Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

Weaving projects across time & space – Steve Rockwell’s Folio exhibit @ Fran Hill Gallery

Artist Steve Rockwell’s exhibition Folio opened at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Rd., Toronto – St. Clair and Rushton Rd., west of Bathurst) on Thursday night. I wasn’t able to make it to the opening, so I dropped by last night to chat with Fran and Steve about the work.

Weaving projects across time and space, Steve Rockwell’s Folio exhibit combines some 25+ years of work and exploration. Here are just a few examples:

Text. From Meditations on Space, a narrative performance piece – later produced in a book detailing Rockwell’s exploration of and interactions in gallery storage spaces, recording his impressions in both text and photographs as he visited galleries in Toronto, LA, New York and locations in Europe. In the book, each gallery blurb is a short text piece, about the length of a tweet – only, in this case, the experience was physical instead of virtual – each one a funny, surprising and detailed description of his interaction with gallery owners and the space. And the photographs include some whimsical shots of his self-portrait in the storage spaces.

Background. A collage of pages from dART INTERNATIONAL magazine, of which Rockwell is the founding editor and publisher, publishing two to three times a year.

Colour. Rockwell’s Color Match board game, where players receive a predetermined number of coloured cardboard tiles and place them on a square board divided into a grid to create a multi-coloured, mosaic-like pattern. The judge of the game can be randomly selected from the crowd in the space where the game is being played. Unlike conventional board games, players do not accumulate things – they contribute – and there are no winners or losers. Turn over the colour tiles and each has a name and I.D. number – names like “Antidote,” “Stop!” and “Game Over.” Color Match was played on buses during Nuit Blanche 2006 in Toronto and you can see an example of pieces created using Colour Match in Art Gallery of Ontario advertising – framed works hung on the wall of the room in the photograph. Keep an eye out for upcoming Color Match tournaments at Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto and elsewhere. You never know when a match might pop up.

Concept. Rockwell’s Gallery Space 1988 project started with gallery folks locating their gallery on a grid, also indicating on their grid sheet which “wall” of the space the door should go on (north, south, east or west side of the square). The visual/spatial data gathered via these grid sheets (collected in a bound volume as part of that exhibit) culminated in the creation of a 3-D floor plan model. The resulting maze-like piece identifies each gallery, the “doors” of each leading into another gallery. Information to connection.

The Folio exhibit is a series of 13 ¾” X 17” unframed, protectively coated pieces on paper, hung in such a way that each is set slightly away from the wall, moving banner-like with the air currents in the room. The four-colour grid used in each brings to mind the family standards of heraldry – like in Game of Thrones – and most include hand-written text, in black or white, from Meditations on Space. Others have no text, but the original magazine page text and images can be seen through the paint.

Rockwell is like a visual data analyst – collecting, deconstructing and creating works using the concepts of space, interaction, connection and colour. It’s a lot like life that way, really. And as we were chatting, he also told me about another interesting project – in this case, an edible one. Collaborating with restauranteur Saeed Mohamed, Rockwell created the dArt Burger, a BQM hamburger sandwich. The burger was deconstructed into The Pixilated dArt Burger for an installation piece – and I can only imagine what a delicious temptation that was for exhibit visitors. You can order the dArt Burger at BQM locations in Toronto on Ossington Ave. and Queen St. West.

Rockwell’s Folio exhibit is up at Fran Hill Gallery until May 19. Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. or by appointment.

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Artist Steve Rockwell at Fran Hill Gallery for his Folio exhibit.
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Three pieces from the Folio exhibit – Steve Rockwell.
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A grouping of four pieces in Steve Rockwell’s Folio exhibit.
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Another selection of works from Folio – Steve Rockwell.
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My favourite of the Folio pieces – both for the colour and the hilarious text.

Multi-media artist Victoria Vitasek gets up close & personal in Anxiety exhibit @ Fran Hill Gallery

Multi-media artist Victoria Vitasek’s exhibition Anxiety opened at Fran Hill Gallery last night to a packed space full of friends, family, fellow artists and likely – given the gallery’s neighbourhood vibe – folks who live in the area. Anxiety is Vitasek’s MFA thesis exhibition – she’s studying at York University after doing her undergrad at OCAD – an extremely personal exploration of moments of anxiousness, recorded through photographs, video and text.

Visitors to the gallery can see the one of the three self-portrait photographs as they approach the entrance. When I arrived, I met Vitasek, who gave me a tour of the exhibit, along with background info on the project. I couldn’t help but think about the irony of opening such a personal, revealing exhibit, which then had to be defended in front of her professors – an anxiety-inducing act in itself – a point that, while unspoken, I don’t think was lost on either of us. After we finished chatting, I took the opportunity to wander and visit each piece myself, going back to revisit, winding through the crowd as the space filled up.

The larger of the two intimate exhibit spaces displays three photos, all taken during moments when Vitasek was feeling anxious. She wears no make-up and her long dark brown hair is tied back, her gaze fixed straight ahead, giving you the impression that she’s looking right at you. What is especially remarkable about these three pieces is the scale. Each is a 40” x 40” inkjet print close-up – larger than life, emotion writ large. In each case, the emotion itself has a still intensity to it that makes these photographs both challenging to view yet impossible to look away from.

On the wall between the two spaces are three framed questionnaire pages, taken from two anxiety questionnaires. Each has been filled out, boxes ticked and statements regarding behaviour rated on a scale, along with written descriptions of anxious moments addressed by cognitive therapy responses, along with the outcome. As I read through them, I couldn’t help but mentally fill out the questionnaires myself. How often do I avoid, and how anxious do I feel about, being alone? Being in a crowded space? Travelling?

In the smallest exhibit space are two monitors, facing each other from opposite sides of the room. Each plays a video on a two-minute loop with no sound – both close-ups of Vitasek’s face. One shows the artist doing a breathing exercise – in through the nose and out through the mouth. On the other, the artist has her hands full of milkweed, her face in the background as she gradually blows the white fluffy, seed covered stuff off her hands – the last tuft becoming airborne with one puff of breath. The videos speak to each other even as each speaks to the viewer – and I found that, after a few moments of standing in front of the breathing exercise, the rhythm of my breathing fell into sync with Vitasek’s. Of the two videos, the breathing exercise is also the most challenging to witness. It has a rawness to it, an intensity that stands in sharp contrast to the more whimsical milkweed blowing video, where the artist’s face is in background focus.

Anxiety is extremely raw, personal and brave project – and also very beautiful and universal. Everyone has had moments of feeling anxious, apprehensive or uneasy, with individual responses driven by an eagerness to please, fear of failure, fear of the unknown. It’s all just a matter of degrees.

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Artist Victoria Vitasek, as seen through the gallery window.
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One of the three large self-portrait photographs.
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The anxiety questionnaires.
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The breathing exercise video.
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Blowing milkweed video.
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Vitasek speaks with some of the opening night visitors.
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Artist Victoria Vitasek and gallery owner Fran Hill.

Anxiety is up until April 20 at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Road, Toronto – St. Clair/Rushton Rd., west of Bathurst). Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. or by appointment.

Current & upcoming visual arts feasts

Wanted to shout out some current and upcoming visual art exhibits – in Toronto and Ottawa:

Photographer Pamela Williams has an exhibit up at Sunderland Hall GalleryFirst Unitarian (175 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto – west of Avenue Road, south side of St. Clair). Running now until April 21. Hours: Sun. Noon – 3 p.m., Tues. 5 – 9 p.m., Wed. 5 – 9 p.m., Thurs. 7 – 9 p.m.

Multi-media artist Victoria Vitasek’s MFA thesis exhibition Anxiety (a self-portrait series of photography, video and text) will be going up at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Rd., Toronto – St. Clair and Rushton Rd., west of Bathurst). Runs from April 9 – 20, with the opening on April 11 (6 – 9 p.m.). Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. or by appointment.

Visual artist Blair Sharpe presents new works from his On Some Faraway Beach series at Wallack Galleries (203 Bank St., Ottawa) April 13 – 27, with the opening on April 13 (meet the artist 2 – 4 p.m.) and an artist talk and tour of the exhibit on April 20 at 3 p.m. Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.