While the much-anticipated inaugural programming of National Arts Centre’s new Indigenous Theatre will not be announced until later this spring, a sneak peek has come as part of Jillian Keiley’s announcement of her 2019/20 season for the English Theatre.
The Unnatural and Accidental Women, a well-regarded but rarely produced surrealist 2000 play by Métis playwright Marie Clements about a true murder case involving Indigenous women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, will get a much-needed main-stage revival in September as a kick-off collaboration between the NAC’s Indigenous and English theatres.
Muriel Miguel, who was one of 13 actors in the play’s original 2000 cast at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver, is slated to direct. “It’s an extraordinary piece of writing,” says Keiley, whose contract as artistic director of the English Theatre was recently extended to 2022.
Another big-cast Canadian play in the season is Erin Shields’s Paradise Lost, which recently premiered at the Stratford Festival. The Governor General Award-winning playwright’s retelling of John Milton’s epic poem will get a new production directed by Sarah Garton Stanley in April, 2020.
The two plays and a new take on English playwright Michael Frayn’s heady drama Copenhagen are the three made-in-Ottawa productions Keiley has slated for 2019/20. The rest of her season will showcase some notable shows from across the country: Hannah Moscovitch hit musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (from Halifax’s 2b theatre); the divisive documentary play about divisiveness, The Assembly (from Montreal’s Porte Parole); Jeff Ho’s interdisciplinary immigration saga, trace (from Toronto’s Factory Theatre); Jiv Parasram’s smart twist on the identity play, Take d Milk, Nah? (a co-production between Toronto’s Pandemic and Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre); and also David S. Craig’s new adaptation of The Neverending Story, which will first premiere at the Stratford Festival this summer (directed by Keiley).
Over at the NAC’s French Theatre, artistic director Brigitte Haentjens has a nine-show season planned, the highlight of which will surely be the Ottawa premiere of a huge, unlikely hit from Quebec. J’Aime Hydro, Christine Beaulieu’s documentary play about Hydro-Québec, lands at the NAC in November, 2019.
J. Kelly Nestruck
In the announcement of its 2019/20 schedule, the National Arts Centre trumpeted its “celebration of Indigenous popular music.” What sounds like typical news-release hyperbole isn’t that at all. The fact that “Indigenous” and “popular music” are co-existing in the same sentence is a welcome syntax-based development and a pop-cultural achievement long in coming.
The list of musical headliners coming to Ottawa next season includes Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jeremy Dutcher and Tanya Tagaq. Each of them are Polaris Music Prize winners. All are conspicuous, collaborative, industrious, in-demand – and as alike stylistically as Pink is to Pink Floyd. They are, most importantly, the public face of an Indigenous renaissance in Canada distinctly dedicated to contemporary – even avant-garde – presentations of distinctly traditional music.
Bustling the most of the three is Tagaq, the High Arctic auteur and tough-as-nails tweeter from Nunavut. The past year has seen the Inuk throat singer release a book (Split Tooth, a blend of fiction and memoir longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize) and, more recently, a digital-only EP (Toothsayer). Originating as a score for the National Maritime Museum’s permanent Polar Worlds exhibit, Toothsayer was made with percussionist Jean Martin and experimental electronica artist Ash Koosha.
At the 897-seat Babs Asper Theatre on Sept. 24, Tagaq will share the stage (not for the first time) with the Iqaluit-based performance artist, storyteller and Greenlandic mask dancer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. The pair will discuss their creative process, the Indigenous voice and relationship of politics to art. Tagaq will also read from Split Tooth.
Tagaq has previously collaborated with Sainte-Marie, the iconic First Nations folk singer, educator and activist who famously breastfed her baby on Sesame Street and who spoon-fed the folk-music world a convincing, passionate universality with songs such as Many a Mile, Until It’s Time For You to Go and, of course, Universal Soldier. The latest release from the 78-year-old Saskatchewan-born, Massachusetts-raised Sainte-Marie is 2017’s Medicine Songs, a Juno-winning reworking of her protest music of the past. Newly named to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Sainte-Marie performs at 2,065-seat Southam Hall on Sept. 15.
The newcomer to the scene is Dutcher, a Toronto-based member of New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation who is due to perform at the Babs Asper on Sept. 25. His album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won the 2018 Polaris Prize. He created the record in Wolastoq, a dying First Nations language. For the 11-song LP, the classically trained singer-pianist painstakingly studied ancestral recordings, with the aim to disrupt, in his words, “the bilingual Anglo-centric Canadian music narrative.”
Consider it disrupted.
CLASSICAL AND OPERA
By the time the 2019/20 season begins, the National Arts Centre Orchestra will have officially celebrated its 50th birthday as a cornerstone of Canada’s classical music tradition. The variety in their coming milestone season is impressive, and music director Alexander Shelley deems it full of “diversity and adventure.”
Shelley’s are descriptors that could easily be careless buzzwords, but in the case of the NAC Orchestra in 2019/20, they’re well earned. Nearly all of their mainstage concerts include works by living composers, an impressive proportion of which are women; the items that stand out are, perhaps coincidentally, the events that shine light on contemporary works and interdisciplinary storytelling.
There are certainly a few instances of exclusively “traditional” programming, and these concerts appear to be held to a high standard, programmed less for their repertoire than for their message. Angela Hewitt’s ambitious international concert tour of J.S. Bach’s complete keyboard works culminates in her Art of the Fugue (May 5, 2020); Canadian favourite Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Orchestre Métropolitain (Feb. 6, 2020) remind us of Canada’s presence among the big guns of classical music (and shake us free of our persistent inferiority complex); and Shelley’s conducting of Verdi’s Requiem, appropriately scheduled for Sept. 11 and 12, 2019. “It is core repertoire for a core audience,” says Shelley of the Requiem. “An outreached arm to begin the season.”
Verdi’s work might open the 2019/20 line-up, but like a bait-and-switch for those audience members who might be lured to the NAC only by the European greats of centuries past, it’s no good indicator of the season’s tone. Better examples are the two concerts celebrating 50 years of music-making by the NAC Orchestra (Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, 2019). Led respectively by principal guest conductor John Storgards and Shelley, both concerts are a cross-section of styles and program Salieri alongside living composers such as Kevin Lau and Sunleif Rasmussen. The common thread is showcasing the members of the NAC Orchestra. “We have picked concertos for orchestra,” Shelley says, “which do what they say on the box: They show off a symphony orchestra in all its glory.”
The 2019/20 season will be a big one for performing works by Indigenous artists. I have my eye particularly on the September concert titled for the new work by Odawa composer and flautist Barbara Croall, Zasakwaa (There is a Heavy Frost). Her piece, set to poetry sung by Sto:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, is programmed along with Cree-descendant composer Andrew Balfour’s Ambe, and Ian Cusson’s Dodo, mon tout petit.
Those playing particularly close attention will note that Cusson’s piece is a lullaby, commissioned by the COC to replace a section of Harry Somers’ opera Louis Riel, after his original use of a Nisga’a mourning song was appropriated without proper protocol. This concert will be the first hearing of Cusson’s new lullaby, and it will become a permanent part of Louis Riel’s score hereafter. It’s perhaps better late than never, and it’s certainly encouraging to see a solution to misappropriated Indigenous culture that’s more productive than turning a blind eye or shelving entire works.
Ottawa may not have a permanent ballet or modern dance company, but the city can consistently see interesting and diverse dance because of the calibre of programming at the NAC. The 2019/20 season continues that tradition with a particularly expansive global perspective. Dance director Cathy Levy calls the season “a cross-section of what’s going on in our country and elsewhere.”
There are productions that I can’t recommend more enthusiastically. Top of that list is Michael Keegan-Dolan’s unforgettable Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (Oct 30, 2019), which reimagines the 19th-century ballet as a gritty fable for contemporary Ireland. The production is desolate and beautiful, combining wry characterizations, naturalistic writing and evocative choreography with a minimalist, imagistic set. It’s the sort of production that leaves an indelible impression. After seeing it at Toronto’s Luminato Festival last summer, I immediately booked tickets to see it again.
Nederlands Dans Theater hasn’t been at the NAC for decades; they’re back next March with an exciting program that includes the Canadian premiere of Crystal Pite’s 2017 The Statement. Increasingly, Pite’s work tackles explicitly political subjects, and this ballet is a good example, exploring the backroom dealings of a colonizing nation. It’s paired with a new work from the British/Israeli Hofesh Shechter, who also has a penchant for topical content, and a piece by house choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot.
In some nice synchronicity with the launch of the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre Department, the dance season begins with The Dancers of the Damelahamid (Sept. 26-28, 2019), an Indigenous dance company from the Northwest coast of British Columbia. Then there’s Indigenous content from the other side of the world in November: Bangarra Dance Company from Australia.
Other highlights you might catch me in Ottawa for: MacArthur Foundation-grant recipient choreographer Kyle Abraham performing INDY, the first solo work he’s made for himself in decades (April 7-8, 2020); the Boston Ballet performing William Forsythe’s Blake Works (November 7-9); Australia’s Lucy Guerin Inc. performing the duet Split (October 24-26, 2019).