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What's ahead in theatre, dance and music at the National Arts Centre for Canada's sesquicentennial

National Arts Centre Orchestra musical director Alexander Shelley has planned a season that includes the Idea of North Festival, a celebration of two national birthdays – Canada’s 150th and Finland’s 100th.

'Dare to explore."

That's the maxim that most arts institutions should live and die by, and it's one the National Arts Centre is adopting for its 2017-18 season, which coincides with Canada's sesquicentennial.

Ahead of the NAC unveiling its full lineup on March 6, the organization's theatre, music and dance directors spoke with The Globe and Mail about what to expect in the year ahead.

King of the Yees is U.S. playwright Lauren Yee’s metatheatrical exploration of Chinese culture in North America


The NAC English Theatre will rescue an epic, globe-spanning, difficult-to-produce play from the shelf next season.

Inspired by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Toronto playwright David Yee's carried away on the crest of a wave premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in 2013 and won the Governor-General's Award for English-language drama in 2015.

Requiring a sizable cast and inventive direction, however, it has not yet had a second production in Canada.

Siminovitch Prize winner Kim Collier will be directing Yee's ambitious series of vignettes set on land, in the ocean and in the air.

Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion is a new heist play by Drew Hayden Taylor about a plot to steal the first prime minister’s bones

"I have a feeling this is going to be a great work of art … a piece that's going to make a mark that people will be talking about for a long time," said Jillian Keiley, the artistic director of the English Theatre, who is excited about the proposed design and cast. "It's a show that I think needs to be done a lot in Canada."

Interestingly enough, David Yee isn't the only Yee in the 2017-18 season: Gateway Theatre of Richmond, B.C., will visit Ottawa with its production of King of the Yees, U.S. playwright Lauren Yee's metatheatrical exploration of Chinese culture in North America.

Other notable shows lined up include Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, a new heist play by Drew Hayden Taylor about a plot to steal the first prime minister's bones; Robert Lepage's much-acclaimed 887; and Amiel Gladstone as well as Veda Hille's hot new musical, Onegin.

J. Kelly Nestruck

The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s musical director Alexander Shelley has an ambitious season planned


The National Arts Centre Orchestra has an ambitious season planned , with several unusual concerts reflecting the eclectic interests of its musical director, Alexander Shelley.

Perhaps the most ambitious is the Idea of North Festival, which combines a concept associated with Glenn Gould and expands it to include a celebration of two national birthdays – Canada's 150th and Finland's 100th.

"We wanted to expand Canada 150 out to include the notion of what makes Northern music," Shelley said. "What connection could we find in Nordic countries?"

To answer his question, he has assembled a group of concerts that feature three of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius, an orchestrated version (by Zosha Di Castri) of Glenn Gould's String Quartet No. 1, premieres of works by Alexina Louie and many other musical treats from Finnish and Canadian culture.

Other highlights of Shelley's second full season with the NAC Orchestra include the Canadian premiere of Man with Violin, a new composition based on Joshua Bell's famous busking day in the Washington subway several years ago, featuring Bell himself.

Angela Hewitt will visit the orchestra with a Bach program, and Shelley will continue to push boundaries with his spirited and intelligent approach to music-making.

Robert Harris

Semperoper Ballett Dresden will bring Canadian Aaron Watkin’s version of Swan Lake to Southam Hall


One of the things that makes the NAC such an important presenter of dance in this country is that, owing to its range of venues, it can showcase starkly contrasting material and take exciting programming risks.

The 2017-18 season has four series featuring a breadth of international artists and companies, with renowned heavy hitters such as Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and Connecticut's Momix in the almost-2,000-seat Southam Hall, then emerging artists, such as Montreal-based Cree-Dutch choreographer Daina Ashbee in the NAC's smallest space, the 79-seat Studio B.

The NAC’s 2017-18 season has four series featuring a breadth of international artists and companies, including Connecticut’s Momix

If there's an underlying theme to the season, dance director Cathy Levy thinks it might be showcasing the work of "Canadians at large," bringing artists who have established reputations outside the country back home. The large-scale version of this repatriation comes with the Semperoper Ballett Dresden, helmed by Canadian Aaron Watkin, who will bring his version of Swan Lake to Southam Hall.

But I'm just as excited by the emerging artists who'll find a homecoming in the intimate Face-to-Face series. It's heartening to see Belinda McGuire and Joshua Beamish – both New York-based choreographers-performers whom I've admired in tiny black-box spaces in Toronto – get the backing of a major Canadian presenter. I'm also looking forward to getting acquainted with young artists I don't know: Nicole Mossoux, Patrick Bonté, Shay Kuebler and Laurie Young.

Martha Schabas