Under new direction, PuSh International Performing Arts Festival shows reflect and defy a divided world

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      Walls, divisions, and borders abound in our world today—and they’re also everywhere you look at the 16th annual PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts.

      From the U.K., Free Admission features a solo performer erecting a literal brick wall, trowel in hand, between herself and the audience. Then there’s Anywhere But Here, a darkly humorous play set on the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico. Elsewhere, Frontera, uses rays of light to create barriers around its dancers.

      Our divided world, its shifting migrations, and the political rhetoric surrounding those issues seem to have had a heavy influence on the fest’s roster of interdisciplinary work this year. PuSh’s new executive and artistic director Franco Boni and associate artistic director Joyce Rosario observe that the theme even carries over to shows where the borders are not so literally drawn.

      Rosario points to Old Stock: A Refugee Story, a klezmer-driven play about turn-of-the-last-century Jewish refugees. It was sparked by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s infamous “old stock Canadians” remark—widely interpreted as term that divided Canadians between “us” and “them”.

      “Also The Fever is another work that kind of responds, but it’s more of a proposal of how things could be,” Rosario adds over a conference call, referring to 600 Highwaymen’s audience-participatory experiment in community building.

      Still, if Boni has learned anything helming the fest in his first year, it’s not to force too many commonalities on the eclectic mix. As he puts it, “For me, it’s just how they are different, rather than how they are the same.”

      He adds that PuSh’s wild diversity of interdisciplinary shows—which range from Gardens Speak’s intimate graveyard stories for small groups of 10 to massive multimedia dance-concerts like Frontera—demands adept venue-planning.

      “With this idea of scale we can support artists to think in terms of these large projects,” Boni says, “but it’s also speaking to artists who want to do community-engagement pieces.”

      The Torontonian has had less than a year to develop such insights on the fest, taking over from long-time artistic director and cofounder Norman Armour. Having served as artistic director of the Theatre Centre in Toronto since 2003, he’s devoted a lot of his time to getting to know the rhythms of the festival and the city.

      “Mostly I was really inspired about how people really care about the festival and the fact that Vancouver has this incredible performing-arts festival that is so different than other performing-arts fests in the city—and you don’t want to screw that up,” he says with a laugh. “I also found how important artists regard the festival as a platform for their work and their careers.”

      At the same time as Boni has nurtured those discussions, he’s been working with Rosario to build relationships here and across the country. You’ll see an overwhelming number of coproductions at this year’s fest, from a City Opera Vancouver partnership to debut BERLIN: The Last Cabaret to a copresentation of Macromatter’s imaginative, aquatic High Water with the Vancouver International Children’s Festival.

      So take some solace in the fact that, while divisions may be happening in our world at large, people seem to be uniting more than ever in the world of PuSh.