PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
When: Jan. 17 to Feb. 3, various times
Where: Various venues around Vancouver
Tickets and info: pushfestival.ca
The Dear Norman letter on page 15 of the program for PuSh 15 puts the 15th annual PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in context.
This is the first time that the now fixture on the local cultural events calendar hasn’t been helmed by its co-founder Norman Armour. The touching thank-you note from friends, colleagues and staff to the outgoing artistic director lauds him and co-creator Katrina Dunn for launching the cutting-edge arts showcase.
Interim artistic director Joyce Rosario says a lot of thinking went into how to program this year’s event to both celebrate the festival’s foundation and recognize boldly moving forward.
“Right from choosing the cover image the program (of UK performer Selina Thompson’s show SALT.) to how we decided to celebrate our 15th anniversary without our founder, the question was how do we express gratitude for the work that went into making such a great event,” said Rosario.
“So we brought back the opening and closing night parties, which we haven’t done in a long time, to celebrate where we’ve been and we are going. Also, we ran a big ticket promotion of $15 dollar tickets for the first 15 days of sales, and that was a really great experiment to discover which shows were popular and went the fastest, who were the new people getting tickets, and the tastes of ongoing audience members.”
Even an event as established and successful as PuSh must be constantly studying its metrics to determine how to maximize audiences.
The nature of the performances that the festival presents is such that even sellouts don’t always add up to big profits, as artists travel large distances and many of the productions have substantial stage technical builds.
Curating the multiple shows is always a balancing act; an act that the festival has proven adept at juggling year in and year out, offering up the kinds of experiences that resonate with audiences long after they happen.
PuSh is, ultimately, about accessing transformative experiences and PuSh 15 will kickoff with a bang.
The free opening night bash at Club Push (Jan. 17, Beaumont Studios, 9:30 p.m.) features Vancouver’s sharp queer Filipinx MC Kimmortal and art-fashion-dance collective Immigrant Lessons performing selections from their new collaboration titled X Marks the Movement. It promises to be a potent mix of art, politics and partying.
UK cabaret provocateur Lucky McCormick’s Triple Threat — a “trash-punk morality play” retelling the New Testament — is at the closing night party at XY (Feb. 2, 9 p.m.). Hardly wine and cheese events, both of these bookends define what makes PuSh what it is.
“Sure, we’re niche, and attract those who are willing to dive in and take a chance on something you might not know,” said Rosario.
“PuSh fans are a couple of things: People who are driven by their curiosity, looking to have an interesting conversation or insight into performing arts that they see; and often regular audience members for one thing, such as dance, who take this time of year to stretch out and see something completely different, such as a mix of an Indonesian noise band with an acclaimed Australian dance group (Attractor, Jan. 18 – 19, Vancouver Playhouse).
Rosario admits the latter is how she approached her first PuSh festival events a decade ago. She loved it so much that she kept coming, and now can’t envisage the local cultural scene without it.
While Vancouver was always a hotbed of multidisciplinary performance, there was much more separation of the genres when PuSh began. The landscape has shifted profoundly since then.
“I think that it’s how artists are working, and how they have been working, and we were just more aware of it early on; now other folks have cottoned on is all,” Rosario said.
“So the big question becomes how do you remain in the know of what are the new practices. The city has changed, the arts scene has changed, and now we are in this liminal moment where we are about to transition into something different with new leadership; that’s exciting.”
The fact is that almost all of the major arts and cultural festivals in the region — and, to a large degree, worldwide — are undergoing regime changes as their founding Boomer base steps aside to let the next generation lead. It’s something that Rosario and Armour discussed often over their five years of working together before his retirement.
This year’s event still bears Armour’s hand, as it was in motion when he decided to move on to other pursuits. Rosario admits there are shows this year where she isn’t sure who initially suggested booking the artists.
“Norman was from Upper Canada, I’m from East Van, yet we found common working ground and fun doing it,” she said.
“My lens is definitely more of a dance one than he had, which was one of the reasons he brought me on board. As we move onward there are bound to be more examples of new interests in the programming, but we’ve always had a wide variety and scope.”
The 15th edition includes over 150 performances of 26 productions from 24 companies representing 13 countries. Of these shows, six are world premieres, 11 are Canadian premieres and six of those are western Canadian premieres.
It’s a huge undertaking for the eight staff and 20 contract employees who make it happen. The 2005 budget was under $200,000. This year will be more than $1.7 million. Audience attendance is expected to top 17,500. For a celebration of non-mainstream arts, that’s massive.
It’s also challenging in terms of deciding what and what not to see. Aware of these demands, the festival even has its own official collaborative beer to quaff while you make your selections. Strange Side is a joint creation from Strange Fellows Brewing and Parkside Brewery and will be available at Club PuSh, and other venues.
Rosario and the PuSH team are developing a program that reflects the 15th festival theme of issues around diversity, accessibility and gratitude. She is particularly excited about three shows around this theme at this year’s festival:
1 – SALT. (Jan. 24 – 26, 8 p.m.,) and Race Cards (Free, Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, both at Roundhouse)
“Obviously, UK artist Selina Thompson is on the cover and we are lucky enough to have her here for two shows, which is really great because I love her work. One is a free installation and the other is a theatre piece and this gives the audience a really solid introduction. Having her here for two things rather than having to wait maybe years for another chance to present is special.”
2 – Attractor (Jan 18 – 19, Vancouver Playhouse)
“Three of the elements I love so much — dance, music and performance — in one program from Dancenorth Australia, with the amazing band Senyawa. These guys are as influenced by heavy metal and noise as they are by traditional Indonesian music and paired with these dancers should be fantastic. Rully, the vocalist, who is down in Portland, asked me if I knew Tanya Tagaq and could introduce them, because he would really like to meet her. Pretty awesome.”
3 – Kinalik: These Sharp Tools (Jan. 30 – Feb. 2, Performance Works)
“A show by Toronto’s Buddies In Bad Times theatre with the company head Evalyn Parry performing with Inuk artist Laakuluk Williamson Bathory exploring things they got to jamming on during an Arctic expedition together. It’s about being female artists and their relationships to the environment, being from Toronto and Iqaluit. Shows with powerhouse women, I’m all for.”
• PuSh festival programs are available at local JJ Bean outlets and other locations.
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