Festival profile | PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Vancouver

For Culturebot | Date of publication: Thursday January 5, 2017

In his short Welcome to PuSh in the program of the coming edition of his festival Norman Armour calls 2017 ‘a time of reconciliation’. He must have written these words long before November 8. Even so they sound a bit odd, now that we are saddled with Donald Trump as president of the Western world, and 2017 offers a very real chance of bringing equally divisive figures to power in France, Italy and maybe even Germany. As if the artistic and executive director of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival lives on a planet of his own, splendidly isolated from the real world.

Actually, he does, albeit in a very positive sense.

Vancouver, equally splendidly located on Canada’s Pacific west coast, is indeed a place of its own. It is a young city, founded only in the late 19th century, and although it now has more than 600,000 inhabitants and an impressive skyline, it still has the feel of a frontier town. Presenting cutting-edge theater like PuSh does is more of a challenge in Vancouver than in Montreal or Toronto. ‘This city is far removed from the centers of business and government in Canada’, Armour told me when I visited the previous edition of PuSh in the first full week of February 2016.

I had long wanted to come and couldn’t resist anymore when PuSh offered to pay part of my travel costs to attend the last and so-called Industry week, with a special program of lectures, debates and workshops for theater professionals. He was very pleased to see me there. ‘Vancouver is an immigrant town, and even farther off the compass of you Europeans. It is rarely seen as cool and cosmopolitan by the rest of the world.’ He is probably right about that. His European counterparts routinely fly to festivals in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, but they rarely bother to come to PuSh, although it would take them less than half the flying time, and in spite of Armour and PuSh’s associate curator Joyce Rosario being a regular visitor of their festivals.

He and I got to know each other a few years ago during festival Noorderzon (Northern Sun) in Groningen, in the North of the Netherlands, my home country. Armour comes there every year, as do Mark Russell of Under the Radar in New York, Ron Berry of Fusebox in Austin, Texas, Angela Mattox of TBA in Portland, Oregon, and many others.

Like Noorderzon, PuSh belongs to a close-knit family of festivals in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas that serve predominantly local audiences with a program of highly international devised theater. Their programmers and artistic directors are more friends than colleagues. They constantly run into each other as they travel around the world to see the shows they might select for their future editions.

And they often share the same artists. Jérôme Bel from France, Rimini Protokoll from Germany, Geumhyung Jeong from South Korea, Rabih Mroué from Lebanon, Lisbeth Gruwez from Belgium and Mariano Pensotti from Argentina are just a few of the performers and ensembles that keep cropping up in most of these festivals’ programs.

PuSh is certainly international, but it gives equal weight to a category of performers definitely not shared by the others: Canadians. Not the internationally famous ones from the East of the country, like Robert Lepage, but performers with deep roots in British Columbia, the province of which Vancouver is the biggest city. While Canada forged itself into one nation, it trampled over its aboriginals in the same way as the USA and Australia did, and a century later it is still trying to make amends.

That is what Norman Armour is referring to when he uses the word ‘reconciliation’: 2017 also happens to be the year of Canada’s sesquicentennial. There has never been a ‘conciliation’ to begin with, he reminds his readers. ‘Here, in Vancouver we stand upon the ancestral lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. We reside on unceded territories.’ The city was built on land simply taken from the people who had lived there and tended to it for centuries.

From time to time PuSh presents shows that have some relation to this traumatic history. The 2016 edition had one about the life of, and performed by, Jack Charles, a member of the Stolen Generation, Australian aboriginals who were torn from their families by government. And Huff, a solo by Cliff Cardinal. Huff offers a pitch-black portrayal of present day young Canadian aboriginals, who spend their lives in poverty, unemployment, petty crime and drug addiction. Cliff is the son of famous Canadian First Nations actress Tantoo Cardinal, who starred in Dances with Wolves, among many other films. Tantoo and Cliff descend from another Canadian aboriginal people, the Métis.

PuSh 2017 has dirtsong by the Black Arm Band, a group of Australian aboriginal performers, about the connection indigenous peoples have with the soil they live on. And the 2017 edition’s opening show touches raw nerves quite close to where dirtsong goes. Third World Bunfight from South Africa have boldy appropriated Verdi’s opera Macbeth and offer their ‘africanized’ version. ‘African musical idioms’ have been worked into Verdi’s score, and Shakespeare’s story is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ‘featuring machine guns, mineral mines and a corporate cabal’. The trailer looks very promising.

The killing grounds of frontierism and colonialism, and what they left behind in the souls and bodies of both their victims and perpetrators, are very similar, wherever they happen to be in the world. In that sense, PuSh’s artistic exploration of local stories is also international. It explains the festival’s interest in Australian aboriginal performers. And there is another strong Asian connection.

Vancouver blossomed because it was chosen as the western terminus of the Pacific Railway that opened up Canada in the late 19th century. The western part was built by thousands of unskilled laborers brought in from China, who had to work long hours for a pittance in dangerous conditions. Many of them were killed, and their families back home never received any compensation. In 2006 the Canadian government made a formal apology to China for the brutal exploitation of these workers.

They left a Chinese community in the city, which later grew into its largest ethnic group, comprising about a third of the present population. And today the balance of economic power has shifted markedly. Wealthy mainland Chinese have bought up thousands of buildings in the city as an investment, driving up house prices to ridiculous levels. A house in Vancouver costs 1.8 million Canadian dollars – on average. Most Vancouverites cannot afford to buy, causing serious problems in a city that is otherwise planned and built with great foresight and prudence, and therefore considered one of the most ‘liveable’ on earth.

Over the course of the city’s 130-year history many other immigrants flocked to Vancouver – Punjabi’s, Filipino’s, Indonesians, Cambodians and Vietnamese, among others. According to the city’s Wikipedia lemma, in 1981 less than 7 percent of Vancouverites ‘belonged to a visible minority group’. By 2008 that figure had grown to 51 percent; about the same proportion does not speak English as their first language.

Norman Armour grew up as an artist during this tumultuous stage of Vancouver’s development. He is an alumnus of downtown’s Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. In 1990 he co-founded Rumble Theatre, a company ‘with a focus on creating, performing and producing interdisciplinary work’. Its website explains: ‘The ethos of the Vancouver theatre community at the time was one that yearned for more variety in its artistic composition and more young companies creating innovative theatre.’ Rumble still has a strong presence in the Vancouver performing arts scene.

In 2003, Armour co-founded PuSh, together with Katrina Dunn, then artistic director of Touchstone Theatre. PuSh is held every year during the last two weeks of January and the first week of February. ‘PuSh is spreading over an increasing number of venues in Vancouver’, Armour told me. ‘We used to be more on the “poorer” side of town, East of Main Street. Traditionally that is where the artists live, and where the more adventurous venues are. But we’re trying to get the “richer” West side more involved as well, with increasing success.’

During the 2016 edition, PuSh used the Vancouver Playhouse, the city’s main theatre, to present l’Immédiat, a wonderful and audacious circus show by Frenchman Camille Boitel and yet another darling of the international theatre festivals. Next door in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a colossus with 2,765 seats, PuSh staged its biggest gamble ever: monumental, a show by dance group The Holy Body Tattoo accompanied live on stage by Godspeed You! Black Emperor from Montreal, one of Canada’s most revered bands, also beyond its borders.

‘We managed to do slightly better than break even’, Armour said. ‘We needed 136,000 Canadian dollars in revenue, and we collected 140,000 in the end. And the audience loved it, they were standing on their seats.’ Gaining a foothold west of Main Street meant negotiating and compromising. ‘Westside venues are not necessarily used to taking our kind of artistic risk. But gradually they have come on board, we manage more and more to bring them along.’ PuSh’s march West coincides with, and is enabled by, a growing self-consciousness of Vancouver. ‘Since a decade or so, we have been making our frontier town-outlier status an advantage’, said Armour. ‘Vancouver is finding out more and more what it wants to be, what it is on its own terms. We’re building our own identity here. You can see that in cafés and restaurants; there you see more and more places opening with a very particular flavor of their own. The same applies to shops, and to the arts. There is a lot happening here now.’

Club PuSh, the festival’s social gathering place, used to be on Granville Island, a former home to manufacturing industry reconstituted some forty years ago into an area with food shops, restaurants and a theatre, the Granville Island Stage. Quite touristic, but very nice. Only thing is, it is about an hour’s walk from the downtown waterfront. ‘It was too far away’, said Armour. ‘After the shows festival visitors didn’t really linger there. Let alone that people came all the way from downtown just to have a drink and a chat, because they could only get back by taxi late at night.’

Enter The Fox Cabaret on Main Street, a former porn cinema long doomed to be demolished. But in 2006, David Pay chose The Fox as the launch platform for Music on Main, a cutting-edge music programme with a casual atmosphere in various venues in the city. Seven years later, new owners renovated the cinema and changed it into a two-floor center functioning as neighborhood bar, dance hall and performing arts venue. Armour: ‘Dave has done a fantastic job there.’

Pay and Armour started a cooperation, and the Festival in turn made The Fox PuSh’s new festival heart. Pay retained a lot of the seedy charm of The Fox’s past. Performing arts shows are reserved for downstairs, in a huge room with a bar inside. The stage is at the far end, and the audience is partly seated along the wall in the rear, with mirrors behind them and high round tables in front of them. On the floor there are more round tables, behind the usual rows of seats. The walls are black, their lower parts clad in velour-like red, as are the seats. It all makes for a great atmosphere – like a jazz club still watched over by the benign ghost of a long deceased porn star.

Pictured: Jordan Tannahill (Photo by Lacey Creighton)

As its guest curator for Club PuSh at The Fox, PuSh chose Jordan Tannahill, a young and remarkably prolific playwright from Toronto. Tannahill used to live in a former barber shop in Kensington Market, one of Toronto’s more storied neighbourhoods. There he also ran a performing arts venue called Videofag, literally in his and his boyfriend’s living room. Eventually the two broke up, but for a couple of years they kept Videofag going, as well as living there together.

In 2015 Tannahill published a book called Theatre of the Unimpressed – In Search of Vital Drama. It starts with a very basic, and very familiar premise: why is it that main stream theatre is so boring, and what can be done about it? Tannahill started Videofag partly to answer these questions. Theatre of the Unimpressed is full of incredible and often hilarious stories about his own house cum venue, and what he and his boyfriend had to endure there to make Videofag work. Like angry neighbours entering their house ready to beat up a few of these noise-making, pot-smoking theatre faggots. It took Jordan and his friend a lot of part-patient, part-desperate talking to get them out again without an eruption of violence.

Although Tannahill’s book is set in a Toronto ’hood, it has a worldwide relevance. The state of mainstream theatre in the USA and Canada may be even worse than elsewhere, with Hollywood so much closer and breathing down its neck. But that is just a gradual distinction. City theatres and repertory ensembles are bankrupt everywhere in the world – not just (public) funding-wise, but, more importantly, in the artistic sense. Tannahill raises universal issues.

Like when he questions why dozens of North American theatres and companies chose to present a stage version of Driving Miss Daisy in 2013-2014, in response to the racial violence that erupted yet again in the USA during those years. The original Hollywood film was a modern Uncle Tom’s Cabin anyway. This example reminded me of a Dutch theatre season, many years ago, when three of Holland’s most prominent theatre companies chose to stage Shakespeare’s Othello simultaneously. Needless to say, all three Othello’s were played by white-skinned actors.

According to Tannahill, theatre makers who make such lazy and cowardly choices totally underestimate their audiences’ sophistication. Regular theatre visitors are generally people who try to keep abreast of current developments in the arts, politics and society as best as they can, and they expect theatre makers to do the same. If they don’t, the spectators feel insulted and betrayed by them.

The root cause of the problem is basically the same laziness that made mainstream political parties ignore the populist threat until it was too late – not just in the USA, also in Europe. Festivals like PuSh are much more sensitive and responsive to what is really happening in the world than most city theatres are. Festivals are free to focus on the right artistic priorities. They are not burdened by real estate that costs a fortune to run, and by dozens of fully employed staff who have to be paid, pensioned and fired according to very rigid and very expensive union contracts.

PuSh is worth a visit by non-Canadians. For the shows, and for the Assembly, a supporting program of talks, lectures, workshops and debates, which is richer and stronger than at most of its sister festivals. Curated by Joyce Rosario, the Assembly is divided in two circuits. Ideas is freely accessible for anyone who wants to engage. Industry is paid-for, and designed for theatre professionals. Just to give an idea of its content: during the 2016 edition there was a public Ideas discussion about Jordan Tannahill’s book, and an Industry session on the merits of residencies for visiting artists, and what festivals and theatre venues should ask from the artists in return, if anything at all.

In 2017 Jordan Tannahill continues as ‘curator in residence’ of Club PuSh at The Fox. There will be a panel discussion titled Home, memory, land, considering ‘the stories we are telling about our country on and off the stage’, on the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial. In Industry, there will be a Keynote Address by Jess Thom, a British performer who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. Her show Backstage in Biscuit Land will be part of the main program. Just like Jordan Tannahill’s Concord Floral, his take on Boccaccio’s Decameron, staged in an abandoned greenhouse with a cast of Canadian teenagers. In By Heart, Tiago Rodrigues from Portugal teaches his audience a poem while he tells them about his grandmother, who responded to a process of gradually going blind by memorizing as many works of literature as she could.

Tickets have been on sale since early November. Snap them up. They are a great excuse to finally visit Vancouver, this very cool and cosmopolitan Canadian city.

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