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The Angler: Getting Festive With Mythmaking and Dance

Indian Summer and Dancing on the Edge provide art and understanding.

By Dorothy Woodend 5 Jul 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Now that it’s officially summer, let the wild festival rumpus begin!

Festival season is well in swing. There’s a passel of them coming down the line, a veritable juggernaut of events filled with theatre, music, literature, film and scads of other stuff. Carnaval del Sol, Dancing on the Edge, Indian Summer, and that’s just the beginning.

Out on Screen is also waiting in the wings, jostling against the Vancouver Biennale and the Vancouver Folk Festival. The image of racehorses at the starting gate, waiting to be set loose, comes to mind.

If you’re feeling a mite overwhelmed, that’s perfectly understandable. There is a lot to partake of. So, where to begin?

Indian Summer

While only a scant six years old, Indian Summer has flowered into an extraordinary event that encompasses not only the foremost South Asian artists but has embraced a broad and bounteous collection of other cultural traditions.

The process of putting together a festival is like that of gathering flowers: the more shapes, colours and forms the bigger and brighter the bouquet. So it is with Indian Summer that launches on July 5 in Vancouver with a massive party.

As the festival’s co-founder Sirish Rao notes, one of the simplest and most effective ways to discover and appreciate different cultures is to start with food. Embedded in the concept of a festival is the idea of the feast. “Food brings everyone together,” he says. Over lunch, the wonderfully articulate Rao describes this year’s program in sentences that seem carved in the air, such is their erudition and delicacy. I was tempted to stop him from talking for a moment just so I could fully appreciate the last thing he’d said.

Sirish is particularly thrilled about Pause Pavilion in Vanier Park that incorporates a gorgeous structure and a cornucopia of different offerings. This is the festival’s first dedicated outdoor space, but unlike Bard on the Beach or the Folk Festival that weave the scenery into the background of their productions, Indian Summer makes active use of the landscape to examine something deeper and more profound — namely mythmaking.

In his introduction to the overarching theme of the festival, Sirish describes the function of myth: “… Our myths can be large and existential, but also central to the way we function — whether the many creation myths that explain our existence and define our identities, or the more functional fictions of the concept of money, or the concept of the nation that allow us to operate on common ground.”

It is the common ground part that perhaps needs some additional explication. Curator Kamala Todd is the perfect person to gently uncover some of the more complex and embedded aspects of Vanier Park. The history of the site with the Kitsilano Reserve is part of a larger initiative to make visible what has largely been erased, forgotten and in some cases actively obliterated. “To celebrate the much deeper history,” Kamala explains.

Kamala selected a program that explores the convergence of different cultures including Mythical Vancouver and Gratitude Songs.

On the phone from her home on the Sunshine Coast, she talks about taking on multiple projects, laughing that it is her usual way of working. The Indian Summer programming came about quite organically. “Sirish called me earlier in the year,” Kamala explains. “Wanting to build in outreach and inclusion to the community.” Facilitating the Taike program at the festival was a natural extension of Kamala’s work, building inclusion with protocols, making space to curate and creating places to share, advising and building local First Nations culture.

Mythical Vancouver actively tackles the story about a young city carved out of the wilderness. The idea sprang from the history of oral tradition and storytelling that predates colonial history by some 10,000 years. It will include an evening of stories from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations with contributors Renisa Mawani (professor of sociology and colonial legal history at UBC), Tsleil-Waututh poet and writer Wil George, Musqueam activist Audrey Siegl and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Snuneymuxw singer Salia Joseph.

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Tsleil-Waututh poet and writer Wil George speaks in ‘Mythical Vancouver,’ a program with Indian Summer. Photo courtesy of Indian Summer.

This process of overwriting, erasing thousands of years of history, demands an active pushback for more visibility and also accountability. Kamala, having worked with the City of Vancouver as its aboriginal social planner, is familiar with the ongoing work of changing ideas and attitudes. But the particular mythology of Vancouver brings on a laugh. “The colonial narrative is pasted over top of everything else,” she says and goes on to describe history textbooks that stated, prior to the arrival of Europeans, that nothing existed here except raw primeval forest.

The concept of mythmaking wends its way through many of the festival’s major offerings, popping up in unexpected fashion. As Sirish explains, “Mythmaking gives an illusion of agency,” but making stories as a means of containing, explicating and pinning reality in place has come under considerable onslaught in this era of fake news and resulted in what Sirish describes as “collapsing mythmaking.”

This phenomenon is directly tackled in Fake News, Lies and Bullshit, one of the daily Tiffin Talks that take place at the Pause Pavilion. Led by moderator Peter Klein from UBC’s Global Reporting Centre, Fake News gathers together speakers Dionne Bunsha and Jagdeesh Mann who will attempt to address the confounding moment that we find ourselves in. To wit: “What is the difference between fake news, plain old lies and BS, and what is the future of truth?”

Contrasted with these more immediate kinds of questions are ancient art forms that contain thousands of years of cultural memory. The process of actively contending with human history has been going on for a long time, whether in dance, music or oral storytelling.

Indian Summer coincides with the 17th World Sanskrit Conference, an event held every three years in a different country and taking place at UBC this year. In concert with the conference, Indian Summer offers a rare performance of Bali-vadham from the Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre. Kutiyattam, the oldest surviving form of ancient Sanskrit theatre, is a percussion-fuelled form of dance theatre with its origins dating back more than 10 centuries.

The Bali-vadham belongs to a much larger and longer work, the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. Performances of the work could last a week or more, but for more contemporary audiences, who can’t spare seven days to watch a dance performance, the work has been whittled down to three hours.

As Sirish explains, the form grew out of performances offered in temples in Kerala that incorporated masks, oral storytelling and dance. The premise of the work involved essentially speaking the world into existence, “to speak it into being,” he says. In this verbal landscape, the assembled characters create and then destroy the universe. Which is the very essence of mythmaking

If there are a couple of additional events that Sirish advises not to miss, they are 5x15 and Confluence .

5x15 began in London with the idea of bringing five different people together to talk for 15 minutes about their respective areas of expertise. In its first Canadian iteration, 5x15 brings together an extraordinary collection of folk to address current issues. Under the incisive moderation of host Kamal Pandya, the collection of speakers is both eclectic and exceptional. Jarrett Martineau, host of CBC’s Reclaimed, writer Charlotte Gill (Eating Dirt), Amitava Kumar (Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College) and triple-threat Wade Davis (writer/photographer/filmmaker) round out the bill.

Confluence is equally remarkable in its collection of performers, each renowned in their own right, but in concert with each other to give rise to wild new forms and manifestations. Curated by Jarrett Martineau, the program includes performances from Anishinaabeg writer and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and cellist Cris Derksen. Ansley Simpson and Nick Ferrio combine forces with Aja Monet. Sibling musical duo Vivek Shraya and Shamik Bilgi contribute Too Attached, and Jhalaak, a new project from Adham Shaikh, incorporates the work of composer Rup Sidhu and Sufi music performers Rajasthan Josh.

It is a feast in every sense of the word, a laden banquet of ideas, performances, sounds and colours. Sirish smiles wearily when I compliment the program. In addition to putting together a stunning constellation of local and international artists, he is co-parent to a two-year old. The endurance and stamina that this requires makes me want to lie down in the street and take a nap, but it is a quality that is common to Vancouver festival organizers.

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Jarrett Martineau, host of CBC’s ‘Reclaimed,’ both speaks at and curates a program with the Indian Summer festival in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Indian Summer.

The Edge of Dancing Might

You need look no further than the 30th anniversary of Dancing on the Edge for more evidence. Donna Spencer has been at the helm of the festival since its inaugural outing way back in the mid-‘80s, when Vancouver was something of a different city.

In keeping with the celebratory nature of this year, the festival has gathered many performers who took some of their first professional steps on The Firehall stage. Talking to Spencer, I am reminded with startling clarity of my introduction to Vancouver’s dance scene with a performance of Harvey Meller and Cornelius Fischer-Credo’s Streets of Dreams — a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra inspired work that used the different size and shape of its two performers to comic effect. The unlikely duo is back this year to reprise their work.

During her tenure at the festival, Spencer has seen generations of dancers and choreographers evolve. The 605 Collective is a case in point. “Shay Kuebler’s first piece was performed here,” she says. The Holy Body Tattoo took to the Edge stage at the beginning of their careers. “When they were still noobs,” I say and Spencer laughs in agreement. The introduction of mixed programs, a diverse collection of artists at different stages of their careers performing together, was also something of a revelation back in the day. Over the course of three decades, many of Vancouver’s most celebrated dance artists and choreographers including Serge Bennathan, Paras Terezakis (Kinesis Dance) and Jennifer Mascall (Mascall Dance) performed their work at the festival.

One of the things that Spencer notes about the Vancouver dance scene is the resiliency of the community, making work with few resources and little attention paid to it by central Canada, which didn’t seem to be able to register that there was something on the other side of the Rockies. In the face of this level of obliviousness, and even outright neglect, Vancouver’s perseverance took on a heroic cast. “Certain years it was touch and go, but we made it 30, while other festivals dropped off across Canada,” says Spencer.

This very lack of resources led to purity of movement. “No frills around it,” Spencer states. “When Montreal was the hot spot, it really put Canadian dance on the map. Montreal was where the excitement was.” Some of Vancouver dance folk took inspiration from the dangerous dance of La La Human Steps, while others actively embraced the wave of contact improv.

Dancers turn into choreographers, start their own companies and sometimes break out into the International circuit. Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot may be the most recent example of this trajectory. But it was the Holy Body Tattoo, who broke through in the mid-‘90s, that really put Vancouver on the world dance scene. I remember it well as I was working with the company at the time. As Spencer notes the success of the HBT gave Vancouver a degree of international recognition. “That hadn’t happened before,” she says.

In spite of great work being made, the sector still suffers from considerable challenges. The difficulty in sustaining a company is difficult, and Spencer notes dance is an art form that you need other people to do it with. In this, the exodus of younger artists poses particular problems. “It’s a physical art form, you need to train with other people, you can’t sit in a room and do it alone.”

The long-term ramifications of Vancouver’s economic incompatibility with artists may look grim, but Spencer is heartened by the resilience of dancers, who have the vision, endurance and passion to keep on keeping on.

There is a new generation of performers and choreographers making remarkable work. Spencer rattles off names like Olivia C. Davies, Leslie Telford and Alexandra Elliott. The emergence of new aesthetic, new ideas and different vocabularies finds form in a work like Lara Kramer’s Windigo that blends narrative, dance and First Nations stories into a multidisciplinary hybrid.

Are there any pieces that Spencer is jonesing to see with an audience? She cites choreographer Wen Wei’s new piece Ying Yun about the death of his mother, and Mascall Dance’s new work. “Because it sounds really crazy,” she says.

Still crazy after all these years might be a good tagline for the festival, and after 30 years, it still works, perhaps better than ever.  [Tyee]

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