Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival Showcases Diversity

Photo: Okinum by Productions Onishka with AnAku

Since 2003, Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival has been spotlighting groundbreaking, dynamic, and multi-disciplined performers from across Canada, and around the world.

The team behind PuSh is continually striving to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as facilitate important conversations related to reconciliation and community.

This year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, taking place January 19 to February 15, comprises 20 original works from 12 countries, including South Korea, South Africa, and Bulgaria, which will be mounted in venues across the city. Tom Arthur Davis, Interim Director of Programming, says that representing diversity in the festival programming is incredibly important to PuSh.

Diversity entails many different aspects of the Festival. First of all, performers represent diverse intersectional identities (e.g., 2SLGBTQIA+ artists) and bring a range of perspectives to the festival. Davis says that the content as well as the form of the works being produced are also really important. This year’s Festival features theatre, circus, multimedia, music, and dance, evidencing the breadth of the experiences on offer.

because i love the diversity (this micro-attitude, we all have it) — Rakesh Sukesh (India/Belgium); Photo: irene Occhiato; Art Work: Irene Narys

PuSh invests considerable work in bringing artists from across the globe to Vancouver, especially ones that are under-represented on the city’s stages. “We have works from South Africa, Argentina, India, and Zimbabwe. It’s exciting to showcase works to Vancouver audiences who might feel represented by art from these regions. PuSh isn’t the only one doing this work in the city, but we’re proud to increase opportunities for Global South perspectives,” says Davis.

He adds that it’s been particularly challenging this year getting visas for talented artists of colour who are coming from regions beyond the United States, Europe, and Australia. Davis says, “We want to get a really wide array of works out here because it’s good for general international collaboration, and it opens up opportunities for local artists to be able to engage with artists they never would have been be able to engage with and build relationships with.” He says audiences benefit from artists who challenge perceptions of different regions of the world, and the artists themselves have the opportunity to get much deserved exposure beyond their home countries. So, it’s really unfortunate when artists aren’t able to join the Festival.

Despite artists coming from disparate places, common themes emerge across the programming. This year, the Festival focuses on works that have important messages to convey to audiences, especially given that this is the first PuSh Festival that will be fully in-person (with online programming) since the start of the pandemic. Davis names two themes: firstly, applying a critical lens to colonialism and imperialism, and secondly, playing with language.

Lolling and Rolling by Jaha Koo/CAMPO (South Korea/Belgium – January 19-21, in person at Performance Works, January 19-22 online) incorporates monologue, music, and video as Jaha Koo explores the linguistic imperialism underlying tongue-tie surgery in South Korea so speakers can pronounce an English “r” sound. Meanwhile, Okinum by Productions Onishka with AnAku (presented with Anvil Theatre and Touchstone Theatre) consists of tri-lingual Émilie Monnet re-engaging with her Anishinaabe heritage and language through monologue, a live score by Jackie Gallant, and visual storytelling. “It’s really interesting how these works that are built at opposite ends of the world can still have very similar themes, if not the same style of storytelling,” he says.

Lolling and Rolling; Photo: Marie Clauzade (4) Lennert-Hoedaert

Davis is particularly proud of Indigenous works that have emerged from close collaboration with Dr. Margo Kane, Director of Indigenous Initiatives, an award-winning Cree-Saulteaux Métis performing artist, and founder of the Talking Stick Festival, as well as a host of other arts initiatives. In addition to Okinum, PuSh is presenting The Seventh Fire (January 25-February 5 at Lobe Studio), a work by Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen that takes inspiration from traditional Anishinaabe oral storytelling; as well as New Dance Horizons’ THIS and the Last Caribou (February 2-4 at the Orpheum Annex), which consists of three works examining the intertwinements of history, nature, and experience.

Davis emphasizes that programming Indigenous works is a first step for PuSh in the ongoing, complex, and attentive process of reconciliation. The organization and its staff are engaged in considerable education and consulting with Coast Salish elders as well as other community members in order to come up with better ways to engage with host nations. “I’m hopeful that we can get there, and we can find a way that contributes to the amazing artistic Indigenous scene,” Davis says.

PuSh is also collaborating with Talking Stick for two other Festival initiatives. Talking Stick is curating a night of Club PuSh (February 2-4, Performance Works), a cabaret-style venue for drinks, mingling, and enjoying innovative performances. Talking Stick’s night, February 2, combines Indigenous ancestral music/idioms with contemporary dance music. The Black Arts Centre will curate Club PuSh on February 3, which feature a DJ celebrating the Black diaspora; and on February 4, the frank theatre company leads a night involving a cabaret spotlighting immigrant and queer artists of colour through drag, performance art, and music.

In partnership with Talking Stick, the PuSh Industry Series (January 29-February 5) focuses on Indigenizing and decolonizing the industry through a variety of workshops, walks with local artists, social events, and artist talks. Talking Stick has curated exciting industry programming, such as “Indigenous Presenting and Touring, “Witnessing Protocol,” and “Listening Circle” in which PuSh will be used as a case study for the continued education and unlearning that needs to be done by settler-colonial arts organizations. Davis is excited and honoured to have Talking Stick’s expertise and knowledge as part of this year’s Industry Series. “We’re hoping that this can expose the amazing work that they do to presenters from elsewhere,” he says.

Finally, guided by the expertise of Anika Vervecken, the PuSh Accessibility Coordinator, the Festival continues to broaden access to its programming through a variety of initiatives. Staff are trained in best practices when it comes accessibility. Davis says that attention is paid to prioritizing programming that will be immediately accessible to a given community. So, for example, The Seventh Fire is a completely 4D auditory experience, and would be therefore well suited to blind or low-vision patrons.

For blind and low-vision audience members, PuSh also offers written introductions, live audio description by VocalEye at select performances, complimentary tickets for companions, and sighted guides who will meet low-vision patrons at the closest transit stop. For deaf and hard of hearing guests, PuSh works with a Deaf advisor to offer Vlogs, ASL-interpretation, captions or surtitles for select works, written introductions to shows, and accessibility volunteers trained in basic ASL. In addition, PuSh offers relaxed performances.

In terms of financial accessibility, PuSh distributes tickets to community groups and social services organizations.

Ultimately, PuSh promises to be an incredible Festival, one that is diverse, inclusive, and dynamic. See the PuSh website for further info and tickets.

THIS and the last caribou; Photo: Daniel Paquet

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