Vancouver's artists are conceiving fresh hybrids to reflect the city's intercultural scene.
Vancouver has been a multicultural city for a long, long time. Right from its inception, this Pacific port has been a meeting place for First Nations people, American fortune seekers, Chinese railway workers, British remittance men, and more, and it remains one of the most polyglot places on Earth. But in recent years, it's been undergoing a small but significant change: from a multicultural city, it's becoming an intercultural one.
And what's really interesting is how deep this runs. In researching this piece, I started from the premise that the arts are at the vanguard of our new intercultural community. The more people I spoke to, however, the more it became clear that artists are simply reflecting a profound cultural change–as playwright and actor Maiko Bae Yamamoto is quick to acknowledge. She and her colleague, James Long, are co-artistic directors of Theatre Replacement.
"We try and speak about the world we live in today–and the world we live in today is a diverse world," says Yamamoto, the SFU–trained thespian, calling from her Vancouver home. "Let's face it: you're not sitting on the bus with people who look just like you. When you talk about the responsibility of theatre in terms of this subject, its responsibility is to portray the world we live in."
The boom in the intercultural arts is not entirely a new development. As far back as the 1920s, for instance, visual artists were taking their cue from Haida sculpture and Salish basketry. Vancouver's underdocumented 1950s bohemian scene maintained a serious and prescient interest in Japanese art, literature, and aesthetics, while in the 1960s it was not uncommon to find the city's cultural elite listening respectfully to Ravi Shankar and his contemporaries.
"Interested in" and "influenced by", however, are subtly different from the cultural interpenetration that is a hallmark of Vancouver's contemporary arts scene. It's one thing to sample from the cultural smorgasbord, but quite another to dive into the new hybrid world and make compelling art from it–as, increasingly, local performers are wont to do.
"Our philosophy at Theatre Replacement is that we never go out to become the poster people of diversity or intercultural performance," says Yamamoto. "We make work from who we are, and that's really where it comes from. For me, it's always been about who I am–and my culture, my heritage, is part of who I am. But it's also about making the work really good–as good as possible."
The glowing reviews that greeted past Theatre Replacement productions such as Sexual Practices of the Japanese and Yu-Fo attest to Yamamoto and Long's innovative sense of the theatrically absurd. But the shows also examine identity politics, usually in the context of a world in which creating one's identity can be a life's work. That was certainly the case with Yu-Fo, in which Yamamoto and Long's relationship served as a loose template for a 2010 meeting between a robot-obsessed Japanese tourist and a spacy Canadian organic farmer, and a similarly transformative sensibility has been applied to Train, which Theatre Replacement will mount in Calgary early next year.
With Train, the source material is the courtship of Yamamoto's parents and their subsequent immigration to Canada. "It's a story that I've been working on, it feels like, for most of my life," says the playwright. "But it's morphed and changed over the years; if you see it, you would not directly recognize it as an immigrant story.
"In my family, I'm the story keeper," she continues. "Whenever anybody would tell me a story, I would kind of mentally write it down–and then I actually did start writing them down. People would always tell me, 'Oh, you should make a show from this. It's such an interesting thing.' And I kept saying 'Yeah' and nodding my head, not wanting to approach it from a really biographical point of view. To me, that just seemed really exposed. And if I was going to make it theatre, I wanted to make it theatre."
Expect formal innovation from the upcoming work–and a curious link to the original tale. In Train, Yamamoto has taken the unusual step of asking her father, an accomplished shakuhachi player, to join her on-stage.
"This is the part I really like about the play," she says. "My dad's flute, which I've grown up listening to, is all of a sudden becoming the sound of the train whistles, and he's up there on-stage with me. And he's kind of a clown, my dad, so it's really made for some very interesting moments."
In contrast to Yamamoto's "art first" agenda, Moshe Denburg's Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra has a specifically political intent. With composer-performers like John Oliver, Trichy Sankaran, Jin Zhang, and Farshid Samandari onboard, the group's aesthetic credentials are solid, but its explicit aim is to promote cross-cultural understanding through music. Denburg is particularly concerned with redressing the possibly exclusionary implications of mosaic-style multiculturalism.
"In every community, there are going to be elements looking for bridge-building with other communities," says this third-generation Canadian of Russian-Jewish descent. "There's also a kind of communal or tribal survival mentality as well. I actually look at the entire multiculturalism guideline in our country as having two aspects. One is the multiculturalism of exclusionism; it's not a bad exclusionism, but it's the kind of multiculturalism where the Jewish community prepares klezmer concerts for whoever, right? So it's preserving Jewish art. The Chinese community then preserves Chinese arts, and so on. This is necessary, from an artistic point of view, to preserve and develop tradition. But then there's the multiculturalism of intercultural dialogue, where on an artistic level the whole guideline is 'Let's build bridges.'"
And part of VICO's mandate–beyond promoting concerts and lecture-demonstrations like Hussein Janmohamed's upcoming presentation on Islamic/First Nations choral fusion (December 5 at the Vancouver Public Library's main branch)–is lobbying various levels of government to ensure that intercultural art is properly funded.
"What we're up against is still a certain administrative bias towards the multiculturalism of individual communal concerns, rather than the multiculturalism which celebrates the intercultural arts as its highest blossom," says Denburg. "So we're actually putting forward an argument like this to Canadian Heritage, to express the need to reward artists and organizations for involving themselves in intercultural work."
regardless of government funding, it's a certainty that intercultural collaborations will continue to grow in number and strength, if only because so many Canadians experience an intercultural reality.
"In Vancouver, you can decide your own culture in a lot of ways," argues Neelamjit Dhillon. "Living in a multicultural area like the Lower Mainland, you can pick the things that interest you, and those become your culture. In a lot of ways, the people who are making art have gravitated to that, art being a medium where you can explore and take influences from around yourself and then integrate them."
With his long beard and black turban, the multitalented Dhillon looks the part of an observant Sikh, and he honours his heritage by playing tabla, sitar, and Indian flute. But he also maintains a parallel path as an avant-jazz saxophonist and has no problem engaging in intercultural or even interdisciplinary collaborations–as he will when the Shakti Dance Society presents Gods, Demons & Yogis at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on October 21 and 22. Bharata natyam specialist Anusha Fernando will be the featured performer, but the Shakti troupe also includes Chinese-Canadian storyteller Adrienne Wong, martial-arts specialist Kelly Mac lean, and Israeli singer David Tsabar.
"The music will be fairly traditional," Dhillon reveals, "as we're telling stories that draw primarily from Indian mythology. But we're also adding other elements that aren't from the Indian tradition. We can use a lot of things that are from outside the tradition to create with, like borrowing musical concepts from anywhere we feel will serve the piece."
Stylistic and cultural fusion are also at the heart of Moving Dragon's Triaspora, scheduled for the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts next Saturday (September 22). A collaboration between Moving Dragon and the Orchid Ensemble, the ambitious piece includes original compositions from intercultural explorers Jin Zhang, Mark Armanini, and Ya-wen Wang.
Triaspora encapsulates the Chinese-Canadian immigrant experience, but it also refers to that of Moving Dragon founders Jessica Jone and Chengxin Wei. Born in Canada, Jone travelled to Beijing to study traditional Chinese dance. There, she met her future partner, Wei, after which he joined her in Vancouver, where he initially made his mark with Ballet B.C.
In many ways, Wei has compressed three generations of immigrant experience into his seven years in Canada: he began by wanting to assimilate, found himself temporarily unsure of his direction, then finally reconnected with his roots–but only after having established a comfortable life in the New World.
"For me, I'm still looking for my identity," he says, laughing. "When I came here seven years ago, I did not want to throw my Chinese background away, but I felt that I was going to a new culture and I was really eager to explore that culture–like with the ballet. I'm even doing my high-school diploma –I wanted to educate myself here, because it's a different system in China. But after I danced with Ballet B.C. for five years, I'm more and more thinking, 'You know what, Chengxin? You are Chinese–and a Canadian. You are from China, so you can't deny your background; why are you not using this to introduce your culture to Canadians? And later on, they'll see more Chinese dance, and we'll have more to talk about.'"
Wei's arrival here coincided with what Jone identifies as a rising interest in hybrid dance. "There's not only a combination of different genres–like, for example, hip-hop and ballet–but also an interest in cultural dance," she says. "I think that's what we're starting to explore with Moving Dragon."
Both Wei and Jone sense a growing optimism in Vancouver's arts scene, an optimism rooted in the awareness that intercultural collaboration is an artistically challenging way to address our changing world. "Being from such a culturally rich place," Dhillon says, "we really can come up with something unique to offer the rest of the world–which I think will follow suit very quickly.'' Yamamoto concurs: "It feels like something is growing," she says. "It's a real nurturing time–a gestation period, in some ways. People are testing out the waters, it seems. It's hard to say what's going to happen, but people are committing to a sense of longevity in the community, and I think we're going to see more diversity, even on the big stages."
We're already seeing that diversity. A very short list of Vancouver's intercultural artists would have to mention the Kokoro and Karen Jamieson dance companies and a dozen or more musical groups including Uzume Taiko, the NOW Orchestra, and Loud. There's no disputing that Vancouver's future is intercultural–and in many ways that future is already here.