City of Dreams is a conceptual look at Vancouver's habitation history

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      Conceived and directed by Peter Reder. A PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and Urban Crawl production. At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre until January 29

      As conceptual art, City of Dreams is a rich and openhearted look at the history of human habitation in the Vancouver area. As a theatrical experience, however, it borders closely on tedium.

      The work opens with six performers standing on the perimeter of a bare stage, flanked by assorted bricks, blocks, banker’s boxes, piles of sand, and other materials. Slowly, they pick up twigs and sticks and begin to lay out lines on the floor; equally slowly, these begin to resemble the lines of a map.

      About five minutes in, most viewers will go, “Oh!”

      It’s a map of Vancouver.

      Ten minutes in, though, that reaction will shift to “Oh, no!” as it becomes clear that the performers are going to build, with painful deliberation, a scale model of our city, taking it through its transformation from scattered First Nations settlements to the steel-and-glass urban centre it is today. And that, to a soundtrack that includes Native chants, scattered historical reminiscences, and Diana Krall singing “The Look of Love”, is what they do.

      This takes just over an hour. It feels like forever.

      Granted, some of the passing images are lovely. Cedar sprigs represent the primeval forest, and clamshells stand in for the kitchen middens of the Musqueam and Squamish. The arrival of the railroad along Burrard Inlet’s south shore is depicted by actors pouring sand from their hands; another participant follows, trailing two fingers through the grit. Some images are funny too: marking the erection of Science World, an actor plunks a green glass globe down at the east end of False Creek. But the whole process is so predictable, so clearly predetermined, that City of Dreams is considerably less exciting than watching kids play with Lego.

      Patient viewers will find that this snail’s pace presentation ­—which underutilizes some notable Vancouver talent, including Alexander Ferguson, Lisa Ravensbergen, and Maiko Bae Yamamoto—does facilitate thinking about the nature of the urban experience. On that level, it fulfills the mandate that its creator, Peter Reder, laid out during a post-show talk-back session on opening night.

      “I think it’s quite superficial, what we do,” he explained. “We create objects you can project your own feelings into.”

      Several participants reported experiencing a sense of loss during City of Dreams, citing the destruction of the natural environment and the displacement of First Nations communities that accompanied Vancouver’s rise. Whatever this means—and it might signify nothing more than that local audiences have a well-developed sense of empathy—it doesn’t bode well for our collective self-esteem in this post-Olympics era.