Can you create a show about 100 years of black female experience in Canada using the music of 20th-century male classical composers from Sergei Rachmaninoff to John Cage?
If you're Neema Bickersteth, then you certainly can – and will.
Century Song – a new performance from the 37-year-old soprano that is part vocal recital, part dance show and part projection-filled spectacle – aims to capture something of the universal experience of black women. But it also comes from the mind and mouth of the very particular black woman that is Bickersteth – the child of immigrants from Sierra Leone who started taking voice lessons at the age of 8.
"This music doesn't speak to the black experience, necessarily," Bickersteth says, over the phone on a recent break from rehearsal in Toronto. "But when I open my mouth to sing, classical is the most natural."
"I'm black and I'm a woman and it's normal to me."
Inspired, in part, by Virginia Woolf's time-travelling, gender-bending novel Orlando, Century Song opens on Jan. 19 at Toronto's Theatre Centre as part of Progress, the city's recent addition to the country's winter circuit of international theatre and performance festivals.
After that, the Volcano Theatre production is in high demand – it tours to two other stops on that circuit, Calgary's High Performance Rodeo (Jan. 26-29) and Vancouver's PuSh Festival (Feb. 2-6). Then, in May, Bickersteth will take the show to four stops in England and Belgium.
Century Song – directed by her partner Ross Manson and choreographed and co-created by Kate Alton – puts the singer and long-time supporting player in the world of Canadian theatre centre stage, solo, for the first time. ("I'm trying not to think about it," she says.)
Bickersteth earned a master's degree in opera at the University of British Columbia in 2004, but after moving to Toronto began to become "bored" with the art form, and tired of feeling like she didn't quite fit in.
"For example, my thesis role for university was Pamina from the Magic Flute, and there's a line in there about her pale white skin," Bickersteth explains. "In many of the roles, the historical roles, I was always aware that it wouldn't have been me in that role if I were to go back to that time."
Though she has no formal acting training, Bickersteth found herself "sliding over" into theatre, where her skills as a soprano were in demand and where she also found a more advanced conversation about race and performance. "There was more space and more discussion happening, especially in Toronto," she says.
Theatregoers will recognize her from such musicals as Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, music-filled plays such as Robert Chafe's Oil and Water, as well as more purely dramatic works such as Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad.
Century Song could, in one way, however, be considered a show that brings Bickersteth back to her roots – a vocal recital.
But dance, another area in which she has no formal training, was at the root of its creation. It was born of a desire to work with Alton (of Crooked Figure Dances) in an attempt to bring together modern dance and classical music.
After choosing compositions without words – what are called "vocalises" – the two women realized the music they had chosen spanned about a hundred years. (In addition to Rachmaninoff and Cage, the pieces Bickersteth sings in Century Song are from Messiaen, Georges Aperghis and Canadian composer Reza Jacobs.) That's when Manson brought Orlando into the conversation and the theme of the show developed.
"We started looking at what was happening [in] Canada to someone like me at the time they were written," she explains. "If I were to have been here 100 years ago, what would my world have been?"
And so Century Song begins in Keystone, Alta., around 1913 (interactive projections designed by Germany's fettFilm help set time and place in the wordless show).
From there, Bickersteth transforms into a jazz singer in Montreal in the 1930s, a factory worker during the Second World War and a resident of the lost neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley in Vancouver in the postwar period.
Bickersteth's final stop before the present is in 1970s Edmonton, playing a woman who is inspired by her own mother, who moved to Alberta along with her father for university in the 1960s.
"She's the woman who does everything: can go to school, raise her kids, have a job and look good," Bickersteth says.
The soprano seems, in a way, to be that woman as well: It takes a couple of gurgle sounds to realize that she's multitasking while on the phone with The Globe and Mail during her lunch break. "I'm just breast-feeding my baby right now," she says, excusing the background improvised vocalises of her 11-month-old girl, Nuala.
Winter Theatre Circuit
Winter is the best season in Canada – for fans of of avant-garde international performance and theatre, anyway. Here are six shows to see in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver on the cross-country festival circuit.
Progress: International Festival of Performance and Ideas
Toronto – Jan. 14-Feb. 7, thisisprogress.ca
History History History: Ex-pat Canadian Deborah Pearson is better known abroad than here, as a curator and creator who has made waves in London, Edinburgh and Austin, Tex., with a performance about her possible future called The Future Show. Her newest work looks behind her instead of ahead – and her homeland will get a chance to see this work in progress first. Jan. 22-23
Forest Fringe Microfestival: This is a festival within a festival. The two-day event is inspired by the popular venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. It features short works from top practitioners of "live art" from Germany, Britain, Spain and Canada. $50 buys you a pass to it all.
High Performance Rodeo
Calgary's International Festival of the Arts, Jan. 7-31, hprodeo.ca
Jack Charles v. The Crown: Jack Charles is described as an Australian legend – a veteran actor and tribal elder who survived the residential school system, addiction and stints in jail Down Under. In this autobiographical one-man show, Charles (accompanied by a three-piece band) tells a story likely to resonate amid Canada's own struggle with truth and reconciliation. Jan. 28-30 (Also at PuSh, Jan. 21-23, and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Jan. 12-16.)
Calgary, I Love You, But You're Killing Me: One Yellow Rabbit – hosts of the annual High Performance Rodeo – casts a critical and comical eye on its hometown. Blake Brooker writes and directs this new work that asks if Calgary is "a sphinx or a spaniel," and if "a city that spends much of its energy visualizing what is occurring below the surface of the earth have a quality notion of what's going on above it?" Jan. 12-23
PuSh: International Performing Arts Festival
Vancouver – Jan. 19-Feb. 7, pushfestival.ca
Riding on a Cloud: Internationally acclaimed Lebanese performer Rabih Mroue brings his video artist brother Yasser – who was hit in the head by a bullet during the civil war – onstage with him for this show that intertwines reality and fiction. Feb. 3-6
Huff: "Gas tastes like metal, but also like being scared – like someone screaming in your face." Cree playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal brings his solo act about a dysfunctional family and solvent abuse on a reserve in the 1980s to PuSh as part of a cross-Canada tour. Feb. 2-6