Building back better is proving easier said than done for the many arts organizations that made that pledge at the panicked height of the pandemic.
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, now on through Feb. 5, gave a perfect illustration of this earlier this month as new non-hierarchical and inclusive ideals ran smack into the borders and bureaucracy of the real world.
This highly influential theatre, dance and performance confab, which gathers together top Canadian and world artists in Vancouver for three winter weeks, was set to kick off its first full edition since 2020 – also its first full edition since a complete turnover of staff and board that took place over a year of escalating crisis mismanagement amid a larger societal racial reckoning.
A new “collaborative” PuSh leadership team was in place, with a new board of directors promising to nurture a “culture of care” as well as provide oversight. Everyone’s mission was filtered through what’s called a JEDI lens (that’s justice, equity, diversity and inclusion).
But two days before it was set to begin on Jan. 19, the Vancouver festival was back in the news because of an artist’s exclusion – admittedly owing to circumstances beyond its control.
Rakesh Sukesh, a Belgian-based Indian dancer/choreographer who was set to be artist in residence, did not get his visitor’s visa approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in time to attend, despite applying all the way back in August.
Because I Love the Diversity (This Micro-Attitude, We All Have It), Sukesh’s much-anticipated collaboration with local Siminovitch Prize-winning writer Marcus Youssef, had to be struck from the playbill.
The dance/theatre hybrid, which was to explore Sukesh’s experience of having his image used in a piece of anti-immigrant propaganda that went viral online, was supposed to be a prime example of how the festival was evolving postcrises.
Gabrielle Martin, PuSh’s director of programming in the festival’s current four-person leadership, wants to curate an international festival that doesn’t always import the usual suspects. Too often, the circuit is dominated by the same coterie of well-funded avant-garde artists from rich countries (mainly European) who get generous travel support from their governments and who (mostly) don’t need a visa to travel. The Robert Lepages of the world, to give a Canadian example.
But Martin has now become intimately aware of the deterrents that have kept curators from truly showcasing the world at festivals such as hers. PuSh was close to cancelling two other shows featuring artists from South America and Africa who only got their visitor’s visas approved by Canada at “the 11th hour.”
“It’s not just easier but actually more financially feasible to present work from the Global North,” says Martin, who is on maternity leave but popped by the PuSh offices for an interview on the first day of the festival.
“There’s one project on the table for 2024 from a Haitian director, and last we checked the estimated wait time for a visa was over 600 days.”
Despite these external challenges to their attempts to evolve its practices, PuSh’s new leaders continue the work internally to change their structures to help them grapple with the larger philosophical questions related to their field, such as: How do you present international work – especially from the Global South – while avoiding exoticism? And what does “international” mean at all at a festival that takes place on, as its land acknowledgment explains, the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations?
Perhaps the underlying question is whether an elite arts festival such as PuSh – which has built its brand on cutting-edge (and expensive) tech-heavy aesthetics and “world-class” artistic excellence – can actually become more inclusive without becoming something else altogether.
The Push Festival hasn’t fully answered that yet, but this year, like many of the avant-garde artists it showcases, it’s showing its willing to experiment and puts its work in progress in front of an audience.
PuSh was founded in 2003 by Norman Armour and Katrina Dunn. But Armour, who would go on to run it as artistic and executive director until he stepped down in 2018, was the driving force behind its growth into one of North America’s most important annual performing arts events.
The festival brought incredible and inspiring theatre, dance and performance artists to Vancouver – and successfully marketed this outside-the-box entertainment to a hip West Coast audience (and donor base) of entrepreneurs and tech-sector types who hadn’t necessarily been attracted to more traditional theatre at the likes of the Arts Club.
PuSh’s primary achievement, however, was how it placed B.C. companies in conversation with imported fare in front of presenters and programmers from around the world each January – helping to push local indie companies such as the Electric Theatre Company, Theatre Replacement, Boca del Lupo and Neworld Theatre onto the global touring circuit.
“It’s not possible for me overstate its impact,” says Youssef, a playwright and former artistic director of Neworld – and one of four winners of the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre to emerge from that clique of companies born in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Among the shows he got to take out into the world owing to PuSh were Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil (which travelled to the United States); King Arthur’s Night (which went to Asia); and Winner and Losers, an edgy co-production with Theatre Replacement and Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre that was booked on a European tour based on only a short presentation.
PuSh seemed a clear success story in Canada, quickly leap-frogging in significance over the long-running High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, equalling the older, bigger and higher-budgeted Festival TransAmériques in Montreal in cool and impact, and going through none of the struggles of definition that have plagued the Luminato Festival Toronto since it launched in 2007.
So it was a surprise that, out of all of the above, it was PuSh that was pushed to brink of collapse just months into the pandemic.
Let’s rehash the reckoning, which no one in the local arts scene seems particularly eager to do, at least on the record.
In June of 2020, PuSh – which had lured Franco Boni from Toronto’s Theatre Centre to replace Armour as artistic and executive director a year earlier – announced a “restructuring” in the face of an accumulated deficit of $106,000 and an uncertain pandemic future.
This involved the elimination of two staff positions, including that of associate artistic director, which had been created for and was held by Joyce Rosario. She had been around the festival for years and was particularly known for the work she put into the Industry Series showcase; many had pegged her as Armour’s natural successor.
That both Rosario and the other staff member let go were racialized women fed into a larger conversation about systemic racism that was taking place after the murder of George Floyd in the United States. Backlash was swift.
The PuSh board responded by then parting ways with Boni, a white artist who was widely considered an ally of inclusivity rather than an opponent of it. This lead to a second wave of backlash.
(Both Rosario and Boni declined opportunity to comment anew on their departures for this article; Boni wrote in an e-mail he was “bound by an NDA from the festival.”)
An organizational review was then launched to do the “the hard work of reimagining PuSh through a social justice and equity lens,” according to a statement released on the festival’s website.
But soon enough all the “hard work” was left to an entirely new crew, as the board of directors that had been in place for all the ill-advised layoffs (at a time, it should be recalled, when emergency wage subsidies were available) was completely gone by March 7, 2021, and replaced by an interim transitional board made up of concerned local artists and arts managers.
Flash forward to now, and the board has mostly turned over one more time with an exception being Johnny Wu, an interdisciplinary performer and creator who also teaches at TMU in Toronto. He enjoyed being part of rethinking PuSh enough that he has stuck around to provide some continuity as a new permanent board is established.
Wu – who spoke to The Globe and Mail, a true rarity in the generally secretive world of arts boards – seems to be truly committed to transparency and excited about such seemingly dry subject matter as board restructuring, Indigenous initiatives committees and collaborative non-hierarchical leadership.
That latter idea has a bad rap in English Canada, in part because of two failed experiments in it – one in the 1980s and another in the 2000s – at the Stratford Festival, the country’s largest not-for-profit theatre company.
But the way Wu talks about collaboration – including between the board and staff – makes it seems natural, leading to real communication in the workplace and allowing people’s talents to be fully utilized (and leaving no one feeling stifled by restrictive job descriptions). “A lot of leadership have expertise beyond what the traditional roles would have allowed them to do,” he says.
The people who are actually a part of PuSh’s new leadership team are slightly less evangelical about it – mainly because they’re still figuring out how and whether it works.
Margo Kane, the veteran Indigenous artists who runs Full Circle: First Nations Performance (and once had an international hit tour with her play Moonlodge), was first to be hired as a leader and holds the title of director of Indigenous initiatives. Then came Martin, who was appointed director of programming in the summer of 2021.
The other two co-leaders are Keltie Forsyth, director of operations, and Tom Arthur Davis, interim director of programming during Martin’s maternity leave; both of them have only been with PuSh since July.
Kane says that non-hierarchical leadership is about building relationships, and that this takes both work and time. “In this day and age, people don’t have time for relationships, and so it’s quite a challenge any way you look at it,” she says during what was, fittingly, a group interview.
“Even in my short time here at PuSh, there have been moments of great success and great failure,” Forsyth adds.
Says Davis: “We’re building the plane while we’re flying it.”
Attending the smoothly run opening week of PuSh as a spectator, however, you likely wouldn’t notice that the festival had been through a reckoning – described to me by a few observers, in hindsight, as mostly a not uncommon transition drama of the type that often follows the departure of charismatic founders, but one amped up by the times.
Belgian-based South Korean artist Jaha Koo kicked things off with Lolling and Rolling, a dream-like DJ set of video and sound about linguistic imperialism’s effect on him and his country that reminded me of the early solo work of Siminovitch Prize-winner Marie Brassard. The next day, Coloured Swan 3, a semi-improvised Afrofuturist dance piece from Belgian-based South African choreographer Moya Michael, played in front of a sold-out, young and diverse crowd (and made me feel as if I’d taken an edible as it took us on a trippy trip on its movement-based “Mothership”).
International presenters from a dozen countries – including Australia, China, Germany and even Micronesia – are set to return to PuSh for the Industry Series (running from Jan. 29 to Feb. 5), and audiences appear to be showing up in the same numbers as they did in 2020, albeit buying tickets more last-minute. Donors, on the other hand, will have to be lured back more fully if the 2024 edition is to be as large as this one. (”The PuSh board before was an incredible fundraising board,” Forsyth says. “They could bring in money like nobody’s business.”)
As for local artists, while some hurt lingers, the backlashes and certainly any boycotts are now over. The next generation of indie performance companies – which includes Delinquent Theatre, Rice & Beans and A Wake of Vultures – is ready to be showcased on the world stage at PuSh alongside and in collaboration with their older peers.
“People want stuff to start up again,” is how Jivesh Parasram, the artistic diector of Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre, puts it succinctly to me at the opening-night party. “Nobody’s putting a hex on the festival.”
WHAT’S ON AT PUSH
The PuSh Festival is back, pushing the boundaries of live performance in Vancouver until Feb. 5 with a line-up split 50/50 between national and international shows. Here are two from abroad and two from here that are generating buzz.
The Seventh Fire
Rising next-gen Vancouver indie company Delinquent Theatre has teamed up with veteran First Nations performance company Full Circle on what’s being billed as an “immersive sound ceremony.”
Multidiscipinary artist Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen draws from Anishinaabe oral traditions for this innovative audio show at the Lobe Studio, one of only a handful of spatial sound studios with what’s called a 4DSOUND system in the world. The sound-sculpting technology is used to blur time and space and create an aural “portral” into the characters dreams. Performances at 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. until Feb. 5; at the Lobe Studio
I was skeptical of a show that was explicitly about the pandemic, especially one billed as “performative lecture,” but PuSh director of programming Gabrielle Martin’s enthusiasm for the live work of Tiziano Cruz, a Indigenous artist from Argentina being presented for the first time in Canada, was infectious. This piece sees Cruz’s letters to his mother when he was unable to visit her used a jumping off point for “a critique of economic racial and institutional oppression.” In Spanish with English surtitles. Performances on Jan. 27, 28 and 29; at the Roundhouse Performance Studio
Are we not drawn onward to new erA
Ontroerend Goed is one of the darlings of the international theatre and performance circuit. Its cutting-edge yet accessible work has been seen in Canada in such varying contexts as avant-garde festivals and the seasons of commercial theatre companies.
This one with a palindromic title is an exploration of climate change, and finds a creative, theatrical way of asking whether what has been done can also be undone. The hot production was just in New York at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, and it heads to Canadian Stage in Toronto after Vancouver. Feb. 1 to 4; at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC
An Undeveloped Sound
Writer and performer Jonathon Young’s collaborations with choreographer Crystal Pite are some of most legendary live work to ever come out Canada, with both Betroffenheit and Revisor being named best new dance production at the Olivier Awards in London, England.
It will be interesting to see what Young brings from those experiences to his latest creation with the Electric Company Theatre, one of the original Vancouver indies boosted by PuSh. This show, loosely inspired by Goethe’s Faust, explores the “eternal wager made between development and destruction” and should resonate amid a housing crisis and a climate crisis. Jan. 30 to Feb. 4; at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU