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Dancer Vanessa Goodman at the Graveyards and Gardens show in December, 2020.David Cooper/Handout

Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival has gone from presenting one of the city’s most celebrated events to becoming an organization mired in controversy – minus an artistic director and plus a whole lot of baggage – accumulated since its last edition, one long year ago.

Things hit rock bottom last June with the dismissal of two respected team members – women of colour at a time of an anti-racism reckoning – and then the departure of the new artistic director. The summer of discontent was followed by the decision to plan a festival, albeit a much smaller one, for the winter. Organizers decided to push through despite deep divisions in the community and an unfinished organizational review – and in spite of COVID-19.

PuSh 2021 was to include an event meant to address these very issues. The PuSh Rally promised to “Reassemble Repair Reunite.” But things have become so delicate that the rally itself has been cancelled. Meanwhile, the show, such as it is, is set to go on, beginning next week with a handful of works that deserve attention for their artistic ambition and perseverance during a pandemic – even if other artists have pulled out of because of the controversy.

PuSh was co-founded by Norman Armour and Katrina Dunn in 2003 and has grown into a multidisciplinary festival featuring local, national and international artists. While Dunn left, Armour stayed on until 2018 as artistic and executive director and was the heart and soul of the festival. In 2019, PuSh celebrated its 15th anniversary with 150 performances and events – co-organized by Armour and associate artistic director Joyce Rosario, who stepped in as interim artistic director after his departure.

Later that year, Franco Boni, then with the Theatre Centre in Toronto, was hired as artistic and executive director. While he was with PuSh for the 2020 festival, the 2021 edition would have been the first he would program.

Transitions are hard in any organization – especially one led for so many years by a co-founder, and a beloved one at that. But this one turned out to be explosive – a perfect storm of questionable decisions and leadership amid the catastrophe of the pandemic.

In June, PuSh announced the departure of Rosario – who had returned to the position of associate artistic director – citing the budgetary crisis caused by COVID-19 restrictions. In a lengthy statement she wrote for PuSh, Rosario noted that “we are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.” She had been with the organization for seven crucial years. “This is not how I thought my time at PuSh would end. But these are times that defy expectations.”

Audience services manager Janelle Wong-Moon was also dismissed in the restructuring. While nobody has said publicly who made these decisions, the organizational structure would have the artistic and executive director – then Boni – in charge of hiring and laying off staff. The board is responsible for hiring or firing the artistic managing director.

The dismissal of two women of colour in the midst of the summer’s rising BLM movement caused outrage among the city’s artistic community. Pandemic or not, it seemed at the very least a tone-deaf move to make less than a month after the killing of George Floyd.

What happened next also stunned: Boni was suddenly gone from the organization in early July, terminated without cause, he told theatre critic Kelly Nestruck.

The board bled out too, with directors leaving for various reasons – some not connected to the controversy. It now has five directors, down from 16. The annual general meeting was delayed to this March from last November.

“The entire organization is in the midst of a significant operational and cultural review,” says a statement on the board page on PuSh’s website.

A facilitator, NikNaz Kahnamoui, was hired to work through the issues. In a summary report, she noted that the organization has pushed the boundaries of art onstage and increased diversity in artistic voices. But that’s not sufficient.

“Framing the decision to let go of two women of colour during a global pandemic as a restructuring effort to help maintain the financial health of the organization was not a convincing explanation for the community who had come to expect diversity as a guiding principle of PuSh,” the interim report stated.

“If PuSh wants to continue entertaining, challenging and pushing the boundaries of its audience’s understandings, it needs to align its operational values with those it celebrates on the stage.”

As for the stage, back in May, a revised 2021 program was developed by Boni and Rosario, then modified after their departures, managing producer Jason Dubois says. (Like everyone else remaining at the organization, he took on additional duties. PuSh was also able to access emergency public funding.)

But making the situation more fraught is one of the most beautiful things about Vancouver’s arts community – how tight-knit it is. Artists want to support a festival that has supported them, but not hurt anyone further in the process. Some of the originally scheduled acts have decided not to participate, including Hong Kong Exile.

“Joyce and Janelle were a big part of what PuSh has meant to us. Joyce stewarded and championed our company’s growth, as she did with countless local artists,” says Natalie Tin Yin Gan with the Vancouver-based interdisciplinary arts company. “The festival, for us, has always been about relationships. From our perspective, there’s much more work that needs to take place – in the name of accountability, healing and reconciliation – before we can begin discussing the kind of festival we want to see in the future.”

These are the very concerns that were to be discussed at the PuSh Rally, curated by Maiko Yamamoto and Marcus Youssef – two central figures in the Vancouver theatre scene (who were not involved in the inciting incident). The rally lineup was revealed in early January. Less than two weeks later, it was cancelled.

“We felt the festival had made serious errors, and was in jeopardy. As long-time festival artists and collaborators, we wanted to help,” they, along with producer Dani Fecko, wrote in a statement announcing the cancellation. “The rally was our attempt to do so – to have conversations with artists we admire ... about conflict, art-making and difference in this time.”

The decision to scrap the event, they wrote, was made after feedback from people in the community about what was planned and how they had framed it. Some felt uncomfortable with the idea that Yamamoto and Youssef would hold a session to talk about what happened when the actual people involved could not have a voice. Some participants withdrew. “We have … come to believe that the perspective we offered isn’t what’s needed right now,” the statement said. (The three organizers declined an interview request.)

It also followed a Jan. 8 Facebook post by Rosario.

“It’s been excruciatingly difficult to stay silent especially when others are permitted to speak about and create programming in response to the situation and its aftermath, a matter that has done irreparable damage to my well-being and livelihood,” she wrote.

She could not fully share her thoughts, she stated, due to the nature of the situation surrounding her departure. (One can read that as she signed a non-disclosure agreement; Rosario declined to comment.)

Another pertinent event, Board Table Disruption, will go ahead. Organized by the Pacific Legal and Outreach Society and facilitated by Youssef, it will look at the model for non-profit boards at a time of upheaval for the arts – what is working and what needs to change.

I can’t overstate how beloved this festival is. In 2011, I called PuSh “a beacon of avant-garde light in the dead of winter.” Now, when we need light more than ever, it all feels pretty dark.

And there is a danger that the actual art will get lost in all of this; works such as I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron by Canadian composer Njo Kong Kie. It’s a song cycle set to the poetry of Xu Lizhi – a factory worker in Shenzhen, China, who helped manufacture the digital devices we all rely on. In 2014, Xu killed himself. Njo has created a tribute to his work – both in the factory and on the page; it is a contemplation of our digital age, and a cry of protest in solidarity with exploited workers. Originally to be performed in Vancouver, it will now be livestreamed from Njo’s Toronto apartment.

Pianist and actor Njo Kong Kie in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron.Dahlia Katz/Handout

He weighed his options in terms of pulling out because of the controversy, but decided to continue with it.

“Ultimately I appreciate the opportunity,” Njo said. “My reason for doing the work is to honour the poet and to spread his legacy to as wide an audience as possible.”

Next week, composer Caroline Shaw and dance artist Vanessa Goodman will present the world premiere of their show Graveyards and Gardens – created mostly during the pandemic in separate locations. Goodman lives in Vancouver; Shaw in the eastern United States.

The collaboration was to be performed in an intimate setting, with the audience inside a large circle of orange cable. Now, it will be livestreamed – Goodman performing in the empty space in Vancouver and Shaw’s voice present in other ways.

Graveyards and Gardens’ main presenter is Music on Main, which programs classical and contemporary music events in cutting-edge ways. It was through this organization that the two artists met – a key part of the decision to go ahead with the show.

Another consideration was the fact that PuSh is creating now rare job opportunities for artists. One technician involved in setting up the show told Goodman on Monday that he hadn’t worked since March. “This means so much to me to be back in the theatre,” he said.

Thematically, the work deals with the idea of something new – the garden – growing out of something that is being deconstructed and decomposing – the graveyard.

It seems apt for this year’s PuSh, and for this time in history.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story didn't name Vanessa Goodman as the performer in the upcoming livestream on second reference.

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