Making Progress
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Making Progress

SummerWorks does winter with a new festival of provocative performances from around the globe.

Ukrainian director Pavel Yurov, who underwent torture and confinement at the hands of pro-Russian rebels, has created a work of documentary theatre inspired by his experience that will get a public reading at the Progress Festival. Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.

Progress: International Festival of Performance and Ideas
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
February 4–15
$15–$30 (Some events are free)

On April 25, 2014, while travelling through the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, Kiev-based theatre director Pavel Yurov and his friend, artist Denis Grishchuk, were abducted by pro-Russian separatists. Accused of being spies, Yurov and Grishchuk were beaten, tortured, and held hostage for 70 days, only regaining their freedom after Ukrainian government troops took back the rebel-held city in July.

Yurov’s response to his traumatic experience was to construct a work of documentary theatre, Novorossiya: No One’s Land, which will receive a workshop and public reading in Toronto this month as part of the inaugural SummerWorks Progress Festival. The piece, co-created with Anastasiya Kasilova, attempts to understand the conflict in eastern Ukraine—Yurov’s homeland—from all perspectives.

Festival director Michael Rubenfeld says that when he heard about the play he contacted Yurov, who sent him a copy in English. “I was really compelled by the fact that it wasn’t condemning the pro-Russian insurgents, but rather was trying to see their point of view,” he says. “I asked him why, and he told me he wants people to talk instead of fight.”

Rubenfeld decided to “bring the conversation to Toronto” and offered Yurov and Kasilova the opportunity to develop the piece at Progress with the help of dramaturge Jonathan Garfinkel and some local actors. As artists-in-residence at the festival, Yurov and Kasilova will work on their anti-war play and share it at a reading on Saturday, February 14—perhaps not ironically Valentine’s Day. “I don’t know how much people know about what’s going on in Ukraine, but I feel like we need to be talking about it,” Rubenfield says. “We need to be engaged, and that’s what the theatre is good for.”

And indeed the purpose of theatre—and performance in general—is at the heart of Progress, a two-week international festival produced by SummerWorks and presented at the Theatre Centre. Like Yurov’s piece, Progress itself takes in a variety of perspectives. Rubenfeld, the artistic producer of SummerWorks, may be spearheading this new festival, but he shares his curatorial role with seven other producers, from local indie theatre and dance companies to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. And each is bringing in a show or event that represents that producer’s idea of the kind of performance Toronto needs.

“It’s a collection of visions under one umbrella,” Rubenfeld says. He explains that the festival’s mandate grew out of a series of think tanks with his collaborators in which no one could agree on what the city required, performance-wise. “But we did all agree that progress is essential for maintaining relevance, as is the capacity to disagree and still work together.”

Those multiple visions are reflected in the eclectic work at Progress, which ranges from the political and topical Novorossiya to Cine Monstro, a hit Brazilian production of Daniel MacIvor’s Monster performed in Portuguese with surtitles. For that show’s curator, Why Not Theatre, progress means importing more non-English-speaking professional theatre to multicultural Toronto. For FADO Performance Art Centre, on the other hand, it means overcoming the limits of language and speech. Its curatorial offering is Silent Dinner, an eight-hour, come-and-go event by Ireland’s Amanda Coogan, in which deaf and hearing participants join together to cook and eat a meal.

But all the Progress programming has one thing in common: an attempt to reach out to Toronto’s diverse communities in the hope of attracting a more varied audience. It hasn’t always been easy. Volcano Theatre‘s curatorial choice is D-Sisyphe, an award-winning solo by Tunisian actor-dancer Meher Awachri, but the festival has been hard-pressed to find a local Tunisian community that might be interested in it. “We’re not sure exactly where it is,” Rubenfeld admits, “or if it even exists.”

On the other hand, Silent Dinner appears to have hit its target. Festival producer Sue Balint, whose mother is participating in the piece, says it has received a lot of attention from the deaf community. “There are so few deaf gatherings that even people who are not explicitly interested in theatre are seeing it as an opportunity to get together,” she says. “It’s become a social thing.”

In Rubenfeld’s mind there’s no question that Progress itself is a festival Toronto needs. Apart from giving SummerWorks a winter presence, in the manner of the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage, it will also belatedly put the city on a winter circuit of international festivals that includes New York’s Under the Radar, Vancouver’s PuSh ,and Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo. And Progress, with a modest budget of about $200,000, aims to be more affordable than Toronto’s big international arts festival. “Luminato is operating at a price point that makes it in some ways exclusive,” Rubenfeld says. “I love that I can see the work of Pina Bausch or Marina Abramović, but you have to be able to afford that $150 ticket.”

At Progress, audiences can see the artists who may well be the future Pinas and Marinas, at a top ticket price of $30. There are also several free events. Among them: The Republic of inclusion, a discussion featuring keynote speaker Jess Thom, a U.K. writer and performer with Tourette’s syndrome; and Make. Make Public, a daylong workshop led by Emi Forster and Benjamin Kamino of Dancemakers.

In addition to Novorossiya, these are the shows being presented at the festival:

Marathon by Aharona Israel (Israel)

A scene from Marathon by Israeli theatre artist Aharona Israel  Photo by Doron Oved

A scene from Marathon by Israeli theatre artist Aharona Israel. Photo by Doron Oved.

CURATOR: SummerWorks
DATES: February 4–6
LANGUAGE: Performances in English and Hebrew, all with surtitles

Choreographer-performance artist Aharona Israel, who brought her one-on-one performance At Your Service to SummerWorks in 2013, returns with this highly physical dance-theatre work, in which the endurance race of the title becomes a metaphor for life in contemporary Israel. First presented at Israel’s Acco Festival in 2012, the show is making its North American English-language debut in Toronto.

The Messiah Complex 5.0 by Michael Dudeck (Canada)

CURATOR: Videofag
DATE: February 5
LANGUAGE: English with English surtitles

Speaking of Marina Abramović, Winnipeg’s Michael Dudeck assisted the renowned performance artist during her much-talked-about 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But Dudeck is an emerging performance artist in his own right—a self-described queer shaman whose work put him on the long list for last year’s much-coveted Sobey Art Award. His latest creation, The Messiah Complex 5.0, employs images, music, and some decidedly freaky costuming to probe the psychological underpinnings of religion.

D-Sisyphe (Décisif) by Meher Awachri (Tunisia)

Meher Awachri portrays a Tunisian construction worker undergoing a dark night of the soul in D Sisyphe (Décisif)  Photo courtesy of SummerWorks

Meher Awachri portrays a Tunisian construction worker undergoing a dark night of the soul in D-Sisyphe (Décisif). Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.

CURATOR: Volcano Theatre
DATES: February 6 and 7
LANGUAGE: Arabic with English surtitles

Arising from the upheaval of the Arab Spring, Meher Awachri’s one-man show recasts Sisyphus, the mythical symbol of futility, as a Tunisian construction worker sifting through the rubble of his past. Awachri’s D-Sisyphe won first prize at the 2012 edition of Germany’s Thespis Festival for solo work—an award he shared with Toronto’s Haley McGee for Oh My Irma.

Silent Dinner by Amanda Coogan and Collaborators (Ireland/Canada)

Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan (centre) celebrates communication without sound (and the glories of chocolate cake) with Silent Dinner  Photo courtesy of SummerWorks

Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan (centre) celebrates communication without sound (and the glories of chocolate cake) with Silent Dinner. Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.

CURATOR: FADO Performance Art Centre
DATE: February 7
LANGUAGE: English and ASL

Dublin-based performance artist Amanda Coogan turns the notion of “table talk” on its head with this experiment in non-verbal communication, where deaf and hearing performers will collaborate to make and then consume dinner in total silence. Coogan specializes in durational (read: very long) performances, and Silent Dinner will unfold over eight hours (1–9 p.m.) this Saturday in the Theatre Centre’s Mainspace. Audience members are encouraged to come and go as they please.

Margarete by Janek Turkowski (Poland)

A performance of Polish artist Janek Turkowski's intimate video lecture Margarete  Photo by Pierre Borcasci

A performance of Polish artist Janek Turkowski’s intimate video lecture Margarete. Photo by Pierre Borcasci.

CURATOR: SummerWorks
DATES: February 12–15
LANGUAGE: Performances in Polish and English

Intimate in the style of some of the Live Art offerings at SummerWorks, this video lecture by Polish theatre artist Janek Turkowski is performed for only 16 audience members at a time. A meditation on memory and its preservation, it focuses on Turkowski’s obsession with the life of Margarete Ruhbe, an East German woman captured on 8-mm home movies shot in the 1950s and ’60s that the artist discovered at a flea market in 2008.

Cine Monstro by Enrique Diaz (Brazil)

Brazil's Enrique Diaz gives his acclaimed interpretation of a classic Daniel MacIvor solo with Cine Monstro   Photo by Nathalie Melot

Brazil’s Enrique Diaz gives his acclaimed interpretation of a classic Daniel MacIvor solo with Cine Monstro. Photo by Nathalie Melot.

CURATOR: Why Not Theatre
DATES: February 12–14
LANGUAGE: Portuguese with surtitles

Enrique Diaz has become Daniel MacIvor’s unofficial ambassador in Brazil. In recent years, Diaz has found success translating and interpreting such works by the revered Canadian playwright as In On It and A Beautiful View (A Primeira Vista). His biggest hit, however, has been his multimedia take on MacIvor’s macabre solo show, Monster. Known in Portuguese as Cine Monstro, it has won acclaim in Brazil and on tour. Its premiere run in Toronto includes a post-show conversation with MacIvor himself on Friday, February 13.

For show times and information on other festival events, see the Progress website.