Here’s the ever-bemused Bill Kimball in a jacket trimmed with curly fur and a red silk kerchief onstage at Market Hall like the ringmaster of a circus, which in many ways he is. Tonight he is introducing the first performance of Public Energy’s Emergency #20: twenty years of original dance and performance. Emergency is Public Energy’s annual showcase for new work from both local novices and seasoned performers. Step right up, because there is much to experience in the next few days and a lot of the unexpected to be expected.
At an Emergency performance you can feel a little like you’re backstage and in the audience at the same time. Most of the people in the audience know someone in the show or are performers themselves. Stage manager Esther Vincent appears and disappears through the wings and then everyone applauds as she moves a piano offstage. The girl taking tickets is also in Curtis Driedger’s Zippa Dee Doo Da Chorus which punctuates the shows with crowd-pleasing songs about peace, chain gangs and water. A pizza delivery guy brings a couple of pizzas through the lobby for the cast during intermission because he can’t so much find the stage door. There’s GM Laurel Paluck, a cross between a mother hen and a dominatrix, leaning in cabaret-style to explain something to someone buying a ticket. For the record, Market Hall is the only theatre I know where you can buy your wine or beer in the lobby and bring it into the theatre. Tonight there will be aerial silk acrobatics, video projections, a little locking and popping in drag, the Clarington Central Secondary School Dance Department, Old Men Dancing, The World’s Oldest Knife Thrower and so much more. Some of it is weird, some is pleasant, some is a knockout.
Later in the week, Emergency turns into street theatre in nearby parks and public spaces. Rain forces an AlleyWaltz performance to move into the surreal artificial light of the lower level of a small downtown shopping mall. You have to be adaptable to work with Public Energy and the show goes on. Jess Rowland is under a stairwell playing an accordion and singing a mournful song. Beneath her suspended installation of torn coats and fabric garlands visitors find paper and printouts on how to fold paper boats, which probably would have been magical floating down Jackson Creek if it hadn’t rained. Esther Vincent pushes around a nifty portable sound system on wheels as volunteers in the wildest of costumes herd the crowd to the improvised stages. It’s hard to tell if the security guards, the 3 teenage boys goofing around on the coin operated spaceships or the guy pushing the garbage bins are bystanders or performers. Intentional or not, they become part of the show.
But this is no hokey amateur theatre, it’s an essential springboard for artists, many of whom go on to successful careers in the performing arts. Penelope Thomas performs a tour de force of subtle gesture and timing, a flashback to the 50’s which merges spoken word and song in Certain Days. She now lives and works in the arts full time in New York City. Christy Stoeten, whose performance in It’s A Cover is deft and athletic, is building her career in Toronto with a scholarship from Dancemakers. Michael Ketemer and Jay Edmunds show off their prodigious musical and clown skills in white face; a few weeks ago I caught them performing the William Tell Overture for the Mandolin Society and most weekends they can be found busking at the farmer’s market. The PyroFlys seem to be on fire all over town. Old Men Dancing’s aging, all male company continues to invent challenging work like this year’s production of Under Canvas with contemporary choreographers such as Marie-Josée Chartier and artist in residence Bill James. They have taken it on the road to Toronto’s Harbourfront World Stage and Kitchener’s Registry Theatre.
This year Em Glasspool of Mysterious Entity directs Terror and Erebus, based on Gwendolyn MacEwen’s prose poem, which features Brad Brackenridge and his life-sized puppets animated by a human arm. Remarkably the animators disappear and the audience soon lets the puppets themselves tell the story of the lost Franklin expedition. With Nina Segalowitz as an Inuit throat singer and drummer, the outdoor production is mysterious, quirky and soulful.
And if we’re really lucky, we’ll get to see something by the luminously authentic Kate Story. Author, dancer, choreographer and performer, her past work has excelled at connecting psychological ephemera, from Glenn Gould to her mother’s alcoholism. This year’s Insomnia embraces an ugly duckling, a vertical bed, some astro turf, a watering can and wait, there’s Curtis Driedger again playing the fiddle along with accordionist Derek Bell and cellist Charity Justrabo of Tin Vespers, all in nightdresses and stocking caps. Performing in the tiny Theatre on King about 2 feet from a rapt audience, Kate Story’s work delicately pierces logic, yet makes perfect sense emotionally.
A rumour goes around that some musicians from Greenland are making music at the Barbeside on Friday night – they are here to participate in Emergency with visiting choreographer Charles Koroneho’s workshop and choreographic research project TŪĀHU out of New Zealand, which explores intercultural / interdisciplinary ritual and improvisation in movement. No shortage of international flavour here.
Still, I have barely scratched the surface of the amazing gang of performers, acrobats, choreographers, clowns, dancers, puppeteers, magicians, theatrical mentors, costume, set and lighting designers who leave it on the floor for Emergency. That Public Energy and its Emergency have thrived for 20 years tells me I am not the only one who loves this theatre within theatre. Artistic Producer Bill Kimball daringly bootstraps artists of all shapes and sizes, enlightens our community with the broadest possible interpretation of performance both from near and away, and creates a fine safe harbour for some truly original dance and theatre.