one sequence in The Man in Black where Kudelka explores what cowboys would do if they had to dance. (Picturing Clint Eastwood trying to line dance makes me smile.) In Looking for Elvis, Lemieux choreographed a sequence where one dancer embodies Las Vegas Elvis, with all the bling, and she puts a microscope on what happens once he begins to falter: some of his friends turn their back on him, ignore him.

Inspiration doesn’t always come with a flash of lightning or a crescendo in orchestral music. It sometimes comes to us slowly, seeping via little windows into our minds until something pushes us to create a whole out of the pieces. If you find yourself frustrated with your own creative endeavours, see if you’re waiting for that eureka moment. Because if you are, you’ll be waiting for a long time. The world around you is already speaking to you, and those ideas are already in your head, waiting to be expressed. Lemieux works her ideas out on her dancers, and just like her, you can work your ideas out in your art form. That’s where you’ll find your creativity. And your inspiration.

Looking for Elvis and The Man in Black will be showing at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018. Tickets are available here. 

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Hertha Mueller: A Writer You Should Get to Know

I came across German-Romanian writer Hertha Müller* (“Mueller” in English) about two months ago. I’m embarrassed to say, I had no idea who she was, despite having two degrees in German Studies. In my defence, though, I stopped studying in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She’s in her 60s now, and I believe lives in Sweden. Let me introduce you to her and what the idea of freedom for the arts means.

Who was the Guy and his Wife being Shot?

Mueller was born in the 1950s in one of the last leftover German villages in Romania. (The majority of ethnic Germans had been deported after WWII to either Germany or the labour camps in Russia.) I remember once at Christmas being at my grandmother’s – she and my grandfather were also Germans from Romania but (thank God) never returned after the war – and she had her eyes absolutely glued to the television. (My grandfather had been dead a few years by then.)

A man and his wife had been captured and were being executed. The news was full of lots of death, so I didn’t get why this execution was so important. (I also didn’t get what was so important about a graffitied, cement wall in Berlin and why its destruction was so celebrated.)

All I recall was that she said his name was Nicolae Ceaușescu and she was glad he was gone.

I eventually learned he was a dictator, but that was it. Only recently, with reading Mueller, have I begun to understand what that fully means.

Germans in Romania

I’m reading a book whose title can be literally translated as My Fatherland is an Apple Core: Conversations with Hertha Mueller. (The title refers to a poem or song that I’m not particularly familiar with.)

It’s unfortunate the book isn’t available in English, because she describes in exacting, vivid detail what it’s like to be a writer in a brutal dictatorship that’s trying to silence you and your friends.

As you can likely imagine, being an ethnic German in Eastern Europe during and after World War II wasn’t an enviable position to be in, regardless of which side you supported. After all was said and done, only a handful of Germans remained in these areas. I forget the exact figures, but the German populations decreased by the millions, partly due to deportation to those Russian labour camps, where many died.

Mueller’s mother was schlepped off to one of these camps but returned. (Whether she was lucky was debatable.) Mueller was eventually born and grew up in one of the few remaining German towns in Romania. It might be likened to Mennonite or Amish colonies, where everyone speaks their form of German and continues on with life as they know it, often sans electricity and telephone (though not by choice in this case).

Sneaky and Sly Like a Fox

Hertha Mueller had a fox fur on the floor between her bed and wardrobe, something she and her mother had purchased together from a neighbouring town. She says in the book:

The village tailor was supposed to make a fur collar and cuffs for a coat from it. It was a whole, flat fox with snout and paws and shiny claws. It was far too beautiful to cut up. I kept it for many years as a carpet. One day, I was mopping the floor, and the tail slid to the side. It had been cut off. I convinced myself at that time that it had torn off on its own. I didn’t believe myself that it was an exact, very straight cut, not a tear. (Page 86 of my ebook version via OnLeihe.)

She put the tail back where it belonged. A few weeks later, the first hind leg had been cut off. Later, the second one. Thereafter, one of the front legs. She describes that the cut-off limb was always placed on the fox’s stomach. This took place over months, but during those months, she always entered her apartment and immediately checked if a part of the fox had been severed.

The secret police (the “Securitate”) had a key. They wouldn’t break in, ever, they would just quietly enter. She said they wanted you to know they could come in whenever they wanted to.

Eggs and Onions and Hair

In another episode of intimidation (there were very, very many), she was on her way to get her hair cut. A police officer asked her for her ID and then whisked her off into a hidden room, where she was questioned, accused of blatantly false crimes, and forced to eat eight hard-boiled eggs and an onion. At one point, the agent picked a hair off her clothing, and she said, “Put that hair back, it belongs to me” (page 97 on my Onleihe e-book version). She said he actually put the hair back.

But it Didn’t Stop There

Even after she was allowed to leave in 1987 for Germany, the intimidations and games continued: they stamped her passport with February 29, 1987. That drove the German authorities nuts, she says, because it wasn’t a leap year.

The threats continued. The interviewer also mentions a situation where a Romanian operative was stopped at the German border, allegedly with instructions to kill several who were speaking out against Ceaușescu. Mueller’s address was on his list.

The dictatorship – from what she can gather – even blackmailed a very good friend of hers who had been diagnosed with cancer and was in its last stage. The friend was required to travel to Germany to visit Mueller. It didn’t take long for Mueller to figure out why her friend had come: the passport has visas for many different countries, a kind of passport that was not given out in Romania. Once she called her friend on it, her friend spoke openly and said Mueller would find her name on the death list if she didn’t stop speaking out against Ceaușescu.

We Need Our Openness

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for our press, publishing industry, and the breadth of opinions out there. It’s not perfect. But it’s not what Hertha Müller had to contend with just to get her voice out there. I know we don’t all agree on how much freedom the press should have, what fake news really is, and how much censorship is too much.

(I recall reading that Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree had been banned by school boards in the past because the tree talked. I draw the line for my kids at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the current cartoons: my kids don’t need to learn a list of names to call people they don’t like.)

But we need to continue having open discussions about all of this, so long as our discussions show respect for the other side. I know there are thousands, likely even millions of artists out there in countries whose work is censored for something as simple as saying they don’t like the government.

It can be frustrating reading comments from people who disagree with you, especially when those comments are rude (and I, too, wish they would be more respectful). I don’t know if this helps, but as I read through this book, it certainly helps me realize that we at least have that right to say something.

*I didn’t add a photo here: the topic is serious, and I’m not an artist who can create something fitting. In addition, I didn’t want to use a photo of Hertha Müller, because, honestly, I feel guilty about using her picture to help promote my blog.

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The National Ballet of Canada Breaks With Convention

Pinocchio
Reproduction of the original cover. Via Wikipedia.

The hardest part about creating art is knowing when to break with convention. When I read experienced writers’ and editors’ blogs, they invariably talk about writers who sacrifice good writing in order to be clever. I sometimes roll my eyes when I think a story, article, picture, painting, whatever has nothing more to it than just provocation. Maybe it’s just me, but spare me the emotional shock and give me something substantial.

 

Last week, I saw the National Ballet of Canada’s world premier of Pinocchio. Choreographed by British choreographer and dancer Will Tuckett, it broke with two conventions: the story of Pinocchio and ballets. Let me explain.

In the program, Tuckett says, “Disney’s take on the story is a kind of a cute moral journey and the book is not that.” He says audiences would know right away that the ballet was not a remake of Disney’s classic movie.

Tuckett preferred to stay closer to the book, but also not too close. For example, “In the book, Jiminy Cricket is killed very unceremoniously by Pinocchio in the same chapter that he is introduced. So [Librettist and Dramaturge] Alasdair [Middleton] and I decided just to avoid crickets.”

So where do you go if you’re parting from the original story and Disney’s well-known version? Well, in Canada, you head up North. Because the production was made for Canada, it included lumberjacks, beavers, a moose, a Mountie, and even Niagara Falls tourists. Pinocchio actually emerges from a felled pine in the great white North. It may sound hokey to you if you’re just reading this, but it was fun to watch, and the audience laughed throughout the show.

The ballet itself was fresh: not a tutu in sight, but that’s not new. Phenomenal special effects and CGI gave it the aura of magic needed for such a magical story, but that’s also not new. What the creative team added that isn’t normally associated with ballets is spoken text.

That’s right – there was talking, and not by some bored kid next to me. (Actually, the ones I saw were enthralled the whole time.)

But here’s the thing: the National didn’t produce a play. This was still a ballet, they just broke with the convention that ballets don’t include spoken words.

In a pre-ballet talk, Principal Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer said, “This is a Canadian production, for today.” He joked about “the old days” when parents (like his) dragged their children to the ballet and to classical concerts until the children learned to like it. Children were expected to attend, but if they asked a question, they were told to shush. We all chuckled along with him, but I think many of us understood what he was talking about.

(For the record, my parents didn’t drag me to anything. I went willingly, but I also fell asleep a few times. I still feel guilty that Frank Mills may have seen a sleeping pre-teen in the front row.)

In Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy’s Shadows spoke. This small chorus of five dancers expressed – in words – what the Blue Fairy was thinking, saying, and teaching. It gave the performance extra layers that movement and music couldn’t, but the movement and music still carried the show.

Fischer shared with us another interesting tidbit about this break in convention: The National’s dancers are just that – dancers – and not trained actors. Fischer said the five dancers were chosen before the decision to add speech was made, and it turned out that only one of the five was a native English speaker. He told us they were nervous about how their accents would come across.

But, he said, that made the show more Canadian: “We value the people more than we value the package in Canada.”

Seeing Pinocchio reminded me that the classics are important: these dancers have trained in a centuries-old art form that still has the power to silently carry a story. Yet one small shift – adding the language of speech – contributed another layer of meaning to the fantastical story of a wooden puppet who desires to become human.

Breaking convention doesn’t always work, of course, but if you know where you’re coming from and where you want to go, and convention seems like a quiet road through a ghost town, the detour might just be worth it.

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Evelyn Hart in “Love, Sex & Brahms” by James Kudelka

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The cast from #lovesexbrahms, 2015 (clockwise): Andrew Burashko (piano), Louis Laberge-Côté, Evelyn Hart, Victoria Mehaffey, Andrew McCormack, Tyler Gledhill, Luke Garwood, Bill Coleman. Photo credit: John Lauener.

“If you went to a salon in the olden days, for example, or a house concert, and you just listened to music and you’re there and you’re experiencing the music and you’re experiencing the people around you…it’s like that.”

 

That’s how Evelyn Hart, the former principal dancer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, described the new James Kudelka show she is in: Love, Sex & Brahms, a presentation by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie (CLC). I chatted with Evelyn over the phone on Wednesday about the show.

Love, Sex & Brahms

A collection of vignettes about love and relationships, Love, Sex & Brahms is an expanded version of Kudelka’s Dora Award-winning #lovesexbrahms, with each vignette set to an intermezzo by the German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

The vignettes are not entirely separate from each other nor entirely connected, and sometimes the characters come together and sometimes they don’t. “But the relationship in the music is what we’re painting,” Hart said.

Although the same characters may return to the stage, they’ll relate to the other characters in a different way. Hart said, “It really is that each time the music starts, it’s like watching a scene and the relationships in that scene.”

The show takes place at the Betty Oliphant Theatre of Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which seats just over 250, making this an intimate performance, a concept Hart said Kudelka is keenly interested in. It also seems like a fitting venue based on her descriptions of the set: a piano and chandelier. The only other item on the stage is a carpet made of light that changes with each piece.

“The lighting designer was quite brilliant,” she said. “So that defines the dancing space and the room that we’re in.”

Evelyn Hart on Stage

Hart enjoyed a 30-year-long career at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the vast majority of it as their headlining prima ballerina. Although she retired from dance over a decade ago, she still searches out opportunities to perform on stage, even if it doesn’t involve long series of fouetté turns and big passés.

Hart still does barre everyday. However, she does admit that retiring from dance was a grieving process for her. And yet, in this production, she says, ”I certainly didn’t feel that I wasn’t dancing. In my limited capacity, what it felt was it’s all the emotion through movement.”

Which is exactly what Kudelka is exploring, according to Hart: “He keeps saying, ‘It’s more like actors dancing.’ […] He wanted people to be very real. We’re not trying to be dancers per se.”

Hart always welcomes opportunities to perform again: “It’s an incredibly fulfilling thing to be able to go out on stage.”

Kudelka, Puppets, & Dance

It’s not just humans the audience will see on stage. Kudelka has previously explored puppetry, an experiment he is continuing with Love, Sex & Brahms: In 2014, he choreographed and performed a show called Malcolm, which involved an eponymous puppet and was a far cry from the puppetry of children’s shows many may be used to.

The Globe & Mail wrote of Malcolm, ““The piece is also a tender portrait of the human condition, in turn loving, jealous, amused and bewildered.”

The Toronto Star gave Malcolm 4/4 stars: “It might seem odd for Kudelka, acclaimed for such spectacular National Ballet productions as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Cinderella, to resort to puppetry, but then Kudelka has always been a little odd — in the most theatrically stimulating ways. And he’s no stranger to puppetry, having portrayed a mad inventor who believes he can infuse life into a cherished mechanical doll in the ballet Coppélia.”

The Star explained that puppetry has been making a resurgence, citing Crystal Pite’s fascination with the art form and a 2009 Canadian Opera Company production “that created theatre magic by deploying puppets.”

Who Is Sarkis?

The puppet in Love, Sex & Brahms is Sarkis, a clothed, bald, child-like creation.

“The puppet is the way that they speak to each other; the thing that keeps them apart or that pulls them together. It’s quite interesting,” she said. “Everybody in each piece deals with the puppet in a different way.” She says he is simply another person in the room; sometimes the whole focus is on him, and sometimes he just sits there, watching.

The show is about 40 minutes long and runs from March 16 – 19. Tickets are only $25 ($20 for artists, students, and seniors). I’m certainly going to try and make it. For full information, visit Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie).

“It’s very quiet, but there’s drama in it, there’s beauty in it, there’s love,” Hart said. Sounds like a wonderful evening to me.

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Changes to Canada’s Copyright Laws

Copyright symbol with a red circle around it and red line through it.In 2012, Canada’s copyright law was updated, including expanding the definition of fair use and providing clearer guidelines for what constitutes copyright infringement in the digital world. (The Globe & Mail has a short article on those changes.)

According to several Canadian media outlets, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wants to make some more changes to Canadian copyright laws: he reportedly wants political parties to be able to take media footage and use it for election ads without needing permission or paying compensation for the footage. According to this article, media outlets also would not be allowed to refuse to show these ads.

According to this article from CTV (owned by Bell Media), the Conservatives (our ruling party) believe that fair use already governs what they can and can’t do with media material. CTV apparently could quote this leaked document:

On Wednesday, CTV News reported on an internal Conservative cabinet document that details an amendment to the Copyright Act, which would allow “free use of ‘news’ content in political advertisement intended to promote or oppose a politician or political party.”

The main concern is that political parties can use whatever published work they want, remove it from its context, and attack the other parties with it. According to the lawyers and experts quoted in these articles, this would be far from the definitions of fair use.

You could argue that media outlets only want political parties they support to use their material. That assumption may be correct.

However, the point here isn’t that political parties shouldn’t be able to use news clips for their ads. Rather, it appears that the Conservatives’ plan is to be able to remove all context from the news clips. As power-hungry as the media conglomerates are, I believe this change to our copyright laws is wrong. According to the experts in these articles, our laws already allow the Conservatives (and any other political party) to use media clips under the definition of fair use, where context is required. Let’s leave those laws alone.