Monday, September 21, 2009

Calgary Illuminates Creative Spaces

It was an evening of transformations: a snowy field into a political statement, an abandoned, ramshackle theatre turned trendy restaurant and hub of cultural activity, an industrial lot used to make bricks became an iconic urban green space, and most notably, a bunch of notoriously wordy designers turned succinct, witty, persuasive showmen - and women. This was Calgary’s first Pecha Kucha night.

The concept is deceptively simple. A dozen presenters take the stage, one at a time, and present 20 slides for 20 seconds each. First conceived and launched in Tokyo six years ago, Pecha Kucha was an attempt by architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham to foster creative - and concise - dialogue between designers. Now, over 200 cities have hosted Pecha Kucha nights around the world.

At the upscale Velvet Restaurant in Calgary’s Grand Theatre - also the subject of artistic director Mark Lawes presentation that evening - well over a hundred guests mingled before the 7:00 pm performance began. The audience was a who’s who of Calgary cultural elite, including former president of the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts Colin Jackson, former alderman Madeleine King, former city council hopeful Naheed Nenshi, co-owner of Beat Niq Jazz Club Connie Young, president of Calgary Arts Development Dr. Terry Rock, and well-known blogger-provocateur D.J. Kelly.

The evening’s presenters made an equally lofty line-up, including Toronto’s Joe Lobko, Tim Jones and Billie Bridgman alongside locals Jeremy Sturgess, Andrew Mosker, Erik Olson, Scott McTavish, David Scott, and Bill Chomik. The charming Karen Ball, director of community investment for Calgary Arts Development, played master of ceremonies.

The theme was “art spaces” - well chosen for its number of talented representatives in the city, and for its timing. Calgary Arts Development, which hosted the Pecha Kucha, is currently in the “heavy lifting” stages of redevelopment in the city’s core. They are part of the revitalization of Olympic Plaza, now called the ‘cultural district’, and plans are underway to carve out new spaces for creative and cultural tenants elsewhere.

At the Pecha Kucha, there was much talk of how a creative space develops and why. Bridgman talked about doing ‘as little as possible’ with old buildings in Toronto before turning them into vibrant, garden-ridden live/work spaces for artists. She pointed out the importance of light in each loft apartment, and illustrated why the designers would group bathrooms and kitchens together at the back of the space, in order that the artist living there could have maximum flexibility and illumination. Mosker talked about the international design competition launched by his organization, the Cantos Music Foundation, in order to find an architectural vision for a national music centre on the site of the old King Edward Hotel. The competition - an effort brought to life with the help of former Art Gallery of Alberta director Tony Luppino - remains in adjudication.

The next Canadian Pecha Kucha nights will be:

September 30 in Montreal, at the Société des arts technologiques
October 2 in Edmonton, at The Myer Horowitz Theatre
October 23 in Waterloo, at The Button Factory, and
December 2 in Calgary, again at The Grand.

Published in National Post on September 19, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Festival Season Winds Down; "Culture Month" Ramps Up

The sun was shining on the 13th annual Taste of Calgary Festival this year - literally. Postponed by rain early in the month, the popular event took place in late August, bringing hundreds of foodies and vino-philes into the bright and sunny Eau Claire Market plaza just hours before dark clouds rolled in.

Thirty restaurants ranging from the trendy Belgo to the delicious Ruan Thai set up kiosks around a bustling beer tent. Samples of local Brew Brothers beer were served alongside more obscure Eastern European brands and the ubiquitous Big Rock.

Samples of food and drink were sold for between $0.75 and $4.50. Entertainment under the big top included Cumako, the upbeat afro-latin band featuring flute, saxophone, drums, trumpet and bass, country singer Shane Chisholm, and the Rick Climans Jazz Group.

It has been a busy summer for festival-goers, who poured in to events centered on blues, jazz, rock, folk, and alternative music, among other things. It appears the Alberta arts scene, however, was simply preparing for a month of full-blown creative celebrations.

September marks the first annual Culture Month in Calgary, coinciding with Alberta Arts Days, and initiative out of Minister Lindsay Blackett’s office. Over the next few weeks city-slickers can expect a windfall of artsy parties, free concerts, film premieres, fashion shows and award ceremonies. Highlights are sure to include the first ever Calgary PechaKucha night on September 14, where a medley of creative people will design, present and speak about twenty slides for twenty seconds each, for a total of approximately six minutes. Conceived in Tokyo, this event now takes place in 230 countries around the world, from Capetown to Copenhagen and now Calgary.

“Like many world-class cities, Calgary has a thriving arts community,” said Mayor Dave Bronconnier at a press conference early this week, “Culture Month gives us the opportunity to showcase why Calgary was once again named the most cultured city in Canada.”

Other highly anticipated events include a free performance by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on September 7, and the ArtCity Festival of design and architecture from September 11 - 20.

While the arts community is celebrating, though, a loyal stalwart of culture in the city may be fading. Beat Niq Jazz Club and Bistro, a long time staple of music and food lovers alike, has announced that it may close due to financial uncertainty. Owners Robert and Connie Young have planned a three-day gala fundraising during culture month, Sept 8 - 10, with the goal of keeping their original culture club afloat.

Published in National Post on September 5, 2009

GlobalFest Brings French Feast to Laurier Lounge

There is a small brotherhood of pyro-musical designers around the world, so they all kind of know each other,” explained Ken Goosen, carefully bringing the broad-brimmed glass to his nose and inhaling deeply. His wife, Barb Goosen, sat next to him, pondering the two glasses of deep red wine on the table before her. The conversation paused and all together they smelled, swirled, sipped and looked at the ceiling in concentration.

Before the talk of explosives and orchestration could continue, Linda Garson, founder of Vine and Dine, was on the microphone and strolling from table to table. “Which wine is Canadian, and which one is French?” she asked her audience. Close to fifty guests glanced at each other and their glasses tentatively. It was the last uncomfortable moment before the GlobalFest French-Canadian Wine Dinner went into full swing. Soon guests were cajoling, cracking jokes, betting, guessing, and even looking for hints after tasting each round.

The event, co-hosted by Vine and Dine and GlobalFest, took place at the cozy yet upscale Laurier Lounge. Three mouthwatering courses were presented to each guest, seated at tables of six to eight, and each arrived with two glasses of wine expertly poured (and paired). Guests knew that one of the wines was a Canadian - Tinhorn Creek - and the other French, but their labels were hidden and patrons were challenged each round to determine which was which. Those who guessed correctly throughout the evening were awarded VIP Passes to a night at GlobalFest.

The festival is a two-week, multi-faceted celebration of diversity in Calgary, which ends with an immense firework finale on August 29. Held primarily in Elliston Park, it encompasses traditional dance performances, cultural pavilions, music and food from around the world, a film festival, a human rights forum (which this year featured former Governor General the honourable Adrienne Clarkson among others), and an international fireworks show sponsored by Trico Homes.

The best in “pyrotechnics choreographed to music” from Canada, Mexico, Spain, and China were showcased this week. According to Goosen, a co-creator of the festival, the fireworks are not only world class, but one-of-a-kind. The first piece of music was prescribed to the team by festival organizers, ensuring that a new spectacle would be created just for the occasion. The remaining music must be largely from the team’s home country.

An evening of fine food and wine at the Laurier Lounge is certainly out of pace with the rest of the festival, but a perfect fit when it comes to spirit and taste. Canada’s pyro-musical team comes wholly from Quebec this year, making the French feast a natural tie-in.

Guests devoured a wild game charcuterie platter which included elk salami, dried muscox, venison prosciutto, bison pastrami and a blueberry-cranberry compote. This was paired with two Pinot Noirs - a Joseph Drouhin Laforet and the Tinhorn Creek Pinot Noir. The second course was a large helping of succulent braised bison with classic “squeaky cheese” poutine and a colourful parcel of grilled vegetables. This was paired with Rothschild St. Emilion and Tinhorn Creek Merlot. Finally, a sweet, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth pear tarte tatin wth maple syrup coulis paired with a Canadian Icewine and the Chapoutier Beaumes de Venise.
Published in National Post on August 29, 2009

Little Festival with Big Heart Wraps 3rd Season

Not many church parties offer a dress code of black leather, fishnets and bleach blonde wigs, but it was all part of the fun this month during the 3rd annual Calgary Fringe Festival.

The fledgling theatre festival closed on August 8 with a gala performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Brad Duffy, followed by a festival-wide wrap party in the basement of Inglewood’s Lantern Community Church. Wild style and provocative prose aside, the fringe is not just about “pushing the envelope” says festival director Michele Gallant. This year, thirty-six percent of patrons were over forty-five years of age, and over fifty percent had university degrees or some higher education.

“I was surprised by the audience during our first festival, in 2006,” says Gallant, “I thought they would be younger and more interested in cutting edge stuff. But I’ve learned since then that university professors - and that demographic more generally - really enjoy the fringe festival. They’ve seen these types of festivals before, and know what to expect. They tend to meet for drinks, see a show, go for dinner somewhere and see another show. It’s an evening for them, an outing, something unexpected. I think they also love to support the arts so directly, as one hundred percent of the profits go directly to the performers after each show.”

‘Making an evening’ out of the Fringe Festival is something Gallant and her team have worked hard to promote. For the second year in a row the festival was held in Inglewood, a historic, artsy neighbourhood bordering the downtown core. The five venues were all within walking distance and most performances ran about an hour long, encouraging patrons to ‘hop’ from one show to the next.

The festival also collaborated with local merchants to launch an outdoor component during the opening weekend. That helped to make a “visual impact” on passers-by, she says, and encouraged community-building. Eventually, Gallant hopes the festival will take place equally inside and outside, like it’s more established counter-part in Edmonton, but for now she is “over the moon” with the results of this year’s attendance.

Over eight thousand patrons showed up to see shows ranging from Inviting Desire, an erotic journey into female fantasy delivered by Oregon’s Eleanor O’Brien, Tonya Miller, Tori Padellford, Allison Tigard, Mary Rose, and Emily Wisteria, to the Calgary-based comedy Crystal Ball which follows the haunted mishaps of a struggling theatre troop.

The festival’s after-party was also the scene of recognition for outstanding performances and professionals. Tom Cutherbertson, a venue supervisor, was awarded the “longest commute” medal for his daily journey from Red Deer. Cuthbertson took time off work, dedicated long hours, and declined an honorarium in order to help the Calgary Fringe Festival succeed. Gallant says the support of so many volunteers is both heart-warming and not unusual.

“There’s a lot of sharing that goes on between festivals,” she says, “Edmonton Fringe Festival, which has been around for twenty-seven years and is the second largest in North America, has helped me so much with ideas, networks, and sharing their experience. We like to think having both festivals gives the artists a good ‘Alberta circuit’ to look forward to every year.”

The Edmonton Fringe Festival wraps up on August 23. Meanwhile, Calgary audiences can look forward to the Fringe Rewind in February, when audience favorites from past year’s Calgary Fringe Festivals will be re-launched at the Arrata Opera Centre.
Published in National Post on August 22, 2009