Vancouver's arts leaders pick what's best about the city and its cultural scene

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      Vancouver’s arts and cultural leaders are no slouches when it comes to bringing us their best performances. So for our annual Best of Vancouver issue, we decided to ask them what they like most about the city.

      VSO's Otto Tausk has taken to Vancouver swimmingly

      You could say that the Vancouver Symphony's music director Otto Tausk is all wet.

      Or at least he would like to be.

      When asked to pinpoint what he thinks is the best thing about Vancouver, the affable Dutch conductor doesn't hesitate at all. He flat out picks Kits Pool.

      "This is number one for me," says Tausk on the line from the Sutton Place Hotel, where he resides when he's in town working with the VSO. "For me that's an incredible swimming pool. Anywhere I go around the world I always visit swimming pools, and I had a number one swimming pool which is at Singapore airport—you can swim when you're changing flights—but once I have actually now swum in Kits Pools, that's my very, very favourite place in Vancouver. It's saltwater, and it's huge, and it's the most gorgeous location. And I really love swimming."

      "The only sad thing is they always close it very early," he adds, "somewhere in September I think, because I'd love to swim there all year round."

      When he isn't ripping through the water like a mako shark, one of Tausk's other favourite things to do in Vancouver is check out the cultural scene.

      "Of course there are areas in Vancouver where I feel there's a lot of culture going on," he says, "areas where you can feel something's happening. Ballet B.C. is another favourite performing organization that I love to go to. I love Ballet B.C. But of course my very favourite arts organization is the VSO."

      Speaking of the symphony, when asked to pick what he thinks might be the best thing about its current season, he's pretty adamant as well. He choses the November 19 performance at the Orpheum of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

      "We are doing the complete ballet music," says Tausk, "and it's always been a dream of mine to do the entire ballet music—but actually without the ballet. So we're giving full attention to the score, and I think it's one of the most beautiful scores ever written. It's very rich and very colourful, and an orchestra hardly gets to play the entire score, and the concert audience, all they hear is the suites, but never all the movements. So I'm really looking forward to that."


      Corinne Lea

      Rio Theatre's Corinne Lea wants to make Vancouver a cooler place

      Back in 1996, when she was still in her twenties, Rio Theatre owner Corinne Lea cofounded Havana Theatre on Commercial. Her goal was to make Vancouver as cool a place, artistically and culturally, as Montreal.

      "That's why I created Havana with my partner at the time," says Lea on a call with the Straight, "and that's why I do the Rio. My whole goal is to... l mean, I'm not movin', so I wanna make Vancouver as culturally rich as I can. There's lots of these different pockets of communities—the comedians, the poets, horror-movie fans, the burlesque performers—so I feel like we have a scene here, and we have the potential to make it richer. It's just a matter of people—instead of having their eyes on moving somewhere else—just staying here and making it awesome."

      Lea points to the work being done at arts hubs like Beaumont Studios and Red Gate Arts Society as impressive. Another thing she would put on her personal Best of Vancouver list is Mount Pleasant's La Fabrique St. George Winery.

      "It's a winery on 7th and Ontario and it's just this really cool Montreal-vibe kinda place," she says, "high ceilings, they make their own wine, it's picnic-style food—you go in and buy your own charcuterie and sit down. When I go there I feel like, 'Yeah, Vancouver, it is cool.'"

      As far as the Rio Theatre goes, the best thing about it, she feels, is the community.

      "I didn't even realize how important the community was in my life until it was taken away," she stresses, referring to the effects of the pandemic. "Every time we have a show here it brings different communities, and so many people tell me that the Rio feels like home to them, or it's like their church, ya know. 'Cause the purpose of church—other than talkin' to god—is having that regular connection with your community, and so for a lot of people that don't go to the regular churches, coming here and sitting in the dark and enjoying a show, connecting with art and connecting with other people in a communal way—it goes beyond just hanging with your friends or Netflix and chilling. It's really something that I think gives us more purpose and meaning in our lives."

      Offered the opportunity to plug one of the "best" upcoming Rio events, Lea goes with the Rio Grind Festival, which runs from November 25 to 28.

      "The Rio Grind Festival is all about genre films like thriller, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, action, and all the stuff that you're not gonna get so much at regular film festivals, and it really suits our branding. For people who can't make it to the genre film festivals in Austin, or Montreal for Fantasia, we bring those films to the Rio for four days. That's all we play, and it's a great opportunity for people to see fresh new indie films."


      Jivesh Parasram

      Rumble Theatre's Jivesh Parasram is big on public art

      When Rumble Theatre artistic director Jivesh Parasram answers the phone on a rainy Vancouver weekday he's in the midst of setting up a performer's tent in Oppenheimer Park. As part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, he's helping rice & beans theatre prepare for a concert called Made in Canada: An Agricultural Song Cycle, which blends mariachi influences with lyrics sourced from the words of seasonal temporary foreign workers.

      So when asked what he thinks are the best things about Vancouver, it's no surprise that he cites the amount of public art amenities that are available.

      "To me it's like, coming from Toronto to Vancouver, it's so much better, the ability to be outside and do stuff outside. Not just outdoorsy stuff, but just walking down the street and there it is—like a show happening. What we've noticed from working throughout the summer, and putting stuff up in the past few weeks, is the kind of openness to more guerrilla-style art. It's like, 'Let's just do the thing.'

      "So generally speaking it's this kind of attitude of 'let the art be'," he adds, "engage the community, engage people around you, take up public space—and do it respectfully. I think that's kinda great, in a lotta ways. To me that's one of the best parts of Vancouver right now."

      As far as Rumble Theatre's upcoming events go, Parasram is psyched about the digital game/theatre hybrid New Societies, conceived by Brian Postalian for Re:Current Theatre, which will be developed in December for a planned online performance in June.

      "It's kind of a strategy game where you're basically on a new planet, you're gonna settle the planet, you're gonna come up with a way to govern it. The trick of it is that there are not actually any rules to it, so the way that we form the governments of these societies is just based on what the players bring into it. So it's an interesting piece in that you make these decisions and then there's consequence for it from the other societies on the planet. It's a fun way of looking at a kind of internationalism, and what a settlement society might be like—with the extra caveat of it being a little sci-fi too."


      Donna Yamamoto

      Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre's Donna Yamamoto loves culture and The Cultch

      When the Straight contacts Donna Yamamoto, producing artistic-director of Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, at her home in Squamish, she sounds excited about new developments at vAct. The day before, on November 1, her company had issued a press release announcing that it had hired a new managing artistic-director, Derek Chan.

      "He was former co-artistic director of rice & beans theatre," she says, "and he's got extensive background in new works."

      Yamamoto's tenure at vAct runs out at the end of 2021, but she plans to stay on next year as a consultant.

      “It is a huge honour to follow Donna’s footsteps in facilitating and presenting new work that is invigorating, captivating, and representative of the Vancouver Asian community,” Chan was quoted as saying in the press release. “I look forward to guiding the company towards a bright, innovative future, while respecting vAct’s roots and the immense, hard work of those who have come before me.”

      Yamamoto is also proud of what Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre has accomplished since she took the artistic reins in 2013. She thinks the company—which has won Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards for 1 Hour Photo and The Ones We Leave Behind—is one of the best things about Vancouver.

      "The other thing I love about Vancouver is the Cultch," she states, "for their innovative, diverse presentations."

      It's no surprise, then, that when asked to choose one upcoming vAct presentation that she thinks will be the best Yamamoto picks Bad Parent, a coproduction with Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange and Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, which will have its West Coast premiere at the Cultch in April of 2022.

      "It's written by Ins Choi of Kim's Convenience fame," she points out.

      Other things Yamamoto believes are "best" in Vancouver include dim sum in Chinatown, restaurants in Richmond and Steveston ("for the best food you could possibly find"), and the performance of Alonzo King LINES Ballet that she saw at the Vancouver Playhouse on October 30.


      Erick Lichte

      Chor Leoni's Erick Lichte says that the best thing about Vancouver is the people

      When you ask Vancouverites what they think the best things are about their city, the most common replies usually have to do with the beautiful scenery or the mild climate. But for Erick Lichte, artistic director of Chor Leoni Men's Choir, it's all about the people.

      "The people of Vancouver are just extraordinary," raves Lichte on the line from his East Van home. "I know we've got the mountains, I know we've got the sea, but to me it's the people. And nothing has been clearer to me on how truly wonderful the people are than how they have reacted to this pandemic. People have been kind, people have at every turn tried to pull together and tried to do the right thing, and that just feels amazing. I feel so lucky to be adopted here into this place."

      Although he has worked with Chor Leoni for eight years now, the American-born singer and conductor has only lived in Vancouver full-time for two years. But that's definitely been long enough for Lichte to develop a powerful bond with the many members who make up the choir.

      "The best thing about Chor Leoni is how there can be this group of people that care and love each other so much," he says, "but also want to work so hard and be the best at what they can do. Sometimes those things can be mutually exclusive, but not so with Chor Leoni. And I just always admire how they can do both those things at the same time."

      Lichte notes that those best intentions will be on full display when the choir performs its annual Christmas With Chor Leoni concerts on December 17, 18, and 20 at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church, which recently underwent a major makeover.

      "It's our biggest event of the season," he says, "and being in our newly renovated digs at St. Andrew's-Wesley, that space becomes another character I think for those performances. I'm just so excited to bring people together for that time, and I think after this time apart from one another it's gonna feel particularly sweet. We've got a really fun program, and one with a lot of beauty and a lot of heart as well."


      Savannah Walling (pictured with husband Terry Hunter)

      Vancouver Moving Theatre's Savannah Walling admires the cultural wealth of the Downtown Eastside

      If you want to find out what the best things are about Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a good person to ask is Savannah Walling. She's lived there for 45 years, and is artistic director of Vancouver Moving Theatre, the company behind the annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which just finished celebrating its 17th year.

      On the phone from her Strathcona home, Walling points to CRAB Park at Portside, the living presence of three First Nations surrounding Vancouver, and the rich culture of the Downtown Eastside as particularly worthy "best of" mentions.

      "The cultural wealth of the Downtown Eastside is something that's just really excited me and kept me engaged," offers Walling. "And another is this growing interest in art that connects with and engages with community, and is successful. Another part that I really find exciting is a strong growing presence of performers and art created by artists of Asian, African, Coast Salish, and urban Indigenous ancestry."

      When it comes to pinpointing the best things about Vancouver Moving Theatre—which Walling cofounded with her husband, VMT executive director Terry Hunter in 1983—she cites the decades of collaborations with artists of many genres, traditions, and ancestries.

      "We've been honoured to have that opportunity," she says, "to engage with the Downtown Eastside community, where we were founded, on projects for and about the neighbourhood—including the Heart of the City Festival. Delivering professional service with an attitude of partnership, cooperation, respect for community needs, and their cultural protocols—those are things that I really value about our company and its history."


      Marissa Wong

      Falling Company's Marissa Wong thinks Vancouver's diversity is its best thing

      Vancouver dance fans might know Marissa Wong best from the work she did with TWObigsteps Collective, but now she's making a name for herself as artistic director of The Falling Company.

      She started the dance company earlier this year, after Amber Funk Barton stepped down as artistic director of the response. and handed the company over to Wong, who renamed it. But as Wong told the Straight over the phone from her home in Mount Pleasant—where she recently moved to from Kits—she plans on keeping some of the best elements of Barton's former company in her new one.

      "One of the things that has been passed on from the Response Dance Society in terms of the legacy, that we carry forward as a company, is supporting the next generation of artists," she says, "prioritizing and making sure that we have sustainable practices that really support the well-being of the artist. Making sure that we have meetings and we set up breaks in between processes, making sure that the artists that are working for the company are not burnt out, and making sure the resources are available for the art."

      When asked what she would say are the best things about Vancouver, Wong cites Left of Main—the Chinatown arts hub where her new company will be entering into a residency in January—and the diversity of the city.

      "As a city to live in it's wonderful to have access to such close, diverse nature," she says, "and I think that informs some of the arts practice that I'm doing, by being in a climate that is diverse. There's lots of food and areas that I enjoy, and I do like that there is some diversity in food."


      Grant Arnold

      VAG's Grant Arnold doesn't miss the Saskatchewan winters

      Grant Arnold currently holds the position of Audain Curator of British Columbia Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and he's pretty happy about that. For one thing, he doesn't have to deal with severe prairie winters anymore.

      "I grew up in Saskatchewan," says Arnold on the phone from his East Van home, "where it can be 40-below. Even if it's raining here it's better."

      As well as enjoying the mild climate since moving to Vancouver in 1990, Arnold has been impressed by the arts and culture scene here.

      "The work that's made here is up to a very high standard," he claims. "There's a lot of really interesting artists working here, and a number of really important Indigenous artists working here as well. There's artists from various backgrounds that draw upon a really interesting range of life experiences to produce their work.

      "So that's one of the things that keeps me here," he adds, "how vital the art scene is. And the diversity of people. It's great to be part of such a cosmopolitan place."

      Having lived in East Van for 17 years, it's no surprise that Arnold points to the "energy" of Commercial Drive as best-of material. As far as his own place of work goes, he's proud of what the VAG offers local art lovers.

      "I think the exhibitions are really vital," he says. "It's been a bit of a struggle the last while because of COVID, but we've kind of persevered in producing really interesting programming, and the public programs department has done a really amazing job, especially as they had to switch over to doing things online very quickly."

      When asked to pick one VAG exhibition that he might classify as "best", Arnold goes with Vancouver Special: Disorientations and Echo, which was organized by himself and fellow curators Phanuel Antwi, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Jenn Jackson, and Christian Vistan. It's on display until January 2.

      "That exhibition includes work by 32 artists, mostly from the Lower Mainland," he explains. "Much of the work is brand new and was actually made for the exhibition, and there's an incredible diversity of forms in the exhibition. So that's one that immediately springs to mind."


      Donna Spencer
      Pedro Meza

      Firehall Arts Centre's Donna Spencer says Vancouver isn't just a place where people come to shoot movies

      Donna Spencer has been the artistic producer of the Firehall Arts Centre for nearly 40 years—39 to be exact—so you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone more qualified to comment about the current state of the Vancouver arts scene than her.

      "We have many many professional artists--many dancers, actors, directors, and designers--so it's a very vibrant arts and culture scene," says Spencer on the line from her office at the Firehall. "A bit of it seems to be unknown by many people, but we're not just a place where people come to shoot movies. There's lots going on in the theatre, in the dance, and in the visual-arts world."

      For someone to work at the same location for nearly 40 years, if really helps if the surroundings are impressive. Spencer checks that box with the Firehall Arts Centre—and a few others as well.

      "Well, first of all our theatre is fabulous," she declares, "but also the work we do is very diverse. We've been involving indigenous, BIPOC artists for many years, so our patrons know that when they come to the Firehall they're going to see something that's different, they're going to see something that's provocative, they're going to see something that's entertaining. And it's a wonderful little building. It's a heritage building, I guess if you want to say, it's the oldest theatre in Vancouver, although it wasn't originally a theatre—it was a firehall, of course."

      Given the opportunity to plug one upcoming Firehall event as "the best", Spencer nominates Paddle Song, a one-woman musical about trailblazing Mohawk poet and performer Pauline Johnson. The performance runs from November 10 to 21.

      "I think people should try to get out and see it," she urges. "Cheri Maracle is magnificent [as Johnson]. Pauline Johnson traveled in the late 1800s to the U.K. and across Canada and the U.S., and a lot of people have forgotten her connection to this city. Her ashes were actually spread at Siwash Rock."


      Leslie Dala

      Vancouver Bach Choir's Leslie Dala thinks Vancouver is the perfect size

      Leslie Dala grew up in Toronto, and one of the things he liked best about Vancouver when he moved here—apart from the mellower climate—was the size of the city.

      "The city's small enough that people actually get to know each other really quickly," relates the Vancouver Bach Choir's music director on a call to the Straight, "and that was something that really appealed to me. I had no intention of staying here—I came here to do a master's degree—but within a couple years of still just being a student I felt like I'd gotten to know all of the key players in the classical music world, which kinda blew me away.

      "You forge strong relationships," he adds, "and out of that come opportunities, and a lot of dreaming about things and putting together projects that you kinda just wish together. So that's been a great thing about this city, that there are a whole lotta people you can reach out to and say, 'What do you think about doing this?' Suddenly the thought becomes kind of a flame which becomes something quite solid."

      Dala admits that it doesn't hurt when the artists you're connecting with are some of the most talented in the world.

      "We see time and time again award-winning chefs, choreographers, writers, musicians, and everything in this city. I don't think it's recognized as much for its arts and cultural scene, but we have just great people who are running the theater scene here; there's a number of different independent groups and companies that put on really fantastic shows. We've got the same thing in the dance world, in the music world, visual-art world—so on any given week you can check out a whole lot of contrasting shows and plays that are really first-class."

      As for his own company, one thing Dala appreciates about the Vancouver Bach Choir is that it represents a cross-section of the city's residents.

      "We have doctors, lawyers, judges, schoolteachers—you name it—people who in their professional lives do all kinds of things, but what brings us together is their love of singing. And it's an auditioned choir, so people sing at a high level, and they're really committed to the repertoire that we do, so it makes it a joy to work with them."

      Dala and his choir, along with other groups, will be spreading that joy around on November 30 with a performance at the Orpheum of Benjamin Britten's St. Nicolas.

      "It's literally based on the saint who is the inspiration for Santa Claus," notes Dala, "and it's a piece that involves music for both children's choirs and the four-part symphonic group. It's also with a chamber orchestra, and we're partnering for the very first time with the VSO School of Music's Sinfonietta, which is a very high-level youth orchestra. It's kind of perfect because Britten wrote it for a number of schools celebrating an anniversary, so the premiere was actually performed almost exclusively by young people.

      "And what blew me away," he adds, "is that when we were looking through our history, it turned out that, even though this piece was kind of perfect for the choir, it had never been programmed by the Bach Choir. So we're bringing together all ages of choirs to perform this beautiful seasonal piece for the first time."


      Sirish Rao

      Indian Summer Festival's Sirish Rao says that without the arts we'd be lost

      Indian Summer Festival artistic director Sirish Rao lives in Kitsilano, which—as local sushi freaks know—is also home to Kibune Sushi. Rao describes it as one of the most beautiful sushi joints anywhere.

      "It has that wonderful thing of people, mountains, ocean, sushi," says Rao in a call to the Straight, "couldn't go wrong."

      The tasty morsels at Kibune are just one of the many things Rao cites as best in Vancouver.

      "One of the things I love most is how it has enfolded and how it enfolds nature," he explains. "This is by far the smallest city I've lived in, and so it feels like it still has lots of memory of the natural world. I mean you have orca's coming into the harbour for god's sake. It's amazing."

      Rao's fondness for Vancouver, not surprisingly, also extends to its arts and culture scene.

      "I'm seeing a lot of storytelling of things that weren't that present, I see a strong resurgence of Indigenous art. I see the Chinatown Storytelling Centre just got launched on Pender Street, and they're telling the stories of the Chinese community. You know, there's Hogan's Alley, the black community. Those are signs that people haven't forgotten some stories, and that's important for me."

      Rao describes the Indian Summer Festival as "a gigantic longtable", noting that feast is the root word of festival. And he's inviting local arts lovers to take a bite.

      "We're launching a project in a few weeks that brings artists and medical professionals and healers together to create a kind of culture lab," he reveals, "a lab where artists can imagine vaccines against despair, or remedies against despair. I think it's important to see local artists as healers. I mean we all like looking at Netflix for escape during the pandemic, or reading books, or listening to music. Without the arts we'd be lost."