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.

SummerWorks: A young woman’s journey through confusing, crazy times toward empowerment & love in The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely

TheEmancipationofMs.Lovely-400x580“Today my heart broke,” said the seed, “it itched and ached, I was smashed to pieces.”
“Ahh,” said the burning sun, “you were growing, to blossom you have to break.” – Ngozi Paul

With today’s hand-held devices, and instant news and social media access, bad news travels even faster than before. The nature of the injustices we see – particularly those against marginalized and racialized people, and especially women and children – coupled with the sheer amount of information bombarding us every day, can be overwhelming and exhausting as we try to absorb and make sense of it all. All while we go about our own daily lives in search of growth, healing – and love.

It is this world that the heroine of The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely must navigate as she becomes herself and reaches out into the world for love. Written and performed by Ngozi Paul, directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, choreographed by Roger C. Jeffrey – and featuring music, performed on stage, by musicians/composers Waleed Abdulhamid and DJ L’Oqenz AKA Non – the play is an exciting offering of SummerWorks’ 2015 theatre series, running at the Factory Theatre Studio.

Lovely’s story is told through a series of a present day scenes of a sexual encounter and flashbacks to her youth. Growing up with her mother and grandmother, Lovely danced and sang to Jem and the Holograms, aspired to the strength of TV’s Wonder Woman, and adored Paula Abdul. Then came an interest in boys, and with it the pressure to “be cool,” and to behave and dress for them – something that Lovely struggles with, being the energetic girl that she is, and one who wears her heart on her sleeve. Then, the discovery of sex and intimate relationships – easily hurt with her heart out there like that – and the detachment of casual hook-ups and infidelity. Constantly getting the message – from family, friends, boyfriends and media – that her body and sexuality don’t belong to her, she loses sight of her true self, and judges herself and her body in the reflections of others. Until she has to ask herself: “What are you doing?”

Woven throughout Lovely’s story, in first person voice-over, is the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a 19th century black woman who was paraded around Europe as a human zoo attraction, her large buttocks used as a selling point – a “specimen” of an exotic black female, hyper-sexualized and exploited. So much so that after her death, her bones and vagina were on display in France for 200 years. Of Baartman’s story and its inclusion in the play, Paul writes: “On a quest to understand how I learned to love, what I understand about my body, my life, a woman’s life and what a black woman’s life means in the 21st century, I was introduced to reflections of myself in the cellular memory of Sarah Baartman.”

Brilliant performance from Paul – and one that includes movement, dance and physical theatre. Her characterizations are engaging and truthful, with a lovely combination of comedy and poignancy – from her watchful and critical grandmother, who doesn’t want shame brought upon the family; to the contagious energy of their church preacher, who blames Eve for man’s falling out with God; to the men who try to seduce her and those who succeed. And the bright-eyed, open-hearted Lovely – excited about growing up, and full of desire and longing. Longing for more than just good sex, but for love. While Paul’s story includes aspects specific to women of colour, it resonates with all women.

The minimalist set is very effective for this production (something that director young anitafrika pushed for as an alternative to Paul’s vision of a more multimedia, high-tech set-up). The nine identical full-length mirrors that cup the playing area serve to reflect the action of Lovely’s story, allowing for viewing at multiple angles. And the way the mirrors are used throughout shifts from child’s fairytale fantasy props to silent reflections of judgment and negative thoughts about body image.

A young woman’s journey through complex, confusing and crazy times toward ownership of her body and sexuality on the way to finding love in the powerful, high-energy and inspirational The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely.

The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely continues at the Factory Theatre Studio until Aug 16 and includes a talkback after the show – check the show page for exact dates/times.