It's a sensation Vancouver Folk Music Festival fans have come to know and love: one moment you're distractedly lounging on the Jericho Beach Park grass, watching little fleecy clouds pile up against Grouse Mountain, and the next you're all ears as some crazy conglomerate of rappers and slide guitarists and DJs and fiddlers conjures up spur-of-the-moment magic. We're talking about the Collaboratory, a folk-fest initiative that has become a kind of signature of the long-running event.
But what happens if you take the Collaboratory indoors? That's the question posed by Cross Woven, which runs at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre this Friday and Saturday (March 23 and 24). Curated by Meegan Maultsaid, who helped VFMF artistic director Dugg Simpson develop the Collaboratory concept, it's a chance to refine the notion while adding some elements—like video projections—that simply won't work in the great outdoors.
"With the Collaboratory, we were trying to put people together who, on one hand, would find some common thread," explains Maultsaid, on the line from her Vancouver home. "But we also wanted to draw on people who are very disparate in their styles or cultural backgrounds, to see how that would morph as they began to create together. So in curating these nights for the Cultch, that was just something I wanted to build on, because it's been very successful at the folk fest. I've had a lot of feedback from people who think the Collaboratory is totally unique, so I just thought I'd tear a page from that and build two nights with some artists that I'm interested in working with."
Those people include Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, the taiko-inspired percussion-and-guitar duo LOUD, filmmaker Claudia Medina, cellist Cris Derksen, spoken-word artist Jeet-Kei Leung, and the members of Kokoro Dance.
It's an impressive cast, and one that's used to this kind of hothouse creativity. With Tagaq's busy schedule leaving them only four days to assemble a show, the artists know that they're going to have to work fast and hard—but they're also aware, as Collaboratory veteran Derksen explains, that they need to allow enough room for magic to happen.
"There's a certain amount of life that comes with such a tight schedule," says the cellist, whose blend of classical technique and unfettered imagination has made her a sought-after musician in the local underground scene. "There's a certain awareness that we all have that we're only going to have the next week to pull it together. So we're just trying to figure out the beginning, middle, and end."
Derksen adds that the musicians will split up into various subgroups over the course of the two nights. And, having recently been introduced to the splendours of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, she uses a literary metaphor to explain what might happen.
"There's a line in Goethe that's like, 'Two lovers meet by chance and are pleased, so we linger there,'?" she recalls. "And so the idea of chance meetings and lingering with people during those moments”¦I really like that idea. And also everything that we all do is pretty instinctive and almost primal-seeming. Certainly, throat singing is very primal-ish, and the same with Kokoro; every time I've seen butoh, it's been very raw. And my cello can be pretty primal, as well. You have no choice, really, but to dive in."
Derksen and Maultsaid agree that this kind of artistic exploration is emblematic of what's been happening in Vancouver in recent years. Here, cultures collide—sometimes awkwardly or even violently, but more often resulting in the birth of hitherto-unknown hybrid forms.
As Derksen notes, "This year there's been a ton of collaborations going on in Vancouver. Almost every bill has something that's been thrown together like this. It's everywhere."
For someone who'd just as soon plug her cello into an array of electronic devices as play a Johann Sebastian Bach concerto, this is obviously an ideal situation. Maultsaid, too, sees something utopian in the way that artists are rarely fazed by our city's polyglot nature.
"In Vancouver, artists are definitely into collaboration, into working with artists from kind of outside their own paradigm," she says. "And that's great because it blurs the line between those carved-in-stone constructs of 'You're a butoh dancer, so you should be in dance festivals, and you're a classically trained cellist, so you should play with the symphony.' It's breaking those barriers down, which is something these artists are already doing with their own work, anyway. We're just taking it another step and giving them a canvas where they can add their own splashes of colour and design. It definitely creates something new."
And, she hopes, something that will last. Maultsaid is already making plans to reconvene her Cross Woven cast for the 2008 Under the Volcano festival of art and social change, of which she's a long-time organizer. Other offshoots may well come in time.
"With the Collaboratory," she says, "one of the key tenets is to have artists connect with other artists and maybe even have their own awakenings—like, 'Wow, I didn't necessarily think I'd hit it off with a hip-hop MC coming from a totally different musical and cultural standpoint.' And I hope that will happen here as well. It's all about finding common ground."
And that ground—whether inside at the Cultch or outdoors at some sunny festival—is assuredly fertile.