Kendra Fry.There’s a palpable sense of enthusiasm in Kendra Fry’s voice and there’s a good reason why. On April 1, she made her debut as general manager of Stratford Summer Music (SSM). For seven years, she had been in the same role at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts in Toronto (TSP), where she played an instrumental role transforming it into a vibrant and multi-faceted community hub.

Working closely with the artistic director, violinist Mark Fewer—who himself took on the role in 2018, as the second artistic director in Stratford Summer Music’s two-decade history—and espousing a shared vision to raise the bar, Fry is setting the stage for a successful season that embraces the spirit of collaboration and innovation, including digital content delivery. “This is an exciting time to be in Stratford,” she explained on a recent phone call. “The city is thinking about the relationship of art to commerce and the lives of its citizens.”

In a city brimming with creativity, and as the second largest arts organization after the Stratford Festival, SSM will continue to showcase a range of musical performances by Canadian and possibly international artists representing a wide range of music, including classical, jazz, folk, performances from Indigenous musicians, and an eclectic blend of genres geared toward children. Programming will take place from August 5 to 29 at seven or eight indoor and outdoor venues, including three new ones: Stratford Perth Museum and Gallery Stratford, as well as Tom Patterson Island (previously used for outdoor programming at SSM, but never for full concerts). “We’re directing our energy toward optimizing outdoor opportunities based on events that really spark joy for people,” says Fry.

Read more: “Creative Collisions”: Kendra Fry becomes general manager at Stratford Summer Music

Photo by Catherine MuirThe other week, I went to a lovely symphony performance with friends in Montreal. We all enjoyed the lively rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and when it concluded we stood and energetically applauded. We chatted about the concert for a few minutes, then bid each other goodnight and left the concert hall. It was a fun evening – just like before the pandemic!

Except that leaving the concert hall was as simple as closing my web browser and turning off my laptop. Our applause consisted of lines of the clapping hands emoji on Facebook Messenger. And, while my friends were in Montreal, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

Instead of an outing to attend a concert in person, this was an “inning”. Just like going out to hear a musical performance or view an art exhibit with friends, but, rather than meeting at the venue in person, you stay inside, meet virtually and “go out” by staying in.

It’s not quite the same as an actual outing, but, in these unusual times, it’s a wonderful alternative. It’s certainly been working for me and my culture-loving friends – we’ve now been holding cultural innings for a whole year!

Opening Act

Sometime in March of 2020, just after my employer had informed us that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our entire office would be working from home for the foreseeable future – and the same thing was happening at workplaces all around the world – my friend Peter proposed that we meet online to watch a concert or dance performance “together.”

He had watched a movie the previous weekend “with” friends – each in their own homes – while they discussed the film over Slack. He had the idea to apply the concept to other events, such as classical, jazz or folk concerts and dance performances. He was already missing being able to see live performances during the pandemic and thought it might be a way for him and his girlfriend (in Montreal) and me (in Ottawa at the time) to keep getting our cultural fix and stay in touch at the same time. Ever the culture junkie, I was immediately on board. 

Surprisingly, the format we started out with has remained unchanged. We meet on Skype for about an hour to catch up before we start our cultural program (usually on a weekend evening, so it feels more like a special event). We then take a short break while getting the optimal set-up for viewing – for me it’s connecting my laptop to the TV so I can lie on the couch while watching – and meet on Facebook Messenger. Someone does a countdown and we hit “play” at the same time, and then we text each other sporadically during the performance to comment on what we’re seeing.

Photo by Catherine Muir

The Program

One year after our first inning, I’m still amazed at the quality and quantity of cultural programming that’s out there for the viewing, all either free or affordably priced. My cultural compatriots and I have, for the big sum of zero dollars, travelled by train through stunning scenery in Japan, Switzerland and Norway; visited Pompeii; wandered through CERN; toured art exhibits at famous museums in Canada, the UK and Europe; and watched dance performances in France, Korea and Germany. We have also paid for several performances provided by organizations closer to home, including the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and Danse Danse, a Montreal-based dance organization. We enjoy supporting these organizations during these lean pandemic times through the purchase of virtual “seats”.

Since my fellow innings insiders (there are now four) live in Montreal, a city I once called home, we often source our cultural activities from Montreal’s many offerings. But there is a treasure trove of excellent online performances available from across Canada, and the cool thing is that you can just as easily go to one that’s 5000 km away as one that’s 50 km away!

Photo by Catherine Muir

The WholeNote has become an excellent resource for our group. One recent inning was sourced entirely from WholeNote’s listings which are updated weekly from whatever appeared in the previous print magazine. First, we watched a program of “Concert Miniatures” by the Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. The “intimate salon-style mini-concert” featuring violinist Rezan Onen-Lapointe and harpsichordist David Podgorski included French chamber music by François Couperin and others. The event opened with an introductory chat and then we were shown a prerecorded home concert. It did feel quite intimate, almost as if I was sitting right in the room with them. There was a short Q&A session afterwards, with questions from the audience via comments in the chat. All this for only $10 – not bad if you ask me.

It would be hard to find a cultural event more reflective of our times than the second event that evening. Escape Room, the University of Toronto Opera School’s newest Opera Student Composer Collective production, was written especially for an online audience, and is available for free on YouTube. A comedy with an existential bent that pokes fun at topics as diverse as Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection, academia and Doug Ford’s, well, Doug Ford-ness, Escape Room proves how effective the online and distanced performance model can be. The singers seemed to interact with each other just as well as they would have on stage, and the choreography was managed by the size and placement of each singer’s Zoom window.

Encore

Truth be told, my cultural comrades and I have discovered many positives to attending cultural events online over the past year, such as not having to go out in bad weather to get to a venue, not having to dress up unless inspired to, and being able to share impressions (and eat crunchy snacks) during the performances without annoying others. 

To be honest, I don’t really miss having to bring my mini-binoculars to ballet performances, just so I can see what’s going on from my top-balcony, back-row seat. I now get the best seat in the house for a great price, seeing the action up close through professionally filmed performances. There’s no craning my neck to see over the heads blocking my view and no one coughing or rustling the pages of their programs throughout the performance. 

I’m not saying I don’t ever want to go back to a real concert hall; there is something very special about sharing the experience of being at a live performance with other people, but our innings have allowed my friends and I to do something that isn’t possible in any other way right now – meet to share a cultural experience – and to do it in a fun, unique, and affordable way.

Catherine Muir started her career as an editorial intern at WholeNote many moons ago, and went on to cut her teeth as an editor and a writer in the private, academic, and government sectors. She is enjoying frequent online innings with friends during the pandemic.

Red Sky Performance's work 'Trace'. Photo credit: David Hou.Red Sky Performance celebrates its 20th anniversary season in 2020/2021. Recognized nationally and internationally as one of Canada’s most prolific and acclaimed creators of contemporary Indigenous works, the company had planned a large-scale international tour for this year, but thanks to the pandemic – yes, we have all heard this before – they had to pivot. The result, a film titled More Than Dance, We Are A Movement, is an up close and personal introduction to the company’s history and work.

Anchored by interviews with executive and artistic director Sandra Laronde (who founded Red Sky Performance in 2000) and her company of collaborators, the film will bring audiences into the heart of the creation process for such iconic works as Trace (2018), inspired by Anishnaabe stories of the sky and stars, and Miigis (2017), which brings to life origin stories of travel from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Lakes. Excerpts of these two award-winning works will illustrate Red Sky’s singular interdisciplinary artistic vision and thrillingly energetic physical style. 

Curious to know more about Red Sky and its multifaceted mandate before the film’s debut,  I had a short conversation with Laronde about the company and project.

The following interview has been condensed and edited.

Sandra Laronde, artistic and executive director of Red Sky Performance.WN: What inspired you to create Red Sky Performance in 2000?

SL: I wanted to create a company that celebrated our beauty, resilience, and an Indigenous worldview. I saw a lot that was issue-oriented, and about our problems, but we are so much more than our issues. I didn’t want to create from a place of issues, but rather from a more expansive vision and one that brought all of the art forms together. I wanted to create a company because there was a vacuum for the kind of work that we do in Canada and in the world.

WN: The company is celebrated for the interdisciplinary nature of its creations. Was this part of your vision from the beginning?

SL: Yes, it was definitely the vision from the beginning. We were interdisciplinary, intergenerational and international all at once from the very beginning. We were also highly collaborative from the beginning.

I guess there’s a part of me that never understood why artists, companies, and institutions silo the arts when you can have different disciplines all working together, to fuel one another, energize one another. I do believe that disciplines tend to run out of oxygen if they are not engaging other forms. Also, Indigenous arts tend to be more multidisciplinary in scope because we come from a tradition of ceremony where everything is intact, and we utilize all of the ways of human expression to serve spirit.

WN: Can you talk about the Red Sky process of creation? The works I have seen, including Miigis, have an immediately recognizable style that encompasses the choreography, design (including projections in some cases), and music. How does that process begin and then grow to a finished work of art?

SL: All of the projects start differently, but I would say the biggest thing is to have a very exciting and original idea. I love putting unlikely collaborators together where one would never guess in a hundred years that you would put these people together. And I love it because we create magic together. Sometimes it’s music that inspires the movement, sometimes the other way around, or it could even be just a few images that I have in mind. But all of our work is inspired by the connection to land and it is one of the creation foundation principles.

WN: The title of the film being presented through Digidance – More Than Dance, We Are A Movement – highlights the mandate of Red Sky to do more than create great contemporary Indigenous art. Was this always a part of your mandate, and how does the company accomplish this side of your goals? 

SL: We do need to remind people of the expansive scope of what we do. Sometimes, we get called an Indigenous dance troupe or dance group, and it just isn’t expansive enough and doesn’t capture all that we do. 

We have come up during a time of an Indigenous cultural resurgence in Canada. During a time of cultural reckoning. It wasn’t that long ago that our dance, music, traditions, language and ceremony were outlawed in Canada.

Within Red Sky, we have five businesses if you will, creating original work in dance and live music, creating new works for children, a REDTalks Series that focuses on Indigenous artists, changemakers, and leaders, and a Wisdom Keepers Series that we created during the pandemic because people were looking for meaning and wisdom during this time of great upheaval. We work within communities with some pretty amazing initiatives, and we also created an Associate Artists program that builds next-generation artists and the arts leadership capacity of Canada. Currently, we are developing energetic digital content as well to share across platforms. We have a lot going on and what I’ve shared is really just the tip of the iceberg. The big thing that we do is we add to the Indigenous canon creating new works which add to the cultural breadth and scope of Canada.

WN:  Do you see this 20th anniversary season as a significant marker in the life of Red Sky? You have already accomplished so much. Where do you see the company going and growing over the next 10 to 20 years?

SL: It is definitely a significant marker. Twenty years is quite a milestone to achieve – we have done so well over the past 20 years and I applaud everyone who has worked with us. It’s a big question to talk about the next 10 to 20 years, but I can say that we will continue to put Indigenous arts on the map. We will remain true to our purpose: to centre and elevate Indigenous narrative through the telling of our own stories through interdisciplinary creations, and to make a difference.

The Canadian premiere of More Than Dance, We Are A Movement will be streamed across Canada by the Canadian online dance showcase Digidance from April 14-20. (Video on demand for those seven days only). Tickets are $15 + tax, and are available at https://www.harbourfrontcentre.com/digidance/

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Women From SpaceThe third annual Women From Space Festival, a Toronto-based concert series, is returning this year, livestreamed on www.womenfromspace.com. Recently postponed due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the festival is now taking place April 9-11, 2021.

Festival passes this year are free, but there will be a PayPal donation button set up during the livestream to contribute to next year’s festival. The concerts will remain online for a week following the events. Access to the livestream will begin at 7:30pm each evening; the concert itself starts at 8pm (EST). The artists’ roughly 30-minute-long sets will be pre-recorded, with live MCing in between.

Founded by Kayla Milmine and Bea Labikova to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2019, the Women From Space Festival focuses on women-led experimental arts. The festival’s directive is “to celebrate and create a space for women [...] working within and between various exploratory musical traditions,” aiming to counteract underrepresentation and inspire a new generation of performing artists. Keeping with the festival’s boundary-pushing nature, this year’s virtual format is not your typical livestreamed concert, instead offering an innovative and exciting alternative to in-person performances: The Holobox Theatre, a miniature holographic stage hand-crafted by the festival and available for $10 plus shipping. 

Read more: Now via hologram: Women From Space returns, streaming April 9-11

keiko photo 2Keiko Devaux. Photo credit: Caroline Desilets.The gala concert for the Azrieli Foundation Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) took place on Thursday, October 22, 2020 at 8pm, live-streamed on Facebook and MediciTV. The concert featured the works of this year’s winners: Keiko Devaux (Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music), Yotam Harbor (Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music) and Yitzhak Yedid (Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music).

According to their website, the Azrieli Foundation was established by David Azrieli in 1989 as a philanthropic effort based in both Canada and Israel. In 2014 they introduced their first two prizes for new Jewish concert music. In 2019, the AMP announced the creation of a new prize – the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music, intended to encourage the creation of new Canadian concert music – and invited all Canadian composers to apply. Awarded every two years, 2020 marked the first opportunity for composers to win the prize: a world premiere by the Montreal-based Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, a commercial recording to be released on the Analekta label, another national or international premiere after the gala concert and $50,000 in cash. The award’s full value is quoted at $200,000.

Read more: Azrieli Commission winner, composer Keiko Devaux reflects on the debut of Arras
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