A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #35 - WEEK OF MARCH 2-8, 2015

Tribute: Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

As a lifelong Trekkie, this truly saddens me.

Live long and prosper.

Spring flings

Left-right: Soulpepper Theatre’s rural musical Spoon River; the South African puppetry show Ubu and the Truth Commission and the return engagement of Cavalia: Odysseo makes up a very busy spring on Toronto’s arts scene.

Spring Events Listings 2015

Eclectic opera to a cutthroat amorality workplace play marks out springtime for the Toronto arts scene of a garden variety from the newbies and return of old favourites make for a warm reception from another otherwise chilly winter we all look forward to shed off.

The Coal Mine theatrical company brings another provocative nugget following last fall’s The Motherfucker with The Hat with the razor-sharp comedy/drama Bull (March 15-April 5) about three office drones looking to edge each other out for an executive position in their company with a winner-take-all mentality on Mike Barrett’s examination of contemporary office politics at the Coal Mine Theatre (798 Danforth Avenue).

Little-known Etobicoke Musical Productions currently is hosting a musical celebration of the best-known show tunes down by the Assembly Hall (1 Colonel Samuel Smith Park Drive (Kipling/Lakeshore)) with Winter’s On the Wing (through March 8) and newly-minted CrazyLady company debuts with two George F. Walker plays Parents Night, a scathing comedy on socioeconomic breakdowns of society at an elementary school parent-teachers night and the world premiere of The Bigger Issue – his first play-cycle since his 1997 six-play Suburban Motel series – on the fragile ecosystem of a Junior High grade seven classroom tackling poverty, violence and mental health, as part of a play trilogy on the overspent educational system, both at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) April 23 to May 17.

Harbourfront Centre continues with their World Stage and DanceWorks programmes, starting with the former for perhaps the first-ever “green energy”-fuelled production vox:lumen(March 4-7), a show completely lit by energy generated by its dancers, audience and other renewable sources from Zata Omn Dance Projects; Disabled Theatre (March 25-28) from Swiss company Theater HORA and choreographer Jérôme Bel changes our perceived conceptions on the mentally challenged handling dance; a martial arts mash-up duet by Out Innerspace Dance Theatre’s Me So You So Me (April 15-18); the syntax of adornment from the Dietrich Group’s cabaret/lecture/fashion show This Is a Costume Drama (April 29-May 2) and the vision of contemporary India by performer Dalisa Pigram’s Gudirr Gudirr (May 6-9).

Continuing with dance, duo Forcier/Norman come up with two new works based on loss and transformation on Scars Are All the Rage and what goes between (March 12-14); the female identity seen through Indian dance troupe Mrudanga Dance Academy’s WOMAN: A SEARCH (March 12-14); Kaeja d’Dance celebrates a quarter-century season with their March 21 anniversary show with world premieres of .0 (Point Zero) about the unpredictability of chance and fate in everyday life and a yet-untitled production looking at childhood innocence and notions of love; SIROCCO (March 21-28) whips up the heat of the Sahara Desert winds and whirls them into conjunction of the Arabic roots in flamenco dance by the Ritmo Flamenco Dance & Music Ensemble; Ballet Creole explores the universally connectivity of the life-giving resource of water for Agua Como Vida (March 27-29) and more ethnic dance groups filling out the spring roster with Indian Kathak prima donna Bageshreee Vaze’s Paratopia (April 17-18); Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company’s Letters to Spain (April 23-25) and the annual CanAsian Dance Festival (April 30-May 2) featuring local Cambodian Khmer dance company Tribal Cracking Wind’s Ferocious Compassion, Butoh soloist Natsu Nakajima’s Toronto premiere of Like Smoke Like Ash and Vancouver favourites Battery Opera Performance with Lee-Su Feh’s solo Everything and Hong Kong Exile remounting last year’s NINEEIGHT to newly reflect on the city-state of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement.

Canadian Stage brings House of Cards’ Molly Parker for the self-discovery drama Harper Regan (March 3-22) as the eponymous character trying to figure out the meanings of life and family as she abruptly wanders away from her own after learning of her father’s imminent death and the company shines a spring spotlight on South Africa for the month of April from Athol Fugard’s latest Nongogo (April 8-12) of 1950s life and love in an impoverished township; dancer/choreographer Mamela Nyamza two memoir-based pieces The Meal and Hatched (April 8-19); the Handspring Puppet Company’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (April 15-19); Dominion (April 22-25) of dance and theatre reflecting on the effects of apartheid on the nation’s collective soul and performance artist Steve Cohen’s Chandelier (April 22-25) on the pre-and post-apartheid era’s forced expulsions policy on townships in the name of urban renewal.

Armstrong’s War (May 16-June 7) from the Canadian Rep Theatre in The Citadel (304 Parliament Street) has two physically-challenged souls, a preteen Pathfinder finding herself in a wheelchair after an accident and a young combatant convalescing from the Afghan War, where both have to come to terms with their disabilities and find a new way of healing.

Remixing clips from Hitchcock films, The Sound of Music and other video recordings are part of Tapestry Opera's TAP:EX, their annual showcase in pushing the boundaries and future of opera for this year with Tables Turned (March 20-21) by DJ/composer Nicole Lizée and a solo by sought-after soprano Carla Huhtanen at the Distillery District’s Ernest Balmer Studio (9 Trinity Street) and the return engagement of Soulpepper Theatres’ Spoon River (March 7-28) based on Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal poetry of the dead and their place in early 20th-century rural America.

After a period of silence, the Sony Centre (1 Front Street East) roars back into action with Faulty Towers The Dining Experience now being served in the O’Keefe Lounge (through April 19) based on the John Cleese TV classic in reinventing the “dinner theatre” with audience members become diners at the mercy of Basil, Sybil and Manuel’s shambolic service for a fully immersive experience with a 1970s style three-course meal (vegetarian/vegan options are available), and three favourites make the stage with Japan’s Kodo Drummers’ one-night stand Mystery (March 12); the Imperial Ice Stars’ Sleeping Beauty on Ice (March 14-15) bringing them back after a seven-year hiatus from Toronto with their blades on the timeless chestnut and St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet returning with their 2005 signature work, Anna Karenina (April 23-25).

The Cabaret Company presents playwright/author Gilbert Sky’s newest work My Dinner with Casey Donovan (March 12-22) at Theatre Passe Mureille, a true story-based dramedy set in the early ‘70s about a closeted young man Calvin who brings his favourite gay porn star over to his conservative parents’ home for dinner and decides to out himself in the course of the evening; and the SheDot Festival 2015 brings the all-female comic revue April 30 to May 3 at the Comedy bar (945 Bloor Street West) with the closing night gala at Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth Avenue) featuring the legendary Margaret Cho.

Back by popular demand at the Port Lands (383 Lakeshore Boulevard East) is the equestrian spectacle Cavalia’s Odysseo (April 8-26) under the White Big Top on the shared history between humanity and the horse featuring 64 horses and 46 riders, acrobats, dancers and musicians on its highly successful North American tour and the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) has a multitude of aboriginal theatre for The Unplugging (March 14-April 5) by Native Earth Performing Arts, the lady clownish antics of Morro and Jasp in 9-5(May 12-31) and another returning engagement forThe Daisy Theatre (March 18-April 5) by marionette extraordinaire, Ronnie Burkett.

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Tickets now on sale. For information, call 416-368-3110 or canadianstage.com (Harper Regan/Spotlight South Africa); 416-973-4000/harbourfrontcentre.com (Harbourfront events);1-855-872-7669/sonycentre.ca (Sony Centre); 416-866-8666/soulpepper.ca (Soulpepper Theatre);416-248-0410/e-m-p.net (Winter’s On The Wing); 416-537-6066 x235/tapestryopera.com/tapex (Tables Turned); 1-855-985-5000/ticketmaster.ca or shedotfestival.com (SheDot Fest 2015); 416-504-7529/canadianrep.ca (Armstrong’s War) 416-504-9971/factorytheatre.ca (Factory Theatre); 416-504-7529/passemuraille.ca (CrazyLady/Casey Donovan) and 1-866-999-8111/cavalia.net (Odysseo).

Returning Varekai’s Redux

Cirque du Soleil’s 2002 show Varekai winds its way towards a Toronto stop on its final world tour at the Air Canada Centre this September, revamped for an arena format courtesy of creator/director Dominic Champagne and artistic director Fabrice Lemire (insets, lower left-right).

Theatre Preview

The ancient Greek myth of Icarus was a parable about the dangers of personal over-ambition in reaching for the (near-)impossible, as the young man who flew too close to the sun and the wax on his wings melted and sent him crashing into the sea below has told us. But what if he had, instead of landing in the water, crash landed into a forest and survived while relearning new possibilities and worlds to explore?

This is the premise of Cirque du Soleil’s 2002 classic Varekai (pronounced var-AY-‘kie) makes a return limited engagement to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (40 Bay Street) this fall on one of its many North American stops of its farewell world tour in a stripped-down arena version that tends to make an improvement on its initial outing in set and possibly retain its atmosphere that past formatted shows have, more or less, failed to maintain.

Meaning “wherever” in the Romany language, director/creator Dominic Champagne – who also done other Cirque shows, mainly their Las Vegas residencies the adult-oriented burlesque Zumanity and the Beatlemaniacal smorgasbord LOVE – as a basic tribute to the wandering nomadic soul, much like the Montréal-based contemporary circus has done for over the past three decades.

“I begin creating my shows by trying to explain the plot of the story or the procedure of a ritual to myself,” said the innovative Québécois director. “The narrative thread of this plot or procedure becomes my beacon and the characters who play in it are my guides. Therefore, the actors are the key to this new universe waiting to be created.

"The stage at Cirque is a meeting place for different cultures and traditions. Mixing and combining different talents from different backgrounds creates an infinitely rich tapestry. It is a place that is full of both surprises and new experiences, but it also gives you the privileged challenge to become a true citizen of the world. And the stage becomes the ship that sails through a fabulous odyssey.”

With its international cast of 50 performers and musicians from 18 nations, Varekai has main character Icare stranded in the magical forest filled with various creatures that will not only help him rediscover himself and the possibility of love in the process, he too will transform this otherworld amidst the fusion of drama, acrobatics and dance. Speaking as one who personally saw the show back then, how to keep all that together for a arena production? Enter its artistic director Fabrice Lemire, a former French dancer and choreographer who had worked on Céline Dion’s Las Vegas show A New Day and got tapped by Cirque to be their dance master for their retired Macao residency show ZAIA and later to reformat, first Quidam and then Varekai, when its creators decided to end both of their Grand Chapiteau runs.

“(Quidam) was my very first directorship for Cirque du Soleil in any position,” Lemire said. “I was going there as an assistant artistic director, but after a week on the job I was told that I was actually going to take over the show for the transfer. So what happened was pretty much the same approach that we later did for Varekai. They had me on the big top tour for almost a year so that I could really grasp the artistic element and what was going on from all aspects; all the problems we might be facing. This also allowed me some time to come up with a plan.”

After cutting his teeth there, Lemire joined Varekai on its last leg of the Grand Chapiteau tour in late 2012 and stayed with the show for about a year, managing to pull the transformation within 18 days before its 2013 re-launch as an arena production. “The timeframe for the transfer between the two shows was extremely different. For Quidam we had over five weeks in an empty arena with no shows, just to really do the transfer,” he admitted. “For (this show), it was a quick turnaround of two-and-a- half weeks. On Quidam I had perhaps less [influence], since I was only speaking for the artistic side, while (here) I was the only remaining director from the Grand Chapiteau version doing the transfer.”

And in that metamorphism, Cirque refurbished the production with new rigging, lighting and stage equipment to adapt to the new spacing, with the kind cooperation of Champagne and set director and Cirque veteran Stéphane Roy. “So we had an opportunity to sit down and grasp what really was the intention and original idea of the show,” Lemire explained the process. “And also for me to validate some of the ideas I had, because I had led a transfer on Quidam so I had a better understanding of what some of the obstacles would be. [We looked at] the reality with regard to the look of the show in the larger space. This allowed us to be on the same page to do some [new] things.

“Like we decided to extend the forest,” as one basic example the artistic director pointed out. “In the big top we had this blue backdrop in the back upon which we could create shadows. But in the arena it will be a black drape which would really cut the look of the back of the stage. So how do we give the illusion that we can go deep into the forest and have perception of depth through the space? So we added trees all the way behind the ramp to where the artists come on stage. It’s a really nice feeling that you are on the border of this forest and you can walk in and keep walking and lose yourself in there.”

The return of Varekai, as stated earlier, is also a bittersweet one as the arena version embarks on a final tour through its native Canada as Cirque prepares to retire the show in early 2016 in Europe after 14 years of entertaining 8 million audience members in 20 countries. But as it does so, it’s one of their shows that honestly sticks to keeping one foot in the past while taking a giant futuristic leap of faith to seek a new horizon, as Champagne puts it of “The dream’s endless possibilities. The privilege of being at the heart of so many crossroads,” he said, “[and] the thought of a vast audience demanding a universal language.”

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Varekai’s limited Toronto engagement comes to Air Canada Centre September 2-6. For tickets/information, call 1-855-985-5000 or cirquedusoleil.com .