One of the best surprises that came with TED’s inaugural Vancouver event last year was a breakaway party dubbed #NinjaVan.
With barely 72 hours’ notice, American punk-cabaret performer turned national treasure Amanda Palmer kidnapped more than a half-dozen fellow TED speakers—who people had just paid $7,500 to see—and put them on stage at the Vogue for the slightly more reasonable price of a donation to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.
The four-hour evening that ensued was beautifully structured chaos.
A little more planning went into this year’s show, which took place last night (March 18) again at the Vogue. Somebody was actually manning the lights, for example. And there was slightly less throwing of furniture compared to the previous year.
“I’m sorry for being so organized,” Palmer said upon taking the stage.
She also commented on a bit of a surprise revealed on Twitter and Instagram just a few hours earlier: “It’s Neil’s baby!” Palmer exclaimed with a big smile and a thank you to her husband and the soon-to-be father, author and creative genius Neil Gaiman.
The evening was thus double-billed as an unofficial but sort-of official announcement of the couple’s pending arrival, which, though Palmer is only 13 weeks pregnant, was already very much showing.
From there things began with Palmer singing a lovely rendition of the cozy self-esteem booster “In My Mind”.
Jason Webley, an old friend of Palmer’s and conjoined twin from Evelyn Evelyn, was up next and back on stage several times throughout the evening. He wanted to do something with a guitar but the audience requested he grab an accordion to talk about giraffes and, with a little encouragement from Palmer, that’s what he ended up doing.
The selection of speakers poached from TED this year was a little less diverse than 2014, with more of a focus on music and the arts.
Sri Lankan opera singer Tharanga Goonetilleke received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night early on with two beautifully haunting songs. She was accompanied by a local pianist whose name I didn’t catch but if somebody provides it in the comments, I’ll add it here. (Update: That didn't take long. The Vancouver pianist who accompanied Goonetilleke was Kerry O'Donovan. Thanks to Jessie for the info.)
Next, TED2013 alumni Dan Pallotta performed a couple of protest songs. He was followed by Usman Riaz from TED2012, who did that incredible thing he does with a guitar before sitting down at a piano, which, the audience learned with a bit of a laugh, is the instrument on which he was actually trained. (Riaz taught himself how to play guitar like that by watching YouTube videos.)
Returning from Palmer’s 2014 TED sideshow and numerous TED conventions, Sarah K once again proved herself a master of spoken word. Amy Cuddy, another TED and #NinjaVan veteran, didn’t spend as much time on stage as last year. She performed an old Dresden Dolls tune as a duet with Palmer, and also revealed a couple of secrets from the masked orgies that go on at a TED Brain Trust getaway.
Leading the home stretch of TED alumni appearances was New York Times crossword writer David Kwong. Not everybody in the audience was enthralled by his quick creation of a puzzle but I was very impressed.
Finally, there was the evening’s two surprise guests, the first of which wasn’t actually much of a surprise.
Soon-to-be daddy Neil Gaiman was greeted with a predictably very warm welcome. He read a short story about a genie finding happiness in October, which everybody seemed to love, and then a never-before-shared piece titled “Poem for an Unborn Child”, which everybody seemed to love even more.
Ending the evening, retired Canadian Space Agency commander Chris Hadfield returned to #NinjaVan to go meta-astronaut. He sang David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and then had Palmer perform 2008's “Astronaut” for him.
Hadfield noted he never received applause while floating through space at eight kilometres a second, and thanked the crowd for the attention. And I walked home wondering if maybe there was a little bit more I could be doing with my life.