Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Halloween Fun 2013

Halloween is such a fun time of the year, as many shops and even restaurants decorate their storefronts in celebration. We spotted these ghoulish figures at a piano store, a sushi restaurant, a kitchen store and a bong shop.

Last year, torrential rains throughout the Halloween weekend cancelled all of our plans.  This year although rain was in the forecast again, it was much lighter and we were determined not to let that spoil our fun for a second year in a row.

We went to the costume block party held on Church St. between Wellesley St. and Carlton St., not entirely sure how crowded it would be due to the rain.  As it turned out the streets were packed.  As always, the costumes were fabulous and sometimes quite topical, although perhaps not as elaborate as the first year that we attended this event.  Perhaps the rain did scare off some of the fancier costumes.

After last year's aborted attempt, we finally made it out the night after Halloween to see the annual Pumpkin Parade held in Sorauren Park.  We were amazed to see how many pumpkins had been contributed to the parade and how masterfully carved some of them were.

Some of the most impressive pumpkins depicted facial profiles of the cast from The Big Bang Theory, Jack Nicolson in the Shining, and a fierce looking Mayor Rob Ford behind bars.  It would be difficult enough to draw such exact likenesses, let alone carve them into a pumpkin.

Unfortunately once again, we did not make it out to the Clay and Paper Theatre's annual Night of Dread puppet parade which is held on the Saturday before Halloween.  This seems like such a fun event to either watch and photograph, or even to participate in.  The parade starts at Dufferin Grove Park and includes dancers, musicians, stilt walkers and puppeteers sporting paper mache masks, costumes and floats.  I'm determined to attend this next year, unless there is a monsoon!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nuit Blanche 2013

Reviewing the map to plan for this year's Nuit Blanche, it seemed to me that the events were much more concentrated than in the previous years.  Many of the exhibits were positioned in a direct route following the path of the U-shaped Yonge-University subway line.  This made for a much easier journey than in the past, when our route involved zig-zagging between streets and doubling back multiple times.  There also seemed to be fewer exhibits in the areas away from the downtown core, such as the Distillery District, Queen West, Wychwood Barns, 401 Richmond, making it less worth while to travel the distance to get there.

There were also many more large installations that could be seen from a distance, thus reducing the number of times where endless lineups scared us off from trying to view an exhibit.  My favourite of these was titled "Monster Child" and consisted of a huge spider-like balloon float with bright yellow legs that swayed in the wind.  Each leg is attached to a long ribbon that spectators were encouraged to pull, in order to make the monster bob up and down.  Attached to the back of the monster was another large float that might have been a pink bunny.  I guess this represented the titular "child".  A bit further down was a "wheel of fortune" which apparently was supposed to be the real focus of the attraction.  You were supposed to spin the wheel to pick a question from choices such as "Are We Happy", "Should I Believe",  "Can I Trust You", "Can I Help" and then apparently, the "oracle child" will provide you an answer through a headset that you wear.  Unfortunately the audio was broken when we passed by, so the spinning the wheel component was temporarily suspended.  That part sounded hokey anyways, but the visual spectacle of the inflatables was great. 

The installation that generated the most anticipation and buzz was Ai Weiwei's gigantic Forever Bicycles, 2013 sculpture set in Nathan Phillips Square.  This work expands on the piece that is currently on display at the AGO Ai Weiwei exhibition, which featured 42 bicycles melded together in a circular formation.  Both sculptures reference the Forever Bicycle Company and comments on its waning dominance in providing China's primary mode of transportation.  The bicycles in the Nuit Blanche installation are more stylized than those at the AGO.  They are mounted in such a way that the structure appears fuzzy or blurry when you look at it from a certain angle. This piece is also unique in that it can be touched and interacted with by the public.  There are pathways through the structure that you can walk through to view it "from the inside", and the wheels of the bicycles can be spun.                                            

The exhibit called Little People was not only cute and whimsical, but it actually had a strong political message as well.  The toy protest march, aptly held inside Toronto's City Hall, is in support for a similar event held in Russia to protest "alleged local election corruption".   The Russian toy protest was held after live protests were banned by authorities, but was also banned.  It reminds us of how lucky we are to live in a country where free speech is protected. The plastic toys held signs that read "Not Good Enough".  I asked my Ukrainian friend, who grew up near the Russian border, what wasn't good enough.  She answered, "Whatever people are upset about at the time - jobs, economy, political corruption, etc." 

As we strolled through the night, we were passed multiple times by the roving Renegade Parade, which was not even an official Nuit Blanche 2013 event.  But that did not stop the procession from swelling in the numbers.  Revelers danced and followed behind the blaring music and glowing lights of the parade truck that led the way.  The parade has become a yearly themed event. This year, participants were encouraged to dress up in animal costumes.  Through social media, they were pointed to the Japanese costume store Kigurumi, that was offering a discount on their plush, full-body animal suits.  The parade truck was made to resemble a zoo cage with bars to keep in the animals.  We saw young people, dressed as lions, leopards, lizards, foxes, unicorns, bears and pink bunnies, all having the times of their lives.

The exhibit at Yonge Dundas Square was called the (Re)Generator Project, but I remember it as Toilet Paper Art.  Multi-coloured rolls of toilet paper were used to create a sphere, a pointed hat, a rose and strategic covering for on photos of some otherwise nude men.  I’m sure there was a loftier message to the pieces that speaks to saving environment, reuse, and recycling.  But by the time we got to this exhibit, I was too tired to read the writeups and just enjoyed looking the pretty, vibrant works.

The food trucks were out in droves and making a killing during Nuit Blanche. There was a truck selling Tiny Tom Donuts, that reminded me of visiting the CNE.  We decided to try a unique spin on French fries called the Tornado.  It looked like a bunch of Pringles chips on a stick, but was actually slices of potato joined in a long spiral, deep fried and seasoned with a choice of sea salt, dill pickle, sour cream and onion, or buffalo wing spices.  This made for an awesome late night snack and was as fun to eat as it was tasty.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Movie: TIFF 2013

When you watch 24 movies in 11 days, picking them based only on a short and not always accurately descriptive synopsis, there are bound to be "the good, the bad, and the ugly".  But when after 3 days at the Toronto International Film Festival, we still did not see any movies that we thought were more than mediocre, we started to worry about our film selection skills.  Luckily things picked up by the fourth day and by the time the festival was over, we ended up watching quite a few excellent movies.

The movie that might have been a candidate for our favourite was unfortunately jinxed with technical problems. The Indian romantic comedy "The Lunchbox" is a delightful film about the complex lunch delivery service that is most common in the city of Mumbai. Suburban housewives prepare cooked lunches for their husbands and place them in tin containers called "tiffins".  The lunches are picked up by "dabbawalas" who deliver them via bicycle and then train to the husbands' offices in the city.  The dabbawalas are known for an amazing success rate for delivery.  This movie focuses on a misdelivered tiffin which leads to a touching relationship that develops via written notes sent between the neglected wife and the lonely widower who unintentionally receives her delicious meals.

About 10 minutes before the end of the screening, something broke down and the movie went black.  The poor director and lead actor, who were waiting to participate in a Q&A after the viewing, sat on the stage and told jokes and quips to kill time while the movie was fixed.  Eventually they started in with the Q&A, speaking mostly about the very interesting lunchbox tradition, while carefully not spoiling the end of the movie. After 45 minutes, the movie was canceled and we had to leave without seeing the end.  As it turns out, there were problems during the gala screening the previous day as well.  The subtitles stopped working for a while.  Both these issues hurt the movie in terms of buzz and film favourite voting.  Now we will have to wait until the movie comes to the theatres so we can find out the ending.

Our actual favourite movie is Sunshine on Leith, which was originally a Scottish stage musical based on the songs of the 80s pop duo, the Proclaimers. In the same vein as Mamma Mia, this heartwarming, feel-good movie seamlessly weaves the songs into the plot so that it seems like they were written specifically for the story.  The title of the movie is based on a Proclaimers' song of the same name and provides the setting of the movie in the district of Leith, Edinburgh.

The story follows the joys and tribulations of three couples.  Married couple Jean and Rab are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary when they find out that he has a daughter from a goodbye fling he had just after their wedding.  Their daughter Liz and longtime boyfriend Ally are not on the same page regarding marriage.  And their son Davy is starting a new relationship with Yvonne who has just moved to Scotland from England.

The mother was named Jean so that the Proclaimer's song "Oh Jean" could be included.  Other plot points make use of songs such as "I'm On My Way", "Over And Done With", "Then I Met You", "Let's Get Married", and "Letter From America".  You can almost work out the storyline just by following the song titles.  The grand finale features the Proclaimers' most famous song "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" and is used to highlight Davy's devotion to Yvonne, since he would agree to leave his beloved Scotland and follow her to England if necessary.  This declaration of love results in a huge flash mob dance in the town square and led to a several minute standing ovation at the end of the movie.  The director, several of the actors and even the Proclaimers themselves were on hand after the movie for the Q&A.

Labour Day is a very different type of movie for  Canadian director Jason Reitman. His previous films including Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air, featured quirky concepts and smart, snappy dialogue.  This one is full of beautiful scenery shots, long looks and subtle acting, bringing to life the heart-rendering story from the book of the same name.  Kate Winslet plays Adele, a severely depressed divorcee with a teenage son Henry, who are "taken hostage" by an escaped convict Frank, played by Josh Brolin.  The affection-starved mother and son quickly bond with the congenial Frank, who becomes a father figure for Henry and a suitor for Adele.

Philomena is based on a true story about an Irish Catholic woman's search for the son she was forced to give up as an unwed teenager in the 1950s after being sent to give birth at the convent of Roscrea.  After years of being stonewalled by the convent that handled the "adoption", she is aided by former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith in finding the truth.  It turns out that the Church sold her baby and many others to the USA and tried to cover it up ever since.  This could have been a very sad and maudlin movie had it not been for the witty script by comedian Steve Coogan and the exceptionally sardonic performance of Dame Judy Dench.  Just when things start to get too depressing, Dench would deliver a pithy jibe to lighten the mood.  It was difficult to watch this movie without feeling outraged at the cruelty and hypocrisy of the nuns in this convent.

Cold Eyes is a taut, stylish Korean thriller about a crack police surveillance team on the hunt for a gang of bank robbers led by a cut-throat mastermind.  The movie starts with an exciting cat and mouse game that turns out to be a job interview for new recruit Ha Yoon-joo, who needs to prove her skills of observation and memory while following her assigned mark on the subway and through busy streets and shops.  This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

The directors and all the major stars of the movie were on hand for the Q&A, even though this was the second showing of the film.   Much of the discussion by the actors seemed to revolve around how much they drank and partied while in town.  The audience was filled with Korean fans of Jun-Ho Lee, who played one of the members of surveillance team in the movie, but is better known as being a part of a Korean pop idol band called 2pm.

The Blind Detective is the latest hilarious Chinese romantic comedy/action thriller movie by director Johnnie To.  The titular blind detective is a former cop who lost his sight through retina damage and now works as a freelance detective, solving cases for the reward money.  Without his sight, he compensates with his sense of smell, deductive wit and his ability to empathize with the victims and perpetrators.  When he pairs up with a female inspector to work on a missing persons case from her past, both chaos and romance ensues.

Grand Seduction is an almost frame by frame remake of an excellent French Canadian film called "La Grande S├ęduction", moving the action from a small fishing village on an island off the coast of Quebec to a small fishing village on an island off the coast of Newfoundland.  Unemployment is rampant in the village, since the fishing has dried up.  In order to attract a factory to be built there, the residents must lure a doctor to take up permanent residence.  The people go to uproarious lengths to make their candidate doctor feel at home, including bugging his phone to find out his preferences, planting money for him to find and faking enthusiasm for his beloved sport of cricket, even though none of them know anything about it.

We were pleasantly surprised that the director and two main stars showed up for a Q&A session for a 9am viewing of the movie.  The doctor was played by the extremely handsome Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch. The lead fisherman was played by burly Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who remarked on the difficulty of turning off his Irish accent and adapting a Newfoundland one.  There was an extended discussion about why early on in the film, the doctor talked about how much he missed his dog that he left back home, but a dog never showed up afterwards.  The director blamed the producers for nixing the ideas of either hiring of a "dog actor" or creating a CGI dog, since there was not enough money in the budget.  The audience agreed that it would have been a better ending with a dog by the doctor's side.  If anything, I would have eliminated the extraneous cat at the beginning of the movie.

We ended up seeing an eclectic selection of movies of different genres from different countries .  Despite our slow start, we ended up with quite a few good ones. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

AGO: Ai Wei Wei According to What Exhibit

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is known as much for, if not more for, his politics than his art.  He even acknowledges this himself, with his quote that “Art is Politics and Politics is Art”.This fact is immediately apparent when viewing the AGO's exhibit Ai Weiwei According to What.  Several works of art comment on the 2008 earthquake in the Sichan province, which resulted in the deaths of 90,000 people.  This included over 5000 children who were killed when shoddily  built schoolhouses collapsed.  The pieces act as a scathing condemnation of a corrupt government who skimped on building materials for the schools and then tried to hush up the tragedy.

Black and white photos of the earthquake sites show the debris from the decimated schools, littered with the school children’s backpacks.  It was telling that neighbouring buildings continued to stand undamaged.  The deceptively whimsical snake sculpture which weaves its way along the ceiling of the AGO’s second floor atrium has a sobering message.  It is actually made from children's backpacks, sewn together as a tribute to the children who died in the earthquake.   
Ai gathered up mangled pieces of rusty rebar steel that were insufficient to support the "tofu" schools and melded them together to form an undulating landscape with a great fissure running through the middle.  The sculpture is so heavy that a structural engineer was tasked to find the sturdiest part of the AGO and to certify that it could bare the weight of this piece.

His most overtly defiant work is a direct reaction to the government’s refusal to acknowledge or take accountability for the victims.  He painstakingly compiled the names, ages and other statistics of the children who died in the earthquake and has listed them in a floor to ceiling display that covers an entire wall.  He then had a recording made of people reading out these names, so that they will never be forgotten.

Given his history of outspoken criticism of his homeland, it is a testament to Ai Weiwei's clout and influence that he has not been permanently jailed or otherwise made to "disappear", as is wont to happen to dissidents in China.  You have to admire his bravery and fortitude in face of oppression, which he counters by turning any actions taken against him into more "art".  When he was beaten and arrested over his "citizen's investigation" of the earthquake, he created photographic documentation of the police arresting him, and of the brain scan which showed that they had given him a concussion.  When the government burned down his art studio as punishment, he organized a big "crab-eating" party in protest, since in Chinese, the words for river crab and "harmonious society" sound alike.  When the police put him under house arrest so that he could not attend his own party, Ai created a sculpture made of thousands of porcelain crabs to commemorate the event. 

Ai Weiwei is currently held in China under "house arrest" but he still manages to use social media and send works of arts to shows around the world including the current Venice Biennale.  He has strong support from the western world as demonstrated by the giant cardboard "Free Ai Wei Wei" sculpture that Toronto artist Sean Martindale made of him when he was detained by police in 2011 and went missing for a period of time.

The influence of Ai's 12 year stay in the United States from 1981 through 1993  can be seen, especially in his earlier art.  His black and white photos taken in New York City show his affinity for artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and John Jacobs, whose famous piece called "According to What" was used as the name of the AGO exhibition.  In one photo, the display of paper towels that Ai Weiwei is standing in front of is reminiscent of Warhol's soup cans.  Other western influences can be found in his Coca-Cola vase piece, and his pun-fully named "Chateau Lafite", which takes an empty bottle of the very expensive French wine and wraps a pair of communist China canvas slippers around it.

The piece called "Forever", comprised of 42 bicycles welded together in a circular formation so that one bicycle starts where the next one ends, harkens Duchamp's 1913 work "Bicycle Wheel".  The work also ironically references the Chinese bicycle company called Forever, which once provided the primary mode of transportation in China, but whose business invincibility has since waned with the uptake of automobiles.

Since returning to China, Ai's more recent works focus more on Chinese themes or use traditional Chinese techniques.  The work called "Grapes" combines 40 Qing dynasty wooden stools through traditional joining techniques without the use of nails.  I was initially perturbed that I was too short to see the surface of the piece called "Map of China".  Reading the description of the piece, I realized that this was the point–to show that China is so big that it is "impossible to grasp the vastness and complexity".  One of the most impressive work is "Moon Chest" which allows you to view the various phases of the moon as you walk by the circular openings.

Several of Ai's works highlight his provocative, anti-establishment attitude.  In "Dropping the Urn", a series of black and white photographs show him dropping and smashing a Han dynasty urn.  This is meant to symbolize his quest for change and desire to break with tradition.  "A Study in Perspective" takes it a step further by depicting Ai Weiwei literally giving the middle finger to some of the world's most iconic landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, White House and Tienanmen Square.  At least he is equally irreverent to both the East and the West.

The Ai Weiwei exhibit extends beyond the AGO by installing sculptures of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs around the fountain/skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square.

In the movie Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, it is mentioned that Ai rarely creates his own works anymore, but merely develops the ideas and then subcontracts the actual construction of the pieces.  This made me question what is the definition of an artist.  My question was answered in an excellent lecture on Ai Weiwei, given at the North York Central Library by U of T professor of Asian art and art historian Yi Gu.  One of the topics she covered in her talk related to why Ai's work is considered art and what is the definition of art in general.  Her answer was that contemporary art no longer focuses on the materials, techniques or the execution of art but instead is all about the ideas or concepts.  She also said that the current function of art is to challenge your understanding of and attitudes towards life.  Based on those statements, then Ai Weiwei is definitely a successful contemporary artist.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bata Shoe Museum - History of the Sneaker

The Bata Shoe Museum is currently featuring an exhibit on the History of the Sneaker.  First developed in the late 1800s for casual and athletic wear, and originally called plimsoles, these shoes soon given the nickname " sneakers" since the quiet rubber soles allowed for people to sneak up on each other.   Early examples of sneakers were on display as well as information on the evolution of the sneaker design and its cultural and social impacts over time.

One series of sneakers, mostly from the 1980-90s, highlighted the attempts to add technology to the shoes in order to improve functionality or performance.   There were shoes that tried to use pegs to provide more shock absorption or air pumps to make them lighter and more springy.  Another had built-in pedometers that measured pace, distance and calorie intake–sounds useful but looks bulky and uncomfortable.  Yet another shoe took this to the next level by adding a computer chip and what looked like the end of a remote control to the heel, allowing the information to be synched with early Apple computers.  The shoe even came with software on a floppy disk and an instruction manual. 

A very interesting video described the importance of both basketball and rap in the propulsion of the sneaker into cult status.  Although sneakers were designed for basketball as early as the 1920s, the fad really took off when superstar Michael Jordan signed a contract with Nike to wear shoes specially designed for him, dubbed  "Air Jordans".   Deemed illegal and non-conforming by the NBA, Jordan was fined $5000 each game for wearing the shoes.  The fine was more than gladly paid by Nike, since the controversy helped increase the popularity of the shoes and sales of them skyrocketed.  Other basketball stars followed with their own shoes as illustrated by the exhibit's inclusion of shoes from Patrick Ewing, Vince Carter, and Lebron James.

As sneakers became more of a style statement with America's youth, they would frequently change the colour of their laces to get a different look, since they could not afford multiple new pairs of shoes.  The influence of sneakers in the rap music culture was led largely by the group Run DMC, who took to wearing Adidas shoes without laces, as a tribute to prisoners who had their laces removed in jail so they could not hang themselves.

The highlight of the exhibit was the collection of rare and iconic shoes from the archives of various manufacturers.  Included were the shoes fashioned to resemble the designs of West Coast First Nation totem poles, ones inspired by socks worn by Russian astronauts, a hand-painted tribute to Heath Ledger as the Joker, and roller-boat shoes that had bright red soles and decorative gold spikes.

Who would have thought the lowly running shoe would have such a big impact on fashion, style and culture.  Free passes to the Bata Shoe Museum can be checked out from the Toronto Public Libraries.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Theatre: Fringe 2013

This year's Fringe Festival has been a very interesting experience, both in terms of the shows we saw, as well as some unexpected situations caused by the extreme rain storm that hit Toronto last week.  We were watching a play when the downpour started, and at one point, there was such a loud and disruptive roar of thunder that the actor actually ad-libbed a line in acknowledgement.  After the show, most of the audience were trapped by the unexpected deluge of rain and stood under the awning of the theatre for over 20 minutes before realizing that it was not about to subside any time soon.  That evening and the next day, multiple shows were cancelled due to power outages.  It is too bad that these events dampered the 25th anniversary of the Fringe Festival.

As with every year, picking Fringe shows to see is a bit of a gamble as you need to make your decision based on a very short synopsis.  Occasionally there are reviews or recommendations from previous runs of the show, but even then it is risky since we have found that we don't always agree with the ratings.  So as always, we picked some winners, some average shows and some we really didn't like at all.

My favourite show this year It's Always You: A Musical, but then I am always partial to musicals.  This show was unusual in that it featured a cast of well-known Canadian comedians including Sheila McCarthy (Little Mosque on a Prairie), Dan Redican (The Frantics, Kids in the Hall), and Shawn Thompson (Murdoch Mysteries).  It follows the lives of three friends, Elaine, Bill and Ted as shown through alternate realities.  In each reality, one of three possible pairings has occurred–either Elaine married Bill, Elaine married Ted, or she married neither, even though they both loved her.  Quick little sketch scenes depict their lives in each of these realities, with songs thrown in to emphasize the situations.  The comedic timing of these professionals were impeccable, as expected.  However, relatively unknown recent theatre graduate Madelaine Redican (any relation to Dan?) who had a small role playing the narrator/stage-hand actually stole the show with her charming, quirky and totally endearing performance.  Breaking the fourth wall, she talks directly to the audience to explain various plot points and admonishes the director for some of the sadder scenarios, championing for a happy ending.

Another highlight was the play I Hired A Contract Killer, based on a Finnish cult movie from 1990.  Depressed, Henri decides to kill himself but is unable to do it.  After several failed attempts, he decides to hire an assassin to do the job for him.  Shortly after the contract has been assigned, he meets and falls in love with a woman and no longer wants to die.  Unfortunately he is not able to contact the assassin to cancel the job.

What makes the play particularly unique and intriguing is the innovative staging.   The play simulates the watching of an old movie, with its use of hand held projectors and screens to show the movie's opening and closing credits.  A set of 8 supporting actors dressed in film-noir hats and trench coats take turns narrating the story, weaving around the stage and through the aisles in almost dance-like choreography. 

 Rather than using props and sets to represent the various scenes, the supporting cast physically contort and transform themselves into various set objects. This included the high beam that Henri tries to hang himself from, the gas oven where he unsuccessfully tries to asphixiate himself, and the taxi cab he rides en route to hire a contract killer.  All the sound effects are performed by the actors either via their voices or using "radio foley" techniques.

I watched clips of the original movie on YouTube after seeing the play and was really impressed by how closely the play followed both the plot, stylistic atmosphere and spirit of the movie. 

Assassinating Thomson was another unique experience that features Bruce Horak, who is legally blind, with only 9% vision in one eye, as a result of cancer tumours developed as a baby. In a totally personable, humorous and engaging manner, Horak describes his experiences growing up with his visual impairment, becoming an artist and actor.  He gives his impression of a "sighted man", explains the steps he took to learn to paint, tells of how he almost didn't get a role as an extra on the movie "Blindness" since he didn't act blind enough, and describes a touching last conversation with his dying father, who urged him to stop grieving what he had lost, but instead to celebrate the vision that still remains.

Given a commission to produce a historic perspective on Canadian artists, Horak started learning about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.   As the show continues, he begins to interweave his own personal stories with those of Thomson's, drawing many comparisons between their lives, including sharing the same birthday and similar interests in art, outdoors, camping, canoeing.

Horak then starts to divulge his research regarding various theories about Thomson's mysterious death in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake in 1917, bringing up a range of possible suspects, including one man who coincidentally shared the same name as Horak's ex-girlfriend.  The theories and possible coverups ranged from plausible to outlandish and bizzare.

Throughout his delivery of an already engrossing monologue, he simultaneously attempted to "paint of portrait" of the audience, adding an extra dimension to the play.  As he spoke, he often peered into the crowd, as if to focus on various aspects of individuals and then returned to the canvas to "paint what he saw".  After a while, you forget that he can't actually see any of us.  At the end of the show, when he reviewed his creation, we were given insight into how Bruce Horak perceived us from that distance–as a mass of colours, lights and shadows.  It was interesting later to view his actual works including a collection called "The Way I See It - Paintings and Portraits".

The show that I wanted to see most, called The Musical of Musicals, was unfortunately cancelled by the rain storm and it was just about impossible to get into any subsequent showings due to the now pent-up demand.  It is a retelling of the story of Rent (we can't pay the rent), retold in parody multiple times in the musical styles of other iconic musicals such as Oklahoma, The King and I, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly, Evita, Chicago and Cabaret.

Luckily, at the end of the Fringe Festival, there is one last chance to see the "Patron's Pick" at each theatre.  At each main venue, an extra performance is held on the final evening of the festival, for the show that generated the most attendence and buzz.  The Musical of Musicals was selected as one of the Patron's Pick.  We've scored tickets for this and I am so excited.  I'm expecting this to become my new favourite show for this year's Fringe Festival.  In the words of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, as a lover of musicals, "Who could ask for anything more?!?!"

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Luminato 2013 - Free Exhibits

Luminato is an annual festival of arts and culture with performances and talks in the fields of theatre, music, dance, visual arts, magic acts, puppet shows and literature, held in venues throughout downtown Toronto.  Many of the events are ticketed, ranging from $20 for an evening conversation series featuring topics such as Verdi vs Wagner and gala readings from Canadian authors, $25-35 for a puppet show by Ronnie Burkett, $25-65 for a Chinese opera directed by Atom Egoyan, up to $175 for the top priced ticket to hear artists including Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard from the musical and movie "Once", Esperanza Spalding, and Herbie Hancock paying tribute to Joni Mitchell in honour of her 70th birthday. 

However there are quite a few free events to enjoy daily as well.  The hub for the activities is at David Pecaut Square in the entertainment district.  Free concerts are held nightly as well as in the afternoon during the weekends with  artists and acts such as Serena Ryder, Maxi Priest, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and Rosanne Cash.  The eclectic performances cover all genres of music including pop, hip hop, country, blues, jazz, and multiple cultures including a Kyiv-based quartet, Sahara Desert Blues guitarist, Caribbean group, a Beijing group that mixes reggae beats with traditional Chinese music, and a range of African rhythms, mixed with bluesy jazz, Afro-Cuban, and Afro-Latin sounds.

Free daily "Lunchtime Illumination" talks feature interesting conversations, sometimes between artists from various fields, including one between a scratch DJ, author/musician and a screen writer, and another where magicians compared their art to the culinary magic created by a molecular gastronomist.

On Monday, we listened to folk singer/songwriters Sylvia Tyson and Murray McLauchlan tell stories about their careers and experiences in the Yorkville music scene in the 1960s.  They both indicated that they struggled in Canada and were not recognized or appreciated in their home country until they first moved to New York City to make a name for themselves.  They interacted with other folk stars like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn.  They described Yorkville in the 60s as a "counter-culture scene" where there were no silos between different musical styles–everyone was young and carefree, and hung out together, exchanging ideas and songs.

Tyson's signature song, written by and performed with her by then husband Ian, was "Four Strong Winds".  This was one of the first songs to describe Canadian climates and locations such as Alberta.  She wrote the smash #3 Billboard hit "You Were Always On My Mind" in five minutes, a feat her accountant has been trying to get her to replicate ever since.  Sylvia tells the story about being at the infamous Newport Folk Festival where legendary folk hero Bob Dylan was thought to have "sold out" the folk scene by "going electric".  She remembers it as being really loud and commented that it might not have sounded so bad if his band had only practiced more. 

McLauchlan's big song was called Farmer's Song, but he also wrote songs about Toronto including one called "Down by the Henry Moore" where he references Kensington Market, The Silver Dollar, The Palm Grove, and City Hall where he skates by the titular "Archer" Henry Moore sculpture.  Murray obviously had a crush (and probably still does) on Joni Mitchell as he mentioned her several times in the talk and praised her fine "assets" at length.  McLaughlan told an amusing story about having Patti Labelle as his opening act one evening in a small bar, which was packed with gay black men dressed in shiny silver mylar space suits, there to see Labelle sing her hits like Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi.  Murray was nervous to go on next with his folk-song act, since that was clearly not their scene, but Labelle reassured him that they would love him... and they did, since luckily they thought he and his bass player were cute!

Also on display in David Pecaut Square was an exhibit called Art in Motion.  Students from an art school worked with a local artist to paint a "moving mural" on a Kia Rondo car.  Kia is one of the major sponsors of Luminato so this is both art and product placement.

Stockpile in Brookfield Place is a performance art piece that recreates a live sized version of the common carnival game where you manipulate a claw using a joystick and try snag a prize.  Nine performance artists from across the country take turns sitting in the machine and acting as the human claw.  For a $2 fee which goes to charity, you use a joystick to position and lower the claw to hover over your object of desire.  After the artist grasps the object, you maneuver him towards a slot to drop the prize into.  If you are successful, you claim the prize.  If he drops it before the destination, you get a souvenir "LOSER" certificate.  The over 1500 items of toys and common household items were solicited as donations from the local community.

For me, the highlight of the free Luminato events is the exhibit at the ROM Spirit House.  Thirty-one "Victorian-inspired" porcelain dolls of around 18 inches tall, dressed in haut-culture outfits created by Amsterdam designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, are positioned on a specially designed catwalk.  Each doll's eyes, makeup and hair were carefully recreated to replicate the live model who originally wore the outfit, and the clothing and accessories were shrunk precisely to scale.  I found it interesting and refreshing that these dolls were not "Barbie-esque" or even shaped like the typical rail-thin model figures. 

Most of the fashions were avant-garde and outrageous, as wont to be seen on European catwalks, and not likely to be worn by normal people out on the streets.  There was the dress that seemed to be stuffed with balloons, the aquatic scuba suit with black seaweed, the Frida Khalo-esque flowery dress, the pant suit with such big ruffles that it looked like the doll had a fake beard,  and the Harlequin clown suit.  A couple of the dolls were attached to metal rods that held up the pleats of the outfit and had spotlights attached.  It was not clear whether this was just to show off the doll, or whether the poor live model actually had to walk down the aisles in this manner.

There were several beautiful but simpler designs the average person could have pulled off.  I particularly liked the one outfit that looked like a casual/chic blouse and pants assemble from the front, but sported an elegant ivory cape that gave off a totally different, elegant vibe from the back.  There were so many details on each doll to pay attention to, including the hairstyles, the footwear, jewelry, veils, and other accessories that accompanied each outfit,that it required several passes from various angles to see it all. 

This was a very unique opportunity to get so up close and personal to gorgeous high-end designs, and the closest that I will probably ever get to experiencing a Paris fashion show.  This exhibit will be on display until June 30, so there's still time to go see it!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Doors Open 2013

The end of May marked another year of Door's Open in Toronto,  As usual, there were so many interesting options to choose from.  We went full throttle on both days of the weekend and visited the following locations:

The Dineen Building on 140 Yonge St at Temperance was built in 1897 and became the office, workshop and showroom of the W.&F. Dineen Company, which sold hats and furs.  Now a heritage site, the building has been restored to its former glory, featuring original brickwork, wrought-iron Juliette balconies and fencing, pillars topped with ornate crown molding imprinted with a golden "D" for Dineen, and the company directories showing the last occupants of the building. The highlights of the tour were the beautiful J&J Taylor safe standing in the front lobby and the embedded wall vaults in the upper floors, which were used to store expensive furs.  One of the vaults is still locked and will require a professional locksmith and representation from the proper historical societies before it can be opened.  There are stories of a 1910 bank robbery where the robbers may have hidden out in the Dineen building and possibly stashed some loot in the vaults.  So far, nothing has been found but who knows what might be in this last vault!

Today, the upper floors of the Dineen building are used as temporary and permanent office space available for rent.  The ground floor houses the gorgeously decorated Dineen Coffee shop with tall ceilings, the same pillars as found in the lobby, deep red leather banquette seating, marble counter tops, patterned flooring, and an antique iron stove still imbedded in the brick wall.  Also opening by summer will be the Chase Fish and Oyster restaurant which will include a large upstairs patio overlooking the city.

The impressive collection of Inuit art on permanent display in the TD Gallery at 79 Wellington Ave. has been accumulated starting in the 1960s, at the behest of Allen Lambert, then president and chairman of the TD Bank.  The tour guide pointed out one of the sculptures that reminded him of Che Guevara wearing his iconic beret.  A poignant piece called "The Migration" by Joe Talirunili conveys the true story of his family of 40 adults and children, once trapped in their sleds on an ice floe that drifted away and started to melt.  They used whatever materials they had on the sleds to build a boat and escaped.  His works will soon be on display at the AGO.  One of the most recent acquisitions from 1987 depicts a starving Ethiopian and contrasts his plight to that of the Inuit.  My personal favourite piece is a seal's head made from whale bone.

A new condo tower called Massey Towers will be built on Yonge Street across from the Eaton Centre.  It was formerly the site of a CIBC branch built in the early 1900s in a classic Beaux-Arts style.  Luckily the original building has been deemed a heritage site and will therefore will be restored and used as the entrance and lobby of the condo.  The majestic portico with its thick columns and triangular peaked roof will remain as the facade with a tall tower rising behind it.  Once it is complete, the lobby for the condo will be magnificent with tall ceilings, ornate wood finishing and decorative ironwork, mosaic flooring, marble staircase, funky chandeliers, and original bronze friezes restored.

Once inside, rather than the historic tour of the original building that we were hoping for, we were bombarded by salesmen, floor plans and a model suite for the new condo.  The prices ranged from low $300K to just under $900K and from 377 square feet to 1085.  Parking spots were only available to the small percentage of larger units over 800 square feet and cost $69,000!  The salesman tried to impress us with the "automatic parking" feature where you drive your car into an elevator and it would automatically take you to your parking spot.  This sounded very cool initially but could become a big bottleneck and a bigger pain if the elevator ever broke down.  We noticed that while the building is touted as a "luxury" condo, the amenities did not reflect this.  The flooring was laminate instead of hardwood, the bathroom offered porcelain tile instead of marble and the kitchen  was "European-styled"  (marketing-speak for tiny appliances and sink).

Guildwood Park sits on 88 acres of land on the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs and can be considered the "home of abandoned architectural treasures".  Now a public park, it was originally purchased in 1932 by Spencer and Rosa Clark, who created the "Guild of All Arts", providing free studio space and accommodations for artists to stay at while pursuing their crafts.  One of Spencer's major passions was the preservation of heritage sites.  He was instrumental in saving the Old City Hall from destruction.  For those buildings that he was not able to save, such as many of the big banks in the Financial District that were torn down to make way for current office towers, he started collecting architectural components such as stone carvings and reliefs, columns, capitals, and other facade elements.  Pieces from banks, insurance companies, the Granite building, Toronto Star building, Imperial Oil Building and more, sit scattered across the lands of the park alongside sculptures that the Clarks collected throughout the years.

Overlooking the sculpture garden is the Guild Inn, a 33-room Arts and Crafts manor house that was once the home of the Clarks as well as a hotel and museum.  Unfortunately it has fallen into such disrepair that it will probably need to be torn down.  During the WWII, this mansion was used by the Womens' Royal Naval Service as a training base for female code-breakers.  Following the war, it was used as a veteran's hospital before being returned to the Clarks.

Spencer commissioned the construction of an amphitheatre, using Corinthian columns that he saved from the Bank of Canada building.  The outdoor theatre is still used today, with the Guild Festival Theatre group performing The Misanthrope later this summer.  Also on the site is at the Osterhout log cabin, built in 1795, during the time that John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, was having the lands surveyed.

 In 1850s, Joe Williams bought a 20.7 acre farm in what is now known as the Beach area.  He created a large park as a tourist attraction on the waterfront, naming it Kew Gardens after the park in London.  His son, who he also named Kew, went on to build Kew Cottage as a honeymoon home for his new wife.  The cute little cottage has a round turret tower in front, a wrap-around veranda and is built in the Queen Anne Revival style.  The tour guide said it was shaped like a ship, but I couldn't really see that.

Historic photos were on display inside the house, showing the Williams family in their home and photos of the surrounding area.  The tour guide then took us for a walk, looking at some of the other cottages in the neighbourhood as well as describing the history of the Beach area (including the big debate about whether it should be named the Beach or Beaches).