“It’s what happens when you say Yes!” Feel the breeze at the 2020 Chinook Series

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song, Volcano Theatre. Photo by John Lauener.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Chinook “is what happens when you say Yes!” laughs Vanessa Sabourin. She’s talking about the cutting-edge curated performance series that skips as lightly across artistic disciplines as the surprising winter breeze with the built-in warming trend. “Yes!,” as opposed to “No! What, are you out of your mind?”

Thursday the fifth annual edition of the Chinook Series blew into the TransAlta Arts Barn for two weeks of showcase productions, performances, workshops, panel discussions, even an original board game tournament. And Sabourin, co-artistic director with Kristi Hansen of Azimuth Theatre, whose Expanse Movement Arts Festival is one of the five arts outfits that collaborate on Chinook (along with Fringe Theatre, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, Black Arts Matter, Sound Off Deaf Theatre Festival)  — calls Chinook “an unexpected adventure.” She uses words like “cross-over” and “collision,” “intersection” and “mash-up” in describing the line-up.

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There are possibilities everywhere in the program (check it out at chinookseries.ca) and you can’t go wrong by showing up and sampling widely (and watching The Lobbyists between shows). But here’s a little selection of shows that illustrate Sabourin’s Chinook lexicon, and her idea that Chinook should offer an array of “entry points” for audiences and artists alike.   

Aaron Wells and Allyson Pratt in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

Pawâkan Macbeth, an Akpik Theatre production, is a 90-minute Cree re-telling of the Scottish play that’s been touring Treaty 6 nations before its arrival here for Chinook. It’s set in the prairies of the 1870s before Treaties ever got signed. And Shakespeare’s usurper whose vaulting ambition proves lethal is re-imagined as a fearsome Indigenous warrior consumed by an evil cannibalistic spirit, Wihtiko. Have a peek here at the 12thnight preview, in which I talk to playwright/ director Reneltta Arluk, the head of Indigenous arts at the Banff Centre.

“This piece has stuck with me,” says Sabourin, who saw the workshop production — a collaboration between Akpik Theatre, the Northwest Territories’ only professional theatre company, and Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero — in 2017. “It’s haunted me,” she says, not least for “the way it engages with communities, the layers beyond just the performative. That energy is relevant on all kinds of levels.”

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song, Volcano Theatre. Photo by John Lauener.

Century Song from Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, brought to Chinook by Azimuth and the Fringe, is a highly original, textless experiment in marrying Euro-classical song to choreographed movement from black diaspora culture. It’s the creation of Dora-winning soprano cum performance artist Neema Bickersteth, who appears onstage with three musicians, and two collaborators, director Ross Manson and choreographer Kate Alton.

Originally from St. Albert , Bickersteth studied opera at UBC. The show, she says, “was my experiment to see if I could, would it be possible?, to combine my black identity with (my life) as a classical singer…” in a 20th century of black women. She laughs. “Going through time in this alternate way. And not aging!”

“It came from curiosity … about me. Who am I? What can I do?”

Bickersteth’s family is from Sierre Leone, “where singing and dancing are just so normal,” she says. In the world of classical music,  that combination is not a given, to put it mildly.   

In part, Bickersteth says, Century Song draws inspiration from both Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of My Mother’s Garden in the way it moves through time and multiple identities. The songs she chose are all wordless.

She wouldn’t call Century Song a play. “It’s closer to dance; the experience is more like going to an art show,” she says of a production with a sophisticated projection-scape. And audience reactions have varied wildly, sometimes from song to song.

In Rwanda, for example, Bickersteth reports that the audience would boo during parts they felt were slow or going on too long (a John Cage song with the pianist knocking on the piano in a rhythm score instead of playing it, for example). “John Who?” And they would “leap up in excitement spontaneously cheering” when they were delighted. They’ve been her favourite audiences. 

A classical singer who sings while dancing is in a very exclusive subset, to put it mildly, and has to be super-toned. Bickersteth is amused. “We’re supposed to hibernate in winter, and eat. It’s not natural to go to the gym….. But now I have a new skill!” 

Dana Wylie in The Making of a Voice. Photo supplied.

There are performances at every stage of development in the Chinook lineup this year, says Sabourin. The Makings of a Voice, by and starring singer-songwriter Dana Wylie, for example, is billed by Expanse as “a new musical performance in development.”

Balance Board, part of Black Arts Matter in collaboration with Workshop West, is a workshop, a staged reading of a new play by Bashir Mohamed, about Charles Daniel, the CPR employee who launched the first civil rights case in Alberta history when as a Black man he was denied entrance to a theatre to see King Lear.

There are plays: Workshop West’s contribution is a I Walked The Line, a one-man memoir by and starring Allan Morgan, a veteran West Coast actor of quick wit and charm. He’s remembering his between-engagements experience working as a mail clerk for a union — and getting locked out by his employer. Look for my 12thnight interview soon. 

Alexis Hillyard in Stump Kitchen: LIVE. Photo supplied.

In honour of Valentine’s Day, Chinook has high-contrast possibilities.  There’s a cooking show, in which the engaging Alexis Hillyard, joined by special guests like Janis Irwin and Caroline Stokes, cooks a vegan meal, one-handed, on the spot before your very eyes. Stump Kitchen: LIVE brings Hillyard’s weekly YouTube webcast Stump Kitchen to the stage as part of the Expanse festival.

NIUBOI in Space Dance. Photo supplied.

Under the Fringe Theatre banner, the experimental performance artist NIUBOI brings their Space Dance series to Chinook, with a special “queer prom” edition, especially for Feb. 14.

Sound Off, Canada’s only deaf theatre festival and a magnet for artists from across the country, is a burgeoning enterprise under award-winning artistic director Chris Dodd. Amongst its manifold offerings at Chinook it brings the comedy The Two Natashas: Our Life In Guyana, by Gaitrie Persaud and Natasha Bacchus, to Chinook. It’s a chronicle of the comical adventures of two deaf women linked by a mutual ex-boyfriend. 

culturecapital. Photo suppied

And, yes (to anticipate your question), there’s a board game. What festival is complete without one? Culturecapital is participatory, with trading cards and a round robin tournament and finals, and a $500 prize for the champion. It’s the brainchild of two very brainy artists, it’s based on research into local performing arts companies, and it’s actually about the way the arts ecology works and gets funded. I’ll post my interview with Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn soon.

It’s time to play. 


Chinook Series 2020

Where: ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 16

Tickets: chinookseries.ca or at the door


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