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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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What Is Flamenco Dance? Myriam Allard Answers

Head shot of La Otra Orilla co-founder, choreographer, and dancer Myriam Allard

Continuing With Flamenco

Last month, I wrote about Bonnie Masina, a woman who took up flamenco dance at age 50. This month, I ask the question: What is flamenco? And Myriam Allard, co-founder of and dancer and choreographer with La Otra Orilla in Montreal, answered.

Head shot of La Otra Orilla co-founder, choreographer, and dancer Myriam AllardAllard didn’t start learning flamenco dance until she was 19, an age by which many professional dancers start their careers. She moved to Spain when she was 21 and studied flamenco intensively for six years.

What Is Flamenco?

“First and foremost, flamenco is an expression of a people, the southern Spanish Gypsies,” she explains. “It’s a voice of their struggle.”

If you’ve only seen flamenco, whether on television or on stage, you likely think first of the dramatic form of dance, usually done by women draped in elegant dresses with frills. However, Allard explains that it actually started with song.

“It’s songs of pain, but also of joy. So, it’s really a sub-culture that was really, for a long time, put aside, and they were actually for some time not even allowed to sing,” Allard says. “So, the voice comes first, and then the guitar came, the rhythms, the dance.”

When the Body Doesn’t Fit the Type

As an artistic director and choreographer, though, Allard must add her own voice to this old art form, so she began with her body. As a blue-eyed woman who stands 5’9”, she is not physically what the average viewer likely imagines when they think of a flamenco dancer.

“I’m physically not at all Spanish looking or Gypsy looking,” she says. “So, I have to really somehow adapt from the very start of my studies. I had to adapt the movement to my body, which wasn’t short.”

Adapting an art form, though, doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel works and leaving the rest behind. It’s still important to learn the basics.

Always, Always, Always, Start a A

“I trained in traditional flamenco, because it’s the only thing you can train in, and I believe very strongly in knowing your ABCs before actually doing poetry. You can’t start from poetry, you have to know the words,” Allard says.

I feel very strongly about that in any form of art. It’s not to bore you: after all, who gets a high from practicing straight lines and squares of dots when you first begin to draw? Or from doing more pliés in one month of ballet classes than you eat chocolate in a year?

The point is that those basics strengthen you to carry out your art with fewer errors down the road. In the case of drawing, those errors may mean inaccurate lines. In the case of ballet, those errors can be injuries.

The Basic Structure = Your New Language

There’s another reason, though, for focusing on those basic structures, whatever your form: you learn the form’s language, which is what allows you that new channel of expression. Even if you choose to write, you are still learning a new language, because the forms that typically make for strong writing are different than those that work for a wonderful conversationalist.

It’s the language of flamenco that allowed Allard the freedom to begin experimenting. Her company’s name means “the other shore.” Not only is she located in Montreal, Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic from Spain, but she also experiments with flamenco. When you watch this video, can you see the language of flamenco breaking through the fur cap and exposed pregnant belly?

Flamenco for Today

“I see flamenco as a a very contemporary art,” Allard says, “because I see I’m doing this today in 2018, so I don’t think I have to wear a skirt with frills, I don’t think I have to wear a flower in my hair. If I feel like it, I will, but for me that’s not a code I feel I have to respect, if I can use that word. I’m very free that way. If I want to wear trousers, I will.”

Even just by wearing pants, Allard’s choreography changes.

“As women in flamenco would traditionally wear long skirts, it makes movement rounder, and it also makes for a prop because you’re actually touching the skirt and using it in the movement and it gives volume to a movement. When you have pants on, you don’t have that volume, you don’t have round, it’s all angles. When I work with pants on, I go for angles.”

Flamenco’s Essence

For Allard, flamenco’s core is a raw emotion, one that borders on ugliness. She explains further:

“There’s that very fine line between something that is beautiful and something that is ugly. When you watch a flamenco singer, the expression on the face sometimes is very intense. For somebody it can be very ugly to look at, but I find that very beautiful.”

There is no ideal age to start flamenco. Allard has students well into their senior years who, she feels, have a stronger wisdom about their body than younger students may have. She suggests taking advantage of this wisdom: if you are older, you do what you can, you don’t push.

If starting dance is on your mind, just find an adult class taught by a qualified instructor and sign up. If that’s too much for you, though, maybe get out to see more performances, even ones you’re not sure you’ll like. (Something we discussed in the previous post, with Trevor Copp.)

And if you’re in Toronto from October 2-6, catch Fall for Dance North, where Allard’s company will be performing, be sure to get tickets (only $15 each) and enjoy the rawness and intensity that is traditional flamenco dance.

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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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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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Foreheads, Grade 10, and Stories

clem-onojeghuo-143466 reducedIf there’s one thing I’d wish I’d done more of, it’s pay attention in English class, specifically grade 10 English class. That’s when we studied Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology ad nauseum. Maybe it was my religious upbringing (more so in the schools than at home) or my literal-thinking mind, but I didn’t see any use in learning why Zeus gave birth to Athena through his forehead. Even when God created the Earth via the 7-day story, he at least honoured the basics of human physiology.

After studying each mythology, we’d then apply what we’d learned to any book we read, which made those books even less interesting. You’d think I would’ve rejoiced at how easy those exams could be in this kind of structure, but no, I was more bummed out by the fact that my favourite hobby was becoming increasingly boring. Couldn’t I just read for fun?

Oh, To Be 15 Again and Actually Listen to Adults

My 15-year-old mind, though, missed a golden opportunity: we were studying the timelessness of stories. I don’t know if my English teacher pointed that out to us or not, and even if he did, I may have ignored him. But what he was doing was passing on to us stories from millennia ago and showing us how they still permeate today’s stories.

What I’m learning now, though, through research for my novel, is that those mythologies, plus the little we know of the pre-Christian Celtic stories, heavily correlate to the ancient Indian stories. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there were similarities to the pantheistic Native stories, too. (Maybe someone with more knowledge here can add something below.)

Cinderella’s 1,000-Year-Old Shoe

Being a student of German, I was also fascinated by the fairy tales the Brothers Grimm collected and published. Through some courses in my undergrad and grad studies, I learned that Cinderella was likely over 1,000 years old and may have originated in China (the importance of a woman’s shoe). My memory’s a bit rusty here, so the story may even be older.

But think about this for a moment: If the stories of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Germanic tribes were all related to ancient Indian stories, and even something as simple as Cinderella has travelled across the world from ancient China to Walt Disney (and likely other countries, too), then these are cultural connections that easily half the world has. Whereas we may focus on the individual nature of Western culture versus the collectivist nature of Eastern culture, both share a simple story.

Passing Down the Blues

Last week, I interviewed a blues musician, Steve Strongman. He’s performing at our local roadhouse theatre, which is also a client of mine. One of his songs is called “Old School.” The song opens with these lyrics:

I used to sneak in the back door

just to see how it’s done.

I knew that if I want to find the truth,

I had to go straight to the roots.

In several online interviews and in ours, he talked about the importance of going back to your roots to find inspiration. In this case, it was the roots of the blues. One question I had for him was this: I’ve noticed in lots of blues footage that old timers, including the likes of Buddy Guy and B.B. King, often shared the stage with a much younger musician. It looked very much like a sort of mentorship to me and seemed particular to the blues. Was I right?

“That is definitely a common theme and a thread within blues,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because blues is a niche market or largely niche-market based, but I do feel like there’s a sense among the elders of blues that they want to make sure that this music is getting passed on so that it doesn’t just fizzle out and die.”

Strongman said that the music business doesn’t see the blues as having commercial appeal. “So the only way that we can continue to pass that knowledge on is through passing it on to the younger generation. I’ve certainly been the benefit of that, meeting a lot of people that are saying, ‘You know, you’re the younger generation that are coming up, playing this, and we need to keep this very incredibly important style of music alive.’”

Listening to his new album, I’m glad he listened to his elders.

Going Back to Your Roots

The phrase often refers to a cultural history that has helped make you who you are. You may have had it shoved down your throat, or you may be on the other side of the spectrum, wishing you knew more, but everyone who had that knowledge has now passed on.

This is a spiritual feeling for me: all of these ancient stories somehow affected who we all became. I find a connection in that.

And a strength.

And inspiration.

And magic.

We walk around, pretending to be special and separate from others, yet we have this deep connection that goes back millennia. I just find that awesome, in the truest sense of that word.

And I just wish I’d paid a little more attention to my grade 10 English teacher.

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Yes, World, There is Prejudice in Canada

My Hometown

A myth is developing about Canada, my country: that our arms are wide open to immigrants. It’s also easy to begin believing in that myth yourself when you read it often enough. I’m happy that we’re known for something so generous, but I got a reality check this week.

I live in Waterloo, Ontario, which is twinned with its neighbour Kitchener. The two cities are so close that a few people even have the city border going through their living rooms. We call ourselves Kitchener-Waterloo, or K-W for short. The next level of government is the Region of Waterloo, and includes K-W, Cambridge, and a few townships. All told, the entire region is about a half million people or so.

We’re a fairly diverse region, too. Being only an hour away from Toronto and just over two from the border, you pretty much see all walks of life. Each city of course has its own personality, and that adds to the colour of living here. We have two universities and a college (generally, “college” in Canada refers to community college, and many have excellent reputations and provide a solid education). Waterloo is also home to Blackberry, for better or for worse.

I could look up statistics on the cultural make-up of the region, but I don’t want to bore you. You see pretty much everyone here. The other month, I walked through the mall near my home, and an Old Order Mennonite crossed my path, whereupon a Sikh caught my attention, and then I saw a Muslim.

And no one cared. Each just went about their own business.

The same happens everyday on the bus: people who are clearly from different cultures and religions get on, sit next to each other, get off at their destination, and, again, no one cares. Yes, many with conservative views live here, but I wouldn’t generally consider the majority racist, prejudiced, or fear-mongering.

I’d read that prejudice was alive and well in Canada, and although I don’t think I’ve ever denied that, I’ve managed to just push it out of my mind. If anything prejudiced happened, it was usually somewhere else.

And Then This Happened

The Muslim Association of Canada owns a piece of property in Waterloo. They’d like the zoning changed from agricultural to institutional and green space so they can build a prayer centre on it for now and possibly a mosque in the next decade or so. The public first became aware of this proposal last year, and a flyer was circulated: “Together you are stronger! Protect your property, lifestyle and rights!”

One circulated again this year. It claims that the location is wrong and that the need for a Muslim centre in this location is unjustified.

The association held a public meeting to let neighbours know about the planned changes. All meetings have an agenda, of course, and from what I can tell, the agenda for this one was a few presentations followed by one-on-one style discussions. There was no plan on the itinerary to allow attendees to give their own speeches or presentations, but they were invited to approach the representatives at the front and ask questions after presentations had concluded.

I’m going to quote now from Luisa d’Amato, a columnist for our local paper, The Record. (It’s important to note that The Record didn’t have someone there covering the meeting):

There were comments from the association, the architect and a City of Waterloo planning official. After that, there was an opportunity for individual residents to approach the experts one-on-one, and ask questions.

More than 100 people attended. When one audience member tried to grab the microphone and speak, she was told that this wasn’t part of the format for that meeting.

“You’re in Canada now,” the woman told [meeting co-organizer and member of the neighbourhood Rania] Lawendy. “Go back to Pakistan. Here, we can say what we want.”

Lawendy, who was born and raised in Canada, responded that racist rhetoric wouldn’t be allowed at the meeting.

Then, some people got angry. People chanted “Let her speak.” Someone ripped up the papers where visitors had signed in.

Now, anyone local reading this knows d’Amato’s reputation: she often rants more than she writes strong arguments for her opinions. One thing you cannot say about her, though, is that she treads carefully. Instead, she is open, direct, sometimes even rude, but she writes what she’s thinking. Sometimes it’s what others are thinking and sometimes it’s not. But many read her, and this column brought the whole issue to my eyes.

Yesterday, a few letters to the editor were published in response to this story and d’Amato’s column. Several were appalled at the attendees’ behaviour and emphasized that bigotry and racism were not acceptable in Canada.

However, one letter writer accused The Record of not presenting both sides of the story. According to her, the woman who tried to steal the mic said, “This is Canada, not Pakistan. What are you afraid of?”

The woman ended her letter by saying, “People were outraged that they did not have a public voice at this meeting to air their concerns.”

And this is where I become concerned. I’ve attended a few public consultations over the years, though it’s been a while. Attendees were never given the floor. Instead, we were asked to speak to representatives to express our concerns and ask our questions. I was never insulted by this, nor did I ever believe the government was trying to remove my right to freedom of speech.

This approach also makes more sense: I’m certain we also had over 100 people in attendance at these consultations. Can you imagine if we had all had a chance to address the entire room through a mic? It’d have been a multi-person filibuster.

The letter writer says attendees weren’t able to voice their concerns at this meeting, but the opportunity to speak with the experts and members of this association was offered. By inviting people to come to the front to speak with them, the meeting as it was designed would have allowed many more to voice their opinions.

And yet, what came out of one woman’s mouth was not a constructive question, but an unfounded, prejudiced accusation and a challenge.

d’Amato in her column listed a few other things that were said:

“You should be on a farm somewhere where no one can see you.”

“This is going to bring more Muslim families to the neighbourhood, and that’s going to lower my house value.”

“I hope this city stops the Muslim centre, and all other Muslim places torn down.”

There’s a difference between a well-thought-out argument and a bigoted slur. There’s also a difference between respectful opposition and bullying.

The attendees that I read about seem to have exhibited the latter side of each of those sentences.

This experience has been weighing on me these last few days. At d’Amato’s suggestion, I emailed the team putting this prayer centre together and offered my emotional support: there is no need for them to have to experience this kind of ugliness. They sent me a link for a petition to sign that supported their endeavour. I did so.

Unfortunately, though, I’m sad to say, prejudiced thought is alive and well in Canada.

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Language is More Than IQ Scores and Alzheimer’s Prevention

img_0063One thing I’ve always envied about descendants of pioneer families is that those descendants had easy access to their roots from the past one to three centuries. Naturally, everyone in Canada is or is a descendant of an immigrant (save for the First Nations peoples), but my envy was about knowing how your family lived in ages gone by. Descendants of pioneer families could go to a special room at a local library and research to their heart’s content. Not only that, much of it was in English.

My path to understanding where I came from was harder: the information lay overseas and in German (and Hungarian, Romanian, and even Latin). The outcome: I knew very little.

Changing Borders and Forbidden Education

My sense of the world was also very naive.

So, when I learned that my grandmother had been tutored in secret because new laws prohibited her from going to school, I wondered why anyone would want to go to school if you didn’t have to.

When my great grandfather talked about living in different countries depending on where the borders were, I couldn’t understand how the borders of a country changed and thought that maybe something in his story had gotten lost in translation.

My grandparents tried to share some of these stories with me, but they seemed so surreal that I couldn’t comprehend them.

Why Care About the Past?

And then my grandparents began to die, and with them, their biographies. I only have one grandfather left now, and when he takes me to a corner of the room at a family get-together to tell me something, I listen. But I regret no longer hearing the voices of the other six I knew.

I study my family history for a few reasons. One of them is out of a sense of gratitude: When you think about it, if one person didn’t get into bed at the right time on a given night, I quite possibly might not be here. There’s something bizarrely awe-inspiring about the timing involved: all those people had sex at the perfect time that allowed for my creation generations later.

Less bizarre but just as awesome is being here despite all the infants and children who died. One ancestor had five children and I descend from the single surviving one. Again, one person out of whack and boom! I wouldn’t even have Marty McFly’s chance to go back and reconnect those two.

And the third is to understand the stories that contributed to my own life, to understand what kind of “stock” I come from, as it were. What hardships did my ancestors face? What courageous actions did they take? (Less courageous ones are rarely recorded or passed down.) How did history affect my family?

The Language Connection

By the time I was in university, an opportunity to dance in Germany led me to take a full-year university German language course. I’d tried learning the language in the past, but long story short, I didn’t gain too much at that time. Now, with three classes a week instead of a crash course every Saturday morning, everything began to mesh. By the end of university, I was fluent.

Learning German finally unlocked my family history to me and gave me roots. Although the German I speak is not the one my grandparents spoke, I still feel a connection. In a sense, I feel like I’m reconnecting the Germanness I grew up with back to the Germanness that is contemporary German and Austrian culture (minus all that right-wing shit).

What I couldn’t know then was that I would eventually coordinate an oral history project that included participants from my grandparents’ background. One woman, who was in her 90s, was the first and only voice I’ve heard talk about Yugoslavia’s civil war that took place during WWII. She spoke in German. My grandmother never mentioned it, and after listening to this participant, I can understand why: it was horrific, and my grandmother would have been around 10 or 12 when it happened.

I was 24 when she died after living with cancer for several years. I don’t know if I would have ever understood what she saw, and she may very well have not wanted to share it with me.

Speaking more than one language can open up a lot of doors. There are the usual economic and practical reasons, for example. Some studies show benefits towards fending off Alzheimer’s, others about how bilingual kids tend to perform better on intelligence tests.

But for me, learning another language helped me find out more about who I am, and that in turn finally gave me food for my writing: instead of my writing from my teen years, when I had little sense of who I was, being nothing more than bad copies of pop culture, I finally felt a cornerstone form inside of me, giving me the starting point for my own stories, both real and imagined.

And, to use the language of my youth, that’s pretty cool.