Culture

The olympic-size problem of keeping body and soul together

GILLIAN COSGROVE June 28 1976
Culture

The olympic-size problem of keeping body and soul together

GILLIAN COSGROVE June 28 1976

The olympic-size problem of keeping body and soul together

Culture

Canada’s best-kept secret will be unfolded in Montreal throughout July, and it’ll be something of a wonder if anyone shows up for the telling. The secret is Canada’s Cultural Olympics, the most ambitious national culturefest in our history and one that COJO, the organizing committee beset with its high-profile problems on the sports front, has treated from the start as an ugly duckling, not really part of the Olympic nest at all. Late in 1972, COJO commissioner general Roger Rousseau told Bruce Kidd, former Canadian Olympic miler, that since Canadians were a bunch of lowbrow Philistines none of them would miss the cultural Olympics if costs—even then spiraling dramatically upward-should force them to be scrapped. Kidd, the conscience of Canadian sport, was livid. His heartbeat, normally a steady 40 per minute, spiraled dramatically to 50—and by early 1973 he had formed the Artists-Athletes Coalition to underline the importance of the cultural celebration of the Olympics. Kidd regards the fact that the Cultural Olympics are going ahead as at least partly due to the coalition’s work behind the scenes. “We got the assholes in Montreal to do their job properly,” he says.

The result, stemming from a 1969 amendment to the International Olympic Committee rules, is the first national culture festival in modern Olympic history: between July 1 and 31, 4,000 Canadiansfrom Regina’s Globe Theatre to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas, from Newfoundland’s satirical Codeo group to Juno-winning pop vocalist Gino Vanelli—will strut their pieces in assorted Montreal theatres and parks. Not all of them are happy about how they got there and some predictably are unhappy at not being invited; considering the low priorities Canadian governments at all levels traditionally put on culture, the surprise is that the Cultural Olympics are on at all.

The man who can take most of the credit—he’s already been thrown the brickbats—is Yvon DesRochers, 31, who left his job as assistant director of the Canada Council’s touring office to take over COJO’S arts and culture program in October, 1974. “It was at least two years too late,” DesRochers says now. “I was foolhardy to take the job—you’re never a hero in culture, you’re always a bum.” DesRochers, a curious mix of arrogance and charm, spent his first 10 months wrangling money out of the provinces. From a proposed poverty budget of $ 100,000-set by COJO in 1974 and incredibly designed to cover administrators’ salaries until the Olympics and the

cost of productions as well—DesRochers finally managed to fatten the cultural budget to eight million dollars, of which $3.5 million has come from Quebec. Presentation costs alone, quite apart from travel, living and pre-production expenses, come to $ 1.5 million—a figure approved by the COJO board only in the spring of 1975.

By that time artists and performing groups across the nation, ruffling their feathers in their own version of culture shock, were already complaining about bureaucratic bungling and indecision. Matters were never helped by DesRochers’ unwillingness to sign contracts: even by mid-June, with the Cultural Olympics two weeks away, some were still not signed. Deafening by its absence from the July line-up, for instance, is the Canadian Opera Company, which until February was supposed to be performing Die Walküre at a cost of $222,661. That month general director Herman Geiger-Torel withdrew the coc in exasperation. “How could I commit the company to $222,000 without a contract?” he asks, noting that the coc has a current deficit of $500,000. “We would have gone bankrupt and 25 years would have gone up in smoke.” Retorts DesRochers: “What’s the big deal about a contract? I’m honest and true and I gave them my personal guarantee. Besides, I don’t have a contract myself.”

Nor has DesRochers endeared himself to Montreal’s Arleigh Peterson. Peterson, artistic director of the Revue theatre, accuses DesRochers of favoring Québécois talent to the exclusion of others. Peterson had wanted to present his own production of Genet’s The Blacks (his theatre is made up mostly of black performers)—only to be told by DesRochers that it “lacked artistic merit,” although it had already played in Montreal to good reviews. “Can you imagine?” sputters Peterson, “I’m one of the best directors in Montreal.” Thoroughly piqued, he’s running a mini-Olympics— Celebration ’76—on his own.

In fact, more than half the talent at the Cultural Olympics is Québécois—only to be expected, says DesRochers coolly, since Quebeckers are footing so much of the bill. Centrepiece of the month is Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ production of Marathon, Brian Macdonald’s new ballet, which will play July 15-31 at the Expo theatre— appreciably longer than any other company. “They worked hard for five years to build an audience,” says DesRochers. “I’m not about to destroy them in one month.”

Most blatant example of politics-playing came four months ago when the Ottawa Choral Society and The Cantata Singers of Ottawa had their planned July 18 concert abruptly canceled due to a ruling that only Quebec artists could perform on Quebec Day. ocs president Dorothy Howland calls this political interference with culture “distasteful.”

Still, all the bickering and injured feelings aside, the bottom line is that somehow DesRochers has got his mammoth potpourri of dance, theatre, poetry, films, clowns, art, pop, and kung-fu together— and on. Ticketed admission will range from one dollar to listen to young singers at the Hotel Nelson, all the way up to $12.50 for good seats to see the Opéra du Québec. There are also 1,000 individual performances and exhibits that are free—including street theatre, more than 500 magicians and mime artists, arts and crafts displays, and the kites, banners, street painting and sculpture called Corridart, which cover 5.2 miles and more than 80 blocks of Sherbrooke Street and constitute unquestionably the longest art gallery in the world.

“I’m not saying I’m a superman or God’s gift to culture,” says DesRochers. “But I do love the artists. And those who’re continually knocking the Cultural Olympics should go see André Dubois’ play at the Théâtre St. Denis.” The play is C’est pas d’ ma faute. It translates as Don’t Blame Me.

GILLIAN COSGROVE