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Luminato is rich with artistic experiences

June 21, 2008
TORONTO — Most of my readers don’t need another reason to visit Toronto. There are already so many, it seems redundant.

Still, the big city has come up with yet another attraction to make us pay outrageous gasoline prices and endure the ever-increasing unpleasantness of crossing the border. It’s called Luminato.

If you’ve been to one of Toronto’s festivals, such as the Jazz Festival which will be returning later this month, you know that they tend to be a combination of unusual and remarkable events, integrated beautifully into the city’s many regular attractions. Luminato is no exception.

This year was only the second Luminato Festival, but it has gone so successfully they’re looking forward to many more.

What is Luminato?

Luminato is a festival of arts and creativity. Each year, it lasts 10 days in early June and combines wonderful things to see with wonderful things to do, such as performances of theater and dance, visual arts exhibitions, participation events like sing-alongs and dancing in the street, lectures by people of great accomplishment or about such people, and much more.

Although events take place all around the city, events seem to be concentrated in the Yorkville section, located directly north of the University of Toronto on the north side of giant Bloor Street.

One unexpected plus, even if you’re a regular attendee at theater in Toronto, as I am, chances are that Luminato will introduce you to additional performing spaces which you never knew existed.

This year’s major attractions were:

n A production by the Scottish National Theatre of the play ‘‘Black Watch.’’ More about it soon.

n Three different evenings of dance by the internationally celebrated Mark Morris Dance Group. More coming on this as well.

n A production of Shakespeare’s ‘‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ set in South Asia instead of ancient Greece.

n A contemporary play examining whether western society is on a course of decline, due to an excessive focusing on reason and method, to the exclusion of feeling and intuition. It’s called ‘‘Dennis Cleveland” by Mikel Rouse.

n A celebration of the life and work of writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.

n ‘‘Where the Blood Mixes,’’ by Kevin Loring, a study of the effects on the native Canadian population by the long Canadian policy of taking children away by force from their parents and raising them in boarding schools, intended to instill western values.

n ‘‘The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,’’ by George Ryga, a play about a woman who has emerged from one of those culture-killing schools and now has to find a life in her home culture or the new, western one.

n ‘‘Color for the End of Time,’’ a concert by the Gryphon Trio, performing Olivier Messiaen’s overwhelming composition “Quartet for the End of Time.’’

n ‘‘Sanctuary Song,’’ an opera created by Abigail Richardson and Marjorie Chan, telling a tale, not unlike ‘‘The Little Prince,’’ about the friendship between an elephant and a man.

n ‘‘Rocket and the Queen of Dreams,’’ a play for children by David S. Craig.

n ‘‘The Canadian Song Book,’’ a look by a dozen professional singers at the popular music created by Canadians over the years.

n ‘‘Homeland,’’ a multi-media presentation by Laurie Anderson, the first artist-in-residence for NASA.

n ‘‘The Glass Eye,’’ a creation of many arts by Louis Negin and Marie Brassard, which examines the way a child learns to value or ignore elements of his life due to a contemporary upbringing.

n ‘‘The Dark City,’’ a collection of noir-esque tales of Toronto, created by the Walrus Foundation.

n ‘‘Nunavut,’’ a concert by the Kronos Quartet, utilizing the Inuit throat singing of Tanya Tagaq Gillis.

n ‘‘A Throw of the Dice,’’ a classic film by Franz Osten, to which a brand new score has been composed by Nitin Sawhney.

n Last and far from least, ‘‘The Fiddle and the Drum,’’ a ballet created by choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre and musician and designer Joni Mitchell, creator of beloved songs such as ‘‘Big Yellow Taxi,’’ ‘‘Both Sides Now’’ and ‘‘Chelsea Morning.’’ The dance studies the effect of war on humans.

Also in the festival

Were you seduced by the voice of Mama Cass Elliott and left with a burning desire to dance in the street? I was. For the first six nights of Luminato, the public was invited to the large square formed by the intersection of Dundas and Yonge streets to do exactly that.

The square has much of the effect of New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, with considerably less of the dirt and the danger. The event is called ‘‘Telus Light on your Feet.’’

The square is surrounded by huge, multi-story photos, some of which are animated. Lights flash, leaving the average person a bit dazzled. For Luminato, they have stretched wires across the huge, open square and suspended huge balloons from them. The balloons are illuminated, both from within and from outside, and glow brilliantly to resemble the multiple images of eyes, which are the logo of the festival.

Each evening begins with free dance lessons in a different style for the public, from swing dancing to the group dancing made popular in Bollywood films, to tango, hip-hop and beyond. When that ends, the live musicians perform and the square is packed with happy people dancing, singing and taking photos.

One amazing thing — to me, at any rate — Toronto noise laws require an end to outdoor performances at 11 p.m., and when that happened, a great many of the dancers clicked on their I-pods or Walkmans and continued to whirl the evening away, their heads filled with the music of their choice, the air nearly silent.

Other outdoor performance spaces included the campus of the University of Toronto and the city’s Greenwich Village-like region of small cafes and funky clothing shops, West Queen Street.

Visual art

Luminato opened Toronto’s arms to visual artists of all types, from creators of native folk art to abstractionists and traditional portraitists. One exhibit was called ‘‘Mille Femmes,’’ which means, in French, ‘‘A Thousand Women.’’ It is exactly that — 1,000 huge photographic portraits of women from Toronto who have achieved greatness in business, the arts, government and dozens of other areas of activity.

The photos are the work of French photographer Pierre Maraval. Each shows us the face and shoulders of one of the women, and each includes a one-word description which the women have provided for themselves. It filled a block-long lobby of a downtown bank building, with the photos suspended from wires, four high, in great, looping arcs. I found it mesmerizing — what a treat to be free to stare into the faces of these splendid women, and to read what time has written there.

Another remarkable exhibit is also connected to the great Joni Mitchell. Titled ‘‘Green Flag Song,’’ it is a large collection of canvases inspired by the songwriter’s television going on the blink, giving distorted images, cast in a green-yellow-pink palette.

Mitchell has created several rooms filled with tryptichs, which examine what contemporary society considers notable, what we are taught is important, what we are expected to consider acceptable.

So, when you’re not in a theater or a dance performance, and you’re not dancing in the street or listening to the beliefs of the great and the near great, the city is filled with inspiration for the eyes.

In review

I was only able to spend two days in Toronto during Luminato and I wanted to make the best possible use of my time.

I was able to get tickets to two of the performances listed above: ‘‘Black Watch’’ and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

I’ve wanted to see ‘‘Black Watch’’ since I first read reviews of its being performed during the Edinburgh Festival. It has gone on to successful productions around the world, including recently in New York City. The title comes from the famed, all-Scottish fighting unit, which existed for nearly 300 years.

The playmakers did extensive interviews with members of the Black Watch, following their return from participation in the American-led coalition of invaders of Iraq. Playwright Gregory Burke promised the men that he would tell their story in their own words, and he has done that, with the result that approximately every third word begins with ‘‘F’’ and is the same word.

The production is brilliantly choreographed, which does not mean that the 10 actors dance. Rather, they re-enact the fighting they have practiced in a way which makes it very easy to understand.

Beginning from the recruiters’ talk of fame and glory and running through the director’s sending of a beautiful, female assistant to make the appointments to talk with the men, then showing up in person without the beautiful girl they were all hoping to date, these men are lied to, deceived, cheated, belittled and thrown away like trash.

They stare in awe at the destructive power of American weapons, but note that officers are issued French-made gas masks, which always seem to work, while they are issued American-made gas masks which sometimes leave enlisted men dead. The dialog is in heavy and confusing Scottish brogue, although when English, American, Iraqi or other characters are enacted, the accent is always spot-on. The Americans’ inevitable announcement that, ‘‘Hey, my grandmother was Scotch,’’ is a sure-fire laugh line.

There is a brilliantly performed production number in which one soldier is dressed in the original Black Watch uniform from the 18th century, while the remaining members of the cast run on and off the stage, adding elements to his uniform and subtracting others, showing how he would have looked in the Boer War, World Wars I and II, Korea and other conflicts, right up to the present-day conflict.

When the idea of fighting to save the country is demolished by the unprovoked invasion of a foreign soil, when the equipment doesn’t protect them and the orders aren’t reasonable and when their contract for service has expired, so the army just loses their papers which prove they’ve completed their services, they grow increasingly filled with a righteous anger, and more and more devoted to the history and honor of their unique fighting unit. Then, when they are told that the British army is disbanding all Scottish regiments and combining them into one, big new unit, it’s almost more than they can bear, and yet they soldier on.

All the cast wear colored T-shirts and black shorts under every costume so they can change clothes in a matter of moments, without leaving the stage.

The whole thing is performed on the cement floor of a hockey stadium, with the audience seated on folding metal bleachers, which were miserably uncomfortable. It took straining to hear and more straining to decipher the accents, yet it has been a while since I have seen an audience leave a theatre so visibly moved, with the sense that they understood things they never understood before.

From grim realities of war to more human practices, my second evening in Toronto I saw the Mark Morris Dance Group perform ‘‘All Fours/Violet Cavern.’’

We’ve reviewed Morris before, on film and on television, at Artpark and in Pittsburgh, as well as in New York City. His work is easy to watch. It goes very deep, but it doesn’t take an Ivy League education to sort it out.

He clearly loves music. If you have musical training, you can see the music pass through his dances. If you don’t have training, you can enjoy it, all the same.

The choreographer has an almost child-like delight in gimmicks and tricks. In nearly everything I’ve seen, from his creations, there is one dancer who is dressed differently from the others, and whose movement is different — often the exact opposite.

Tiny women lift big men. Costumes and lighting are so carefully integrated that what at first seems to be dancers with bright lights coming from the front, leaving their backs in shadow, eventually turns out to be clothing which is light on the front and dark on the back, no matter what the shadows are doing.

And Morris can’t resist the temptation to have them whirl, just in case we missed it.

As you watch, you can almost hear the choreographer’s voice, saying, ‘‘Look at how beautiful they are. Look at how strong and fast and coordinated and balanced and how lithe their movement is.’’

Beyond Luminato

In addition to all the things I’ve described and a good number for which I didn’t have room, Toronto offers a historical fort to tour, boat trips around the city’s harbor and out to the off-shore islands, wonderful museums, a Hall of Fame dedicated to hockey, the absolute latest movies, great shopping, a collection of 34 professional and semi-professional theater companies, wonderful restaurants, outstanding performances of music, the world’s newest grand opera house, and more than I can possibly name here.

You can go up for Luminato, and follow up a soul-searing performance with a calming boat trip, for example. You need only take charge, yourself.

Life is a banquet, and it often holds true, we live as well as we choose to live. You can get to Toronto and back on one tank of gas. The city can ad an element of richness to our lives, if we let it.

Article Photos

Submitted photo
The Scottish National Theatre examines our closest ally’s views of the War in Iraq, in the play “Black Watch,” one of many internationally celebrated performing and visual arts offerings at Toronto’s annual Luminato Festival.



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