Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what is Luminato after all?
The other day, Naomi Campbell, the new artistic director of Toronto’s Luminato festival, spoke to The Globe and Mail about the yearly event’s mission in general and the 2019 programming in particular. The conversation’s first topic was House of Mirrors, a giant outdoor installation of reflection and disorientation that makes its North American debut at Luminato this summer. “It’s confusing and delightful and surprising,” said Campbell, speaking about the glassy spectacle. “You think you know where you are and where you’re going, but what you thought was an open space is actually a mirror.”
The lack of certainty, the giddiness, the unexpected. Wondering about where one is and where one is going. Wait, is Campbell talking about House of Mirrors or is she talking about Luminato itself?
Founded in 2007, Luminato sprung to life as a well-funded multidisciplinary happening and international affair. Over its lifespan, the amorphous festival has zigged, zagged and developed a flair for presenting arts and ideas in unexpected places, while challenging audiences to get a handle on what the early-summer shindig is all about.
In 2009, Luminato brought in the RedBall Project, an enormous, bouncy thing of self-announced colour that showed up here, there and somewhere else. The following summer saw the arrival of Ship O’ Fools, a salvaged 30-foot boat from Hong Kong that made its way unannounced to the land-locked Trinity-Bellwoods Park. The installation, by Canadian artists George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff, was presented as a wandering vessel – another metaphor, perhaps, for a Luminato looking to find its arts-and-cultural foothold and raison d'être in a city chock full of festivals and entertainment options.
The culmination of curious things in curious places happened three years ago, when Luminato expensively converted the long-mothballed Hearn Generating Station as its festival hub for 2016. The ambitious one-off presentation at the Hearn was a celebration of the festival’s 10 seasons of existence and an extravagant farewell gesture of Jorn Weisbrodt, the German arts administrator who served as Luminato’s artistic director from 2012 to 2016.
Weisbrodt’s successor, the Australian dynamo Josephine Ridge, took over with a mandate to better engage Luminato with its home country and to forge relationships with Toronto’s arts community. Faced with what she saw as unworkable budgetary constraints, however, Ridge resigned last year, which brings us to Campbell, deputy artistic director since 2017 and a full-time producer at the festival since 2013.
Campbell’s vision for Luminato is in line with the course laid out by Ridge. “It’s a combination of international, national and local productions and installations, presented in the same context and same level,” she explained, speaking in the festival’s rented offices at Artscape Youngplace, a community cultural hub in the city’s west end. “I think for the arts community here to have the opportunity to see work in a critical mass is vital, just in terms of the kinds of conversations that are going on around the world.”
What Luminato goers can expect are local and national works on the cusp of travelling internationally and international works that aren’t quite the right fit for Toronto’s other presenters. An example of the latter at this year’s festival, which takes place at various venues from June 7 to 23, is Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a multidisciplinary work co-commissioned by Luminato and composed by Brooklyn-based indie-rock guitarist Bryce Dessner of the National with librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle and director Kaneza Schaal. The touring 70-minute meditation on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (featuring projections, poetry and the singing voices of the Grammy-winning choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth) makes its Canadian premiere at Luminato, June 22, at Sony Centre.
It’s the kind of “see it here first” show – in Canada or otherwise – that Luminato wishes to offer.
Something such as Obeah Opera is a different Luminato animal. From the Toronto-based Nicole Brooks, the production is an a cappella retelling of the Salem witch trials, but from the perspective of Caribbean slave women. Various iterations of the sung-through musical have appeared in Toronto for the past decade, but now the “full vision” of the presentation, according to Campbell, will see the light of day. “We have the resources to make the show Nicole always imagined," she said of the two-hour production that runs June 11 to 22 at the Fleck Dance Theatre. “And it has potential beyond Luminato. Mirvish could pick it up, or it could land on Broadway.”
Campbell also sees touring possibilities for Hell’s Fury: The Hollywood Songbook, a co-production with Soundstreams that was workshopped at last year’s Luminato. The baritone Russell Braun portrays the life of Hanns Eisler, a mid-century Austrian composer and Bertolt Brecht collaborator. “It’s an example of a big player in an intimate space,” Campbell said of the Braun-starring musical theatre piece that runs June 19 to 23 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
Although Harbourfront is not a festival hub exactly, plenty of Luminato action (including House of Mirrors) will happen there – this year and summers to come.
Asked about Luminato’s mostly declining budget over the years, Campbell admitted that “It’s a different climate than it was 15 years ago." Back then, Luminato was flush with startup funds and in benefit of local, provincial and federal governments aiming to boost tourism in post-SARS Toronto. Its modest budget for 2019 is around $6-million.
With a Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservative government looking for costs to cut, funding from the province’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport could be in danger. In defence of Luminato, Campbell points to the tourists her festival brings to the city and the export possibilities of showcased Luminato commissions to international presenters. Still, she admits, "It’s a tricky time for everybody.”
Referring to this year’s programming and and to future festivals, Campbell also mentioned the “increased box office potential” of its productions. Perhaps Luminato could use a slogan to attract new audiences and attention. We hear Yours to Discover is now available.
Luminato runs June 7 to 23, at various Toronto venues.