Still from the 2013 Pia Bouman School production of The Nutcracker, featuring lead dancers Ella Corkum (Water Sprite) and Karuna Hill (Clara). Photo credit: John McMurchy.Last Sunday I made my way to Toronto’s West End in search of the new location of the Pia Bouman School of Ballet and Creative Movement, in order to get an insider’s glimpse of rehearsals for the school’s return to live performance with The Nutcracker. In a long, low, industrial building near Lansdowne and Bloor, I opened a door into a world of ballet: girls (and some boys) of all ages in tights and leotards, sweatshirts and leg warmers, waiting to rehearse, groups of parents intent on creating scenery or sewing and fitting costumes and, in the main studio, students and adult guests rehearsing the early scenes of Act One. As a fight director, I often work with professional dancers, but there is something incredibly moving about being in the midst of young dancers at work—particularly when they are as quietly and happily intent as this group.

Not being a “West Ender,” I knew of the Pia Bouman School but had never attended a performance or understood its importance to the community. Then, when I was looking to see which Nutcracker productions there might be in Toronto this year—other than the luscious James Kudelka version performed each Christmas by the National Ballet of Canada—a friend mentioned that she was involved with the Bouman School’s production and, in fact, was going to be joining the cast this year as “the Grandmother.” Tedde Moore, Dora Award-winning actor, teacher, and coach (who had grown up in the theatre as daughter of Mavor Moore, and granddaughter of Dora Mavor Moore), it turns out, had been involved with the school from the time her daughters were tiny, and her stories made me realize that the Pia Bouman School must be one of the best kept secrets in Toronto for those outside its immediate neighbourhood.

Tedde met Pia in the mid-1970s when Pia was hired to teach creative movement at one of Toronto’s first Montessori nursery schools, which Tedde’s children attended. In Tedde’s words, they “met, clicked, and have been good friends ever since.”

Read more: Pia Bouman’s Nutcracker: a community event

For lovers of musical theatre, there is something uniquely magical about the holiday season this year as the world of live performance starts coming back into its own, including all the usual holiday entertainments we had to forgo last year, while we safely stayed home. 

Nutcrackers and Scrooges

Live performances of The Nutcracker are returning, from the grand scale of the National Ballet of Canada’s perennial favourite at the Four Seasons Centre to the smaller-scale beloved production of the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement, with a legacy almost as long as the National Ballet’s. There is even a new entrant on the scene which straddles  the line between live and digital: Lighthouse Immersive’s Immersive Nutcracker is similar to their Van Gogh and  Klimt programs, enveloping an audience within four bare walls on which is created a projected world – in this case, a shortened 40-minute version of The Nutcracker, part ballet, and part animation, fuelled by Tchaikovsky’s iconic score. Audiences are free to roam and even dance along, which seemed to delight some of the children who were there when I was.

A Christmas CarolAnother returning holiday tradition is the many and varied stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I had the great treat of attending for the first time the opening performance of The Shaw Festival’s version, adapted, and originally directed, by artistic director Tim Carroll, and this year directed by (former assistant director) Molly Atkinson. What was revealed to us in the cozy intimate setting of the Royal George Theatre was an intrinsically theatrical but also surprisingly musical version of the beloved transformation story: confirmed miser and hater-of-all-things-Christmas, Ebeneezer Scrooge metamorphosing into a spirit of joyous generosity. The show opens with a group of very tuneful carollers who not only set the scene and get the story started but pop up throughout to punctuate the action and to round everything off with what would – in non-COVID-wary times – be a group singalong with the audience. 

There is a magical spirit of theatrical inventiveness in this production from the use of a front screen that resembles an outsize Advent calendar – with windows to be cleverly opened and even used as props – to one of the cleverest and most whimsical depictions of the three Christmas ghosts that I have ever seen.

Read more: Emerging from postponement limbo as it all comes alive again

Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy, Gabrielle Jones as Louise and the cast of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (Shaw Festival, 2021). Photo credit: David Cooper.On November 20, the Shaw Festival’s winter season hits its full stride, with the openings of both its holiday offerings: A Christmas Carol, and Irving Berlin’s full-scale musical extravaganza Holiday Inn.

In 2019, Holiday Inn was notable as the first musical to be programmed as part of the Shaw’s winter holiday season. It was also notable as the directing debut of one of Canada’s most versatile theatre artists: actor, playwright, teacher, and now director, Kate Hennig.  

The production was such a popular success that it was the natural choice to bring back this year with the same creative team, and many of the original cast, to celebrate the reopening of the theatres as well as the holiday season.

Read more: “A Postcard to 1946”: Director Kate Hennig chats about musical Holiday Inn

The air was electric with anticipation as a top-notch staged-concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Goldman’s iconic musical Follies at Koerner Hall on the weekend of October 16/17 signalled the return of indoor live musical theatre to town. For most of us this was the first indoor live performance we had seen since lockdown back in March of 2020. 

Who’s That Woman (The Mirror Song) with Jackie Richardson as “Stella” at centre; and (left to right) Tess Benger, Cynthia Dale, Jenny Burke, Mary Lou Fallis, Charlotte Moore (behind Richardson), Katelyn Bird, Lorraine Foreman, Denise Fergusson, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Kimberly-Ann Truong.  Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

Read more: Sondheim’s Follies live and indoors!

Is My Microphone On? photo by ELANA EMERBack in my M.A. thesis-writing days in the late 1980s at the University of Warwick where I was studying English and European Renaissance Drama, I latched onto the phrase “necessary theatre” to describe a kind of theatre that is calling out to be created, that needs an audience, a shared community, in order to enable us to see the world around us in a new way – so that we are inspired to react, to do something to make the world a better place. 

A decade or so later, in 1999, the phrase took on an entirely different resonance, as the title of a book, The Necessary Theatre, by Sir Peter Hall, which to this day stands as a powerful manifesto for state support, rather than private patronage, of theatre as an art form. Left to its own devices, he argued, if theatre has to support itself it will stagnate, falling back on the tried and true. (Not that state support is, in and of itself, necessarily a guarantee that stagnation will not ensue, particularly when that support is directed primarily toward large organizations competing for resources, who must meet budget targets for what they do.) 

What is equally necessary for the very best theatre to happen, Hall argues, is for permanent companies of actors and technicians, secure in their premises, to feel they have permission to push the boundaries of their art. 

Read more: Necessary Theatre is Calling Out to be Created
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