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Meaghan Ogilvie’s underwater photos provide a clear link to the athleticism of the Pan Am events.

Meaghan Ogilvie

If you ask renowned Quebec theatre director Robert Lepage what he's doing unveiling the world premiere of a deeply personal solo show in the midst of a cultural carnival tied to a sports event, he will react with surprise at your surprise. It's not like he is trying to produce theatre during the Stanley Cup finals, he points out.

"The thing about these great sports events is that … they are not just about sports, they are about people pushing the envelope, challenging themselves, world records, opening ceremonies," he said in a recent interview. "For me, it's an amazing thing and it's absolutely normal to have performing arts going on; they are also a form of sport … it's made of the same substance."

Still, many people might think there's something a bit incongruous about the mix, seeing the arts component as an afterthought or a pretty frill – which may be why the value of cultural Olympiads is fiercely debated by some artists.

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"When I first arrived, I did feel a bit like a vegan in an abattoir, trying to carve out for my colleagues why we would do a cultural event," says Don Shipley, the impresario behind Panamania, a 35-day arts festival that launches alongside the PanAm Games next Friday and continues until the Parapan Am Games end on Aug. 15.

Shipley signed on as creative director for Panamania four years ago and immediately set to work defining its purpose and goals. At Guadalajara in 2011, the host country had produced a great display of Mexican culture, but the truth is that audiences for the cultural festivals associated with the Olympics, let alone the less prestigious Pan Am Games, are mainly local. Research conducted in the urban studies program at Simon Fraser University after the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad of 2010 showed that the notion it had provided a global boost for local arts groups was largely false.

Shipley, however, saw a different opportunity – not to showcase Canadian culture for an international audience that might not actually be there, but rather to celebrate the culture of the Americas in Toronto. All the Pan American countries have significant expat communities living here, people who could be counted on both to produce shows – one highlight is Obeah Opera, a Caribbean a capella musical – and provide an eager audience for acts from their native lands.

"There's a different kind of passion, a different kind of heart that comes from the Americas," Shipley observes, contrasting that with the more cerebral European culture that is often the focus when foreign arts groups visit Harbourfront's World Stage (which he used to curate) or Luminato.

On another front, Panamania, which follows hard on the heels of Luminato, is rather similar to that festival, in that it offers the public a tantalizing number of free rock concerts.

There are three hubs for Panamania, one in Nathan Phillips Square, one at the Pan Am Park at Exhibition Place where sports events will be taking place and one in the Distillery District near the athletes' village. During both the Pan Am Games this month and during the Parapan Games in August, Nathan Phillips will offer music in the afternoons and evenings, culminating in medal ceremonies and fireworks every night. Meanwhile, during the July games, the Pan Am Park will have music all day while there will be music, arts, crafts and food in the Distillery District.

The headliners at these venues are an impressive set of crowdpleasers – at least to those who know both their Latin and their North American music scenes. They include Colombian hip-hoppers ChocQuibTown, the Argentine-Uruguayan new-tango collective Bajofondo, Puerto Rico's Calle 13, Oklahoma rockers the Flaming Lips, Jimmy Fallon's house band the Roots and Canadians Jann Arden and Colin James.

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The fourth component is formed by the ticketed events, including 28 world premieres that were commissioned specially for the festival from Canadian artists such as Lepage. Shipley calls them the meat and potatoes of the event, and there he could craft a theme of sorts, noting that water is what unites all the countries of the Americas (with the exception of landlocked Paraguay and Bolivia).

The Canadians took the idea in several directions: Rick Miller and Craig Francis have adapted Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; writer and producer Veronica Tennant has created a work based on a poem about Niagara Falls by the 19th-century Cuban poet Jose Maria Heredia, while several other performance groups are reflecting on climate change.

Photographer Meaghan Ogilvie went swimming to create a series of underwater photos and videos. Like several intensely physical dance performances also featured in the festival, these works required a kind of athleticism that forges a clearer link with the sporty surroundings. In another very direct connection with the Games, the festival asked the Textile Museum of Canada to commission designers from each of the 41 Pan Am countries to create colourful sails for the flotilla of boats that will perform the sail past that opens the sailing competition.

If the Pan Am Games will leave behind some sparkling new sports facilities, the seeding of these arts commissions must form Panamania's most tangible gift to Toronto and Canada once the Games are over. On that score, many of the artists involved were surprised to discover how much of the cost of participating they had to bear themselves.

With a mere $1.5-million to pay for the commissions, Shipley gave all 28 groups seed money on the understanding the work had to be presented at Panamania, but only about a third of the projects saw the festival come on board as a full producer who covered the costs and bore the risk. Otherwise, they had to raise most of the money to produce the shows themselves, partly helped by the Toronto Arts Council chipping in another $400,000.

"It's all a bit difficult for a company like us," said Ravi Jain of Why Not Theatre, a small Toronto troupe that is presenting Gimme Shelter, a show about man's ego and climate change. "On the one hand, what an incredible honour and prestigious catalyst for a new work. However, it's a lot of our own money funding the programming of a festival that should be paying for it."

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The term legacy is often bandied about by the organizers of international sports events – it appears in the Toronto 2015 vision statement – but this kind of complaint, which was also widespread in Vancouver in 2010, raises the question of what exactly Panamania leaves behind.

Shipley's answer lies entirely in those magic but fleeting moments in which a crowd is touched by art as a communal experience.

"The circus leaves town, what is left? Large community engagement and an impact I think only the arts can have."

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