Saturday, June 18, 2011

Walking into History: Jennifer Stoddart & Paul Fusco's 1000 Pictures: RFK's Last Journey

Photo by Paul Fusco.
When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968, while campaigning to be the Democratic Party's choice for President, you could feel the air going out of the culture. At the time, I was a Grade 8 student about to write my final exams. But when I woke the morning after the California primary to find out that he had both won and was mortally wounded by an assassin, I walked to school and promptly failed every one. Getting into high school just didn't seem to matter anymore. JFK's assassination might have been a seismic shock to the system in 1963, but this was a murder that curdled and darkened the nation.

Even though I was a Canadian, I was fervently following RFK's campaign as if caught up in the passion of a political dream, the quixotic idea that one could remake a country. Since Martin Luther King Jr. had just been murdered that spring, it seemed even more urgent that those ideals be realized through Robert Kennedy. Kennedy seemed to galvanize the nation by imagining a country built on the inclusion of its citizens; where rich and poor, black and white and Mexican-Americans could share in its possibilities. They would line the streets daily during that campaign clamoring to shake his hand while stepping forward as if they were walking into history, wanting to be a part of its making. There was a true sense, even with the horrible war going on in Vietnam, that the country could still be truly remade into something resembling the ideals set forth in its founding documents. In the absolute worst of times, you felt a keen sense of anticipation. But RFK's death seemed to kill any desire to hope for anything better.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Dance of Epic Proportions: Taj at Luminato

Kabir Bedi & Sampradaya Dance Creations dancers (Photo by Divine Method Photography)

The Taj Mahal would be impossible to recreate today as a piece of architecture. Just imagine the expense of the gemstones used to decorate the mausoleum’s marble walls, not to mention the labour. According to legend, the building of this temple of grief and everlasting beauty in northern India had not only cost literally a king’s fortune to make, but also claimed many human lives. It also cost its progenitor, Shah Jahan, the 17th century Moghul who had constructed it as a memorial to his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal (who had died in childbirth), his freedom. According to legend, toward the end of his life, his own son, Aurangzeb, had him imprisoned for having spent everything in the land – riches, resources, human beings – to create this domed folly conceived in bereavement, what the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore once poignantly called, “a tear drop on the cheek of time.”

But with Taj, a dance/theatre work that had its world premiere last week at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto as part of the ongoing Luminato Festival of the Arts which commissioned it (the production is slated to tour North America, Europe and India in the fall of 2012), award-wining dancer and choreographer Lata Pada has done the next best thing: a recreation of the Taj Mahal in human terms. It is by focusing on the story of filial hatred and revenge (Aurangzeb had lost his mother after all, and he held his father responsible), in addition to the ancillary theme of mortals seeking immortality through acts of art and beauty, that this staged evocation of the Taj Mahal comes alive as architecture with a beating heart.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mother Monster: Lady Gaga's Born This Way

One would think Lady Gaga would be a little on the tired side. Since 2008, the newly minted "Mother Monster" has pulled off a lightning speed climb from obscurity to international superstardom. She's released three Billboard topping albums and become the subject of scathing celebrity gossip (including a false accusation of having a penis). Gaga has also acquired over 38,000,000 Facebook likes (that’s more than Obama). And she's now wrapping up her gruelling Monster’s Ball world tour. Born This Way is Lady Gaga’s latest full-length, shocking, absolutely fabulous record. With an incredible – almost inhuman stamina – she has proved to the world, once again, that she in an endless source of creativity, talent and energy.

Yes, that’s right, I said “fabulous.” Music elites, please feel free to write off my endorsement of this record and the artist behind it. But I’m a firm believer that just because something is popular doesn't mean it's rubbish. Her head-turning (well, more like neck-breaking) ensembles alone have caused quite a ruckus. By attending award ceremonies and wearing dresses made of meat, Muppets, or bubbles, she has the masses arguing over whether she is an activist or a loon; an artist or an attention starved phoney. And the controversy does not stop with the outfits. Media outlets, fans and naysayers have labelled her as everything from grotesque to genius due to those elaborate live performances, over-the-top music videos, controversial lyrics and political outspokenness. Love her or loathe her, the icon and her music have a substance we have not seen in a mega star in years.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Game of Thrones: Winter is Almost Here

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones

This Sunday, June 19th, HBO will air the tenth and final episode of the first season of its new medieval fantasy series, Game of Thrones. Based on George R. R. Martin’s popular series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones is HBO’s most ambitious fantasy series to date. With more than 7 million copies of the novels sold worldwide (the fifth of the planned seven books will be published on July 12th), the series was one of the most anticipated shows of 2011, and in my opinion it has more than lived up to the hype. With a strong ensemble cast of veteran actors and newcomers and impressive production values, the show is more than an amazing example of fantasy storytelling, it is quite simply great television.

The series co-creators, screenwriters David Benioff (Troy) and D. B. Weiss, have committed to adapting one novel a season, following the model established by HBO’s other successful fantasy series, True Blood. But unlike True Blood, Game of Thrones offers a much more faithful translation of the novels. With most of the scripts for the first season penned by Benioff and Weiss, the series builds confidently towards its explosive final episodes. The novelistic pacing of this season is ideally suited to the inherent strengths of television: telling a sweeping story, with twenty main characters and dozens of supporting roles, multiple storylines, and grand themes. But despite its epic tenor, Game of Thrones takes its time. Its first episodes serve not only as an introduction to this world and its unique history but, more crucially, to the people that populate it. The series is profoundly and deeply human in the details. Heroes and villains alike are drawn with patience and sympathy. At the end of an episode, it is more often the smaller conversations and interactions that loom larger and linger longer in my mind than the show’s more epic elements. By the time the knives come out in the second half of the season, we are intimately familiar with players on all sides of the conflict, and there is a heartbreaking depth to every drop of blood that is shed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spectacular Nights: One Thousand and One Nights

Luminato Festival, Toronto's premier arts festival, is well-served by its prime production, a new (and accurate) adaptation of One Thousand and Nights. Since its launch five years ago, I've had a soft spot for Luminato (running this year from June 10 – June 19, 2011). Perhaps the reason that I love it so much is because this festival is all Toronto's. It's not a copy of an event from somewhere else (our much-loved film festival, TIFF, is a redo of countless film festivals from around the world; Nuit Blanche, the night-long art exhibit going on all over Toronto this fall, is borrowed from Paris, etc.). Luminato may have taken inspiration from other things throughout the planet, but it has been given a unique Toronto spin in that almost all parts of the arts are represented during the week, much of it free, and there is truly something for everybody.

A highlight for me from the first year was the powerful waterfront spotlight installation called Pulse Front, which allowed the customers' heartbeat to create the pulse the light gave out as it shot into the night sky (you held two handles and, after a second, the sensors read your pulse which fed the light). Maybe a million years from now, a distant civilization will pick up this strange, very rhythmic light caused by my heartbeat from a galaxy far, far away and wonder, 'is that life?' Okay, I'm making idle speculation, but that's what makes this big, embracing festival work so well.

This year, it is the usual combination of free concerts (such as k.d. lang on Friday, June 17) and events combined with impressive ticketed events that make it so special. One production you must see is the often-exhilarating new version of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not the Arabian Nights of Ali Baba or Aladdin (those were a creation of a 17th century French translation), with stories to amuse children before bedtime. These are the tales (or 20 of them at least) as they were originally conceived 1000+ years ago: dark, menacing, violent, sexual, but also filled with ribald humour. It is also very adult. The production is mounted on a thrust stage with audience members on three of four sides. This creates a valuable intimacy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Making Connections: Kronos Quartet at Luminato

The Kronos Quartet is celebrating 38 years as a vital, interesting and progressive musical ensemble. Led by founder and musical director David Harrington, this “string” quartet has foregone the conventional classical music repertoire for more adventurous ground. It’s a group that never fails to take risks. As a result, Kronos has been leading the way for new composers and in the fusing of divergent musical styles. The Kronos Quartet has always been interested in breaking down barriers between musicians and audience expectations. It’s a group that pioneered the fusion of Western and Eastern music that has inspired many people and by the same token alienated a few more along the way. But that’s the price of great music in my opinion, as the Kronos Quartet perseveres in spite of the musical trends that continue to surround them. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the quartet’s appearances this week in Toronto are programmed to expand the musical palette once more.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Where The Wild Things Were: Forgotten Dreams Remembered

Werner Herzog and his fellow filmmakers in the Chauvet cave

Werner Herzog’s wonderful 2007 documentary about scientists studying the Antarctic is Encounters at the End of the World, which refers to a remote frozen outpost at the bottom of the planet. But the title suggests another, more ominous meaning: Au revoir, Earth! The German director’s latest effort could well have been called Encounters at the Beginning of the World, thanks to the French limestone cliff where other scientists investigate hundreds of primitive rock paintings and engravings that date back at least 30,000 years. Instead, his new film is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a thrilling exploration of civilization’s Aurignacian Culture origins showcased in 21st-century 3D.

Herzog has swapped the Encounters zoologists, volcanologists, and physicists for Dreams archeologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists, as well as live penguins for pictures of long-dead mammoths, bison, panthers, hyenas, lions, and rhinos. Yes, lions and rhinos in the South of France!. Why not? It’s a lovely and fertile spot, near the Ardeche River, where all manner of wildlife both hunters’ prey and predators would have gathered back in the day. The Chauvet Cave, sealed off and hidden by an avalanche since the Ice Age about 20,000 years ago, was discovered by three spelunkers in 1994. Upon spotting the drawings, later determined to be the oldest ever found, one of them exclaimed the French equivalent of ”They were here!”