Cultural Olympiad gets bigger and stronger

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      Energized by an arts scene with its own ideas about genre, Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad gets bigger and stronger.

      The term Cultural Olympiad conjures visions of grand pageants of costumes and banners, the kind of stadium-sized pyrotechnics people associate with Beijing 2008. But how about movie screenings in mobile shipping containers, high-tech kinetic sculpture gardens, and bhangra-Celtic dance mashups?

      They sound more like the fare at a contemporary-art festival than at an international sporting event, but they’re just three of the hundreds of offerings packing the coming month and a half as part of Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad. And in the practice run for the big show in 2010, they’re what’s helping the arts component of this city’s Games stand out from previous Olympic festivities.

      The arts have been a part of the Olympics ever since ancient Greece, but these days, unlike the opening and closing ceremonies, the Cultural Olympiad isn’t usually something you see on TV. Instead, it’s a way for a host city to show off what it is to visitors from around the globe—and to itself.

      Ensconced in the glass offices of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games organizing committee, Cultural Olympiad program director Robert Kerr has been entrusted with finding works that define that identity. “It is a daunting project, but to me what’s been rewarding is the way the community has stepped up and said, ”˜Yes, we want to be a part of this,’ ” he tells the Straight in one of the headquarters’ boardrooms. “We were working from a blank slate; we had to build this from the ground up.”

      For three years, Kerr and his team have collaborated with local, national, and international groups to come up with programming that reflects Vancouver, and Canada.

      What they’ve developed for this year’s event (February 1 to March 21) includes not just large-scale performances and exhibits in familiar institutions—shows like a survey of new B.C. artists at the Vancouver Art Gallery, or Rigoletto by Vancouver Opera. There are also many that take place at unexpected sites, crossing cultural and genre boundaries, and bringing groups together in unexpected collaborations. The Cantata Singers and six contemporary dancers team up for Voices in Motion, Bodies That Sing (March 17 to 19 at the Roundhouse). The Midforms Festival’s SHELL (at the Great Northern Way Campus March 5 to 7) showcases digital sculptures and cinematic installations. And containR uses recycled shipping containers as movie theatres for free screenings of art and sport films (February 18 to March 1 around town).

      “It’s the diversity and the contemporary nature of it that makes this programming different: if you look at a lot of Cultural Olympiads, they’re about the classical or traditional. And the degree to which we’ve developed community relationships also sets us apart,” Kerr explains. Pointing to free shows like those by Montreal’s burlesque-styled buskers Toxique Trottoir, he adds: “There are so many ways to engage—it’s not just what’s in museums but also what’s out on the street.”

      Vancouver has always been a cultural melting pot, so it’s no surprise to find ethnic fusions at this winter’s Olympiad. The Public Dreams Society collaborates with explorASIAN and other groups for LunarFest (February 1 at the VAG plaza), a huge display of artful lanterns that celebrate all the different ways Asian cultures, from Taiwan to Korea, celebrate the lunar new year. At this year’s City of Bhangra festival, the TransFusion event (February 14 and 15 at the Vancouver International Film Centre) finds South Asian forms melding with Celtic and flamenco styles.

      On top of that, there are visiting acts from other countries, making the cultural exchange global: Japan’s Awaji Puppet Theatre visits the Firehall Arts Centre (February 12 to 14), while Israel’s acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company comes to the Playhouse (February 20 and 21) in a DanceHouse and Chutzpah! Festival coproduction.

      “Vancouver is a port city and a transient city where ideas and people are coming and going,” says Kerr, describing the ideas behind the programming. “Whether they’re fifth-generation Canadians or new immigrants or visiting here, it’s a place where people encounter each other. Canada is a place of cultural confluence—at the Cultural Olympiad we’re really trying to pull back the layers on that.”

      With so much to choose from, the Cultural Olympiad program (available at arts venues around town and at might be difficult to get a handle on. Kerr encourages audiences to experiment: “We’re trying to get people to think outside their comfort zone—to consider different events and shows that are not the typical thing that you would go to.”

      Paging through this year’s diverse mix of shows, Kerr is still amazed at the scope of creation coming out of Vancouver. And he promises that it will only expand, with more large commissions next winter, during the Games themselves.

      Surveying the list of storytellers, dancers, musicians, and other artists, he says, “It is an extraordinary snapshot of where we’re at and where we’re going.”