Sep 29, 2009

A More Intimate Experience



I moved from Dublin to London a little over ten years ago. My head was full of poetry, music, art and anxiety. I loved writing and I loved writers. While I have a hard time remembering my last few months in Ireland, one event, driven by this passion, sticks out: seeing Nick Cave twice in one day.

The lanky, deep-voiced Australian artist was in Dublin on the lecture circuit, delivering his treatise on the relationship between creativity, poetry, life, and love. He held an afternoon chat, during which he would occasionally break away to play the odd tune on a grand piano. I recall his stripped-down version of "West County Girl," with its dramatic, low-roaring ending of "then purrrrrs... AGAIN" sent chills down my spine. He talked about saudade. He talked about owning grief. He talked about Jesus, creation, the Old Testament, the New, an the relationship of art -of writing -to each. Fancying myself a true writer, I was in love with Cave's dramatic, deeply-felt works, even if I didn't quite have the life experience to fully understand them. And a writer talking about writing... was manna from heaven. Verging on broke, I took what little I had and bought another ticket for the same talk happening that evening. I filled an entire journal with notes hastily scribbled during his chat, and once I'd run out of ink, I sat, silent and pie-eyed, hoping to someday be half the writer Cave was -and indeed, still is.

Cave has never shied away from showing his writerly streak, in all its flagrant glory. Part of this, for those who know his work, comes from his early exposure to literature courtesy of his English teacher-father, who died when Cave was still quite young. Known for his work with the Bad Seeds, Cave also published And the Ass Saw The Angel (Harper Collins) in 1989, a wildly surreal, violent, bizarre work that was equally potent, poetic, and memorable. He's always worn his love for the written word proudly on his sleeve. He says (in the clip above) that his work has always been "bursting at the seams with lyrical information" -which is putting it mildly in terms of his own gift with words. As befits a rock and roll guy with a poetic streak, he credits music for giving life to his words, noting there's "a musical rhythm to the language." But his heart's still firmly with those words, just as much as it is with tones, sounds, and rhythms.

The Death Of Bunny Munro (Harper Collins) is Nick Cave's latest novel. While I'm not the biggest fan of some of his more recent music (Grinderman being the exception), I admit that the novel is deeply intriguing. It's as if, in embracing his literary side, he's also embracing the aggressively male side that characterized at least a portion of his work in the 1990s with the Bad Seeds (the stuff I particularly adored then, natch); it's like Cave is exercising (not exorcising) that still-remnant Bad Seed, the one that's been at least outwardly tamed by domestic responsibility. He can live in the squalid, dark corners of his imagination through writing, without robbing the his other creative pursuits of their pungency.

I'm really glad to see Cave still writing, and still exploring this important side of his artistry. And I'm glad he's being honest about it, in traveling through this kind of dark, non-cuddly terrain. Artists worth their salt shouldn't, by their nature, always release likable, easily-digestible stuff. The artists I happen to love the most, that tend to stay with me longest, often release work that is challenging, thought-provoking, hard -and distinctly non-nice. Record companies may not always like their artists' extra-curricular creative activities, but... balls, I do, and some of them enjoy doing it, too. Sometimes it's the only thing that keeps sanity intact for artist and audience alike.

That doesn't mean sales don't matter, though. As if to underline this, Bunny Munro was itself released in three formats: hardcover, audio book, and iPhone application. The audio book version includes a score by Dirty Three member/Bad Seed/scary-lookin' dude Warren Ellis. The audio book intrigues because you get Cave's deep voice giving a deeply-dramatic rendering of his own words (I remember in Dublin he called them "children," which I was chuffed at, referring as I did then to my own work in the exact same way); in addition, you get Ellis' intuitive musical underscoring, creating an eerie, atmospheric complement. If you have an iPhone, you can partly-read, partly-listen, using the specially-designed app. Who would've thought books would be so easy, so multi-faceted, so ... octopus-like in reach, scope, presentation and marketing? I don't buy the whole romantic notion of "simple appeal" even though I do enjoy the sensual appeal of the tangible (I mean hell, I love cooking, right?). I love how technology and tradition have married with The Death Of Bunny Munro, and I love that Nick Cave is so very open to it. He says he wrote the first chapter on his iPhone, and the rest in longhand. And yet he equally admits that sitting down with a book is probably more intimate.

This balance between tradition and technology is really refreshing; its equal embrace by an artist of Cave's calibre is downright inspiring. I haven't decided which format I'll get yet, but I'm leaning at the audio book -if only to hear that dramatic voice reading words rendered by mind, heart, and those long, elegant fingers. I ran into Cave -by accident or some grand intelligent design -several time after I moved from Dublin to London. He was in Toronto recently to read from Bunny Munro and do a raft of interviews as well as a book signing. When I heard his voice on the radio, I smiled. My romantic ideas around writing have totally vanished, but Cave's respect for his art is a boon to me still. And I can't wait to be corrupted by Bunny.

Sep 26, 2009

Change The Lens

Along with the cooler temperatures of fall comes new opportunities. My challenges around shifting perspectives, having been helped along by artists, projects, and friends, was underlined this week with two events: attending the opening of the new Nicolas Ruel show at Toronto's Thompson-Landry Gallery, in the city's historic Distillery District, on Thursday night, and going to the opening of Secrets of a Black Boy, at another historic location, Toronto's Danforth Music Hall, lastnight. Each experience afforded me some rich insight into the nature of perception, particularly as it relates to urban landscapes, and to those around us, and how we relate with them.

Ruel works in large-scale photographic works, printing his multi-layered urban landscapes onto smooth stainless steel. To quote the gallery's website, his most recent work, projet 8 secondes, "depicts urban civilizations captured by the photographer in sustained intervals of eight seconds." The cities of Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Paris and Sydney are all explored in images that are both dreamy and hard, ethereal and slick. It's somewhere in the middle -and the viewer has to find that middle -where the truth of Ruel's work lies.

This eight-second exposure pause is interesting to me because it collapses conventional notions around perception, time, and the relations we draw between each. Architecture becomes dance; streets become skies. Solidity is rendered extremely fluid, implying our fixed notions of time and space -and our place within each -are merely illusions, that there's no "fixed" at all, that, even with the hard shiny surface of stainless steel, a myriad of hidden illusions and layers lies just beneath the surface. It takes an adjustment in position -physical, mental, emotional -to see the things that lie concealed in the most surprisingly shallow ways. Such a small shift allows us to view the world around us -ourselves, our relationship with others, including solid structures and forms -in a new, more fluid, all-encompassing way. If you think you're stuck in one spot, Ruel's work whispers in a silvery, high-timbred way, think again -step back, step over, turn right, turn left. Small shifts change everything, and underline the fluid, non-linear nature of existence.

I found myself particularly compelled by two works, one of which was shot in London, England, a favourite city I lived in a decade ago. I'm always fascinated by the ways in which artists choose to shoot such a vivid, varied place; each one seems to bring me back to Pepys' work as well as Johnson's famous statement about the British capital, adding miniscule bricks to his stance. Ruel's work is deceptively simple; it features a window, layerered with subtle shapes. But is that all? No, it looks like there could be the vast environs of a train station defining the piece, giving it scale and context. The piece, "Window," gives off a smoky, oblique sheen that uses empty space as a dramatic character. Is that smoke? or clouds? is this about terrorism? or daydreaming? or travel? the transitory nature of modern life? of art? of perception? is this simply about resting the brain and not thinking? Is that the right response? Having lived in the city, I had a personal reaction to it -and I think, perhaps, that might be the point. We each carry personal ideas and sometimes experiences around the cities Ruel depicts. He's asking us to step aside from those notions, however slightly, and look at things in a new way.

The second work I was drawn to, "Midnight Stand," was shot on a narrow, crowded street in Tokyo, and is impressive for its sheer size (it's at least six feet across, if not more, and almost as high). The piece has a bustling, busy energy, with the electric light glow of the street dancing against the ghostly top half of a man semi-super-imposed on top, his white-shirted arm floating amidst the cacophony of reds, blues, and greens. This is one of the more colourful pieces in the collection, in that Ruel has allowed a myriad of shades to infuse his work -unlike "Window," which uses deep blues and greys, its depiction like a paned, smoky-cemented bruise of modern life. The mammoth Tokyo work gave an impression of a city at once colliding with and embracing tradition -melding old and new ways. While this isn't a new idea about the Japanese capital, it was originally presented, with little shops and lights almost appearing as strips of celluloid, or comic panes; look from a different angle and... wow, there are people. Actual, real people, with actual real lives, trying to earn a living amidst the hustle and bustle. There was so much texture built up on the smooth piece of steel as to be awe-inspiring. Different levels of perception, reality, and experience collided, and I had to take a step back and go for a glass of Riesling and a deep breath. Fascinating, compelling, poetic -just some words I'd use to describe Ruel's work. You won't quite look at your own city the same way again.

I thought about this shift in perspective watching Darren Anthony's deeply affecting premier work, Secrets of a Black Boy, which opened lastnight at Toronto's sizeable Danforth Music Hall. Despise some venue drawbacks (the lobby is weensie and the raking is shallow, so if you're short and get stuck behind a giant... too bad), the show is solid, uplifting, moving, and not a little provocative. Anthony is the brother of theatre artist Trey Anthony, best known for her hit work Da Kink In My Hair. While Trey explored black female identity, first-time playwright Darren examines male black identity, particularly within the modern urban context of a rapidly-gentrifying downtown Toronto. Five young black men come together in a community hall that is soon to be torn down, and, over a game of dominoes, share their histories, anxieties, fears, and joys. The intimacies are delivered one-by-one in a series of monologues addressed to the audience, with other cast members occasionally joining in and acting out requisite parts. Issues like sex, parenting, gender relationships, homosexuality, friendship and gun violence are all touched on, some with more subtlety and grace than others. The lines about AIDS and condom usage came off a bit heavy-handed, but then, nothing about Secrets is especially subtle anyway. There's a vibrant mix of hip-hop, soul, old-school funk, and classic rap pumped out by a live DJ throughout the work, providing atmosphere, accent and emotional underpinning as needed. Wisely, some scenes are allowed to be silent (such as a monologue delivered by a domestic abuser, played and delivered by Anthony himself), and in others, it's the actors themselves who provide the noise -for instance, opening the second half with a Stomp-esque dance/clap routine and closing the show with a repeated, urgent plea: "We. Are. Here."

Secrets of a Black Boy is everything Canadian theatre should be in 2009; it's vibrant, zesty, thoughtful, involving, and deeply insightful. It's also chalk-full of talented (and um, gorgeous) people. The audience for the show's opening was equally fantastic; I've never seen such a young, eclectic, stylish, and involved group at an opening (and they weren't tiresome luvvies, either). This is the audience most Canadian theatres are, I think, frothing at the mouth to get. Yet it takes more than a DJ and some graffiti-esque design to bring them. Anthony and his team have worked at marketing the campaign across social media platforms and have integrated many aspects of their own experiences into the mix. I got the feeling Secrets isn't viewed strictly as Art, either (the "You are coming to the thee-uh-tah, we are doing something totally Art-full here, now act smart and say deep things"-hipster posturing that dents so many promising productions for me); rather, the show is Community itself, and that community is much, much wider and deeper than any stereotype of The Male Black Suspect. These are real men, with real problems and challenges, some of which I actually found myself relating to. The bit about absent fathers and the grief that causes throughout life rang particularly deep bells for me, a white woman living what is probably a pretty privileged existence. Funny how the intimate can become epic, and then intimate all over again.

Anthony's work is sincere, honest, and refreshingly unpretentious. It's also fun, and has a fantastic streak of interactivity running through it. As with Ruel's work, you won't look at your own city -or the people who make it up -the same way. We all have secrets -even cities have them, really - but it takes a shift in thinking and perception to see what they mean -and how they can change us and our choices -in the long run. Bravo Ruel, Bravo Anthony; you've made me change the lens and take the long way home.

Secrets of a Black Boy photos by Marc Lostracco.
projet 8 secondes works by Nicolas Ruel.

Sep 25, 2009

Let Me In

Balance is difficult -and I don't just mean the standing-on-one-foot variety. Staying aware of reactions can be a trying endeavor -and balancing opposing reactions is an even greater challenge, particularly in the face of what I'd term Generally Bad Sh*t That Sometimes Happens. But it is wise to consider the Generally Bad from different viewpoints. So it was with a lot of courage and deep breathing that I managed to pull myself out of a black hole of feeling-left-out-ness lately. Recognizing the let-in-ness has been difficult, sure, because it's meant a total re-adjustment of perception and attitude to outer circumstances; change is never comfortable, particularly as one gets older. But the adjustment, while strange, has also been a real blessing, thank in no small part to the truly big hearts of good friends, and more than a few incredible experiences that I've able to view as proof that Good Stuff Happens Too.

First of all, I recently had the opportunity to see an incredibly beautiful film, Amreeka, the first feature film by director/writer Cherien Dabis. It's a really heartfelt look at the experiences of a mother and son from the West Bank who emigrate to the American Midwest. I interviewed Dabis about the work, and we discussed ideas around family, politics, and being an outsider. In a film where maudlin emotion easily could've trumped authenticity, Dabis touches all the right emotions, gently, while telling a compelling, involving story. Oh, and she told me she "hates" sentimentality. Hallelujah. None of her characters are victims, but rather, survivors, loving, living, and muddling their way through like the rest of us. Amreeka served as a wonderful reminder to me of the importance of relationships -to friends, family, work, and life itself.

Second good thing: the recent launch of AUX. The Canadian music station has been operating online for several months, but will be making its formal televised launch October 1st. I couldn't help but think back to the early days of Muchmusic in watching chief AUX-ster Raja Khanna speak at the event Wednesday night. With a beguiling combination of sincere enthusiasm and music geek fondness, he excitedly outlined the station's programming, and introduced its hosts, which included Explore Music's Alan Cross.

Lead singer Kenny Bridges of the Canadian indie rock group Moneen helps kick off the launch event for AUX music television September 23rd at Supermarket in Toronto. Photo courtesy of AUX.TV.

Amidst the total breakdown of the ways in which music is being created, shared, and consumed these days, it was refreshing to see such a great blend of faith, dedication and passion for artistry on display. No more "Pimp my Ride" or "Pimp My Bedroom" or any other inane nonsense that seems to occupy so many supposedly-cultural television stations on AUX -just music, examined and explored through various lenses, some fun, some serious, some playful, some challenging. Along with original programming, AUX is bringing Jools Holland's totally excellent chat show to these shores (finally!) -proof-positive that Khanna and his team take music, and the artistry behind it, very seriously. In this world of media meltdown and of taking artists for granted, it's refreshing to see there are still solid music lovers out there willing to bet they can build something beautiful.

Within the vein of building -and by extension, artistry -I'm really happy to announce that I'm part of a team organizing a salon speaking series in Toronto called Heads. I was approached by my fellow Heads-ster (and outright genius, frankly) Simon a few week ago, and ... lo and behold, we have speakers, a venue, and even an art battle (think Iron Chef, with paint in place of food). TED (and its Canadian counterpart, Idea City) has the market cornered in terms of brainy speaking engagements, sure, but we aim for Heads to be more inclusive, less formal, and more in the tradition of the great French salons of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people of all stripes and backgrounds gathered to yap about culturally interesting, relevant topics. Simon likes to say it'll be "more think, less drink" -because as fun as the odd piss-up is, this isn't aiming to be that, but rather, a solid gathering of people who want to discuss and debate ideas -in Heads' first outing, those ideas will revolve around the validity (or not) of Canadian dairy laws, advances in neuroscience, and lo and behold, online arts patronage. All this for $5. I mean, really? This feels so right for right now, right here, and being involved in this project has yielded so many new blessings and inspirations, opening the way for me to think about my own pursuits in entirely new ways.

The glass is really half-full. It's all in how you look at it -with head and heart equally, is, I suspect, the best approach.

Sep 21, 2009

Cool (Hot) Beets

I'm writing this from my kitchen -my place of refuge, my studio, my laboratory, all rolled in one. It's funny how such a simple change of locale -from upstairs to down -can drastically alter the way one approaches one's work. No wonder coffee shops are so filled with people on laptops; what is sometimes lost in personal interconnection in such circumstances is often gained in the field of inspiration and initiative (though I'd argue one is deeply connected with the other).

So, after much thought -and a joyous session in roasting beets (more below), I've decided to include simple recipes as part of Play Anon. Rather than watering down its content, I feel it will add to, and complement it. Food is as much a part of culture as theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, electronic art, and so on -though it is also vastly more immediate, and I feel, intimate in its nature. Food is what we share as humans. We cannot live without eating. And like all cultural things, it provides needed nourishment -not only to our bodies, but on spiritual, mental, and emotional levels.

Right now, I'm typing with hands softened by good olive oil, just used to anoint the beets which now roast in the oven. I love beets, and always have done, ever since I was a child, standing beside my mother, hands stained purple, carefully peeling, apron firmly tied. I grew up thinking there was only one way to prepare them -that is, my mother's method: boil to death, messily peel, drown in butter. While I'm not immune to the charms of butter and salt (though now, I'm finding good quality in each harder to come by), I feel treating such a beautiful vegetable so heinously borders on the sinful. Basic rule: if the vegetable is good, it should stand on its own. Period.

So while I applaud Lucy Waverman integrating beets into various dishes to tempt the palette of any beet-hating President, I prefer my purpley root veg straight-up. Antony John understands this. I had the wonderful fortune of visiting his beautiful farm, Soiled Reputation, last month. Sitting just outside the town of Stratford, Ontario, the farm grows organic vegetables which are then used in many restaurants across the Southern end of the province. Jamie Kennedy, the activist-chef (and one of my very-favourites, for his food and his ethos), uses Soiled Reputation's veg, including their lovely, feathery greens, filled with sweet and bitter tastes.

One of the things I brought back from my trip was a bag of beets. Though pink on the outside, they're white on the inside. They yield a sweeter flavour than regular beets, and I am wagering, roast up deliciously.

Roasting is, incidentally, my favourite method, though I have also experimented with marinating sliced beets in good balsamic, and then barbequing, both with foil and without. But there's something awfully comforting about the smell of roast-anything wafting through the house, particularly as temperatures drop and the season turns. With the advent of autumn, root vegetables come back to prominence at my table.

Depending on the size of the beets, you may wish to slice them (I chopped a few bigger ones in half width-wise) and i always take the top off (the part where the greens sprout), though I tend to leave the "tail" -there's something so merry about them, even if you can't (or won't) eat that portion.

So you will need:

Roughly 12 beets, small, or 8 small, 2 medium, 1-2 large, all very well-scrubbed.
  • Leave the small beets whole; chop the medium beets in half width-wise; chop the large beets in manageable chunks.
  • Pour good olive oil on top -about 3-4 tsp should be enough, but use your judgment; you don't want them swimming or dripping in it, but you want enough to lubricate the beets and the casserole dish they're sitting snugly in, rosy cheek to pale jowl.
  • Sprinkle salt on top: sea, rock, red, whatever you wish.
  • Toss with your bare hands.
  • Cover with foil, loosely; pop into a pre-heated oven (400F) for about 15 minutes; check after that to see if they're done how you like, or if you need to add more oil.
I'd leave them in another 15-20 minutes. Prick with a fork if you're really not sure but they'll be making little sizzley sounds to indicate they're cooked.

And... that's it.

Really, wasn't that easy?

Addendum: 30ish minutes did the trick. Delicious, succulent, sweet, and rich. I said it before, I'll say it again: beets are beautiful. Take that, Mr. Obama.

Sep 15, 2009

Don't Sign This


I came across this incredible piece of animation courtesy of my illustrator friend Kit on Facebook, who kindly provided a link. It's taken from The Beatles' Rock Band game. Yes, it seems the Fab Four are everywhere these days, what with videos and box sets, and, from what I can glean across social media networks, a whole new demographic coming to know and adore their enormous -and enormously influential -body of work. Watching this animation, with its combination of running, flying, playing and well... playing, I was struck by the sprightly, fun spirit of the piece, and how it perfectly encapsulates the madness that was Beatlemania.

Equally, I can't help but look at the footage with confusion and a discomfort. I'm immediately reminded of the masses lined up outside some of Toronto's swankiest hotels for the past few days. People are breathlessly waiting for some kind of glimpse of a celebrity -a wave will suffice, never mind the pandemonium around a handshake or an autograph. There's a surreal kind of madness around fame that I do not pretend to understand. Perhaps my own time around the famous and celebrated has jaded me, although, in all frankness, I've seen people of all stripes and levels of notoriety at their very best, and at their very worst. When it comes to artists, the guy playing the back room of a dirty beer joint is sometimes more awe-inspiring than the stadium-fillers (and the latter will cop to this, too); the violinist on the subway platform can produce a more transcendent experience than a symphony, a spontaneous piece of graffiti inspire something deeper and more stirring than any framed canvas. I guess it depends on one's mood, and perhaps more tellingly, perspective.

But at the heart of it, people are people, whether they walk around barefoot or they're escorted everywhere in Cadillac Escalades. Artists -not ones playing at art or fussing around its edges -are seeking some kind of connection, to a wider world and experience than is easily granted. Does fame water down artistic output? That's a tough one -one I'm still at odds to work out. Does the public actually want to be challenged? I engaged in a debate around celebrity reporting earlier on my Twitter feed, with Doug Saunders and I both agreeing that, from a journalistic point of view, offering intelligent, insightful reportage is harder than ever (though if you're looking, check out Lynn Crosbie, who is one of the best). The Beatles manifest in cartoon form is, on many levels, a keen commentary on the nature of popular perception around fame -we like our heroes two-dimensional, don't we? Don't make a mistake, don't get too weird, don't be political, and talk in a language we all get. (The whole "Dammit, be normal and stop the weird crap, you're one of us! / Dammit, you're so awesome and stratospherically awesome, you're not like us!" dichotomy is a whole other argument, and perhaps, future blog post.) The fact you can now play along with The Beatles, and thus claim your own little slice of Beatles-dom, makes it even more interesting, twisted, and surreal: "You too can be Paul, John, George or Ringo... just press a button!" Forget practise and craft. Pffft.

For me, artists -the ones I really admire, am challenged by, and who open up ways of perceiving existence and point at (indeed, celebrate) the world in all its maddening, chaotic horror/splendor -they aren't two-dimensional (even if some choose to take that by-now-tiresome ironic pose, or play that damn role into the ground -especially annoying if you know they're actually interesting). In the same vein, I don't buy the airbrushed version of celebrity. I don't want to. Messy, human, faulty, wrinkly, fat, grey and ridiculous: kind of like the rest of us, only with flashbulbs, sharpies, Whole Foods and questionable taste.

I'll be on the Park Hyatt's roof shortly -not because I want to meet any celebrities, but because it's simply one of my favourite spot in Toronto, and I want to enjoy the September sunshine while it lasts. If anyone wants a chat, famous or not ... you know where to find me. Leave the cartoon-you on the street below.

Sep 14, 2009

Do Ya Love Me?

I never thought of Patrick Swayze as an actor. I never thought of him as a singer, either.

I always thought of him as, first and foremost, a dancer.

This is a big reason why.


Not a fan of Dirty Dancing, I nevertheless found his easy, clear, sinuous movement entrancing; he was so comfortable in his own body, and his sense of joy at his own movement was palpable. Yet he wasn't afraid to poke fun at the beefcake status he gained after the release of Dirty Dancing, as this Saturday Night Live clip demonstrates.

There was a real sense of play when he moved; a play with air, with limbs, with range of motion -and between floor and body, gravity and air. Like the great Hollywood dancers of the past, Swayze understood the theatre of dance -and the necessity of incorporating play within that theatre.

Thank you, Patrick.

Sep 11, 2009

Action

I always feel like the calamitous meets the surreal this time of year. Maybe it's seasonal, what with the changing over from summer to autumn. Transformation and transfiguration are afoot. There's a strange energy of walking through the threshold of something vaguely important, especially for me this time of year. Early September comes and goes and I always feel like something has totally shifted.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 irrevocably underlined, on a personal level, this profound sense of shifting from one mode into another. And yet, along with sadness and fear, there's also a mountain of excitement that comes with this change. The annual Toronto International Film Festival is on and the city goes mad for movies. Sure there are the "stars" but people are also interested, I believe, in seeing something new, unique, and unusual. It was this promise -this encapsulation of strange, surreal, and transformative -that propelled me to start attending the film festival so many moons ago. Now, as a journalist covering the fest (my second year), I'm finding myself wistful for the old days, if also equally inspired by the way the event brings the city together and makes people excited about Toronto. Sure, there are foreigners everywhere, and it's usually the celebs getting the flashbulbs, but people are still out and about, curious to be a part of a larger event, and taking a chance they might see something special at the multiplex.

I'm only covering a handful of things, but they're goodies. I've already done a story on two of the Bravo!FACT shorts, a piece on the National Film Board of Canada's animated works, and a feature interview with director Guy Maddin. While they're smaller works, I kind of feel it's the spirit of these quiet, poetic works that still nicely encapsulates the original feeling of the TIFF -back when it was called the Festival of Festivals. I still have programs from that time on bookshelves in my basement, and every time I see their aging spines, flecked with creases and scratches, I harken back to all those times I lined up in the rain, or the wind, or the heat, just to catch that exact "something special." The Toronto International Film Festival was a big reason why I went on to film school long ago. I loved the movies. Lately I've been re-examining that time in detail, examining my motivations, my choices, and the eventual outcomes that lead me here, now. It makes for heavy thought (if equally boring reading, ha) but it also gives me a unique perspective on the fest, and my own personal memories.

Without going into a laundry-list of moments and meetings, I'll just share a few special TIFF-going experiences. The first was meeting Nigel Hawthorne, who is perhaps best-known to North American audiences as poor mad King George in The Madness of King George. (He was here at the time for Twelfth Night.) He was warm, funny, and very sincere. Once he gleaned that he had a true theatre afficionado stood before him, he really opened up, whence a stream of lovely conversation between us poured forth. In a similar vein, I remember seeing the premiere screening of Al Pacino's Looking For Richard. I know a lot of critics -theatre and film -balked, but I loved the energy of his work, and I still really adore his huge, vocal passion for Shakespeare and theatre in general. During the screening, Pacino was seated a mere two rows behind me and I recall turning around to observe him watching, to see if there was any kind of rise -or if he was even still sitting there. Indeed he was, furiously gnawing on his nails, eyes like saucers, a knee against his chest. I've never seen anyone look so nervous. I actually felt sorry for him. Then there was a Dutch film called De vliegende Hollander; it took the mythic roots of the flying Dutchman and combined it with elements of history, fantasy, and other European folklore (mainly central and Eastern), fashioning a surreal, deeply poetic, and utterly moving piece of cinema. To my knowledge, it never got a North American release, and yet it was easily one of the greatest things I've ever seen at the TIFF (yes, ever). I remember returning to film school the week after, re-energized and re-inspired for the year ahead.

And though I'm not working in film now but covering its artists instead, it's moments such as these that make me glad to have been part of this event, and at such an important, seminal time of year. Today is grave for so many people (and let's not forget Chile, please) but in Toronto at least, there is a symbol that embraces these contradictions of life experience, balancing them with the magic of light and dark, to show us something beautiful, important, and perhaps most importantly, connecting. We may sit in cinemas, not talking, staring at a dance of shadows and projected light -but we're all together, in the magic of the dark, creating our own shared world. That has to count.

Sep 4, 2009

With The Greatest of Ease

I love the Chapiteau. Ce n'est pas une surprise. Cirque Du Soleil's latest joyous creation, OVO, is now on in Toronto. Though I had seen Cirque before in large arenas, I hadn't experienced it in the "Grand Chapiteau." And so a friend (who had never seen a Cirque show) and I toodled off to the Eastern Portlands at Toronto's waterfront. It was an evening of enchantment, delight, and absolute, unabashed play.

Neither photos nor words really capture the magic of a Cirque show fully. Even though I'd been given the finger-wagging "No pictures, please!" notice from Chapiteau staff, I wanted to turn my camera not toward the performers, but onto my fellow attendees -eyes agog, mouths dropped open, in awe. Any way you cut it, the drama within a Cirque show is in-built by virtue of the fact that they are performing dangerous, heady feats and often rely on little to protect their falls. There is also a noticeably strong thread of community -family, really -between performers. One relies on the other, another on someone else, and so on -like a set of dominoes. Both in the limelight and behind-the-scenes, the Cirque is only as strong as its team.

There are a number of particularly affecting moments in OVO. I liked the couple doing the 'rope/cloth' (banquine) routine; they seem to share genuine chemistry, and the comparison I heard at intermission (to Zumanity, Cirque's sexy Vegas show) is entirely apt. The way they swung around the performance area, his arms wrapped around hers, both of them supported only by two pieces of luxurious cloth, was a deeply entrancing visual. Such moments aren't merely wondrous in a physical sense; they're meditative in a spiritual one. Equally, the gold-clad trapeze men, looking like airborne centurions –but, with the insect theme of OVO, they were probably bees or maybe wasps -provided the same mix of wonder at physicality and awe at the abilities of the physical and artistic worlds colliding to produce something inspired by... insects. Wow. The trapezists flew back and forth between stations, landing on one another' shoulders, and then disembarking and falling, arms aloft, into the netting below them, their swift graceful decent a sure dance with gravity, time and space. Breathtaking.

Equally affecting were the myriad of tumblers, who, dressed in ridged chartreuse costumes –again, looking like determined little bugs -bounced in a kind of organized chaos against a pseudo-rock-face, their timing at once rhythmic and chaotic. Brazilian director Deborah Colker smoothly blends these moments of inspired chaos with loud, pulsating electronica sounds, counterbalancing every frenetic routine with a slower, more contemplative one. The quiet poetry of a figure wrapped in a kind of nylon, placed vertically and stretching swaying and shimmying, before emerging from her cocoon to become a butterfly, was simple, classy, and deeply moving. OVO embraces the poetic marriage between the worlds of humans and insects, transferring the physical mechanics of each into a wider exploration about the nature of natural connection. Yes, there's a lot going on beneath the surface (just as there is in the world of insects), but without being too heady, I can also tell you: OVO is a boatload of fun.

Just as dramatic (and fun) to behold as the other bugged-out creatures was the Spider character, who re-defines the idea of 'high wire' entirely. With his Mad Max-esque costume and dramatic makeup recalling Japanese kabuki, he retained an air of theatricality even as he stepped, balanced, and carefully picked his way across a very small, very loose wire (called a "slack wire" in circus terms). During the performance, I actually heard him let out a howl of triumph as his eyes widened like saucers, and his chest came puffing out upon completing his ride across the wire on nary but a tiny unicycle (successfully). Hands clapped together and he glared out at the assembled crow triumphantly; it was so dramatic, I wanted to vault out of my seat then and there with applause. That's the fantastic thing about such acts within a Cirque show: performers don't just go through the motions, and then bow politely. No way. They inhabit their roles -and the physical movements that go with those roles -utterly, to the letter, or in OVO's case, antenna. Limbs, faces, heads, feet and fingers -all are stretched, leaning, flicking, swirling in accordance with the performers' buggy counterparts, elevating OVO to the realm of the theatrical. While audiences might be conscious of the show's pretend-factor, they're nevertheless moved by its execution.

But I have to say, on a personal note, I also loved -love -the clowning that happens in Cirque shows. OVO confirmed my adoration, using a cute story of thwarted-then-successful affection (Newcomer Boy Bug likes Neighbourhood Girl Bug; misunderstandings ensure before a happy communion). The clowns, as per the commedia dell'arte tradition that so influences Cirque's work, gently and amusingly interacted with one another before mining the audience for inspiration. This, in turn, lead to inspiring play within the audience itself. The OVO clowns reminded me, in their pratfalls, voiced effects (which took the place of dialogue) and grand gesturing, of the importance of embracing the playful side of life, that play doesn't just happen under the Grand Chapiteau.

And maybe that's the point of OVO, and on a larger scale, the mission of Cirque Du Soleil itself. It's as if the clowns, tumblers, and the entire cast are there to remind us, that for every piece of darkness we come across in life, there exists its equal, shining and rife with possibility –and it’s right inside us. We may not be able to do the tricks and tumbles of the performers, but we can allow ourselves to be transported to the world of OVO, and thus, engage our imaginations –and hearts –in the process. Outside the protective canvas walls of the Chapiteau, there's certainly misery aplenty; inside, however, there is simply... play. Insect play, human play, musical play, physical play. Play takes you out of yourself, and to quote an old song, “take the world in a love embrace.” Sure it’s corny –but it’s needed more than ever for what’s bugging us. Play is there -here -if you want it. Merci, Cirque.

Cirque Du Soleil photos by Benoit Fontaine.

Sep 3, 2009

Rundles: The Art of Nourishment

Summer? What summer?

That seems to be the mantra echoing throughout much of Canada this year. Certainly, a lot of Torontonians have been muttering/twittering/blogging this along with the requisite complaints about too much rain, too much cold, and a shivery lack of typical sunshine-y weather. While I generally agree, this year hasn’t been the best, it has, on my own personal and professional levels, been filled with many happy events –outdoor barbeques, concerts, shows, and a myriad of fantastic interview experiences.

In pondering this good/bad conundrum as I turned the calendar into September, it occured that the perhaps the best possible ending for such a summer would be a wonderful meal. Fortunately, perhaps through happenstance or good fortune, I got just that. It turned out to be one of the best meals of my life, to be frank. I was in Stratford, Ontario recently, covering late-season openings and doing a story about the town’s incredibly rich foodie roots (look for it on Lucid Forge in the next few weeks). Food writing is really becoming a huge passion of mine; it’s as if I’ve transferred my stunted passion for painting into the kitchen, where palette becomes canvas and tools –heat, cold, blenders, processors –marry with colours (that is, ingredients) to produce a wonderful experience that is primal and intimate. At the same time as such specificty of experience occurs, I acknowledge that eating is a universal experience; it’s no secret that food is the magical, magically simple thing that binds humanity.

So it was with more than a little wonder and a bucket of gratitude that I accepted an invitation to dine at Rundles, one of Stratford’s top restaurants. I would truly wager that Rundles is one of the finest in Canada, actually, but not having eaten my way across the country (yet), I can’t quite say for certain. Regardless, it was a gorgeous meal, and ranks among the top three of my life (you’ll have to keep tuned to the blog to find out what the other two were!). Owner Jim Morris truly, deeply understands the powerful connecting force of food, and is keenly aware of the deep, lasting pleasure a good meal can bring. I shared my space with a large party of eight beside me, who chatted theatre (naturally) along with commenting on the food, as I listened in and savoured every little drop of my own succulent meal. It’s amazing how good food, well-presented, with attentive service, in a creative, open atmosphere, has such a healing, calming effect. A good meal isn’t just about getting what you want, but sensing the chef is nourishing you with what you need. Food becomes prayer, meditation, celebration, and exchange.

I last visited Rundles well over ten years ago. I wasn’t sure about foodie culture then –indeed, the term “foodie” had yet to be invented –but I knew I liked fine dining and good eats. I always preferred one good ingredient –or a few simple ones –as opposed to fancy, process-oriented dishes requiring a scouring of markets and shops. I remember living in Ireland and making a simple vegetarian paprikas for a Christmas potluck party; seasoned vegetables, hearty and stewy and slightly spicy, seemed to be just what was needed during the gloomy, wet Irish winter. It wasn’t just about being full, but about feeling nourished. Going to restaurants, I tended to shy away from molecular gastronomy (the kind espoused by El Bulli) and enjoy the simple, hearty flavours of a lovingly prepared dish. Cooking myself, I always eschewed fancy techniques in favour of using good, wholesome ingredients –and for the most part, I still do. Sometimes it’s best to let the ingredients speak for themselves, without interfering. It reminds me of that old saying, that the song or painting is there, if you just get out of the way. Or like the line from “Unknown Caller,” off of U2’s latest album: “Shush now /cease to speak /that I may speak...” Sometimes you just have to get out of the way to let art –whether it’s cooking, music, painting or any other discipline -do its thing.

Thus, it was with so much elation and enjoyment that I found Chef Neil Baxter sharing this approach in Stratford. What a joy, to find lamb cooked with this much care and respect! But I suppose I ought to go in order in recounting –and celebrating –such a beautiful meal. Without further adue, details: I started with a smoked salmon appetizer, but not the typical thinly-sliced shards of fish you’d expect. This dish, featuring salmon that was smoked on-premises, was paired in a small shallow dish with salmon rose, apple, and jellies. Everything was diced into tiny cubes. The effect was… well, different, and not easy, at first to place. Textures –soft, gummy, crunchy –and tastes –sweet, salty, smoky –danced and whirled on the palette in a subtle, if powerful, combination. Here was a new gastronomic experience; along with taste, the colour combination –the tender green flecks of the apple, the rusty pinks of the salt, the orange, glassy globules of roe and the glassy edges of the jelly –reminded me of a cubist work, or of the work of pointillist Georges Seurat. Here, my eyes weren’t just doing the mixing; so was my mouth. Yes, the appetizer was for a more sophisticated palette –but then walking into Rundles, you know you won’t be subjected to dreary openers like French onion soup or (heaven forbid) jalapeno poppers. Like the best art, the appetizer felt like proper, adult food –an introduction to something grand -and really, I don’t think one should apologize in such matters.

My second course was lamb (farmed locally, of course). Now, I am notoriously fussy on my lamb. It happens to be my favourite of meats, and having had too many awful dishes at various restos, and bunged up a couple dishes myself –or used less-than-quality meat –I can tell you that my level of quality discernment has gone sky-high when it comes to ordering –and eating –lamb. I very rarely do order it when eating out, in fact, but I had a feeling Rundles might get it right. In fact, they did more than this. The lamb had to be the very best, most succulent thing I’ve eaten in a long while. Lovingly prepared and served in delicate slices on top of a small, inconspicuous mound of snowy, near-liquid goat cheese, surrounded by gently steamed veg, it sat in a pool of its own luscious juices (handily, the bread server appeared at just the right moment, providing a gorgeously crusty baguette for mopping up said juices, natch). Baxter smartly, rightly refrained from ruining such a beautiful piece of meat with spicing, and instead, allowed the deep, earthy flavours of the lamb to sing forth, thanks to sensitive, smart, intuitive cooking. The lima beans that accompanied were the perfect, bitter plate companions; with their snap, they contrasted the lamb’s soft, buttery texture beautifully, and their sourness nicely complemented the meat’s rich flavour. I put my fork down more than once after each morsel, swooning, sighing, and sitting back to contemplate each joyous mouthful, enjoying the view of Lake Victoria, and the beautiful, English landscaping that adorns the front of the restaurant. To borrow an old koan, I was one with the food experience. And loved every second of it, too.

A beautiful cheese plate was the final course. With three of the four cheeses provided by excellent local dairy producer Monforte, they included, among others, my very-favourite Toscano, along with a soft cheese from Quebec. The plate, artistically presented with a cheerful showering of fresh greens (which, I think, originated at Antony John’s Soiled Reputation farm, just five minutes outside of Stratford), also included fresh, tasty walnut bread and a sweet raisin compote. Those who know me well know I would easily -and quite happily –subsist on cheese and good wine (and may well do, when I visit France next year). Accompanied by a glass of sweet port, the third course was the perfect ending to a wonderful meal. I do wonder, however, about the rhubarb soup too –it might’ve more suitably complemented the richness of the lamb a bit better, but alas, one wears white and one’s food options shrink considerably.

I ought to mention details here, as they are so very important, and are the furthest things taken for granted at Rundles. First, the butter. That pale, hard, near-waxy thing one gets to accompany bread at most restaurants in a dreary little cup is here given the five-star treatment; with a deep, golden sunflower-kissed tone and adorned with shards of rock salt, the small, rich cube is presented proudly erect on its own little stand, emblazed with Rundles trademark “R”. This was a churner’s delight. I normally don’t eat butter on anything but toast –and even then, might spring for jam, so disgusted am I by the insipid blandness of most butters out there –but I couldn’t stop myself (nor did I want to) from taking small, delectable slivers and spreading them onto the fresh, moist slices of sourdough bread proffered by genteel wait staff. It tasted fresh, alive, creamy on the tongue. Gorgeous.

Equally wonderful was –is –the sense of occasion in dining at Rundles. While service is formal, atmosphere is not –it’s jovial and classy, simultaneously. You feel, walking through the front door, and into the welcoming light-filled foyer, that there is a real integration between the old and the new; the front garden teems with wildflowers and bursts of emerald greens, while inside the restaurant, the cool architecture of Shim-Sutcliffe (who seem to have a contemporary-meets-rural design ethos) contrasts and yet somehow complements all this wild natural beauty. Morris, in the tasteful, old world fashion-meets-modern-mod-look of Yohji Yamamoto, welcomes you as white-clad servers stroll by.

But don’t let their suits alarm you; the atmosphere isn’t, for a moment, stuffy or pretentious, but quite the opposite. Servers at Rundles welcome questions about ingredients, their source, and methods of cooking. The occasion isn’t just about fine dining, but about making food education part and parcel of the experience. This could be because in the winter, the restaurant serves as a teaching ground for the Stratford Chefs School. The care and attentiveness given food in the kitchen is reflected in a creative, thoughtful mix of visual styles throughout the restaurant. With art by Viktor Tinkl (including whimsical plate covers) set against the white, clean backdrop of Phillip Starck designs, you really don’t feel as if you’re required to wear a ball gown to dine, but rather, you’re in a comfortable, arty, airy space where conversation flows as smoothly as the dishes coming from Baxter’s kitchen. This is a place to learn, grow, and share; it will nourish with both tangible and non-tangible entities, just as any good establishment should do. With huge windows overlooking the lovely English gardens both in front and to the side of the restaurant, it’s a new-meets-old ethos. Rundles was the perfect ending to a wonderful summer. They’re actually open to mid-October –so summer might be extended, for just a little while yet.

Note: Full gallery of from my Rundles experience can be found at my Flickr page.