The house lights come up. A restless audience waits, impatient for the action to begin. Any action. A minute, maybe two, ticks by as low whispers begin to build in the corners. Finally, Benoît limps slowly into the room. He is dressed simply in a neat, but dated grey suit. Moments later Kathleen follows and together they find their places on opposite ends of a tidy white sofa.
A relieved audience settles in to watch the premier of Colleen Murphy’s The December Man (L’homme de décembre), a tragic play about the aftermath of violence on one Montréal family. It is 1989 and Kathleen and Benoît are struggling to help their son Jean heal after his classmates were gunned down in the massacre at the École Polytechnique.
This play is presented as part of the annual Enbridge playRites festival of new Canadian plays, a highlight of the Calgary winter arts calendar. In the twenty-one years since the festival launched it has premiered eighty-one new works. Fifty-seven have gone on to subsequent productions across Canada, eighteen internationally. The Governor General’s Awards has short-listed four.
While these achievements point to a healthy theatre scene, there is an even larger groundswell building in the broader Calgary arts community. A surge of artistic development to match the city’s booming economic might. Some even dare to call it a renaissance.
Scholars will tell you a renaissance is fuelled by three things: abundant wealth; a politically active citizenry; and a humanist movement. Okay. Alberta in general, and Calgary in particular, don’t seem to have many financial concerns. Unless you count squabbles over what the real priorities are when it comes time to divvy up the pie.
On the activism front, there is also little question that Calgary’s arts community is organized behind a cause. The city’s arts champion, Calgary Arts Development, recently concluded a successful lobby for half a million dollars per year in additional funding for festivals and other arts endeavors. And recent public opinion polls show that Calgarians support further increases, believing that the city should be among the top three in Canada for arts funding.
So, abundant wealth. Check. Political activism. You bet. But what about a humanist movement? Are Calgarians really engaging with current issues through the artistic interpretations of their local community?
The success of a recent production by Alberta Ballet indicates that the answer is probably yes. In February, the ballet staged the world premiere of The Fiddle and The Drum, a contemporary piece choreographed by artistic director Jean Grand-Maître and music icon and visual artist Joni Mitchell. This semi-narrative work centered on the themes of environmental degradation and war, two topics Albertans are not noted for taking a passionate stance on.
Speaking of Mitchell, Grande- Maître says, “You know her music demands a lot more intellectual investment than a lot of the music being played on the radio today. I thought maybe it would be interesting to her, the idea of a ballet to her music. And then, at the same time, she would design the set around the dancers. So she would be able to unite the visual arts and the music and the dance in one project.”
It seems he was right. Alberta-born Mitchell welcomed the project and partnered with Grand-Maître and Alberta Ballet to produce a fusion of dance, art and music that not only awed local audiences, but caught the eye of many others as well. Since the premier the company has received expressions of interest from major centres ranging from Germany to Toronto and plans are currently in development to tour the production during the 2008/2009 season.
According to Grande-Maître the audience response and subsequent interest has been overwhelming. “Suddenly the whole world wanted to write about it. We had three major newspapers in England. I was on the radio across Ireland. The New York Times dedicated two full pages to the ballet. So in a way, it went on having more attention and it got much bigger than we ever expected it to be, and so it means a lot to the ballet because it develops our profile internationally.”
There are also signs of grassroots surge in Calgary’s cultural life through an ever increasing number of artistic celebrations in the form of festivals. Over the past three years the number of festivals in the city has exploded, with a forty-three per cent increase in the number of events on offer. Audiences have also grown a staggering eighty-nine per cent. Calgarians are enjoying homegrown celebrations of everything from film to theatre, visual arts to literature, spoken word to jazz, folk and reggae music – even fireworks and puppetry.
These festivals are popular, in part, because they are so relevant to Calgarians. One of the sell-out events of the Calgary International Film Festival was the Alberta premier of Radiant City, a humorous documentary on the not so amusing subject of urban sprawl in North America. The film, which was co-written and directed by Calgarians Gary Burns and Jim Brown, was so popular it will start a run at the Uptown, one of the city’s three art house theatres, at the end of March.
Calgary’s art scene has traditionally been something that those with an interest had to actively seek out. Not anymore. Calgarian’s penchant for arts and culture is also finding footing among the mainstream. Calgary Tourism is giddy after learning the 2008 JUNO Awards will be touching down next April. Even the mayor is predicting the awards show will generate positive economic impacts of seven to ten million dollars.
The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), who began taking the JUNO Awards on the road in 2002, see Calgary as a great bet for next year’s awards. “I think that it makes sense that 2008 is the perfect time,” says Melanie Barry, president of CARAS. “When you go to Calgary right now it’s very vibrant, very exciting. There’s lots of growth.”
According to Barry, Calgary is the ideal home to host Canada’s premier music event. It’s a very young city, she adds. “It has fabulous restaurants and shopping. It has all the core of a growing, growing city.”
Calgarians, it would seem, are enjoying the fresh energy in their city. The current exploration of contemporary issues and ideas through the work of local artists is a popular pastime and all indications are Calgarians want more. More new plays, more ballets, more films, more festivals and certainly more music. It is an appreciation fueled by seeing their stories and their issues addressed by world-class artists in a city at the tipping point. It is the dawn of a renaissance.