Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lunch concerts at Four Seasons Centre - Dance Works

The Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts at Queen St and University Ave holds free lunch time concerts in its Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre.  This is a unique space where the performance takes place on an open floorspace on the 3rd floor of the building. Stadium seating consisting of rows of wooden benches look down at the performance floor, with a breathtaking view of University Avenue to the left.  Overflow seating includes rows of chairs as well as standing room only viewing on the 4th floor.

From noon to 1pm on given afternoons, a performance from one of five possible concert series is presented - piano virtuosos, dance, jazz, chamber music or world music.  The concerts are getting more popular and fill up earlier and earlier.  For the first concert that I watched, we arrived around 11:45 and secured a bench seat, but now if you arrive after 11:30 it is standing room only  and by 11:45 they are turning people away.  So far this year, I've watched a duet of piano and cello as part of the chamber music series, a Caribbean bongo drum performance as part of the World music series, and most recently a dance performance.

I usually am not that fond of dance, but the modern dance performances by the duo of Robert Glumbek and Yvonne Ng really appealed to me.  Partly its because the big tall Caucasian male and petite Asian female dancers remind me of Rich and myself.  But mostly it is the style and coreography of their dances, full of acrobatic moves,  that I found unique and fascinating.

The first was an excerpt from a dance called "A Tale Begun" and is performed with Yvonne strapped to Robert's back as if he was carrying a small mischievous child.  Throughout the dance, he flings her in all directions as they twist and twirl, entwine and unentwine themselves, with motions sometimes graceful, sometimes frenetic, sometimes robotic, and all very innovative.

The second was an excerpt from a new dance called "Level on my Level".  This time they are not attached but the dance is still full of whimsy and acrobatics as she jumps into his arms, rolls on him, and walks over him while he is lying on the floor (Rich is thinking that I shouldn't get any ideas from this!).  I enjoyed this so much that I'm actually going to buy tickets to their full show, playing at Harbourfront Centre in late April.

Danceworks
Enwave Theatre, 231 Queen's Quay W, Harbourfront Centre
April 28-30, 8pm
www.danceworks.ca

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reel Talk World Cinema - The Tenants & Mary Pickford Exhibit at TIFF

Our friend gave us tickets to watch another film in the Reel Talk World Cinema series at TIFF, which presents a surprise foreign film once a month and then has a film critic lead a discussion about it afterwards. We previously watched the movie Tirza from the Netherlands.

This time it was a tension-filled Brazilian film called The Tenants (Don't Like it, Leave), depicting San Paolo Brazil as a violent, politically amoral city where bombings are a regular occurrence, the government is not to be trusted and crime is rampant while the police look the other way.  Valter, the head of a middle-class family living in a relatively peaceful neighbourhood, tries to deal a trio of hoodlums who move into the house next door.  They have loud drunken parties all night, terrorize the old man who also lives in the house, and are possibly involved in an assortment of crimes including drugs, robbery and murder.  Had this been a typical Hollywood movie like Gran Torino, the father would become the vigilante hero and confront the thugs in a big shootout.  Instead we get a nuanced character study that reflects the passivity and helplessness of a society that has no choice but to accept its bleak existence.

If the purpose of the World Cinema film series is to expose us to other cultures and societies, then I'm quickly amassing a list of locations that I never want to visit (including the Ozarks after watching Winter's Bone on DVD!).  Based on the two movies we've seen in this series, as well the comment forms from other viewers, most of the selected films have been extremely dark and depressing.  As one patron wrote, "Are there no happy foreign movies to show on a Sunday morning"?  These films are probably picked with the same thought process that drives the Academy Awards to mostly pick "serious" movies as best picture.  My personal theory is that we watch these types of movies to better appreciate our own lives.  Just the other day when I was feeling a little down, I perked up after thinking, "well, at least I don't live in San Paolo Brazil!".

While at the Bell Lightbox, we also visited the Mary Pickford exhibit.  Nicknamed "America's Sweetheart", this early 1900s Canadian silent film star spent her childhood in a home which is now the current site of the Toronto Sick Children's Hospital.  The extensive collection included posters from her numerous movies, as well as photos and memorbilia from her personal life.  She was one of the first celebrities to widely license her image, with her face imprinted on everything from jigsaw puzzles, broaches, spoons, makeup, pillows, cigarette cases and cards.

A film clip of "My Best Girl" illustrated why Mary Pickford was so successful in her silent films.  Her big expressive eyes, face and actions conveyed everything you needed to know about the story without the need for words.

I was impressed by how influential and business-savvy she was for a young woman in the 1920s.  Mary Pickford helped to form United Artists, the first artist-run film studio, after not being happy with the movie deals that she was offered.  She cofounded the Academy Awards of Motion Pictures, sold liberty bonds to raise money for the war and contributed hugely to charities.  Her scandalous affair and marriage to Douglas Fairbank made them the "Brad and Angelina" of their times.

This exhibit gave a very thorough retrospective of Mary Pickford's career and personal life and is well worth seeing.   It is on display on the 4th floor, in the Canadian Film Gallery and is free of charge (closed on Mondays)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Complaints Choir at the AGO

The Toronto Complaints Choir gave a performance in the Art Gallery of Ontario's Walkers Court as part of a week of appearances at various Toronto locations.  Inspired by an idea that originated in Europe (doesn't it seem all good ideas originate in Europe?), the organizers solicited complaint suggestions from the public, found a composer to create a rousing song called "Toronto Complains!", and invited all interested parties to join the choir.  Meant to be a fun and cathartic way to vent common frustrations, the lyrics of the song strings together many rhyming non-sequiturs.  Seven choruses of complaints ranged from traffic, TTC, litter bugs, winter, Rob Ford, dog poo, escalator blockers, kids, work and so on.

"Where are the attractive single men?
Bugs are invading my house again
We are people, not sardines
Not everything is about you teens!
Complaining ...

Accompanied by a guitar and bongo drums and led by the spiky haired conductor and composer, the group exhuberantly sang a very catchy tune, while the audience who were handed out the lyrics tried to sing along.  It only lasted about 5 minutes in total, but what fun!

Getting into the spirit of things, I'd like to add my own complaint - the article in the weekend Globe and Mail advertising the AGO performance indicated it would be at 6pm so I showed up at 5:45 only to find out the real start time was 6:45.  I'm "Complaining ...!"

To kill time waiting for the singing to start, I checked out a few of the gallery's exhibits.  One room consisted of the cartoon drawings and accompanying text of the children's book "The Animals' Conference" by Erich K√§stner. This was a fable about animals trying to convince human politicians to bring peace to the world for all the children.  It was quite enchanting to walk all the way around the room reading each panel of the story and viewing the delightful illustrations.

I also stumbled upon the Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Centre, tucked away in the back of the ground floor and only open for limited hours.  The lonely curator seemed delighted whenever anyone wandered by.  She proudly explained how there were over 60,000 works on paper filed away in metal drawers in their vault room and that each piece of art could only be shown for a very short period of time before having to be rotated so as not be overexposed to light.

Currently on display there was the exhibit called  "Love Bites: Amorous Works on Paper".  It was a series of works on paper of various forms (prints, drawings, watercolours, photographs) all dealing with the concept of love in some way, abet not always the traditional hearts and valentines types of images, which made it very interesting to see.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nixon in China at Cineplex

In general I don't enjoy opera since it usually lacks the features of musical theatre which I love - memorable songs with hummable melodies, lyrics that advance the plot, and the occasional dance number to accompany the singing. I also don't like the sound of extremely high-pitched soprano voices, another strike against the typical opera.

When Rich wanted to see the opera Nixon in China performed by the Canadian Opera Company, I was less enthused. Rich is not much of an opera lover himself but being a history buff, the topic of this show intrigued him.  A good compromise came up when we learned that Cineplex theatres were broadcasting the the opera live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  For a mere $25 per ticket (significantly cheaper than the lowest priced opera seat), we could watch the action on a large screen in the high definition, surround sound enabled theatre that had reserved stadium style seating so there were none of the usual issues of sightlines for short people like me.  Although it lacked the excitement and intensity of watching a live performance, it had its own advantages.  We got to see shots of the orchestra being conducted for the first time by John Adams, the composer of the opera.   Between acts, they cut to shots behind the scenes and held interviews with members of the cast and crew to provide additional insights into the show.

We also got to see the elaborate staging of the Met's production, as opposed to the smaller road show held at Toronto's Four Seasons Opera House.  For the arrival of the Nixons in China, the entire front end of an airliner descended onto the stage (reminiscent of the helicopter from Miss Saigon) and the doors opened to reveal the President, First Lady and Henry Kissinger.

Watching Nixon in China served to reinforce my original opinion about opera.  I found the score and orchestration to be jarring.  Although the opera was in English, the style of singing made it difficult for me to understand what was being sung, so I read the subtitles to catch the gist of the storyline.  Unfortunately the lyrics seemed totally random to both Rich and I, and did not reflect the synopsis which we were given to read prior to the show.  We assumed that Mao's dialogues were intentionally ambiguous, reflecting the historically documented style of his speech at the time. His statements ("History is a dirty sow") were described as philosophical and allegorical in nature.  However even when the other characters sang, we still couldn't figure out what they were trying to convey.  Perhaps it was too poetic for us and we were just not sophisticated enough opera connoisseurs.

I found it amusing that the deep vibrato style of operatic singing made every line seem to have such importance, even when discussing something as banal as the weather.  Rich thought they sounded like rappers in the way they repeated a line over and over again.  At one point, Kissinger sang at least 5 times "There, you've got me, I'm lost" and I thought, that's exactly how I feel watching this.  Whenever Chairman Mao spoke, his words were echoed by three identically dressed female party members wearing thick rimmed glasses - the Chinese version of a "Greek chorus".

For me, the most entertaining part of the opera was watching the revolutionary ballet which Mao's wife arranged to be performed for the Nixons.  The dancers superbly mixed typical ballet moves with Red Army stances and gestures.  However even this got confusing when for some reason the Nixons and then Mao's wife ended up in the middle of the performance.

Actually, the most entertaining part happened before the opera even started.  A woman placed her coat in the seat next to us and then left temporarily.  Shortly after a man appeared and muttered that someone was in his seat.  I told him that a lady had left her coat and was coming back, to which he declared that she was in the wrong seat.  When the woman who returned ended up to be his wife, he exclaimed " I didn't realize the lady was you!".  It made me think of the old joke, "That's no lady, that's my wife!"

So we've concluded that although Nixon in China is probably a wonderful opera, as the unanimous rave reviews seem to prove, it's just not our cup of tea.  Back to musical theatre for us.  However we definitely would watch another live broadcast of a show at the Cineplex again.  That was a good experience.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Sonic Boom and Yorkville IceFest

We took a walk from Yonge & St. Clair en route to Sonic Boom, the eclectic music and movie store across from Honest Eds, which is currently displaying a collection of vintage 1970s "Exploitation" movie posters - more on that later.

For us, a walk down Yonge St usually involves stopping in at our favourite shops and galleries.

Muse Gallery (1230 Yonge St) always has interesting paintings and sculptures on display. Of the current exhibits, I like the smaller bronze diaramas by Won Lee that depict various scenes that tell a story, as well as the wood-inlayed sculptures by Susan Valyi that seem to be part bird, part man.

Our next stop is usually L'Atelier (1224 Yonge St), the home decor shop that contains multiple rooms of furnishings and nicknacks that range from elegant to quirky. As we browse, we usually play the game of "if we had infinite money and space in our home, what would we like to own". Rich has always yearned after a cabinet with beautiful marquetry, inlaying different shades of wood to result in a Venice-like scene. Lately we've been admiring a pair of bright red chairs, and if we had room for huge whimsical items, I would be bringing home the full sized wicker man. I had also had my eye on these cast iron sculptures of a man on a rope, scaling a wall. However next time I looked for them, they were gone, as the inventory changes frequently. This makes it fun to return to L'Atelier repeatedly to see what's new.

Continuing south on our walk, we stumbled upon the IceFest ice sculpture festival going on in Yorkville. Many intricate sculptures lined the sidewalks along the "Mink Mile" on Bloor St. and throughout Cumberland St. For some reason there were multiple clown sculptures, perhaps this year's theme for the festival. Several ice sculptures were still being created and it was interesting to watch the artists use both chainsaw-like power tools to cut through the ice and more delicate chisels to carve the details. On one block of ice that was further from completion, we could see the charcoal outline of the intended sculpture.

Several other stores caught our attention. The Lululemon store (153 Cumberland St) had "live mannequins" in the storefront window, demonstrating exercise and yoga moves while a DJ blared music. I was more taken with the facade of the store. The tiny colourful mosaic tiles reminded me of stainglass patterns by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Holt Renfrew (50 Bloor St W.) always has interesting display windows. Currently they feature quotes from various Canadian personalities declaring what items they "Can't Live Without". This included the predictable makeup, shoes, designer clothing and accessories, plus one person who couldn't live without lemons??? The merchandise in the windows are colourful and vibrant and the text makes you stop to read. Too bad they couldn't find more famous celebrities to give them quotes.

After our long walk, we finally reached our destination of Sonic Boom (512 Bloor St. W.). The collection of about 20 or more 1970s exploitation B-movie posters depicted the typical advertising for such flicks - big breasted scantily clad women often depicted in perilous situations, big guns, fast cars (sounds like an episode of Charlie's Angels?). The cheesy taglines that promote these movies are so outrageously over the top that they make you laugh rather than take offense - "Their guns are hot and their bodies are hotter.." These type of movies seem to have gone out of vogue by the end of the '80s, although recently Quentin Tarantino directed a pair of movies that he called the "Grindhouse" series (Death Proof and Planet Terror) which played homage to this genre.

Sonic Boom is a great store for audiophiles looking for that hard to find album. It buys and sells a wide variety of recent and older music, dealing in CDs and vinyl, DVDs and VHS. Its walls are lined with jacket covers of old LPs (long playing vinyl record albums) that take you on a blast from the past. There are some interesting groupings such as Teenage Head hung next to Scott Baio - I didn't even know that Chachi could sing?? The store is filled with funky decorations hanging from the walls and ceiling, including a drum set, giant insect, a huge cassette tape, and cardboard cutouts ranging from singer Erykah Badu to Batman to Super Mario. Free live concerts are regularly held in the lower level.