Alicia Barban, Sara Shanazarian and Aisha Jarvis as the American Trio in Dead ReckoningLoose Tea Music Theatre, an indie opera and music theatre company based in Toronto, was already a vibrant, though small, presence on the Toronto scene before the pandemic hit, producing innovative socially conscious productions that pushed the boundaries of interdisciplinary performance while staying based in classical voice. With the advent of the lockdown in March, like every other theatre company, all their plans had to be put on hold. Excitingly, however, as everything stopped and the usual doors closed, new doors blew open, as if the pandemic had unleashed a new energy. 

Speaking with Alaina Viau, Loose Tea’s founder and executive artistic director, I was astounded by her hunger to create, and how she has embraced the enforced rest from live theatrical performance to concentrate on planning and building future initiatives for her company as well as initiating new partnerships to expand her own and her company’s artistic vision. 

Read more: Loose Tea: Unleashed by Lockdown

Mezzo Wallis Giunta (left) and Jennifer Nichols (right) in the TSO’s June 2017 Seven Deadly Sins, by Kurt Weill. Photo by Jag GunduI have been friends with Jennifer Nichols since meeting as colleagues working at Opera Atelier more than ten years ago, and I have followed her freelance career with great interest ever since, sometimes reviewing or previewing her shows for The WholeNote: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony in 2017, for example which she choreographed and performed in, with mezzo Wallis Giunta; or 2019’s Dora-nominated Pandora for FAWN Opera which, again, she both choreographed and danced in. One of the things I love about her work is how she is always looking for new challenges, new ways to push herself and discover more of what is possible in terms of choreography and performing to music. 

In the May/June issue of The WholeNote, we found ourselves as virtual colleagues again – she wrote a moving guest article about how music is at the heart of all she does: dancing, choreographing, teaching, producing and, as she said to me the other day, even just walking down the street. Now, with the continuing need to physically distance ourselves from each other, thanks to the ongoing world pandemic, even walking down the street is bounded by restrictions; most of her other activities have had to be recalibrated, reinvented, moved online as much as possible, but somehow trying to keep that human connection that is created by dancing with, and in the live presence of, other people. 

Read more: Music in the Dance of Life: Responding to a changing world

Music plays a role in absolutely everything I do, professionally and artistically! It is the reason why I started dancing as a child. I did play an instrument briefly as a teenager, but ultimately using my body as my instrument spoke to me more, and so this is the path I pursued. I danced for ten years with Opera Atelier, which deepened my love of Baroque music and introduced me to the world of opera. Through this exposure, I’ve been fortunate enough to create several choreographic works for opera companies, for both singers and dancers alike. Designing movement that complements vocal phrasing, not just for those who have to execute it, but for those experiencing it, is an entirely unique and satisfying process.

Read more: Quarantine-Fuelled Recalibration

What strange days we are living in. As I have been preparing and researching to write this column over the last week or so, the true scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has become increasingly clear. Ontario’s provincial government has declared a state of emergency and theatres of every size have first postponed or cancelled spring performances, then followed that by closing down rehearsals and production altogether for an unspecified length of time, at least until the pandemic should be under control.

For theatre artists this is a double whammy. Not only are our livelihoods suddenly up in the air but our world is abruptly taken away. Even the smallest one-person show is created by a group of people, and one of the great joys of being part of this industry is that of working with other artists onstage, backstage, in preparation and rehearsal; experimenting with words, music, design and movement to craft our storytelling to the best of our abilities, then looking forward to the fulfillment of sharing our creations with a live audience. All of that is now on hold. 

Many companies and individuals are looking for ways to move some of our work online at least temporarily, which is wonderful, but it is not and cannot ever be the same as sharing a live theatrical experience. 

Read more: Triple Threat, Double Whammy

Evan Buliung (left) and Tess Benger in Sunday in the Park with GeorgeIn Act Two of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, Dot sings to George: “Move on! Anything you do let it come from you, then it will be new.” This double idea, of continually trying new things but anchoring them in personal experience or passion, was at the heart of three of my music theatre highlights of February, and promises to be so for three of the shows coming up in March.

Caroline or Change, presented at the Winter Garden Theatre by The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company is anchored in Tony Kushner’s semi-autobiographical book and this powerful production amped up the electricity by casting as Caroline, R & B Queen Jully Black, who, in her musical theatre debut, gave a performance of great passion and integrity. Tapestry New Opera’s Jacqueline, a fascinating journey into the internal thoughts of virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré as her career and life were both being tragically cut short by MS, was an exciting risk-taking experiment in storytelling, inspired by personal connections to the artist and envisioned as a duet for soprano and cello. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton finally arrived in Toronto, showing us why it has been acclaimed as the “reinvention of the American musical,” a thrilling example of unexpected medium (hip-hop and diverse casting) melding with inspiring message (surprisingly interesting biography of lesser-known American founding father Alexander Hamilton) to create a truly satisfying evening of music theatre.

As March approaches, three more exciting productions, all wildly different, are blending personal passion and innovation to share with us both new and familiar stories in new ways designed to give them more immediacy and/or urgency in the telling.

Read more: Newness Anchored in Passion and Experience
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