PuSh Festival 2020 review round-up

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PuSh International Performing Arts Festival | January 21 – February 9, 2020 | Various Venues


Frontera | Animals of Distinction, Fly Pan Am, United Visual Artists | Queen Elizabeth Theatre | January 30, 2020

Part rock concert, part mesmerizing contemporary dance, all mind-blowing. Frontera is brilliant. The only thing I would change is having a longer run in Vancouver so that more people could experience it.

Dana Gingras’s choreography is relentless at times as the dancers pace around the edges of the stage, run and suddenly switch directions, and pulse as one unit. As they undulate to the beat, bars of light appear and they are frantic, running back and forth. The stunning lighting design by United Visual Artists creates walls, borders, bars, and force fields that define the space and restrict the dancers’ movements.

The live music by Fly Pan Am was loud and I’m sure not to everyone’s liking, especially a refined contemporary dance crowd, but it was truly immersive and gave the show a rock concert atmosphere.

Sliding, rolling, somersaulting, crawling and dodging each other, the dancers manouvered around the stage as the lights flashed creating a strobe effect that turned their movements into slow motion. A thin beam of light expands into a thin wall holding them back until it sweeps them away. There were many thrilling moments.

Flying White | Wen Wei Dance and Turning Point Ensemble | Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts | January 31 – February 2, 2020

This unique collaboration between Wen Wei Dance and the Turning Point Ensemble (with guests from Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra) beautifully melded classical music and contemporary dance. Inspired by the concept of “flying white” — a form of Chinese calligraphy in which the brush strokes are long and painterly.

Six dancers and fourteen musicians came together for this work divided into eight scenes. Moving round a shiny, reflective stage, the dancers moved as a unified ensemble, coming together in a cluster. A duo between two of the men had them passing energy back and forth, evoking tai chi with their smooth, strong movements. Ralph Escamillan ended the first act with a solo set to a tribal sounding drum beat, his movements loose and fluid.

In another duo, two dancers kept a large piece of thick white paper between them as they slowly manoeuvered around the stage. Inviting an audience member on stage, the whole group moved in a chain, holding pieces of paper between them.

The beautiful silky long-sleeved costume piece by Linda Chow moved as if another member of the group with its sweeping arcs and flowing grace. For the grand finale, Escamillan pours thick black ink onto a bright white sheet of paper and uses his body to paint — first with his hands and forearms and then with his knees, feet and whole body as his movements grow. By the end both he and the paper are covered in ink. A mirror above him shows the scene from above, allowing us to revel in the messy, unpredictable glory of his improvised art.

Free Admission | Ursula Martinez | Scotiabank Dance Centre | January 31 – February 2, 2020

When Ursula Martinez says it's important to test the edges of your personal freedoms and sometimes you have to take it into the streets, she's not kidding. Free Admission is an honest, hilarious, and insightful one-woman show in which Martinez frequently breaks the proverbial fourth wall while slowly constructing a literal fourth wall out of bricks and mortar. Her stories, personal and political and sometimes both at once, are told with her uncompromising wit. She is so sure of herself as she declares that without religion and penises, there would be a lot fewer problems in the world.

There were so many laugh-out-loud moments I lost count. Her attitude was so refreshing, self-deprecating, and self-aware that you couldn’t help but be drawn in to her musings on everything from subconscious xenophobia to middle-class gentrification and sex education.

As she pauses to focus on slapping on some more of her hastily prepared cement mixture and carefully place another brick, the silence allows for the audience to reflect on what she just said. The pacing is brilliant.

She begins each new line of thought with “Sometimes…” — for example: “Sometimes women are told…they were asking for it. Sometimes women are told…they can’t drive. Sometimes women are told…they aren’t beach body ready.”

All her philosophical musings come together in the end as she tells us that ideally, no matter what you do, you want to make an impact in some way. After she lays the final brick, we see her projected onto the wall as she tests the edges of personal freedom for an impressive grand finale. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that one audience member gets quite the selfie.      

What You Won’t Do For Love | Why Not Theatre | Anvil Centre | February 4, 2020

How would you like to have dinner with David Suzuki and his wife Tara Cullis? In this work-in-progress presentation, Suzuki and Cullis share the table with Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes of Why Not Theatre to talk about their love story, their life’s passions, and what they’ve learned from it all.

It was a fascinating evening of stories and amusing anecdotes from this wonderful couple as they did a staged reading of the work. Reminiscing about their days in university, how they met, and founding the David Suzuki Foundation, photos are placed under a camera for everyone to see on a screen behind the table, along with some video work and other images.

David drove Tara home after they met at a party at Carleton University, and he kissed her goodnight. “That kiss was it,” she says. Since that night in 1971 they’ve learned a lot about themselves and each other, and their life’s passion remains the same: protecting our environment and educating others about its importance. As Tara says, “People have always trusted David; his goals are intuitive and inspiring.”      

Anywhere But Here | Electric Company Theatre | Vancouver Playhouse | February 4 – 8, 11 – 15, 2020

Carmen Aguirre’s had a series of dreams about cultural identity and exile when she was in theatre school. Her new play has turned those dreams into a story of reverse migration with humour, magic realism, and original raps created with Shad Kabango. It’s a compelling story about border walls, refugees, and an epic journey that teaches us about the power of home and the pain of leaving it behind.

Set in 1979, at the border between the United States and Mexico, a father and his two daughters are returning to Chile from Canada. They have visions of the past and future that come together to guide them on their journey. While it’s set over 40 years ago, the themes of statelessness and border protection are very relevant today.

I was most impressed with Alexandra Lainfiesta’s performance as Carolita, an innocent young girl who asks the right questions and annoys her big sister. Channelling the carefree innocence of youth is not easy and she nailed it.

Visited by characters including a monarch butterfly in drag (the spirit of their Aunt Lili), a Honduran migrant, and a militant border guard, their state of exile is as much mental as it is physical. They wonder, “Does the leaving ever end? Does the arrival ever begin?”

Cutlass Spring | Dana Michel | Scotiabank Dance Centre | February 6 – 8, 2020

Nine lawn chairs, one microphone, and no fear: Dana Michel’s solo show is an intimate exploration of identity and absurdity. With seats on all four sides, the audience has a close and personal view of the sporadic action.

As Michel deconstructs her identity in front of us in a deeply vulnerable way, we’re confronted with unconventional choreography, frustrated vocalizations, and props that are thrown and bashed around the stage. This isn’t for the faint of heart. In fact, a few people snuck out when they thought Michel wouldn’t notice.

While the prop list may at first appear random: pots and pans, an old rotary phone, plaid jacket, cowboy hat, briefcase, radio — each object seems to represent some aspect of identity. There is a lot packed into this strange confluence of symbols and inspirations, but it seems ok to not understand, to join Michel in the uncertainty as she works through it with us; our witnessing adds some accountability and new perspective to her turmoil and frustration. It’s feminist, confrontational, and wholly unique.


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