Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunny Choi - Brush With Beauty

Sunny Choi
Sunny Choi Gallery, Toronto
to December 24

About two years ago, well known fashion designer Sunny Choi decided to give up the world of commercial fashion and devote herself to fine art, opening her own venue on Toronto's artsy-chic Queen Street West right in the gallery district. "Brush With Beauty", her current show, doesn't stray far from those fashion-steeped roots, however. Each of the large canvasses depicts slim fashion-y models in elegant poses, most gazing directly at the camera, (and they were painted from photographs). They wear make-up and stylish dresses.

Choi began her multi-faceted career as a fashion illustrator, actually, and having worked myself with a great many illustrators and illustration students (as a model,) I recognize her deft technique. Most striking is the delicate and nuanced treatment of the model's flesh tones, from translucent washes to opaque shadows. They have fine features and moulded limbs, not completely smoothed over, (except in a couple of canvasses downstairs in the gallery, away from the main show,) but worked in marked contrast to the often rough treatment of the other surfaces, particularly their clothes. Here the brush strokes are more obvious, still nuanced and shaded, but they stand out almost stiffly from the flesh, an abstracted effect that's not really duplicated in the photographed images of the paintings - as if the model herself was the only thing that was "real". All feature a stark white background, and abstracted elements, given a similarly "rougher" painted treatment as the cloth. The colours of the fabrics and abstract shapes glow in saturated colours against the black/white.

Between the canvasses are calligraphy hangings by Choi's father General Chong Hong Hi, a key figure in the development of modern Tae Kwon-Do. His calligraphy are beautifully presented, and their black, flowing strokes do complement his daughter's pieces quite nicely.

As a fashion designer, Choi's lady-like designs were worn by Hollywood celebs like Susan Sarandon, Darryl Hannah, Carmen Electra, and roots singer Alison Krauss (pictured here going to the 2004 Oscars in a Sunny Choi dress). If lovely ladies in stylish compositions are your thing, you'll definitely enjoy the show.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Valu David CD Release Party

Valu David CD Release Party
November 27 at Lula Lounge Toronto
Presented by Batuki Music Society

They were dancing from the very first song played by Valu David in the early show at Lula Lounge Friday night, and by the end of the set both the house and dance floor were full. Backed up by a really solid five piece band consisting of bass, drums, keyboards, congas and trumpet (with Valu himself on guitar,) and lit by David's warm vocals and stage presence, it was nearly impossible not to move to the music.

Born in Angola, David came to Canada in 2000. A self taught musician, his unique style combines jazzy R&B, soul and reggae influences with the music of his homeland, music that has a distinctly Latin flavour from its Portuguese component, anchored by solid, swaying rhythms or faster beats that also echo in the music of Brazil. He sings in Portuguese, English, Spanish, French and Kimbundu, and his lyrics have an overwhelmingly positive message - words that had the ring of sincerity no matter which language they came in. The songs run from soulful, swingy ballads to shake it till you break it beats, and he included a cover or two, including a great version of Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing.

He's definitely worth keeping an eye on, and hopefully his CD will be available for sale online soon. Judging from the response last night, it won't matter whether you can understand the language or the influences - your body will move you.

Check out one of his softer songs here

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Zac Efron stars in Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo after the novel by Robert Kaplow
Starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan

Zac Efron stars as aspiring young actor Richard in this entertaining film set in 1937, inserted into the real life story of Orson Welles' landmark staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In the space of a mere week before opening night, Richard talks himself into a role in the play, has a budding affair with an older woman (Claire Danes as the production manager,) has his heart bruised and his pride likewise against the sharp edges of unabashed ambition and over sized ego.

Efron's solid as the centre of the film and our way into this story about the fragile magic of theatre and some of the realities behind what transpires on stage. He turns in an entirely convincing performance with just the right range from the kind of bravado that gets him the opportunity - as in this scene in front of the Mercury Theatre - to the naive vulnerability that sees him blindsided by backstage politics and the calculated maneuvering of his new colleagues.

If Efron's our window into the story, its heart has to be the brilliant performance of newcomer Christian McKay as a young Welles. We get a real sense of the man's sparkling genius, along with his impossibly capricious, self indulgent persona, the director with a penchant for keeping the entire company waiting while he chases the latest winsome young lady to cross his path. He tells Richard he's a "God created actor", and it sounds like a compliment until he explains the hollowness inside it, the empty space from which the desire to become someone else springs.

Welles' historic production edited the Bard's play and set it in modern times in Fascist Italy. I dabble in a little acting myself, not much, but enough to know that the film handily captures the rollercoaster chemistry of putting on a show, the sense of being at the mercy of a director's whims (sigh!) and of the whole production forever teetering on the brink of disaster. With its peppy pace and a raft of amusing peripheral characters from John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) to George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) you won't need any special appreciation of things theatrical to enjoy what really amounts to an accelerated coming of age story. Richard emerges a little older and much wiser, and as history tells the tale, Welles innovative production won him raves from audiences and critics alike, and cemented his early reputation.

Opens November 25 in limited release in the U.S.
Opens December 4 in Toronto, Montreal & Vancouver and currently playing in the U.K.
Check out the trailer

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Six Messiahs - different flavours of the holiday favourite in Toronto

Six Messiahs

There may be even more flavours of Handel's ubiquitous (and deservedly so) holiday favourite playing in Toronto this year, but here's a good list to start with. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, if you're a fan of chorale music, why stop at just one - or even just two?

The Elmer Isler Singers, the Amadeus Choir and more team up for an extravagant Messiah early in the season, complete with a big old church organ to add to the mix.
Features: Lydia Adams, conductor, Meredith Hall, soprano, Allyson McHardy, mezzo soprano, Michael Colvin, tenor, Peter McGillivray, bass, Robert Venables & Robert DiVito, trumpets, Patricia Wright, organ, Orchestra
December 4 - Metropolitan United Church (56 Queen St. East at Bond)

If you're north of the city, the George Weston Recital Hall is featuring a one time performance of the oratorio.
Featuring: Kerry Stratton, Conductor, Vocal Horizons, Canada's Gold Medal Choir, Festival Orchestra, Caroline Davidson, Soprano, Deborah Overes, Alto, Stephen Harlands, Tenor, Michael Uloth, Bass.
December 4 - George Weston Recital Hall
(Check the Vocal Horizons website for other dates they'll be performing in Markham & Richmond Hill)

For something completely different, Ballet Creole brings you The Soulful Messiah - a contemporary dance interpretation of the oratorio infused with R&B and drawing from African and Caribbean traditions to add the warmth of the tropics to Handel's perennial holiday fave.
December 11-13 - Harbourfront Centre

The Aradia Ensemble's Dublin Messiah
The Aradia Ensemble not only plays baroque instruments, they look to recreate the Messiah as it originally premiered in Dublin in 1742 at the Christchurch Cathedral (pictured). "It is requested the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamlbe Street. The Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords." When one of the passages was sung sublimely by one Mrs. Cibber, a woman of "questionable morals", a member of the audience is said to have cried out, "Woman, for this, thy sins be forgiven thee!"
Featuring: Laura Albino, Soprano, Marion Newman, Mezzo Soprano, Nils Brow, Tenor, Sean Watson, Bass
December 12 - Glenn Gould Studio

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Messiah
This top drawer performance features: Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor, Shannon Mercer, soprano. Matthew White, countertenor. Colin Balzer, tenor, Tyler Duncan, baritone & The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
December 16, 18, 19, 20 & 21 in the posh surroundings of Roy Thomson Hall

Tafelmusik's Messiah X2
Tafelmusik gives you Handel played on period instruments for an authentic period sound, and their Messiah offerings come in two different versions.
  • December 16-19 at the gorgeous Trinity-St. Pauls' centre
    Featuring: Ivars Taurins, conductor; Ann Monoyios, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, Benjamin Hulett, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone
  • December 20 at Massey Hall - the Sing-Along Messiah
    Get your tickets early to this annual Toronto institution - it sells out every year - conducted by "Maestro Handel" and giving you your opportunity to sing your heart out. Bring your own score, or buy one at Massey Hall, and seating is general admission by voice part.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New York, I Love You - a film review

New York, I Love You
Directed by Fatih Akin, Yvan Attal, Allen Hughes, Shunji Iwai, Wen Jiang, Shekhar Kapur, Joshua Marston, Mira Nair, Natalie Portman, Brett Ratner, Randall Balsmeyer
Starring Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, Andy Garcia, Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson, Natalie Portman, Irrfan Khan, Emilie Ohana, Eva Ammuri, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively, Drea de Matteo, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Ugur Yucel, Taylor Geare, Carlos Acosta, Jacinda Barrett, Shu Qi, Burt Young, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright Penn, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman

New York, I Love You is the second in a series of "collective films" conceived by producer Emmanuel Benbihy, coming on the heels of Paris je t'aime (2006). “My idea was always to make a collection of movies that would illustrate the universal idea of love around the world,” says Benbihy. “I started with Paris because that is where I am from, but I always intended to do something similar for all the mythic cities, of which New York of course had to be a part. New York is a city that has the potential to make anybody who sees it start to dream." It's an ambitious concept, and works here - or not - depending on your expectations. If you're a reader, this is an anthology of short, short stories with a loose theme, not a novel that explores anything in depth, vignettes that really skim the surface of both the city and the romantic premise. It's entertaining, but I'm not sure the city itself even comes off as "mythic".

Directed by a string of emerging directors from around the world, the filming itself had to obey a series of rules:
  • Each story had to be visually identified with one or more New York neighborhoods;
  • Each story had to involve some kind of love encounter, broadly defined;
  • There would be no fades to black at end or beginning of any segment.

Once the stories were chosen, there were another set of rules, including a strict schedule of shooting each segment for only 2 days, and editing for only 7.

It's all quite interesting, but the result is a film that meanders around Manhattan following the momentary interactions that happen largely on the sidewalks, or the classic NYC bar/resto, (of which there are surely a zillion lining the city's streets,) which appears in several of the scenes. The vignettes are uneven in approach, quality and effect, a few rather beautiful and poetic, like Julie Christie as a faded opera star who takes a bit of a trip with bellhop Shia LaBeouf in an Upper East Side hotel, (directed by Shekhar Kapur from a script by Anthony Minghella,) to Ethan Hawke as a fast talker trying to pick up Maggie Q, which comes off as an extended joke with a predictable punchline, (if you know who Maggie Q is, in particular). I much preferred Natalie Portman's subtle directorial piece about a single father, (which she also wrote,) to her starring turn as an Orthodox Jewish diamond trader, in a story that seemed a little like it had been forced into its small format with a quick laugh or two and an inevitable moment of connection that slipped by without making much of an impact.

If you know the city, you'll recognize the little details with a smile - the French speaking cab drivers from Haiti or West Africa, the beat up doors and grimy stairways that lead to the myriad and odd spaces where people live, the way so many people are struggling actors, dancers, artists, musicians. Perhaps oddly for its international directorial roster, race only rears its ugly head once, (in Natalie Portman's story, where the Puerto Rican daddy is mistaken for a "manny" at a playground,) and that cab driver seems to be the only African American in town. From the grimy streets of Chinatown to Central Park, the city stars as itself, but often only as a backdrop to the various couplings and uncouplings. James Caan is a quirky pharmacist whose daughter has an "interesting" prom night in Central Park, Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach are an elderly couple who go to Coney Island on their anniversary, Orlando Bloom is a struggling composer in a cramped apartment - you get the idea.

It's got an appealing cast, a few laughs and a few things to say, but doesn't delve beyond the surface. Call it New York Lite or New York I Like You A Lot.

Currently playing in limited release in the U.S. & some areas of Europe, scheduled for release in Toronto, Vancouver & Montreal on November 27 & in the rest of Europe through January 2010.

Check out the trailer here

Friday, November 20, 2009

Africa NYC - Part II the Performing Arts

Africa in New York
Part II - the Performing Arts

If you're looking for connections between Africa, New York, and the performing arts, then the big story has to be Fela! on Broadway, a show that delves into the music and extravagant lifestyle of one Fela Anikulapo Kuti, known simply as Fela to his legions of fans. A native of Nigeria, he was the pioneer of what we now know as afrobeat, and also a political activist. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who played a very strong role in his life (as is typical in African families,) was a feminist activist and anti-colonialist, and his father was both a Protestant minister and first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. While studying in London, Fela formed a band whose music fused African jazz and funk with rhythmic West African styles that features horns and multiple guitars. He went on to return to Nigeria, tour the U.S. (where he was heavily influenced by the Black Panther movement,) and famously married 27 women (many of them dancers in his shows) at once. He was also attacked and viciously beaten by Nigerian soldiers in 1977, and his then elderly mother died from her injuries in the raid on his studio, precipitated by his album Zombie which was critical of the Nigerian military. That's just the tip of the iceberg in the story of this larger than life figure, and not his first or last brush with authorities. Check him out here.

His life is definitely the stuff legends are made of, and one that struck New York Tony® Award winning choreographer and impressario Bill T. Jones as being more than worthy of a treatment on stage. Fela! played first off Broadway in late 2008 for a limited run, and its dynamic blend of theatre and concert was well received by critics and audiences alike.

As Jones describes it, the creation of the show was a collaboration between himself and co-writer Jim Lewis and people like Aaron Johnson, of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, (in the last picture below,) and Maija Garcia, a movement artist and student of Yoruba culture, both now members of the cast. Antibalas, a Brooklyn based collective formed in 1998 and who have played all over the world, are the musicians you'll see on stage. The goal was to preserve the spirit and identity of the music and dance while making it relevant to modern North American audiences. The rest of the cast includes both African Americans and Africans like Ismael Kouyaté, a Guinean born into a family of artists and praise singers, and who previously performed with Les Ballets Africains.

It's playing in previews and set to open officially on November 23, and with Academy Award nominee Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Grammy winner Jay-Z joining the producing team in the last week or so, it seems assured of the backing needed for a good long run. Together with the reissue of Fela's catalogue on CD this year, a renaissance of Fela's oeuvre in general is in the works. Check out a behind the scenes look at the production here.

The rich musical culture of Guinea in West Africa, where families of griots, (musicians and storytellers,) guard traditions that date back centuries, has contributed much to the musical fabric of New York City. Musicians like Famoro Dioubaté and Balla Kouyaté bring the balafon, a traditional instrument guarded in their family for 800 years (the original instrument still guarded by El Haji Sekou Kouyaté - father to Balla and grandfather to Famoro,) and its bright rhythms to the city's clubs. The instrument itself dates back to the days of the Mande empire, whose name was the inspiration for the Mandingo Ambassadors, a group that counts Ismael Kouyaté as a member. So established is Guinean culture in NYC that, in 2006, during a previous period of political and civic unrest, the national radio stations broadcast exclusively traditional music in an effort to promote national unity, and one of the CDs played often was Fula Flute, produced and recorded in NYC with both African and non-African artists. The Tokounou Dance Company, among others, adds movement to the musical mix.

But it's not only authentic traditional music that you'll be dancing to, musicians collaborate naturally and the result is often a hybrid of styles. At the far end of that scale, and evidence of the level of penetration that African music has achieved, you'll find Vampire Weekend, an indie rock band with a growing cult following. Consisting of four Columbia grads, Vampire Weekend's only connection to Africa is the music that they call "Upper West Side Soweto", with song titles like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, and references to Congolese soukous music, among others. Check them out in action here.

You won't have to make a special effort if you want to connect with African culture in the city, just check the club and concert listings for acts on tour, like Femi Kuti, eldest son of Fela and an international star in his own right, (he toured North America last summer, including stops in both NYC and Toronto). Every Wednesday you can catch the Mandingo Ambassadors at Barbes in Brooklyn, and my personal favourite is Africa Night, Saturday nights at St. Nick's Pub in Harlem. The musicians come on about midnight, and they play an eminently danceable blend of traditional and modern instruments, African polyrhythms and North American jazz to the wee hours. To quote Oliver Mtukudzi, a Zimbabwean musician I recently interviewed in Toronto (yet another hotspot of African culture..) bring your dancing shoes - it's time to feel good!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Africa NYC - Part I The Visual Arts

Africa in New York
Part I - Checking into the Contemporary African Art Gallery & beyond in NYC

The movement of people around the globe is a growing phenomenon, and it's no secret that the people of Africa have spread around the world, to the point where the African diaspora has reached a sort of critical momentum in many areas. Cities like Paris, home to artist like Cheri Samba, and London, home to Yinka Shonibare, among others, have become major centres not only receptive to artists who hail from Africa - and therefore important markets for their work - but also to a thriving ex-pat scene of people who create new works in their new home. To those former colonial powers I'll add the city of New York, a pot that sizzles with a vast and diverse cultural bouillon.

So What is "African Art"?

Naturally, there exists a longstanding tradition of arts produced by African Americans born in the U.S., but for the purposes of this piece, I'll be talking about work that has a direct contemporary connection to Africa. Even with that loose definition, the term can be problematic. Contemporary African Art Gallery owner Bill Karg recalls when, several years ago, an artist refused to continue showing at his gallery simply because it had the word "Africa" in its name. It's true that to this day, some people still associate the phrase with tribal exotica, and not simply as part of the global stream of artistic production. "Some people walk in and ask - where are the masks?" he notes ruefully.

The Upper West Side Gallery is an excellent place to start if you want to explore what's current in African art, and Karg says though he's sure most of the artists he shows would consider themselves internationalists at this point, he defines the term simply as art by Africans about Africa.

There is a main show and a number of other pieces in the gallery when I visit, and it's true that the soft abstractions of Viye Diba would find themselves at home in any space that shows contemporary work. The fabulous male torso sculpture in serpentine by Zimbabwean Kripsen Matekenya has a universal appeal. There are photographs, mixed media pieces, computer manipulated works, prints and acrylics.

The single most striking piece belongs to the gallery collection, Tagomizer by artist El Anatsui. Born in Ghana and having spent much of his career in Nigeria, he's an internationally shown and recognized artist whose works fetch into six figures. Tagomizer, like all of El Anatsui's hanging pieces, consists of flattened aluminum seals taken from literally thousands of liquor bottles, along with the round pieces from the caps, and sometimes spiralling round pieces, created in a workshop with up to 20 assistants and sewn together with copper wire - check out a video here. He calls the pieces fabric, and Tagomizer shimmers and undulates with a kind of hypnotic "industrial" beauty. (The piece shown in the photograph is called Man's Cloth, and hangs in the British Museum.)

*(NB - El Anatsui had a talk about his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on September 30 in preparation for his first ever career retrospective show that will kick off at the Royal Ontario Museum in fall 2010, then traveling to New York City for the grand reopening of the Museum for African Art in its new digs (being constructed in the pic to the left & at the bottom)- more about that too, below. Tagomizer will be part of that show.)

Viye Diba's painted pieces have an organic feel in both the typically soft edged forms and warm hues, the textural feel of cloth, with stitching, wood, and the other materials he uses adding a three dimensional feel to that effect. I find the rhythms and welcoming heat of Dakar in his work. Diba uses found materials because of the dearth of large canvasses and other materials in his native Senegal, and the canvasses he does use are stitched together in bands that correspond to the width of the hand looms so common all over Africa. That dimension, that width, is also the rough measurement of the strips of aluminum and copper fabric stitched together in El Anatsui's piece. It's a reality and a signature of the continent in the same way that the Group of Seven shared an iconic view of the landscape we now think of as quintessentially Canadian. It's contemporary art that happens to be African in flavour. That seems a realistic way of thinking about it. (Image is of "Suspension Cord".)

While both El Anatsui and Viye Diba have remained in Africa, some artists come to stay, like Manhattan based Ouattara Watts, born in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, and Tesfaye Tessema, an Ethiopian born multi media artist who's made the U.S. his home for many years.

The Studio Museum in Harlem is a frequent hotspot of African (along with African American) culture, and MoCADA, or the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, is an obvious hub and forum for just that, curating shows like the one earlier this year that showcased the first retrospective of collaborative work between South African artist Samson Mnisi and New York artist Cannon Hersey.

You can check all the hot contemporary art galleries in town at any given time and find shows of work that just happen to be African in flavour, it seems to be riding a wave of general acceptance that's long overdue. Perhaps most indicative of that in a symbolic way is the construction of the brand new Museum of African Art, taking its rightful place on Museum Mile on 5th Avenue just down the street from the Guggenheim and the Met. The El Anatsui retrospective is timed to reach New York hopefully to coincide exactly with its grand reopening in 2011.

PS - if you plan to visit the Contemporary African Art Gallery, please do as I say - which is to contact Bill Karg via the information on the website and arrange to view by appointment - and not as I did - which was barge into the building and just walk in!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sartre's No Exit on Stage

No Exit
Written by Jean-Paul Sartre
Adapted from the French by Paul Bowles

"The Valet" text by Jonathon Young
Directed by Kim Collier
Starring Lucia Frangione, Andy Thompson, Laara Sadiq, Jonathon Young
Set Deisgned by Jay Gower Taylor, produced by Nathan Medd for
Electric Company Theatre

Playing at
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre - to November 21

Sartre as a fun evening of theatre? If, like me, your main exposure to the French existentialist's work up to now brings back memories of your earnest second year prof trying to explain Being and Nothingness ad nauseum, you'll be surprised at my recommendation. But, director Kim Collier's imaginative staging of No Exit is above all an entertaining theatre experience that fires on all cylinders with intriguing set design and conception, cracking good performances and more than a few laughs too.

"Where are the instruments of torture...the racks and red-hot pincers and all the other paraphernalia?" So asks Garcin (Thompson) as he's shown his "room" by the valet (Young) in the opening scene. Over the course of the play, we deduce that the room, a sort of drawing room with no windows or bed, is hell, and Garcin is quickly joined by lesbian Inez (Sadiq) and blonde, blowsy Estelle (Frangione) behind the locked door. Collier's brilliant conception takes Sartre's original staging and, as she puts it in the notes, turns it inside out. The stage itself is a dusty, foggy (from a fog machine) waiting area, littered with an old desk, a pile of mirrors, a cot, ladders, and brass bells, and the "room" is off to the side, cleverly set with cameras that project to the middle of the stage.

Naturally, in Sartre's universe, outside instruments of torture aren't required, since we carry the seeds of hell within us, compelled to inflict it on ourselves and anyone in the vicinity. These are very unpleasant people, to put it mildly, from Garcin's wife tormenting war deserter to Estelle's self serving child killer to Inez, the most honest of the three, a lower class lesbian who murdered her lover's husband and then was murdered by her in turn. It must be particularly satisfying as an actor to sink your teeth into this kind of role, with all its raw emotion and no holds barred range, and the three sinners are portrayed with gusto by the trio of talented actors, their hand wringing and self tormenting punctuated by the Valet's subdued yet gleeful taunting (also ably handled by Young in Collier's expanded role).

The laughs come directly from the characters - and we definitely laugh at them, not with them, even though, as the Valet reminds us, in many respects their obfuscations, excuses and slippery denials of guilt may come uncomfortably close to our own. Even as we laugh at lines like "Hell is other people" we can wince at its truth - and that's just Sartre's point, isn't it?

I was intrigued from the moment I sat down to see the staging, and amused, bemused and mesmerized by the action on and off stage for the entire 80 or so minutes of the performance. It's easy to see why Collier's being called one of the hottest directors in the country today.

NB - all images by Michael Julian Berz

Oliver Mtukudzi - To give hope and give life to people

Oliver Mtukudzi
Phoenix Concert Theatre - November 15, 2009

"To give hope and give life to people." That's the simple philosophy behind Tuku music, and I swear you can hear the joy right in the notes - it's impossible to listen and not find yourself dancing.

Toronto's become something of a hub for musical acts that hail from the African continent, and this weekend the venerable Phoenix Concert Theatre plays host to one of its true legends, Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi, called simply "Tuku" by his fans.

His career began in 1977 when he joined Wagon Wheels, a band that featured another legend, Thomas Mapfumo. Their first single went gold, and Tuku followed up on the hype with a four track album of his own. Some of the Wagon Wheels' other musicians came with him to form the Black Spirits, the band he has played with throughout his long career. When Independence was declared in Zimbabwe in 1980, Oliver and the Black Spirits released an album called "Africa", containing the seminal hits Zimbabwe and Mazongonyedze. Since then, he's typically released two albums a year and toured extensively, even to the most remote regions of his country, cementing his popularity both at home and abroad.

His current tour sees him stop all over North America, to the U.K., and then South Africa in support of hsi 56th album, Dairai. "It's my middle name - it means believe," he explains. "On the CD, I'm saying be your best, there's no other you than you." After all the decades and all the releases, this is in fact his first project recorded with traditional acoustic instruments.

Tuku's infectious style falls under the heading of "Afropop", and counts a number of influences, including chimurenga, (a genre pioneered by Mapfumo,) Jit (a lively Zimbabwean style of pop,) South African music, and the traditional drumming of his clan, the Korekore. He sings in Shona, his native language, as well as English. "I created my own style," he says, "I'm very experimental. I called it simply "African" music, but my fans decided to call it after me."

His deep voice and contagious rhythms only describe part of his appeal. In a country - and continent - experiencing its share of troubles and then some, from the AIDS epidemic to despotic ruling classes, among others, Tuku leaves overt political commentary to others for the most part. "At times, we talk about our pain, but we use the tune to defuse the tension," he says. "The music mixes pain and joy to come up with hope."

And there's one last comment for anyone coming to the show. "Bring your dancing shoes - it's time to feel good." More to listen to here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim
to January 13, 2010

Without ever having set foot in New York, or the U.S. for that matter, Russian born artist Vasily Kandinksy (1866 - 1944) played an inordinate role in the founding of the Guggenheim Museum itself. Introduced to Kandinsky's work via artist Hilla Rebay, Samuel R. Guggenheim not only became one of the foremost collectors of Kandinsky's spiritually infused paintings, but an advocate of non-objective, abstract art itself in the U.S., and in fact it became part of the mission of the Museum.There would seem few more fitting celebrations in this year of the Guggenheim's 50th anniversary than this show that draws on collections from all over the world to present a comprehensive look at Kandinsky's career from the early paintings to his last large canvas, completed in 1942. To view it is really a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The show sprawls all over the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Museum, spiralling up to the top of the snail-like structure grouped by periods in his very productive working life. As a point of fact, Kandinsky was 30 years old when he gave up a budding law career and professorship to study art in Munich. He was impressed with the Impressionist's use of colour. He came to believe in abstraction as a conduit to a more spiritual understanding of the world. It had the power to transform.

He called his abstractions "absolute pictures", meaning they had no reference to realism. I've always been delighted by Kandinsky's use of colour and form, his kinetic, sometimes whimsical canvasses, animated by something - as if indeed they captured some spiritual essence. His early paintings are quite representational, and the show's scope lets you view his evolution to avant garde abstractionism and his more visionary view of art as completely removed from the physical realm. Kandinsky became influential and well known as a theorist as well as a painter of note. Art can transform, colours can feed the soul. In 1911, he published "Uber das Geistige in der Kunst", or On the Spiritual in Art, (there are excerpts to check out at the link).

He was part of the famous "Blaue Reiter" group, part of the German Expressionist movement - in fact it was founded in reaction of a rejection of one of his pieces at an exhibition, and the name comes from one of his paintings. Horses and riders were a frequent part of his painterly vocabulary, and in fact he was quite fond of horses in real life in an era where they were being replaced by the advent of the automobile. He also used unconscious imagery. Kandinsky was very much interested in the intersections between the arts, with avant garde music in particular, and that of Arnold Schoenberg specifically, and he referred to his works often in musical terms like improvisation, composition, movement. Images flowed freely with a colour range that fascinates and delights the eye - "free flowing" as the result of his meticulous planning.

He was forced to leave Germany as an unwanted foreigner when World War I broke out in 1914, and he spent the years until 1921 back home in Russia. Another large block of work in the show represent his Bauhaus period from 1922 to 1933, after he returned to Germany. Kandinsky taught at the famous school of architecture and art, and during this period his forms become more recognizably geometric and precise, the colours more saturated, emphatic rather than the nuanced and lyrical washes I saw in many earlier works, his practices based on his continued explorations into colour and psychology.

Predictably, the emerging Nazi power structure in Germany hated the Bauhaus School and shut it down in 1932. From there, Kandinsky went to Paris, where he stayed until his death in 1944 during the German Occupation, and this despite offers of help in leaving the country for safer shores. He always intended on returning to the Germany whose art world he loved.

His later paintings evidence his growing interest in biomorphism and science, and he began to use organic imagery along with abstract geometric forms. He continued to work on paper after canvas became too scarce under the Occupation, sitting beside a coal stove for heat. The pieces from this period show a delicacy I didn't see in earlier works, some incredibly complicated with subtle colouring. It comes as no surprise to learn Kandinsky was fond of children's games and the circus, that he preferred fireworks over "serious" theatre, and that he had a quick sense of humour. He produced pieces that held sparks of joy while the world quite literally fell to pieces around him - solid evidence of his own theories on the transformative powers of art. There is something pure about his intent, I think that's how I've always reacted to his work. Throughout the evolution in his style, his directness of his expression and enchanting use of colour are constant threads.

In addition to the vast collection of paintings, you can view Gabriele Munter and Vasily Kandinsky: A Life in Pictures, as well as a separate collection of works on paper to round out your Kandinsky experience. His watercolours (from the Bauhaus period) show a rare precision.

N.B. I did also check out Paired, Gold: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn, and if you're interested in Ms Horn's work, she's taking over a couple of floors at the Whitney as we speak.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chelsea Potpourri

A Saturday afternoon (November 7) sampling the galleries of Chelsea

Nota Bena: I'm calling in "Chelsea", and while that's correct, it's also correct that the galleries I sampled all found themselves in the building located at 511 West 25th Street (near 10th - the building with the Tesla electric car dealership on the ground floor) due to my taking the lazy route, and they represent a completely random sampling at that, including a couple of openings, free wine and all. Here's a look at what was on display in the hotbed of New York's contemporary art scene.

What Would Mother Say - PPOW Gallery
American artist Dotty Attie is known for work that explores gender politics, and she does so in this show with a sly sense of humour. Consisting of series of small (about 6" x 6") canvasses painted in a kind of grayscale, the images are taken from vintage photographs. They all begin with the horrified mother's visage, the question posed for both the male and female of the species, and continue in a progression of images punctuated by the phrases "keep that up his (or her) mother said" and "and who knows what you could become". What begins with children curiously peering down their pants ends with a porn princess. Young boys kissing end up as Rock Hudson. Playing with guns leads to being a decorated soldier as a boy, and the electric chair for a girl. Smoking leads to FDR in that classic image of him chomping on a cigar. You get the idea. It's clever and thought provoking, and had a smile on my lips most of the time. (Please note the image is not one of the ones in the show.)

To the West - Luise Ross Gallery
Hailing from Madison, WI, T. L. Solien is considered an influential painter in the landscape of American art, and this exhibition showcases his characteristically narrative works. On a background of painted washes in various colours and of varied translucency, figures, symbols and icons meticulously cut out of paper jumble about in a way that seems slightly disjointed, bizarre, carnevalesque in an almost macabre kind of way. The colours are warm and some speak of our iconic ideas about the southwest, others harken more to domestic scenes. Overall, they evoke a dreamy sort of reality, the mysterious depths of the unconscious.
*Interestingly, the Luise Ross Gallery specializes in the work of contemporary and self taught artists.

Living in Sim™ - Serious Pain Relief - Daneyal Mahmood Gallery
Justine Cooper's work is best described as experimental mixed reality artwork, blending photographs, video, and installation with social media and a website, and the show looks at health care and social media. The installations, and the primary images, are made up of medical mannequins, their mouths slightly opened and meticulously dressed and posed down to the jewellery. Maybe it's me, but it had a creepy effect - I admit to having a real thing about mannequins, even dolls, but still...As a show it was quite effective in recreating that sterile medical milieu. (Please note that, while this image is not one that was in the show - nor is it by Justine Cooper - they were just as creepy!)

Divided forms: Works by Keizo Ushio - Robert Steele Gallery
The highlight of the afternoon came for me at the Robert Steele Gallery with this show of beautifully lyrical sculptures by Japanese artist Keizo Ushio. While one was made of greenish glass, the remainder of the pieces were all created from single pieces of granite , using hand tools to an amazing level of precision. Divided Forms being the theme, the exhibition features pieces with two equal parts that wind and loop in elegantly controlled motions like paired ribbons. Sometimes the spaces between them are rough, sometimes smooth, in one carved to zipper-like teeth. I'll admit to a special fondness for sculpture to begin with, but the disciplined music and mesmerizing effect of these pieces was undeniable.

Connie Fox at the Brenda Taylor Gallery
Born in the Great Depression in the dustbowl that was Colorado, Connie Fox was influenced by both her environment and the Abstract Expressionists. Her large, abstracted canvasses suggest movement above all in kinetic compositions that do include some representational elements. Many are anchored by primary colours that glow against a restless background, using the brushstrokes and textural effects and colours that range from translucent washes to more saturated hues.
*The Brenda Taylor Gallery is in the process of moving their digs down the street to 531 West 25th.

The Searchers
- Daniel Cooney Fine Art
Artists Sasha Bezzubov & Jessica Sucher collaborated on this photographic project, a series of portraits of foreigners drawn to South Asian spirituality. Titles include "Mexican Sikh and her German Husband", "American Shiva Devotee, High on Ritual Hash", and so on. The portraits seem casual and relatively unposed, and are united by a luminous kind of glow that echoes the "search" of their subjects and the backdrop of India itself. It sounds like a fairly simple idea, but it's rather an effective one. The images were really quite beautiful and did convey an overall feeling of spirituality.

Upcoming Opening Alert:
If your interest is piqued, and you don't mind a party (!) the Amsterdam Whitney Gallery is having a Gala Opening Champagne Reception & Bal du Moulin Rouge & Thanksgiving Cornucopia Party on November 12 with a red and black theme - get thee to the gallery for an invitation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Opera Atelier's Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie en Tauride
Opera Atelier
November 4, 2009

Directed by Marshall Pynkoski
Choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg
Original costume design by Dora Rust D'Eye
Tafelmusik Orchestra & Chamber Choir conducted by Andrew Parrott

Performances continue to November 7

Gluck's 1779 opera is often considered his crowning glory, a masterpiece of "reformation" opera that put the drama back into an artform that had become rather static over time. In the 18th century, opera was dominated by the kind of "opera seria" we now most associate with Handel, where recitative and aria are strictly separated. Think Messiah - great music, beautiful singing, but dramatic theatre it's not. Seen in context in Opera Atelier's sumptuous period production, it's a treat for the eyes and ears.

The performance brings together dancers, singers and a chorus in a rich panoply of sight and sound, ably anchored by the formidable talents of soprano Peggy Kriha Dye as Iphigénie and Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer in the role of Orestes, both of whom exuded just the kind of opulent emotion the story calls for. The opera is based on Euripides' play Iphigenia en Tauris and of course ancient Greek legend. It's the tail end of the saga of Agamemnon's lineage and the aftermath of the Trojan war, and the (very) abbreviated version, and necessary backstory, go like this:

Agamemnon, a Greek king, sacrifices daughter Iphigénie to appease the goddess Diana for an insult so that she'll allow the Greek fleet to sail for Troy. At the last minute of the sacrifice, Diana relents and spirits Iphigénie away to Tauride to serve as her priestess, but everyone believes she has been killed. Wife Clytemnestra harbours a serious grudge over this act, and when Agamemnon gets home after a decade of war, she murders him. Son Orestes is compelled to avenge his father's murder, and kills her in turn, whereupon the Furies pursue him for vengeance of their own. Thus, he ends up in Tauride, where he's about to be sacrificed by the priestess of Diana to appease the gods... There's a beautiful kind of symmetry in all of it, no? There's a scene where the Taurean men sing and dance in thanks to the gods for having sent them a sacrifice, people have bad dreams that foretell of death and destruction, and poor Iphigénie is about at the end of her rope - although it does have a "happy" ending, in case you were worried. Pynkoski's direction adds a homoerotic element to the relationship between Orestes and his best friend Pylade (sung by Canadian tenor Thomas Macleay in his debut) that probably wasn't present in Gluck's era, but is also probably truer to the intent of the ancient Greek story.

Along with an emotional and dramatic performance that would have brought tears to Gluck's eyes, kudos have to go to Doris Rust D'Eye and her gorgeously intricate costuming, along with the people now departed who created the beautifully neo-baroque Elgin Theatre, which served as a wonderful complement to the production. Tafelmusik, under the baton of Andrew Parrott, gave a flawless rendition of the ornate score -there really was no weak link to this elaborate performance. Highly recommended, and there's still time to get your tix.

About the photos:
1st - Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg & Curtis Sullivan
2nd - Photo: Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye (centre) as Iphigénie with Artists of Atelier Ballet
3rd - Photo: Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: (From left) Tenor Kresimir Spicer as Oreste and tenor Thomas Macleay as Pylade
4th - Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Kresimir Spicer (centre) with Artists of Atelier Ballet

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Antichrist - a film by Lars von Trier

Written & directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg & Willem Dafoe
Opens November 13 in Toronto, Vancouver & Montreal, currently in limited release in the U.S.

Lars von Trier's film Antichrist opens for public consumption having been much discussed and debated in the months since its premiere at Cannes in May. If you've read anything at all about it, you'll know that it tells the story of a couple's attempts to come to terms with their grief after the death of their son. Even the publicity synopsis tells you they do so by retreating to eden, being the name of their cabin in the woods, and that things "go from bad to worse" as indeed they do.

The film is visually beautiful in a way that's quite arresting, both in the earlier interior scenes that are shot very close to the characters and in the mythic quality of the outdoor scenes in the woods. Graphic sex scenes are visceral as well as poetic. Gainsbourg and Dafoe are on screen, together or separately, literally 100% of the time, and both turn in an acting tour de force that captures the nuances of coupledom - from Dafoe's controlling and somewhat arrogant therapist to Gainsbourg's portrayal of a woman who's simply been torn in two in all the shades and variations of grief - and their journey to hell to perfection.

The problem with the film, I think, is Von Trier himself, who overloads the story with heavy handed symbolism and allegory, to the point where you know exactly what's coming at every turn. In the opening scene, the "prologue", the unnamed couple have sex while their adorable moppet gets himself out of his crib and stumbles towards the open window, beside which there is a coffee table, and on which there are three charming figurines called "grief", "despair", and "pain". Guess what happens? The body of the film is, in fact, divided into three more sections entitled Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), and Despair (Gynocide), (followed by a brief epilogue). Dafoe encounters a fox eating its own entrails who tells him "chaos reigns!" and a doe with a stillborn infant hanging from her nether regions. Gainsbourg mentions that her now abandoned thesis research found an account of three sisters who could make it hail... then later it hails... and the thesis was about gynocide, or the killing of women... and the title Antichrist, which you'll see within a few seconds of the film's beginning, has an "o" over the "t", you know, making it that Venus symbol... See what I mean? Can you guess what happens?

I realize all that was supposed to add another layer to what really amounts to a fairly simple story, but rather than add, it detracts from the aforementioned gorgeous visuals and fine acting and, to my view, bled the piece of any real sense of drama - a story about the corrosive nature of grief that left me completely cold emotionally. Surely it's possible to be an artiste and use symbolism and allegory to add a mythic layer to the film with a defter touch? A little subtlety? To let the story tell itself and just get out of the way most of the time?

Is it worth seeing? Yes, for the stunning cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle, and the acting chops of Dafoe and Gainsbourg. I didn't mind the graphic sexuality or violence (or the graphic sexual violence,) and in contrast to many critics, I also didn't find it particularly misogynistic or shocking. What I thought was that it was overly self conscious of its own sense of artistry, to the detriment of the piece as a whole. You can check out the trailer here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Shopping Cart of Love

Shopping Cart of Love
part of the Canwest Cabaret Festival
October 31 - Young Centre

It may have been Hallowe'en, but the dressing up I saw yesterday afternoon had more to do with the glitz and glamour of the stage than any celebration of All Soul's Day. Business was brisk at the Young Centre, a great little venue in the Distillery District that was set up into five separate and intimate cabaret clubs for the Canwest Cabaret Festival. There were four shows going at once in the afternoon as I dropped in, in a mad flurry of the performing arts that, I think, underscores the public's obvious hunger for song and dance. The line up was long for the Brent Carver offering, and not a seat was left in the house for the Shopping Cart of Love, the Patti Loach/Patricia Zentilli show I got to myself, (along with Nancy White, who was sitting at the table in front of me!) The photo is by Tracey Nolan.

Classic black staging splashed with coloured lights complemented the duo of talented blondes as they took a receptive audience through an hour long journey in the life of a modern woman, more or less, using show tunes, theatrical bits and banter. Some of it was autobiographical and some just whimsical, a thread that connected tunes on topics as diverse as babysitters and zoology. All of it was held together by the engaging characters of the ladies. Her hands deftly occupied with providing the sparkling musical accompaniment, Loach was the more sophisticated older woman to Patricia's often sweet and vulnerable stage presence, both her spoken and sung lines showing an impressive range of hitting emotional notes along with a nice comedic touch.

The Young Centre seems the ideal venue for the Festival, with artists checking in and mingling with the crowds in the lobby, the sprinkling of sequins and instrument cases contributing to the atmosphere. There was beverage service both in the lobby and during the show, at prices you could actually afford.

Life may not be a cabaret, but wittty, musical, and with beverage service, it really should be.