Year in Review: Vancouver artists delivered memorable moments in face of a horrific pandemic
What can you say about a year that severed bonds between artists and audiences?
The sadness that came with various provincial health orders was palpable in the creative community as scores of live performances were cancelled at the stroke of a pen. But there were still many joyful moments in the performing arts during the past 12 months.
Here’s one highlight from each month on the calendar.
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival served up a magnificent feast of shows before lights went out in theatres across the region.
One of the most popular performances was the world premiere of singer-songwriter Veda Hille’s solo show, Little Volcano. (The Cultch restaged it later in the year in a virtual presentation.)
“Part frank, part funny, part political, and part poignant, it’s as close to the confessional as this alternately worldly and otherworldly woman is likely to get,” Alexander Varty wrote in the Straight.
The February highlight also comes from the Push festival: Anywhere But Here, written by Vancouver playwright Carmen Aguirre.
This multimedia show brought together nine artists of colour to contextualize the struggle of refugees at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Early this year, Aguirre told the Straight’s former arts editor, Janet Smith, that the script was based on dreams she had while attending Langara College’s Studio 58 theatre school in the early 1990s after her family fled Chile.
“It was my psyche trying to work out my cultural identity, having spent my entire life in exile,” Aguirre said. “And that’s where the surreal and magic parts of the play come in.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s final live performance of the year came on March 11, the same day that the World Health Organization described COVID-19 as a pandemic.
Maestro Otto Tausk led the musicians through Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 inside the Commodore Ballroom, which has never had a reputation as a classical-music joint. Because the audience was in extremely close proximity to the musicians, it enabled them to feel how the symphony was being expressed in ways they had never experienced before.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Tausk told the Straight. “It was exciting. It was new. And then, suddenly, everything changed in our music world.”
At the height of the lockdown, Music on Main presented a livestreamed, genre-blending concert featuring Grammy-nominated composer Terry Riley and his son, guitarist Gyan Riley.
Videotaped at Christ Church Cathedral in February, it offered a welcome relief from troubled times when it aired on April 7.
Terry Riley is often referred to as one of the pioneers of minimalist music, but his son told Varty that he hates this term.
“I guess when most people think of minimalism they think of repeated patterns, but that’s like a very dumbed-down version of it,” Gyan Riley said. “Maybe over the years that’s what it’s been distilled into, in terms of how most composers treat it or what most composers have drawn from that body of work, but I don’t think my dad ever looked at it like that at all.”
Vancouver dancer Ziyian Kwan has taken her artform to the streets in the past to highlight social issues. Back in 2010, for example, she danced on several Sundays to draw attention to arts-funding cutbacks.
On May 11 of this year, it was racism that brought her out to perform outdoors. On that day, she danced a peaceful protest at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver to celebrate Asian Heritage Month and to show solidarity with those who had endured racist aggression in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of those targeted was Kwan herself—she was told by a stranger that Chinese people “made this shit up in Wuhan city and now you’ve brought it here to Canada”.
Indian Summer was the first major arts festival to be held in Vancouver after the pandemic was declared (as opposed to DOXA, which was a film festival that took place in May). And many wondered how the artistic director, Sirish Rao, would manage to reinvent things in a physically distanced world.
As the Straight reported, he relied on jugaad, which is an Indian term referring to a workaround or innovative fix, and he and his team came up with something quite extraordinary.
They programmed 10 events over 10 consecutive Saturdays, starting with Beginnings - Sonic Tributes, showing off the city in ways we’ve never seen done before.
It featured 20 musicians, many on Granville Island, performing 10 different tracks in a spectacularly optimistic response to devastating circumstances. The Inuit throat-singing duo PIQSIQ, beat-boxer Rup Sidhu, sitarist Mohamed Assini, and drummers Sunny Matharu and Ashwin Sood were among the performers in what just might have been the festival’s most memorable opening ever.
Vancouver’s annual Latin American plaza, Carnaval del Sol, usually takes place at Concord Pacific Place, combining music, visual arts, and culinary delights in a family-friendly atmosphere.
This past July, organizer Paola Murillo and festival project manager Pablo Zararias had to pivot to an online version.
“We’re going to bring our joy,” Murillo promised. “We want to bring our artists, our culture. We want more people to know who we are—and what we can bring to the world, especially in these times.”
And they pulled it off with aplomb, thanks to several videos.
In the first, “Carnival del Sol Across the Americas”, they managed to showcase music, travel, food, and social innovation all the way from Mexico to Argentina one 38-minute film. “GRACIAS por tu perseverancia y entusiasmo,” wrote one viewer in a message to Murillo and her team.
July also marked the first live arts events in Vancouver during the pandemic. It occurred when the Dancing on the Edge festival put on five events, including four in the Firehalll Arts Centre courtyard, for audiences capped at 30 people.
In addition, the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival went virtual for the first time this year with a series of shows, including one by the all-Indigenous burlesque troupe Virago Nation.
The Powell Street Festival was yet another example of a cultural event that refused to die just because of a miserable pandemic.
On the B.C. Day weekend, rather than putting on a gathering in Oppenheimer Park, festival organizers staged a virtual Japanese-style game show cohosted by the always colourful playwright and actor Tetsuro Shigematsu.
He shared the spotlight with TV reporter and voice actor Yurie Hoyoyon in what turned out to be a zany telethon. It raised a remarkable $64,389 for the PowellStFest Community Kitchen Program.
“As the health of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) is directly linked to the health of the Festival, we are deeply committed to the well-being of the neighborhood and its current residents.” festival president Edward Takayanagi said afterward. “During the telethon weekend we were able to connect with our friends from the neighborhood, community partners and residents, and affirm our reciprocal relationship.”
The East Asian nation of Taiwan is rightly celebrated for its amazing success in containing the spread of COVID-19, in part through the early adoption of masks.
But it took a Taiwanese-born artist who’s immigrated to Canada, Lady Hao Hao, to come up with an art show delving into the deeper meanings behind wearing face coverings.
Her black and white series of sketches called People and Mask and her multimedia gallery presentation The Other Side of Mask were each presented online during TAIWANfest.
“To wear or not to wear isn’t really the question; our attitude toward others is really the focal point,” Lady Hao Hao told the Straight through a translator in September. “We are facing these challenges because of our past attitude toward nature or people. The lockdowns and shutdowns are forcing us to think if there is anything we should change.”
This year’s TAIWANfest replaced live performances with a series of stimulating artist’s talks, including presentation by PuSh festival founder Norman Armour, classical-music conductor Ken Hsieh, Taiwanese vocalist Wuming Chen, and many others.
For a while this year, live theatre existed in Vancouver, including at the Firehall Arts Centre. Its first major show of the fall season was I Walked the Line, which had its Vancouver premiere on October 15.
Veteran actor Allan Morgan based his play on a real-life labour dispute, capturing the emotions he and fellow picketers felt while being on a picket line for 132 days in 2016. At the time, Morgan was working as a mail clerk because he wasn’t getting many acting gigs.
“It’s incredibly funny; it’s incredibly sad; it’s incredibly powerful,” his former union president, David Black of MoveUP, told the Straight.
Let’s hope the current theatre lockout doesn’t last as long as what Morgan and his office colleagues endured.
November was when the arts really came alive in Vancouver. The world premiere of The Amyrillis, directed by Mindy Parfitt, was held at the Firehall Arts Centre.
But in the midst of its run, a public-health order ended all events. That meant that this show, as well as Rumble Theatre's Vancouver premiere of Pathetic Fallacy, written and directed by Anita Rochon, could only be presented virtually.
Then there was the sensational videotaped Remembrance Day concert by Chor Leoni Men’s Choir.
November also stood out as an amazing month for dance lovers.
Over three days, Ballet BC alumna Sophie Whittome was among a large number dancers who delivered stunning performances in the Nederlands Dance Theater’s Dare to Say, livestreamed from The Hague in partnership with DanceHouse.
NDT’s new artistic director is Emily Molnar, formerly of Ballet BC, and as part of this program she unveiled two new works—Four Relations, choreographed by Swede Alexander Ekman, and Fusions and some confusions, choreographed by Bulgrarian Dimo Milev.
Also in November, Ne. Sans founder and choreographer Idan Cohen premiered Hourglass at the Chutzpah! Festival, a dance performance exploring codependency and featuring Ballet BC’s Brandon Lee Alley and his partner, Ballet BC alumna Racheal Prince.
And finally, Co. Erasga founder and choreographer Alvin Erasga Tolentino presented Offering, a series of solo performances delving into devotion and prayer. Even though all three of these world premieres could only be viewed online, they still packed enormous emotional resonance, especially when viewed in a darkened room without any distractions.
There’s been some terrific music and theatre livestreamed this month, but as for the highlight of the month, we’ll return to dance.
That’s because two legendary performers from a bygone era, Mary-Louise Albert and Chan Hon Goh, each staged comebacks, suprising old fans and winning new ones.
In Albert’s case, she had not publicly performed for 20 years before marking her return in phase one of Empreintes, a new solo work by Serge Bennathan. It was part of a series of solos tha she staged in partnership with the Dance Centre.
Meanwhile, Goh, a former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, performed the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in a filmed version of Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker. It marked the Vancouver choreographer and dance instructor’s first public performance since she retired from the stage in 2009.