Canoe Festival Returns to Push the Boundaries of Performance

It’s the hottest two weeks of winter! Or, that’s how Workshop West’s Artistic Director, Michael Clark, describes the Canoe Theatre Festival, running January 22 – February 2.

Canoe Theatre Festival, now in it’s seventh year, is Edmonton’s contemporary theatre festival. If you’re still relatively new to theatre, like me, you may ask yourself, okay, but what is contemporary theatre? According to Michael, “Post-modernism is about considering not only the narrative or the subject of a work of art, but also considering the medium through which it’s told and the teller of the story. Contemporary theatre is post-modern theatre in that it’s the wave of theatre that took place after the wave of modern theatre, but it’s post-modern in the sense that it’s as much about how you’re telling the story, why you’re telling the story as it is about what the story is.”

So, what does that look like? This year, Canoe Theatre Festival will show audiences 6 different versions of contemporary theatre – from performances as diverse as improvisational dance, to installation pieces, to object theatre, to a remounting of the National Elevator Project.  Michael gives me a hint of what audiences will see at the festival: “One piece – Testament – is an installation piece contemplating a short book that is about if the mother of God didn’t want to play along with the making of the myth Jesus and just wanted to honour him as her son. So, it’s kind of about the creators of the Christian message would have to manage her and how would they do that? Or even the piece that Mia van Leeuwen is doing called Sapientia – it’s about the persecution of the Christians by the Romans but doing it with object theatre is sort of an examination of how myths are created. It takes perhaps the first piece of Western drama written after the fall of the Roman Empire after the clasical period, which was almost a thousand years later because they had to go through the Dark Ages, and re-animates it with a contemporary eye, looking at how we are telling the story and what does it mean by… having actors telling the story with objects. So, there’s a commentary through the way the story is being told.”

Festival headliner, Tanya Tagaq’s Nanook of the North (with only one performance!) will also be a real treat for Edmonton audiences. Michael says, “[Tanya Tagaq is] an Inuit throat singer but what she’s done is taken a very intimate and traditional form of artistic expression and added electronics to it and completely turned it into a contemporary artform. It’s mind blowing what she can do with her voice.” Tanya has received international acclaim for her work, and has performed with Björk, the Kronos Quartet, and Shooglenifty.

Tanya Tagaq’s Nanook of the North was developed two years ago and debuted at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. During the performance, Tanya Tagaq improvises a soundtrack for the 1922 pseudo-documentary Nanook of the North. Michael explains that this performance has many different layers of commentary to it. “The film itself was groundbreaking in its day in that it was one of the first documentaries. Film was a new medium when it came out. What’s so very interesting about it is the guy who made it, Robert Flaherty, was doing surveying work in the north and started filming traditional Inuit life and making a real documentary, but then all of his film stock caught fire and burnt and and he lost it all… then he decided to raise the money to do this project, so to raise the funds he sold people on the story so it changed from a legitimate documentary to a manipulated documentary where Inuit children are given cod liver oil to save them from scurvy and disease – well, they’d actually been living just fine for centuries. There’s another scene where this “nobel savage” is gob-smacked by the technology of the phonograph. These people had been seeing and understood technology well before this film was shot but to sell it to producers and to make the narrative he played to period stereotypes. Over time, it became dated and became not only a famous documentary, but an infamous documentary for how it treated it’s subjects. What’s really cool is Tanya has reanimated the piece by offering this contemporary soundtrack and commentary on a piece that is dated, but it’s still timeless in that it depicts this culture that happened beforehand. It’s almost three levels of commentary happening at once – her commenting on the piece that made statements about what the white man thought of the savage back in the day. In the way it’s bringing a tension in the piece in that there’s a level of authenticity that is her music and her vocal art and that is at odds with the manipulated nature of the way it treats the subject.”

This year’s Canoe Theatre Festival line up is:

  • Tanya Tagaq’s Nanook of the North (only performance is January 30)
  • National Elevator Project
  • Sapientia
  • Static Electric
  • Body 13
  • Testament

If you want more of a hint for what this year’s Canoe Theatre Festival will look like, check out Workshop West’s trailer:

Canoe Theatre Festival runs January 22 – February 2 in venues across the city. Visit Workshop West’s website for the full festival schedule. Tickets range from $18 – $35 depending on the performance and can be purchased from Workshop West.

– Jenna Marynowski

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