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Ana Sokolovic: Exploring uncharted territory

Portrait of Ana Sokolovic courtesy Societe de musique contemporaine du Quebec © Donat.

“Here at The Banff Centre, I’m pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, because as an artist, I believe this is the only way I can move forward with my craft,” says composer and musician Ana Sokolovic. She came to The Banff Centre this spring with the Bozzini Quartet and choreographer Marc Boivin to work on herfirst self-prompted, multi-genre collaboration, called Commedia Ruzzante.

As a composer, Sokolovic has created more than 40 works,including compositions for stage, opera, orchestra, voice, and chamber ensembles (the Societe de musique contemporaine du Quebec’s (SMCQ) Homage Series has devoted its entire 2011 – 2012 season repertoire to her work, celebrating its scope, diversity, and quality). “In the past, the music I created just touched on one particular part of my personality, and of my creativity. With this project I’m incorporating more of myself – my love for theatre, stage, dance, and music – into one project.”

After receiving two 15-minute commissions around the same time – one for the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition and one for the Bozzini Quartet— Sokolovic decided to combine both into one long piece and include Boivin’s choreography. “I wanted to create something that was not limited to 15 minutes, and I had a very profound, artistic, human instinct that we would all go well together,” she says.

Inspired by the comedies of 16th century playwright and actor Angelo Beolco (also known by his nickname Il Ruzzante), Sokolovic wanted to explore the connection between dance, music, and role playing with her collaboration. “Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a composer but I also have a love of the dramatic arts,” Sokolovic explains. “I’m trying to incorporate my passion for theatre – this side of my personality – into this project.”

Workshopping Commedia Ruzzante in Banff. Photo: Kim Williams.

Before coming to Banff to perfect the performance and work on stage, the group had been meeting together for over a year. “You’ll see that there are some elements of this piece that can only come from a friendly familiarity between all parties, and that’s from taking such a long time to get to know each other artistically.”

That familiarity has also given Sokolovic the freedom to do something else she’s never done before: allow the Bozzini Quartet to improvise with her music. “It’s the first time in my life that I’m allowing someone to improvise with my project, because I’m usually very controlling of the whole thing,” she says with a laugh.

Coming up, Sokolovic, Boivin, and the Bozzini Quartet, plan to evolve their performance of Commedia Ruzzante through summer and fall residencies at Circuit-Est Centre Chorégraphique and Agora de La Danse, where the work will have its Montreal premiere on October 24th, 2012.

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A gift that remembers

Heaslip’s donation will help preserve and highlight archival records such as this maquette by Susan Benson for The Marriage of Fiagaro (1990).

Nona Macdonald Heaslip believes in the magic of the theatre.

This lifelong passion has inspired her involvement in many Canadian theatrical institutions, including her almost 20-year relationship with The Banff Centre. Most recently, it led to the establishment of the Nona Heaslip endowment for Archives at The Banff Centre.

This is the first endowment specifically directed towards the work of The Banff Centre’s archives, and Heaslip’s purpose for it was even more specific: to fund the startup of a theatre section within that collection. “The Banff School of Fine Arts was the first to provide early theatre training in Canada,” she notes, “and I wanted my gift to permit The Banff Centre to research and amalgamate all the archival material from the performing arts from the 1930s.”

Nona Macdonald Heaslip at home in Toronto. Photo: Sophie Giraud.

There’s a more personal connection behind Heaslips’s donation: “I acted all through school,” she says, “and it was always a dream of mine to go to Banff and study in the summer. But my father wouldn’t allow it. he felt I should spend summers at the family cottage. I made up for not going to Banff by seeing every play under the sun…and by working on Theatre Museum Canada.” Heaslip has been involved with Theatre Museum Canada, which is focused on the collection, preservation, and display of Canadian theatre artifacts, for 15 years. “It’s been a work of love,” she says, “and it’s grown by leaps and bounds.” She’s thrilled that Theatre Museum Canada will soon have a permanent home and display space in Toronto, thanks to David Mirvish.

In 2010, the opening of the new Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives within the Kinnear Centre for Creativity & Innovation at The Banff Centre provided a perfect opportunity for Heaslip to marry her interest in theatre artifacts with her long-term support of the Centre. (She has served on The Banff Centre’s Board of Governors and funded artist scholarships and fellowships, among other contributions).

The archives is the central repository for the documented experience of the Centre, including its rich theatrical history. The collection includes hundreds of scripts, scores, programs, posters, designs, drawings, photographs, and video recordings of the Centre’s seven-decade history of production.

Most of these documents are kept safely in storage and can be retrieved when needed by researchers. One special part of the collection that is stored away are the maquettes (scale models of sets), some of which are difficult to display because they are up to four feet square in size. The maquettes dwelling unseen in storage on campus include sets created here by noted designers for major productions. One striking example is the lovely maquette for the Banff Centre opera production of Filumena, which is displayed in a glass case outside the library. Jane Parkinson, the Banff Centre’s archivist, says, “Nona’s endowment is very exciting. It’s planted a seed to get us thinking, and acting, to put our theatre archives out there in a creative way.”

Both Parkinson and heaslip are cognizant of the enormous amount of effort that goes into every theatre production. “A lot of documentation comes out of a theatre production because so much work goes into it: lighting designs, costume designs, and so on,” Parkinson says. heaslip adds, “The work that goes into theatre is unbelievably important – it’s not just the people learning their lines; it’s the writers, technicians, stage hands, makeup artists…a whole legacy.”

This wealth of work is a both a boon and a curse for archivists because of the sheer volume, so a gift like heaslip’s, where a portion supports the ongoing costs associated with growing and maintaining the archives, is very useful indeed. “We can focus on projects to display some of these amazing artifacts,” Parkinson says, “and tell the story of the early days of the theatre here.”

This goal is perfectly in tune with Heaslip’s memories of friends whose parents allowed them to attend the then-Banff School of Fine Arts. “It gave them all sorts of confidence and understanding of the arts. Those summer programs were very enriching – people would come back so advanced!”

Parkinson recognizes that heaslip’s gift will allow The Banff Centre’s archives to begin to bring the early days to life for a new generation of theatre buffs. “We will use this funding to get people excited about the theatre in general and about all that has been done here.”

Until 2015, contributions to arts endowment funds such as the Nona Heaslip endowment for archives are doubly valuable to The Banff Centre because the federal government provides a funding incentive of approximately 70 per cent through the Canada Cultural Investment Fund. Visit www.banffcentre.ca/support to learn more.

 

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Photo flash: March 2012

A few weeks ago, photographer Kim Williams got behind the scenes during the creation of a new work combining original music by Montreal-based composer Ana Sokolovic, the Bozzini Quartet, and dancer and choreographer Marc Boivin, a piece called Commedia Ruzzante, which audiences saw in preview in early March. Here are a few of Kim’s shots…

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Blanche impresses New York critics

Onlea Gilbertson in her Banff Blanche performance.  Photo: Donald Lee.

Onlea Gilbertson in her Banff Blanche performance. Photo: Donald Lee.

Five years agao, Calgary singer and theatre artist Onalea Gilbertson received a phone call from Banff Summer Arts Festival producer Casey Prescott, who asked if she could create a new work for the intimate Club, a cabaret-style room beneath The Banff Centre’s theatre complex.

The following summer, Gilbertson debuted a work very close to her heart. Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame is a onewoman theatrical song cycle that lives in between music and theatre. Blanche is also the story of Gilbertson’s grandma, Blanche Gilbertson, who was windowed twice, first at age 23 when already the mother of two children, and later at age 55.

Fast forward to this past autumn, and Gilbertson was over the moon to present Blanche at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the “Sundance of musical theatre,” and the largest musical theatre event in North America. “The festival is known for discovering shows and talent,” Gilbertson reports, “and they receive hundreds of submissions from around the world.”

Of her off-Broadway premiere, The Huffington Post critic in New York commented, “What a treat. It’s unvarnished, but paired with the right music and Gilbertson’s marvelous vocals, it’s catchy and memorable and funny and true.”

Gilbertson recalls her feelings from five years ago. “When Blanche was originally commissioned by The Banff Centre it was absolutely a gift from the universe.” The Theatre Arts department supported the show through two residencies in 2008, focused on writing and later production.

“I am forever thankful to The Banff Centre for believing in me and supporting me as an artist, for giving me the time and the resources to create this piece,” she adds. “My life is forever changed.”

She dedicates the work to her grandmother, who passed away just after Mother’s Day this past year. Gilbertson says, “My Gram Blanche (1915-2011) was a special soul, an inspiration, and definitely a wild prairie dame!” Blanche Gilbertson is survived by five children, 15 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren — and one off-Broadway success story.

BLANCHE: The Bittersweet Life Of A Wild Prairie Dame

Written and Conceived by Onalea Gilbertson

Music by Onalea Gilbertson
with Morag Northey and Jonathan Lewis

Directed by Rachel Avery

World Premiere July 2007 at the Banff Summer Arts Festival
Off Broadway Debut Oct 6, 2011 at the
New York Musical Theatre Festival

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Broadway dreaming: Centre workshop brings Loulou one step closer to the big city

Aaron Lazar conjures a vision of Loulou the acrobat during a Banff workshop performance. Photo: Donald Lee.

Aaron Lazar conjures a vision of Loulou the acrobat during a Banff workshop performance. Photo: Donald Lee.

I will always love Loulou the acrobat.

For six years, that simple phrase has powered a dream of Broadway for Marc Jordan and Kelly Robinson.

It was Juno award-winning singer/songwriter Jordan who found the words.

“I was reading an autobiography of French poet/novelist Jean Genet. He tells a story about being thrown into the drunk tank in Paris, and waking up to discover that message – “I will always love Loulou the acrobat” – scrawled on the stone wall of his cell.

The words stuck in my head — and sometime later I worked with Steve MacKinnon to write and record a song based upon them.”

Robinson, director of the Centre’s Theatre Arts department, continues the story. “Marc sent me the recording — and I could immediately hear an entire story. Who was the prisoner who left the message? Who was the acrobat?What was their story? That launched Loulou, and for six years it has been the heartbeat of the project – both the musical motif, and the driving dramatic force.”

With music and lyrics by Mackinnon, Jordan, and Jordan’s partner Amy Sky, and book by Quincy Long, Loulou is set in Eastern Europe during what Robinson likes to call “the recent past or near future.” A tortured political prisoner discovers the love message to Loulou etched on his prison wall. He conjures a vision of Loulou — a vision of freedom that becomes his only solace, and after he is freed, he sets out to find her. His journey takes him to a circus and to a woman with her own desires and ambitions who may or may not be Loulou.

Past and present collide when his torturer arrives, and the prisoner finds that it is only through the magic of the circus that he can hope to save his dreams.

For Robinson, Loulou marks the culmination of a long-held ambition. “I have always wanted to create a project that involves the circus in a dramatic way — not simply as spectacle, but as an element that is intimately involved in the story. I imagined a work that was very visual, very physical, incorporating dance and circus in a unique way.”

The chorus plays a key role in Loulou -- delivering an energetic blend of pop and gypsy punk, spiced with Baltic harmonies.  Photo: Donald Lee.

The chorus plays a key role in Loulou -- delivering an energetic blend of pop and gypsy punk, spiced with Baltic harmonies. Photo: Donald Lee.

This September, 25 artists from across North America converged on The Banff Centre for an intensive two-week creative development residency for Loulou, culminating in two preview workshop performances. Performers included Broadway sensation Marcy Harriell ( In the Heights, Rent), Aaron Lazar ( A Little Night Music, Light in the Piazza, and Impressionism), Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, and Rona Figueroa ( Miss Saigon).

Robinson says the residency, one of several Loulou workshops held over the past few years at the Centre, was an invaluable step on the long road to Broadway. “Having the very best possible performers allows you to focus clearly on the book and the music. Because the performances are of the highest quality, it highlights the challenges and opportunities of the work. And the insight of performers of this caliber is invaluable. Everyone contributed. During those two weeks, we added two new songs, and deepened and enriched the story”

“Having focused time to concentrate solely on the work is so important,” Jordan adds. “Being able to immerse yourself at the Centre without distraction and to collaborate with the performers moves everything forward.”

But Jordan also admits that Loulou has been a long haul. “It’s like docking the Titanic with a rowboat. It is a labour of love. There have been times when I have been ready to give up. But Kelly has always been our champion. He has never wavered in his belief in this project. Every time I’ve hit a wall, he’s been there helping me over.”

Robinson is convinced that the time and effort are worth it. “After years of commercial work for Mirvish Productions, I am very aware of the tendency for works to get onto the stage before they are truly ready. With Loulou I started with a commitment to myself to get it right before taking it to the stage. “

Robinson hopes to bring Loulou back to Banff in the coming year to begin work on the staging and acrobatic elements of the musical. It’s an ambitious undertaking. In its final form, Loulou will offer audiences an experience unlike any other — merging a very human story of redemption and love, showstopping tunes, and eye-popping aerial acrobatics.

“Musical theatre like Loulou brings together everything we were already doing at The Banff Centre: playwriting, music, dance, even circus. The creativity and craft — and the support — required to realize a work like this is enormous, which is why it feels like a perfect fit.”

 Loulou is supported by Kenny and Marleen Alhadeff, Y Not Productions, Ginger Cat Productions/John McKellar and The Banff Centre.

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Dressing Sir Elton

Love Lies Bleeding in performance. Alberta Ballet dancer Yukichi Hattori at an initial costume fitting. Costume photos: Laura Vanags. Performance photos: Don Lee.

Loves Lies Bleeding in performance. Alberta Ballet dancer Yukichi Hattori at an initial costume fitting. Costume photos: Laura Vanags. Performance photos: Don Lee.

 

Banff build supports tomorrow’s costume designers

For the past 40 years, outrageous costumes have been Elton John’s stock in trade. His larger-than-life persona, companion to decades of hit songs, has been expressed in countless sets of oversized spectacles, spangled waistcoats, high-collared capes, platform shoes, and bushels of sequins, feathers, crystals, and glitter. His clothes have been as much a means of expression as his music. So what better way to immerse yourself in the creative world of Love Lies Bleeding, Alberta Ballet’s new production based on the music of Elton John, than to build the costumes?  

Based on previous, highly successful collaborations with Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, The Banff Centre was invited to build most of the costumes for Love Lies Bleeding. This highly creative undertaking took over the Centre’s costume shop for ten weeks this spring. Beginning with sketches, designs, and fabric ideas by Montreal-based costume designer Martine Bertrand, 23 wardrobe technicians, including eight apprentices, tackled the project, which demanded multiple costume changes throughout the show, many of them designed to be done right on the stage.  

Denise Gingrich, head of costumes for Love Lies Bleeding, was familiar with the Centre’s costume shop – she directed the build for the 2007 opera Frobisher, co-commissioned by the Centre and Calgary Opera. “This is a dream costume show,” Gingrich says about Love Lies Bleeding. “We were able to pull out all the bells and whistles.” Getting from sketch to stage required daily problem-solving – how to create a massive, chandelier-shaped headpiece that a dancer could move in onstage, how to add flashing lights to a costume without blinding other dancers or audience members, how to make a four-foot-wide, leaf-covered skirt light enough to wear.  

“This is a dream costume show. We were able to pull out all the bells and whistles”  

“When I saw the costumes on stage during rehearsal for the first time I thought ‘We are really well-prepared,’” Bertrand says about the technical requirements for the show. All the crystal and glitter worked its magic, and created exactly the stage effects she wanted. “It was exactly the way I had seen it in my head.”  

Gingrich adds that the technical skills, and trial and error involved in the show, gave costumers opportunities to learn and practice rare skills. She points to those leafy skirts – a stylized form of 18th-century garment called a pannier. For the show, each skirt was underpinned with a stiff lightweight cage of netting and boning to stand out wide from the dancer’s body, attached to a bodice and covered with gold-painted leaves.  

Building the panniers was a unique learning opportunity for theatre production work study James Braun, a graduate of the costume certificate program at vancouver’s Capilano College. He lived and worked at The Banff Centre through the show’s costume build. “Making the panniers was the most challenging thing,” he says. “Physically, they’re just really big, and they’re made out of industrial materials.” The skirts provide a good example of the intense creative process behind a show of this scale. Braun’s work was guided by preliminary research and development by more senior wardrobe technicians, under the close eye of senior cutter Mitchell MacKay.  

At another table, master milliner Leslie Norgate created high-standing, leaf-covered headpieces to match the skirts, each one sprayed in gold and green, with leaves attached by cable ties to a lightweight, cage-style structure. Norgate came to Banff to work on Love Lies Bleeding as part of the Andrea Brussa Master Artist Endowment Fund, awarded annually to top artists in specialty theatre crafts. Designing and building all the hats and headpieces for the show, she was also on hand to provide a rare level of mentorship to two millinery work studies.  

Based in Toronto and one of the most sought-after theatrical milliners in North America, Norgate has worked on shows for companies including the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the National Ballet of Canada, and the Metropolitan Opera. Her work on Love Lies Bleeding ranged from tight-fitting, futuristic black skullcaps to stylized palace sentry hats, bristling with black fur. She says that as with every new show, there was plenty to learn, even for a seasoned professional.  

Headpieces played an important role in the Love Lies Bleeding production. Right: Brussa Master Artist Leslie Norgate adjusts a chandelier headpiece for an Alberta Ballet dancer during a Love Lies Bleeding costume fitting. Photo: Laura Vanags.

Headpieces played an important role in the Love Lies Bleeding production. Right: Brussa Master Artist Leslie Norgate adjusts a chandelier headpiece for an Alberta Ballet dancer during a Love Lies Bleeding costume fitting.

 

In the case of this show, she was able to experiment extensively with a material called Lexan, a clear, pliable plastic similar to Plexiglas, but much stronger. Among other accessories created for the ballet, she used Lexan to craft the elaborate chandelier worn in one scene by the Elton John character. Onstage, it will look as if it was created from white wire. “The audience doesn’t see all the research and development that goes into everything,” Norgate notes. “They don’t see the samples, or the adjustments.”  

The creativity comes in taking a costume designer’s original idea, and finding a way to make it work, with all the challenges of stage lighting, movement, costume change, and audience sightlines. Norgate has been particularly gratified by the creative collaboration she and the whole team have had with Bertrand, who flew back and forth across the country for initial consultations, and fittings with Alberta Ballet. “It’s always a collaboration between the designer and the builder, to combine the design side and the technical side,” Norgate says. “It’s common for designs to evolve.”  

Ultimately, the proof is on stage. One of the most anticipated stage productions in Canada this year, Love Lies Bleeding is a virtuoso creative and technical achievement. Beginning with a book full of sketches, these craftspeople have followed the same evolution of creativity, development, and metamorphosis that has imbued every step of this remarkable ballet.

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