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My first TIFF

IMG_1344.JPG For a few years now I’ve been wanting to go to the Toronto International Film Festival but could never quite manage to fit it in. This year, TIFF’s 40th, happily coincided with a trip to Toronto for another reason – and now I understand that TIFF is the event you should clear your schedule for.

I had spent some time going through the program and choosing the films I really wanted to see. I bypassed films with major Hollywood stars and glitzy primeres, figuring I’d never get in. But the first day tickets went on sale to the public, all the films on my list were off-sale, which is TIFF for sold out. Realizing that you can’t really go wrong with the incredible programming, I was happy to get a ticket to a late night screening of a French-language film.

Robin, the incredibly helpful desk clerk at my hostel, recommended heading out to early to enjoy the festival atmosphere, so I set off into the rain to grab a streetcar down Spadina Avenue to King Street.

I quickly realized that one of the special things about TIFF is the sheer number of films being screened in Toronto’s Entertainment Disctrict, an area of a few blocks that is filed with classic stage theatres and TIFF’s beautiful Lightbox theatres. With the streets closed to traffic, and the lines of film goers waiting to get into nearly a dozen venues, there’s an incredible energy and excitement in the air. Walking down the street to the main box office, I passed red carpets, official media cameras, and a sizable crowd of people huddled under umbrellas in for the chance to see Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain leave the gala for “The Martian.”

Back at the Lightbox, I picked up my ticket. The lady next to me wanted to do an exchange and wondered about Les Cowboys. “I’m going to see that!” I jumped in.

“What’s it about?”
“It’s in French.”
“I’ll take it.”

We were directed to stand in a line. This wait was actually one of the unexpected pleasures of TIFF, with people passing the time chatting about films on their list of have or to be seen.

I was behind two older gentlemen who had already been to four films since the festival had opened the previous day, including the Hebrew feature directed by Natalie Portman, a Spanish caper, and a Kiwi documentary about preserving early 20th century films in Afghanistan. They were full of tips on how to buy tickets to your favourite films (check at 7 a.m. the day of, and last but not least, RUSH!)

Finally it was time for our film. The stadium seats of the Lightbox ensure an unobstructed view for everyone. The film was introduced by the director of programming for the festival, and by the director himself. Having already won several Cesars (the Oscars of France), and known internationally for films such as Rust and Bone, Saint Laurent, and La Famille Belier, Thomas Bidegain told us he was very excited to present his film to a real audience (as opposed to the journals of Cannes).

The first line of the film is “Where’s Kelly?” (Ou est Kelly?) and we see how Kelly’s decision to live a new life has profound effects on her parents and brother. It had the audience gasping, crying, shocked, and laughing. In other words, all the feelings. The Q&A after the film highlighted the director’s goals, and I’m confident that he accomplished them through his storytelling.

As I headed back out into the rainy night, I saw Mr. Bidegain just ahead of me, and without a second thought, ran ahead and fangirled him. No doubt he was in a great mood after the screening and cheerfully agreed to a photo, wrapping me in a giant hug. It was an unbelievable moment. That’s the magic of TIFF.


“You Walked Right Past Picasso!”

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I recently had the unexpected pleasure of accompanying a few teenagers to the art gallery. It was a last minute replacement for their original plan, and I feared boring them to bits. “We love art” did not convince me, but we were out of options and set off.

They found Canada’s great Alex Colville “creepy,” as well as the contemporary light tattooed sculptures of Shary Boyle, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson, although it didn’t stop them from going back for more. We spent several minutes with “Leaves of Grass” by Geoffrey Farmer, marvelling at the thousands of cut-outs from Life magazine glued and arranged on sticks for the entire length of a room.

I desperately countered “Hey, there’s wifi!” with the urge to “Stay unplugged!” But the selfies were to snapchat with Mom, at home thousands of miles away.

We spent several minutes in the dark silent loop of “Mariner 9″s future Mars. “Humans ruin everything,” the teens observed.

Their attention was immediately captured by Marcel Duchamp: a fountain, a bicycle wheel. “I love Dadaism: the art of the everyday.” I was a little taken aback.

“Didn’t you study art in school?” they asked. My entire art education telescoped into glueing painted macaroni to a piece of construction paper, a painted ceramic penguin in Grade 8.

“Hey, you walked right past Picasso!” one noticed. And then they were swirling and snapping, revelling in the sight of their first real life canvases of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Klimt.

We stood where the bold red stripe of the “Voice of Fire” is visible one head turn before the bright jewel tones of a 16th century Venus. We walked through a scene-painted cottage and listened to a sound installation from Salisbury Cathedral in a reconstructed chapel. We looked at the tiny painted panels of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven and discussed the shiny strokes of oil mixed in the forests. We admired Emily Carr for defying the norms of her day and capturing totems in colours that plunged us into Pacific coastal villages so vivid we could feel the ocean mist on our faces.

The teenagers were amazed by the variety of languages they heard. “But how is your English so good?” I asked. “Because, like, we watch American series,” they revealed.

We talked about other museums we had visitied, our pets, Wes Anderson, Wall-E, Alice in Wonderland, writing stories, our favourite pieces of art from the day. (Tie between Dadaism and the Group of Seven.)

We stocked up on souvenirs in the gift shop: art books that will quickly tip a suitcase into the overweight zone.

I always love visiting the gallery; it was incredible to share my favourite spots with companions who were both knowledgable and excited to be there. “Thank-you for taking us,” said the teenagers. “We love art.”

Rocky Mountain Marvellous

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I recently had the chance to spend nearly a week in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I wrote about it over on the gorgeous photo blog Bust it Away. Please click and enjoy 🙂


Ballet as sculpture

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<aRodin/Claudel tells the tragically true tale of two French sculptors: Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. It is brilliantly choreographed by Peter Quanz to music by French composes including Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy, along with a haunting recording of "Je te veux" by Erik Satie that sounds as if it's being transmitted directly from a radio in the past.

Throughout the scenes the main characters are accompanied by twelve statues who can be molded, posed, or smashed awkwardly to the ground. The statues are dressed in minimal costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco that perfectly match the variety of skin tones so that they truly look as if they are made of clay. Dancing only in their feet, the sculptures allow us to appreciate the lines of classical ballet along with the beauty, strength and fragility of the human form.

In a scene in the studio, Rodin (Marcin Kaczoroski) and Claudel (Valentine Legat) sinuously twine and untwine in the lines of "The Kiss," but only for a moment and then its gone.

Who is made of clay and who is made of stone? You'll know by the end of Rodin/Claudel by Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montréal.

“The Kiss” by Auguste Rodin, Tuileries Gardens, Paris

Crazy about Ballet (Swan Lake)

20140202-095238.jpgIn a world constantly inundated with words, words, words, it is sheer bliss to find a place where everyone must turn their cell phones off, sit quietly in the dark, and experience a story unfolding in music and dance.

After marvelling at the classic technical perfection of the Kirov Ballet’s Swan Lake, I thought I should never see it again. But I was intrigued by the idea of James Kudelka’s choreography, which promised to be “ingenious…and add dark psychological complexity” to this 139-year-old ballet based on a German folk tale.

Program notes were not necessary in this production. Costume designer Santo Loquasto contrasted the brown and green velvets of the real world with the ethereal white swans, whose tutus perfectly evoked the look and loft of feathers. Tchaikovsky’s thrilling score, combined with the incredible grace of Greta Hodgkinson and strength of Guillaume Côté, plus twenty swans in Act II, created many electric moments. At one point of dramatic emotion, my scalp was tingling!

Our seats in the upper balcony attracted a motley crew: a well-dressed couple speaking Russian quietly, three guys in track suits who looked like they dropped in directly from a railway waiting room in Central Asia, a young Brazilian dancer seeing her first full-length professional ballet, and three girls on a night out, one of whom proclaimed “Ridiculous!” at the objectification of Siegfried’s potential brides in Act III. She was surely pleased with the twist at the end of this production!

Because there are no recording devices allowed, it was two hours of ephemeral beauty for that audience only. I can only hope to experience the National Ballet of Canada‘s Swan Lake again.

The Beauty of the Ballet

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It’s possible to travel across oceans and back in time without ever leaving your city – back to the wonder of childhood or to a velvet seat in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Such is the power of the ballet.

Ballerina and girl before The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Centre

Ballerina and girl before NYCB’s The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Centre

The Nutcracker was the first ballet I ever saw, at the Centennial Concert Hall on snowy Main Street. I marvelled at the gorgeous chandelier, the rich sound of the familiar score played live, the fairy-tale characters and the incredible human form.

Some time spent in Russia was a great way to see and learn more. Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky, or Kirov, Ballet, has such control and precision with Swan Lake, with an incredible 32 ballerina swans on stage for the Waltz. Moscow’s State Kremlin Palace is a triumph of Soviet architecture, and a ticket for the Kremlin Ballet includes entry for a pre-performance stroll of the grounds. The Bolshoi Theatre (now in its 237th season) is where, in 1944, it was the audience members Stalin and Churchill who received a standing ovation.

Ballet puts you in the same seat as tsars and princesses, and a few weeks ago I was thrilled to take mine for The Sleeping Beauty. I settled back to enjoy the same music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa as the audience at the premiere 123 years ago. Danced by my hometown Royal Winnipeg Ballet, it was bright, colourful and full of joy. I was frightened by the actions of Carabosse, relieved by the saving grace of the Lilac Fairy, and delighted by the antics of Puss in Boots and the Bluebird. Principal dancer Jo-Ann Sundermeier‘s Aurora smiled throughout the entire two-hour plus showtime, which was over all too soon. The packed house was on its feet, but the thunderous applause and wolf whistles were still insufficient to express our gratitude for the magic we just witnessed.

What is your favourite ballet?

“I’m going to lie in the sand in front of the roots of an old tree and draw them…”

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“I’m going to lie in the sand in front of the roots of an old tree and draw them…”

So wrote Vincent to his brother Theo and 40 results are exquisitely exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada. The canvasses of  trees, flowers, fruit, fields and one pair of boots, painted in five years in France, will go back to their homes in museums and private collections around the world on September 3rd.

There are versions of “Sunflowers” and a single “Iris”. There are “Dandelions” and “Pink Roses.”  There is a “Vase of Cornflowers and Poppies” composed of thick textured layers of paint creating a 3D effect with light, dark and cornflower blue, flashes of pink, white which is really grey and yellow and brown, and translucent swipes of poppy petals wafting down.

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise, and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time – on what? – studying the distance from the earth to the moon?… no, he studies a single blade of grass.

– from a letter from Vincent to Theo, 1888

Vincent’s genius for composition was shaped by his passion for Japanese prints (he collected 400) along with the seven years he spent in a photography apprenticeship. Both are represented in side galleries, besides one on 19th Century drawings which provide context to his ground-breaking work.

It all comes together in the final masterpiece, done on a large scale to commemorate the birth of the painter’s nephew. I crouched down to have a better view and not block that of others. I was immediately rewarded: the shift in light illuminated not a flat background of sky but a stunning puzzle of blue brushstrokes swirling along with the twisting branches of “Almond Blossom.”

The crowds shuffling through on their timed tickets reveal their soaring spirits in the comment book at the end: “Amazing!” “Incredible!” “Merveilleuse!” There are not enough adjectives in either official language to express the beauty of being transported to the yellows of a sun-baked “Wheat Field with Sheaves” in Provence, of standing for a moment on the “Edge of a Wheat Field with Poppies” or of spying an unknown “Woman Walking in a Garden.”

Photos are not permitted and the dazzling colours and sweeps of the brush can never be captured on a poster. I bought one anyway, but if at all possible go see Van Gogh: Up Close.