Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bridal Fantasies in Alberta

A flurry of holiday proposals means big plans – and big business – right across Canada.

Here in Alberta, retailers in the wedding industry were out in full force last week at two separate wedding shows. The first, ‘Bridal Fantasy’, was held at the Telus Convention Centre in downtown Calgary on January 17 and then at the Northlands Edmonton Expo Centre on January 24. The ‘Bridal Fantasy’ brand extends to a popular magazine of the same name, found on newsstands across the province, an online blog, and a jewellery line.

Also on January 24, the Roundup Centre at Stampede Park was the scene of Calgary’s ‘Wedding Fair,’ where over two hundred “wedding experts” doled out free advice.

Attending Bridal Fantasy was an especially fruitful trip for engaged couple Omar Macalam and Margarita Chua. At Calgary’s Bridal Fantasy show, they not only found the perfect bridal gown – off the rack and on sale – but also won a raffle prize in the form of a large gift basket from Ideal Protein.

On display were retailers and their wares from every aspect of the wedding industry: cakes, music, clothing, jewellery, table settings, and even two giant Hummer-limousines for a wedding or stagette party. A fashion show, complete with a Disney-esque castle in the background, displayed gowns and formal suits from Jennifer Scott Bridal, Beautiful Bride, and Derks Tuxedoes. A group of children in little white dresses and mini suits stole the show with their choreographed dance down the catwalk.

The Bridal Fantasy show attracted approximately three thousand shoppers in Calgary but broke records in Edmonton with a jaw-dropping nine thousand patrons; a third of whom were brides-to-be.

Gay Derk, president of Bridal Fantasy, says her show is part of a typical engaged couple’s full experience. Having been a part of thousands of weddings in this way, she has some time-tested advice for those planning a wedding.

“Have fun with it and have open, honest communication,” she says, “So many people get freaked out over what their mother wants, or his father wants, or their sister wants. Just forget it. Enjoy each other, have fun with your friends. Pick three things that are ‘hard and fast’ must-haves and let the rest go. Pick three things, talk about them honestly, and write down your budget. That’s what I tell people.”

Naturally, Derk married into the wedding industry. Her husband, Darryl, and his family have run Derks Formal Wear for almost thirty years. As a young couple, Gay and Darryl were burglarized. With a new baby in the home, she watched in horror as her new husband was pushed out a window. For three years he required intense physio-therapy every day. Meanwhile, Gay (who has a background and degree in pharmacology) ran the family’s tuxedo and bridal gown shop. She doubled its profits each year. When Darryl recovered, she had found her passion. Bridal Fantasy was born.

For those who missed it, a third wedding show, Calgary’s Bridal Expo, will take place in September at Stampede Park.

Published in National Post, January 30 2010

So You're Engaged: First Reactions

It was like being inside a pinball machine. Text messages, e-mails, and phone calls flashed and rang noisily all around me. Dozens of hands reached out to pinch my arm; dry, anonymous lips kissed my cheeks frantically, and there was a lot of joyful, incoherent yelling. It was mere hours since I had arrived home for Christmas, engaged, and the whole city of Vancouver seemed to be on high alert. I was jet-lagged and confused, but happy.

Why were all these people so excited for me to get married? Had they lost hope? How did they all know I was engaged? Did my parents tell the media? Who told my new fiancé he was getting a canoe as a dowry? What was I thinking, flying straight out of vacation and into one of my father’s giant holiday parties?

It began in Jamaica with a rush, post-proposal, of my future life as a future wife flashing before me. When I had calmed down, having examined the ethical diamond ring and my boyfriend’s super-hero posture carefully, I suddenly saw our future first home filled with our future freckled kids, our future careers, conflicts, Christmases, retirement, and travels around the world like a super quick slide show. This was our life. Then just as suddenly my vision narrowed and I saw a frantic work-out scheme, a desperate bid to quit smoking, a stunning couture wedding gown (ok, my imagination was running), a huge celebration, and an exotic but affordable honeymoon. This will be our wedding.

What I did not see, what I could not imagine, was anyone outside of my beau and I. But there they were, waiting. And that, it seems, is our engagement.

When you announce your intention to get married, it does funny things to people. Some are overjoyed, inappropriately thrilled by your decision to be locked in, while others are blasé. Everyone has advice, and the wedding is prime topic for dissection. “When is the wedding?” I was asked repeatedly the day after I became engaged; as if the event had been all planned out except for the leading man. Someone told me to order wedding cake “by the pound,” which I’m sure isn’t the way you do it. One person suggested, since we’re getting married in Toronto but hail from different parts of the country, that we have multiple weddings. Yes! A wedding tour! Let’s take this show on the road! Anything seems possible when you agree to get married.

Then there are the friends and family members you love, and who love you beyond reason. They have championed you as a couple, and supported your individual efforts. They are a warm cocoon between the couple and the world outside. And you need those people, because outside that cocoon is the real world, just waiting to freak you out with divorce statistics, mortgage rates, and speech requests. And orbiting around all of you are a flurry of trade shows, magazines, planners, cake-makers, banquet halls, DJs, and other honest retailers who simply want to share in your joy by selling you stuff – expensive stuff that must be colour coordinated.

Becoming engaged had a strange effect on us as well. Emotionally, I was on a roller-coaster ride for a solid month. A missing ingredient in my favourite salad was enough to bring tears. I quit smoking, joined a gym, and began scrapbooking favourite pictures from the wedding magazines I now buy at the grocery store every week. Scrapbooking! For my partner, babies have become an obsession. He watches National Geographic documentaries about baby muscox and baby panthers, and wonders what will happen to Brad and Angelina’s kids if they split. None of this is normal.

My soon-to-be mister proposed on a balmy night in Jamaica. In the darkness we could see thousands of stars above us, and the white fringe of waves as they lapped at our feet. A very brief, tiny moment before he uttered the words, I knew what was coming. My breath caught in my throat, and after saying “Yes!” my mind rushed into a stunned, wordless state of surreal euphoria. Nothing existed in that moment except for us, and this massive – perhaps insane – commitment we had just made.

It felt like skydiving: when you can’t remember the parachute, or the months of preparation, or the other people who have done this so many times before you, because the sheer fact that you jumped has stolen all other senses.

So, you’re engaged. Things will happen quickly, and it will feel like getting married is the most important, sensitive, and expensive duty you’ll ever have.

My advice to you, dear engaged one, is to remember that breathless moment when you first proposed or accepted; hold on to it, feel it, and put it somewhere very safe. There will be times when you need silence, calm, joy, or reminding of why you ever entered this world of hurt willingly. That’s when you can go back to that moment. Let your mind circle around how you felt, what you said (if anything), and remember what it was like to have nothing in your head except the sound of your heart. That moment is the first thing you’ve created for your future wedded selves. Marriage is a hopeful step, but engagement is the big leap.


Published in The National Post, January 30 2010

Up next: Eeeek! Wedding dress week! Do they fit and flatter? Will it look tacky in photos ten years from now? Is it really worth the price of a down-payment or a trip to Europe? Was inviting three people to watch me self-consciously try on expensive clothes a bad idea? Does the new Holt Renfrew store in Calgary have a magnetic force around it?

Friday, January 29, 2010

No Exit: four more shows in Calgary

Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play No Exit is on stage as part of The High Performance Rodeo festival.

Two of Vancouver's most innovative theatre companies: Electric Company Theatre and The Virtual Stage are set to wow another four audiences in Calgary before returning home.

It is a four person, one-act play featuring enormous talent in all its players, particularly Laara Sadiq as the sexually charged Ines Serrano, who has died of gas.

Set in Hell (represented by an anonymous hotel room), we watch as the three strangers struggle with corporeal desire in all its forms, from wanting a toothbrush or sex to needing the attention of others.

This last thing; the thing the characters covet the most - to be seen, heard, admired - and its opposite - the power to witness, observe, provoke - is where this production really crackles.

Here are three good reasons to see this play, while you can:

1) Seamless production: From the fascinating blend of live film projection and on-stage acting, to the clever lighting, score, and set design (we see, at one point, our guide the Bellhop at a desk with large piles of folders marked "said" and "unsaid") this is a captivating, 90 minute performance.

2) It's uncomfortably comfortable: Don't get too cozy. As Sartre reminds us, the more we see ourselves in the characters, the more necessary their hell becomes. This show draws you in, and then gently pokes at you .... I should say no more.

3) It's entertaining: Good art should always be entertaining, even if it's uncomfortable. This show is marked by outstanding performances from all four lead players. It is dark, funny, and most of all intriguing. Plus, the audience is always entitled to a behind-the-scenes tour after the performance, and believe me, you'll want it.

The four remaining shows in Calgary take place at the Max Bell Theatre:

Friday, January 29 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, January 30 at 2:00 pm

Saturday, January 30 at 8:00 pm

Sunday, January 31 at 2:00 pm

Tickets can be purchased through the Epcor Centre or on The High Performance Rodeo website.

Published on January 29, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vero Bistro hosts Vine and Dine

While thousands gathered to cheer the arrival of an Olympic Torch in Calgary last Monday, a more intimate crowd was applauding the efforts of Chef Jenny Chan.

To them, her accomplishment was no less heroic than a gold-medal winner. That night, she and younger brother Frankie Chan prepared and plated a six course meal for almost 50 people; the full capacity of her small, upscale restaurant in Kensington.

Her partner, Mike Berg, is the restaurant’s manager and one of its few servers. He and co-workers were also given big praise, having slid deftly between tables, dropping gorgeous food with polished flare.

It was a ‘Vine and Dine’ event, meaning Linda Garson, an expert in wines, paired each course with a little known wine. She explained the history of each vineyard and grape, and why the choice was perfect for each dish.

A lobster bisque was first on the menu, complete with generous portions of lobster claws and a dash of Pernod. The matching wine came from Australia: Xanadu Next of Kin Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon.

The fresh crispness of it set the salty, cream soup in perfect balance. The following courses included a Dungeness crab cake with scallops and shrimp and exquisite hand-rolled sweet potato gnocchi drizzled with a sage brown butter and balsamic reduction; its sweet earthiness was paired perfectly with smoky bits of wild boar bacon, sweet candied almonds, and sharp gorgonzola cheese.

In a rare display of bias, Garson, who is set to visit winemakers in Italy, Chile and Argentina this season, announced her favorite wine that night: Chanson Pouilly Fuisse.

“This is delicate wine making,” she said of the Burgundy-region wine, “Chardonnay doesn’t have to be bright yellow, wheaty and steeped in oak … it can be like this, the perfect blend of acidity and sweetness. There is a subtle taste of oak, but not over-powering or artificial. This is how Chardonnay was meant to be.”

The same might be said of Vero Bistro. Confident, bold and complex flavours are matched by a comfortable, unpretentious setting. There are capable servers, a more-than-full bar, some of the freshest oysters in town, and a lively neighbourhood into which guests tumble after a long night of good food. Some Vine and Dine regulars said it was the best setting they’d experienced. It was, commented one patron, as if you had gone home for a special occasion dinner and your mother had been trained at Le Cordon Bleu.

Among the guests were Don Campbell, band leader for Estelle dance orchestra, Andy MacDonald, the new manager for Rouge Restaurant, and Johann Kyser, project manager for Alberta’s 2011 Solar Decathlon project.

Published in National Post on January 23, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sexy clown act sells out in Calgary, heads to Toronto

Audiences in Calgary have been lining up to date this clown: Mimi, French from France, funny.

Rebecca Northan, a classically trained actress and comedienne, created Mimi (and became Mimi) for a short, naughty piece in the Luminato Festival's Spiegeltent'ntavern last year. Now, what started as a ten-minute cabaret show, has become a wildly popular, fully improvised 90-minute work of art called "Blind Date." Sold out during its first run at Toronto Harbourfront Centre, the show is now on stage in Calgary as part of the High Performance Rodeo.

With only four shows left, tickets in Calgary are hard to come by. Previous shows during this month's festival have been sold-out. Blind Date returns to Toronto on March 3, 2010 for a five-day run at The Harbourfront Centre.

The premise is simple: Mimi, a Parisian clown, is stood up by a blind date. She waits, then becomes impatient and hauls someone on stage from the audience.

How does she choose them? "The same way you pick someone you're going to date," she says, "It's just a feeling, a chemistry."

What follows is a true blind date, with all its inherent absurdities, sexual tension, and akward attempts to impress, on display for a full audience to see. Northan, who has done everything from Shakespeare to street performing, says she never takes a paid, seated audience for granted. Neither does she ignore the uncomfortable feelings of her guest.

"Wearing a clown nose reminds everyone that it's just for fun," she says, "The guys [from the audience] are usually pretty nervous, and I just gently remind them to relax. After all, that's the most interesting thing in the world; just watching someone be themselves."

Blind Date shows in Calgary January 22 and 23, at 7:30 pm and 10:00 pm in Lunchbox Theatre.

Harbourfront Theatre in Toronto will produce the show March 3 - 7, at 7:00 pm in The Brigatine Room.

Published on The Ampersand January 22, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

This is My City: Homeless Make Art, Stake Claim in Calgary

A series of performances and exhibits this week will showcase the artistry of Calgary's homeless.

This is My City began last year, as a municipal-led program engaging homeless citizens in art-making. Theatre, photography, music, and visual art instruction was introduced at local drop-in centres and shelters by artist-mentors. Now, those creative expressions and more will be on display as a part of High Performance Rodeo, a month-long festival of the performing arts.

"Theatre is a self-esteem builder and a communication builder," explains Aviva Zimmerman, an artist-mentor and the project coordinator for This is My City, "Those are skills anyone should have; to look someone in the eye and speak clearly, to be confident in their ideas. It also feeds the soul. Art provides meaning for our lives and creates a sense of community."

Good art has long been a powerful ally to Calgary. While cowboy hats and oil rigs have become iconic symbols of this boomtown, a thriving - and expanding - cultural sector has provided space for dialogue and diversity. Giving voice to those who are most often silenced, or simply silent, is a driving force behind this project too.

"It was never meant to be a solution to the problem," Zimmerman explains, noting the disparity between Calgary's "paved with gold" image and the "overwhelming number" of people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

It will, though, draw some much needed attention and validation to a growing population in crisis. "It's overwhelming to see hundreds and hundreds of people who are in misery," adds Zimmerman, "Especially in one of the richest cities in a country with such a high standard of living. It is a crises in evey major urban centre in Canada."

This is My City includes the interactive "Power Play," whereby members of the audience may step into a role and attempt to change the show's conclusion. There is also a free art exhibit at the Epcor Centre and Glenbow Museum, a musical performance of the Land's End Chamber Ensemble and The Drop-in Singers at the Grace Presbyterian Church, and a showcase cabaret of various performers tomorrow, January 20 at the WR Castell Library. The week ends with a free symposium on art as a form of social justice, led by the Right Honourable Michaelle Jean and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond.

A full listing of This is My City events can be found at

Published on The Ampersand, January 19 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

High Performance Rodeo Round-Up

Month-long festival of performing arts kicks off in Calgary

The High Performance Rodeo is a four week festival of music, theatre and dance. It is a place where emerging artists may showcase their work, and established shows find an eager audience. Here, you can see what good art is supposed to be - provocative, entertaining, and insightful - and, sometimes, art that is just the opposite.

The festival opened with a celebration of the highly unusual. Calgary’s Epcor Centre became the scene of a musical-circus-burlesque midway. Indie bands played while artists and art-lovers alike mingled. Cocktails were served in a velvet-draped lounge. While an “H1N1 Kissing Booth”, pornographic puppet show, and glass-walker kept the masses entertained on the midway, multiple shows were taking place around the city.

The most highly anticipated was Tubular Bells, a collaboration between Alberta Ballet, Honens Piano Competition, and the Bergmann Piano Duo. Choreographed by acclaimed local dancer Yukichi Hattori, the piece is set to an adaptation of a 1970’s rock-instrumental album. It was performed live by four internationally renowned pianists, on stage with the ballet company. It has been over a year since the show was performed here.

According to Michael Green, the festival’s curator, the mix of emerging and expected performances continues to grow the audience. “There is a demographic that will rush out and see anything that’s new,” he says, “And then there are those who look for something that’s established; that audience, in Calgary, is ripe, ready, and raring to go.”

“The High Performance Rodeo audience is the most sophisticated in Canada,” Green says, “There hasn’t been another festival - like this one, running for so long - anywhere else in the world. This audience is used to seeing very inter-disciplinary, challenging work. The kind of stuff you don’t see everyday is the mainstay of this festival.”

The hot tickets for next week include performances from Vancouver, Mongolia, and Calgary’s urban under-belly.

Electric Company Theatre from Vancouver is bringing Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit to stage beginning January 27. The show blends live theatre with live film, shot behind-the-scenes and shown on giant screens on-stage. An interactive tour of this mysterious set is included with a ticket.

Tono, a cross-cultural dance show which features live throat-singing, will start January 28. The show features performers from Canada, Mongolia and China. It will be a part of the Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver this winter.

Perhaps most important and unusual is This is My City, a sub-festival of performances based on a year-long project by the City of Calgary to engage homeless citizens in artistic expression. There are short plays based on the personal stories of homeless Calgarians; there is a concert by The Drop-In-Centre Singers and the Found Sound Orchestra; there is a unique exhibition of artwork by the homeless; there is a musical performance by the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble of Marcel Bergmann’s latest composition, written specifically for this event; and finally, there is an open, free symposium led by The Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, on the power of art to promote social justice. The ‘Art Matters’ and ‘This is My City’ Symposiums take place all day at the Glenbow Museum on January 24, 2010.

Published in National Post, January 16 2010

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Choklat Snobs Keep it Simple

Holiday Hootenany Preceeds New Year's Indulgence

There are only two places in Canada that make their own chocolate, according to Brad Churchill, and one of them is in Calgary. It’s called Choklat, and every Monday the public is invited behind the counter of Churchill’s shop to see just how the magic happens.

Last week, a small crowd gathered at 7:00 pm for the ‘Choklat snobbery tour’ in Inglewood. They were greeted by a warm cup of rich drinking chocolate, piled with whipped cream, and sweet smells wafting through the room. In less than thirty minutes Churchill gave a run-down of chocolate’s history; from cocoa as currency in the 15th century to the thick, spicy hot chocolate made by Spanish explorers in the next, to the innovations by a British Quaker named Mr. Cadbury, an Italian traveler named Mr. Ghirardelli, and two Swiss men called Henri Nestlé and Rudolphe Lindt which slowly formed what we now know as common, edible chocolate.

“For hundreds of years the art of making chocolate has been surrounded by this mystique, this air of mystery,” Churchill told his little group, “I’m breaking that wide open.”

A self-proclaimed “red-neck from Alberta,” Churchill has tried to purge his practice of the pretention often found in other confection stores. There is no elaborate packaging here, just the simple foil wrapping with smart turquoise lettering. Even the shop’s name - Choklat - is to this end; “I figured I would spell it phonetically and just be clear about what people are getting,” he explains, “It’s just that - real and simple.”

The tour includes an education on cocoa beans and their suppliers, and then a walk-through of how the chocolate is made. Churchill has managed to nurture relationships with small growers in Venezuela and has the distinct advantage of a family member in the freight business. This means his shop has access to rare, hand-sorted, good quality beans. He roasts them, separates the shell from interior (called “nibs”) and refines them with sticky fresh vanilla beans, cocoa butter
and sugar. The result is five pure and distinct chocolates from five unique cocoa bean types.

They are sampled alone, relative to a Lindt bar, and finally paired with desert wines, champagne, and sherry. One combination, a particularly well-aged sherry with the slight dried-fruit notes in the dark Cayuga cocoa, has been known to make some guests weep.

While Choklat and its decadent behind-the-scenes tour have gained in popularity, Churchill is already looking at the next step. He wants a larger space to begin with, one with a seating area where patrons can relax while indulging in a brownie or cup of hot chocolate. A Willie Wonka style chocolate waterfall and river has also crossed his mind.

A good introduction to the New Year, Choklat’s ‘snobbery tour’ followed on the heels of several holiday parties in Calgary. The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) had its fête at Centini’s Restaurant, where several Alderman were spotted including Druh Farrell who was asked by the M.C. if she wanted to start her bid for the mayor’s seat immediately. Lorraine Royer of Global Public Affairs, US Consul-General Laura Lochman, and Enbridge executive Art Meyer were also present. The Lougheed House hosted its annual design and décor
event. This year featured rooms decorated by Janet Farnham, Kevin Gray, and Charlene Threatful. Among the guests was Joe Lougheed, a lawyer with Fraser Milner Casgrain and son of former premier Peter Lougheed. He was taking guests through his great-grandmother’s old bedroom and explaining how she might have lived.

Published in National Post on January 9 2010