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Canoe Theatre Festival charts new waters

Annual event aims to give new life to avant-garde artistic expression

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jan 18, 2014 06:00 am

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  • INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED – Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq is the featured performer at this year's Canoe Festival.
    INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED – Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq is the featured performer at this year's Canoe Festival.
    Supplied photo
  • HOUSEHOLD ANIMATION – Sapientia is puppet-style theatre that employs household objects like teacups.
    HOUSEHOLD ANIMATION – Sapientia is puppet-style theatre that employs household objects like teacups.
  • ACTION PACKED – Static Electricity is an improvised dance duet that includes lighting and sound designers in the middle of the action.
    ACTION PACKED – Static Electricity is an improvised dance duet that includes lighting and sound designers in the middle of the action.

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Canoe Theatre Festival
Workshop West Theatre
Jan. 22 to Feb. 2
C103 (8529 Gateway Blvd.), Garneau Theatre (8712 – 109 St.) and secret elevators in downtown Edmonton
Tickets: Individual and passes. Call 780-477-5955 or purchase online at

The seventh annual Canoe Theatre Festival is almost upon us. Nerves are taut. Yet nothing seems to dampen the electric energy radiating from the festival’s cascade of artists.

Workshop West artistic director Michael Clark sees the festivities as an adventure paddling down new theatrical streams with bold, provocative plays. For some, the contemporary works may be subversive. For others, they’re a curiosity.

Right from the beginning as festival producer, Clark says his mandate was “simply to harness the creative energy of artists and head in one direction. What I try to do is bring together eclectic, exotic types of theatre.”

This year Canoe has dibs on a roster of avant-garde contemporary theatre that includes throat singing, object theatre, improvised dance duets, collective creations, a one-woman show and short plays delivered in elevators.

Canadian theatre is bursting with stories about our cultural identity. However, many rarely become mainstays of contemporary theatre. Most new cutting-edge plays are usually workshopped and receive a world premiere before being relegated to a dusty library.

“We are trying to create a place where most touring works get a second or third rendition. And as for the new works presented in Edmonton, our idea is to give those artists a launching pad to approach other curators in hopes other theatres will display their works,” Clark explains.

To complement Canoe’s five striking productions, Clark has also added a symposium, workshops, post show Q&As and a vaudevillian soiree.

Last year comedic force of nature Mary Walsh was the centrepiece. This year, the festival’s showcase highlight is Nanook of the North as sung by Cambridge Bay throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

For those of us unfamiliar with the multi-award-winning music artist from Nunavut, Clark explains, “In small esoteric circles, she is an internationally-renowned singer.”

Originally an Inuk throat singer, Tagaq developed international fame touring with Kronos Quartet and has worked with front-rank singers such as Björk and Shooglenifty.

“She takes the technique and uses the microphone to take it to an unearthly place. She is so powerful,” Clark said.

In her one-night-only appearance on Thursday, Jan. 30, Tagaq vocalizes her distinct singing style to the backdrop of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film of Nanook of the North.

Although the semi-fictionalized documentary was a catchy portrait of Inuit life, it has been criticized for pandering to stereotypes and being filled with inaccurate visuals of the noble savage.

Tagaq’s otherworldly singing and Derek Charke’s original score frame the film and shed a modern light on it.

“It’s really a document about a stolen culture and it’s infamous for its condescension. Up until recently, it has languished as a historical curiosity. What she’s done is take contemporary artistic expression and created a fascinating tension between a modern person’s interpretation of a culture and a colonial interpretation. You can listen to it as a concert and it’s jaw-dropping,” Clark said.

Elevator plays

Tagaq is the festival centrepiece, but she is by no means the only game in town. The National Elevator Project pt. 2 conveys eight different plays at eight different locations lasting on average five minutes.

Each mini-production is taken outside traditional seated theatres and staged in an elevator. In some cases the show lasts the length of the elevator ride.

The project was kick-started by Heather Inglis, artistic director of Edmonton-based Theatre Yes. It is an innovative troupe that uses non-traditional spaces for theatrical shows – parking garages and seedy hotel rooms, to name a couple.

Inglis commissioned the short plays from interested playwrights across the country – a project that was the first of its kind in Canada.

“A lot of theatres wanted to participate – more than I imagined. We ended up with two cycles of plays,” she explains. The first cycle was run in November 2013.

“There are so many regions in Canada, they have come from such a variety of visions. What’s exciting is you get a sense of the country’s diversity in teeny tiny elevators.”

Several examples in the treasure chest are Abandon Hope, a treatment of Dante’s Inferno, and Rite of Passage looks at a couple that loses what they most wanted. In Closed for Urgent and Extraordinary Work, two women meet their double at the witching hour.

Sturgeon County’s Fred Zbryski stars in two plays: Dear Mr. Keith, a short about a man that works in the oil industry, and First Father, a fly-on-the-wall peek at two strangers who meet in an elevator and discover they are closer than they thought.

Legal’s Jöelle Prefontaine, a young actor with a commanding presence, also takes on two mini plays – Trajet dit and Replay.

The only French-spoken production in the lot, Trajet dit is “a height-specific murder mystery about love and loss and about what happens when the door opens,” explains Prefontaine.

Although Prefontaine hesitates to give more information for fear of spoiling the surprise, she is equally excited about Replay, a modern movement piece.

Huh? A movement piece in a sardine-can elevator?

“What we do depends on the size of the elevator. Obviously if it’s a freight elevator, we’ll have more room,” she notes.

Prefontaine describes the experience as absolutely amazing.

“No one has tried it in Canada. This is new to our practice. All the plays are delightful, surprising and challenging and no way will the audience ever forget the experience.”

Full length

Turning to full-length productions, Out of Line Theatre introduces Sapientia. Winnipeg director-designer Mia van Leeuwen mines gold in the form of object theatre, a type of puppet theatre. It is a performance style that animates ordinary household objects instead of puppets to tell a story.

Written by Roswitha of Gandersheim, a 10th century German secular canoness-dramatist-poet, Sapientia is a centuries-old allegory that revolves around martyrdom, torture and miracles.

In the tale of ancient Rome, a time of polytheism (worship of more than one god), the Christian Sapientia takes her virgin daughters Faith, Hope and Charity to Rome. Under the command of Emperor Hadrian, the girls are persecuted and murdered for their Christian beliefs. Sapientia now awaits her turn.

“It’s about a religious fervour that is resolved to sacrificing everything for religion. They were considered heretics, but they only wanted to move their religion forward,” says Nancy McAlear, one of the play’s actors.

“What’s fascinating is that the story is being told by objects and the question becomes if you really believe in something, how far will you go to protect those beliefs.”

Since the story is played out on a small-scale table on stage, several screens of the action will be mounted at different angles for optimum viewing.

“The idea is to expand the experience and put projections above, behind and beyond – kind of like a concert,” Clark says.

A second religious-themed production is Testament, a 10-year creation by Edmonton-based Théâtre Archéologique.

It is a one-woman show about Mary (Isabelle Rousseau), as a mother who wants to remember Jesus simply as her son – not a god. Living in Ephesus, she refuses to co-operate with the gospel writers and is under house arrest. A woman with a sharp understanding of contemporary politics, she shares her sorrow and loneliness.

“It’s a post-modern textual creation and a fascinating exploration of the message and the medium,” Clark said.

Once again dancer-choreographer Gerry Morita drops her luminous calling card with Mile Zero Dance’s Static Electricity. It is the fourth in a series of improvised dance duets that place lighting and sound designers on stage in the middle of the action.

The sound includes live piano, old cassettes, records and microphones manipulated by dancers. And the light designer creates intimate zones of light and textured shadows behind the dancers.

“It’s not so much about dancing as the message. It’s about creating a work of art as an artist,” suggests Clark.

Contemporary sexual politics find their way in MT Space Theatre’s Body 13, set on a stretch of Canadian beach where three love stories intersect.

Rita tries to spread the ashes of her deceased father. Assaf strolls up and down the beach missing his daughter and a life lost in the Lebanese civil war. Tristan is from Newfoundland and encounters Ato from Ghana.

Iman, a newly-arrived refugee from Syria accidentally meets Rae, her immigration officer. And Thomas, the grandson of a British war vet, gets ready for a speech at his best friend’s wedding. They appear to have nothing in common, or do they?

“It’s a different take on what is Canadian,” Clark notes. “It brings about different conflicting world views. But it’s not about disagreement. It’s about discovering differences.”

For Clark, the 12-day festival is a crucible of creative ideas.

Canoe Theatre Festival runs Jan. 22 to Feb. 2. For a complete list of the festival schedule and varying ticket prices click on to or call 780-477-5955.


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