Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival illuminates with light, music, and dancers

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      Cherry-blossom viewing must be some kind of Zen, contemplative thing, right?

      Well, yes and no.

      “The traditional idea of it being a meditative and thoughtful experience is kind of like cultural propaganda, for lack of a proper term,” says Stuart Ward of Hfour, the “experiential studio” responsible for lighting up Vancouver’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. “You go to Japan during cherry-blossom season, and go to Ueno Park, the biggest park in Tokyo, and there will be a million people in that park, literally, and everybody is picnicking and getting drunk.

      “The tranquillity and peacefulness,” he adds, “comes when you’ve had too much to drink and all you can do is lie down and stare up at the trees.”

      You can’t buy a beer from a vending machine in Vancouver, at least not yet, and brown-baggers in our public parks are subject to seizure and a scolding, or worse, from the local constabulary. And while an unusually harsh West Coast winter has many pining for a piña colada under the spring sun, Ward is not advocating going over the legal limit while scoping out the pink blooms of Prunus serrulata. But he and Hfour plan to make the annual cherry bloom somewhat more exciting than simply watching the petals bud, blossom, and fall.

      “The core idea of tranquillity and cherry-blossom viewing at night, yozakura, is about taking a moment to reflect on the shortness of life, the ephemerality of all things,” says Ward. “We’ve taken that, and created an experience around illuminating the cherry blossoms. In Japan, they set up spotlights in the trees; they’re basically high-powered bulbs that illuminate the blossoms in white light, or yellowish-white light, so that people can see them.

      “But, doing projection and light art, I was inspired by the blossoms as a potential canvas for projections and illumination, and decided ‘Oh, we should see if we could take the core idea of cherry-blossom viewing at night and transform it into a more artful experience—a more experiential thing than just having some food and drinks under the illuminated trees.’ So we’ll have colourful light, projected light, a team of dancers led by a choreographer [Heather Laura Gray], and a soundtrack related to spring that we’ll be playing in an ambient way. It’s a celebration of the arrival of spring from a West Coast, multicultural perspective.”

      Lukasz Szczepanski

      Having previously lived in Japan for “half a decade”, Ward is happy to tell us about the origins of cherry-blossom viewing. It began, he explains, as a rural and somewhat bacchanalian custom honouring the disappearance of snow on the mountain passes. Think The Rite of Spring, but with kimonos. “No people could come or go from their village for the duration of winter,” he says, “so the melting of the snow and the arrival of the cherry blossoms was a big celebration. ‘Oh, we can go and visit the neighbouring village again. We can go and engage in commerce and trade again.’ ”

      What Ward can’t tell you is just when or even where his Spring Lights Illumination event will take place. Forecasting the annual bloom has always been an inexact science, and this year’s wacky weather patterns haven’t helped. Fortunately, Hfour and the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival have a secret weapon.

      “We were initially planning on doing March 31 and April 1, at Queen Elizabeth Park—but, as you can tell by the weather, that’s definitely not happening,” he reveals. “But there’s this guy, Joseph [Lin]. He’s an elderly gentleman, and from about February on he’s got a series of plum trees and early-blooming cherry trees, and for the past couple of decades he’s been monitoring them. Like clockwork, when they start to bloom he can map out the bloom of every other grove in the city.

      “We got information from Joseph that the Easter long weekend was probably going to be okay,” he adds. “And then we got more information that that is still too early, and we should be targeting the 21st and 22nd of April, so it keeps getting pushed back a little bit.”

      Keep an eye on the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival website for a definitive announcement, he suggests. And watch the festival in future years for even more reasons to get outside, at night, under colourful trees.

      “I’m hoping that this becomes a cultural thing in the city,” Ward says. “‘Oh, it’s spring and the cherry blossoms are out. Let’s go to the illuminations! Wonder where that’s happening this year?’ And ideally, it’ll be on for the entire duration of the bloom.”

      The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival takes place at various locations from Thursday (March 30) to April 23. For a full schedule and breaking blossom news, visit VCBF website.