Saturday, 17 May 2014

New Music Edmonton's 'Body of Colour' will mess with your mind!


Seeing tonight's performance of Body of Colour at the ATB Arts Barns in Old Strathcona reminded me of why I adore Edmonton's arts scene. In artistic terms Edmonton is truly the Goldilocks City - big enough that there's always something interesting going on but small enough that the local scene is accessible, friendly and relatively free from the sort of tribal fault lines that tend to carve up the scenes of the world's larger cities.

A number of years ago I interview Mile Zero Dance artistic director and Body of Colour collaborator Gerry Morita for an article in Avenue Edmonton magazine. When I asked her what it was that kept her in Edmonton after having lived and worked in Vancouver, Montreal and Tokyo, she responded that, among other things, it's Edmonton's natural inclination towards interdisciplinary artistic collaboration, a trait she attributed to the city's lack of 'tribalism' in the arts.

Having had the good fortune to be New Music Edmonton's blogger-at-large, I've come to realize how true this observation really is. Spend enough time in artistic circles in this town and you tend to see many of the same names in projects and contexts that you'd never expect. In this particular performance, Morita, the 'big name' on the ticket, opted for a supporting role for the show's real 'star', mezzo-soprano Michelle Milenkovic, whose magnificent instrument was matched only by her incomparable stage persona.

Nobody - not even NME director Ian Crutchley - really knew how to introduce this show. A few minutes into it revealed why. Body of Colour is in essence a collective brainstorm run wild, courtesy of singer Milenkovic, dancer Morita and stage, set and lighting designer Daniela Masellis. The dramatic set pieces (giant musical score canvas screens) and jarring lighting, combined with Milenkovic's haunting musical soliloquies, gave the show the dramatic tension of a Greenaway or Pasolini film, while Morita's understated choreography, much of which was behind the giant screens, had all the impish mystique of Balinese shadow puppetry.

The show began with a piece originally conceived for Mile Zero's Bodies in O show, featuring one of Edmonton composer Shawn Pinchbeck's characteristic noise soundscapes shoved against a lachrymal aria from Henry Purcell's opera Dido & Aeneas. The performance focused largely on the innovative solo voice compositions of Greek-French composer Georges Aperghis, an innovator best known for his blended singing-spoken word text looping compositions written for French stage actress Mariane Viard, as well as vocal works by NME favourite Luciano Berio.

An excerpt from Georges Aperghis' Récitations (source: sepia.ac-reims.fr)

But there was none of the dry, antiseptic sting that often comes with this sort of music. The show's steady parade of unlikely props, which included (in no particular order) a wheelchair, various carpentry tools,  playing cards, a bathtub and honest-to-god shots of grappa kept things interesting.

The second half of the show was particularly rivetting. After some particularly flirtatious and sarcastic material by Aperghis, the mood shifted to the emotionally roller-coastery with a gut-wrenching performance of Cigane, a Serbian-language Roma (Gypsy) protest anthem that was adopted as the official Roma anthem for the First Roma Conference in 1971. (Spoiler alert: this is when the grappa shots were distributed among the audience. Ziveli, y'all!)

The show concluded with some re-imagined Mahler lieder centred on nostalgia and the beauty of the ephemeral, as represented by the 'Lindenbaum' (linden tree). And this too was taken to its dramatic logical conclusion, with Morita morphing into a shadowy forest imp and Milenkovic donning a tree goddess crown and assuming the role of some sort of Jesus of Nazareth/Lorax hybrid. These things don't explain themselves, but as a BC boy who's had his share of transcendental experiences in forests, I think I get it.

The incomparable Michelle Milenkovic
(Source: New Music Edmonton)
The second-last performance of the 2013-2014 NME season might just have been its highlight. Funny, sexy, intense, disturbing at points and totally compelling from start to finish, Body of Colour is, if nothing else, a great showcase of what this city's artistic community does best - put a bunch of creative people in a room together (usually in the dead of winter) and get them to come up with something cool and improbable. And if you're in Edmonton and are looking for something interesting to do tomorrow night, I highly recommend checking this show out, which runs again tomorrow night at 7:30 at the Arts Barns.

And if you can't make it, at least carve out some time this summer to get down to the river valley with your Dr. Dre headphones, find an isolated corner of the wood and meditate to some Mahler. Or some Berio. Or whatever. We're a cool, weird town here - we all owe it to ourselves to take full advantage of that fact.

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