They were dressed in spike heels, sequins and tuxedoes, but they came for a country hoedown. The sparkling audience included such notables as King
as King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Olav of Norway, TV personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila. And they filled Calgary’s cavernous 2,700-seat Jubilee Auditorium last week for a western-style Olympic eve gala: K.D. Lang, Carroll Baker and other homegrown country artists as well as one performer from abroad—English rope twirler Vince Bruce. Host Ian Tyson, who runs a 160-acre horse and cattle ranch near Calgary in addition to being one of the nation’s best-known singer-songwriters, strode into the spotlight wearing a white Stetson hat and jeans. In a surprise appearance at the end of the show Tyson was joined by Gordon Lightfoot. Together they sang Tyson’s Four Strong Winds and Lightfoot’s Alberta Bound.
Since Jan. 23—three weeks before the athletes were to begin their fierce competitions in the XV Olympic Winter Games—artists and performers taking part in the $10-million Olympic Arts Festival have been pursuing their own brand of excellence. The cultural celebration, which runs until Feb. 28, is the largest arts extravaganza ever held in conjunction with the Winter Olympics—and the largest ever to occur in Calgary. Showcasing the work of more than 2,200 performers, visual artists and authors, the festival has dazzled —and deluged—the foothills city with provocative, high-calibre presentations. The attractions have ranged from string quartet concerts to snow-sculpting, from Anne Murray to the Royal Canadian Air Farce. And while the festival faltered in a few areas—a rock spectacular to star Neil Young and the Russian rock group Avtograph was cancelled due to poor ticket sales—others drew raves.
Albertans and visitors from outside the province have responded enthusiastically to the rich menu of events. So far, the
festival has sold 75 per cent of its total tickets—for sales of 125,000 seats. Said festival spokesman Harvey Chusid: “So far, we’ve surpassed our expectations.” Experimental theatre has done almost as well as such big-name international performers as New York City’s Joffrey Ballet, whose two performances earlier this month sold out. Said Michael Dobbin, producing director of Alberta Theatre Projects and co-ordinator of the current series of new Canadian plays: “The major industry here is drilling very expensive holes in the ground on the basis of an educated guess—so Albertans have to have a lot of gambler in their blood.” Sweatshop: Those eager to stake a claim in films turned out in large numbers earlier this month for the Olympic Film Festival, which featured the world première of Cowboys Don't Cry, a film about rodeos directed by Albertan Anne Wheeler (Loyalties). Another big draw was the Olympic Writers’ Festival—the first such event connected with the Games since 1948—which drew capacity crowds for readings by such authors as
Pierre Berton and New York City novelist Jay Mclnerney (Bright Lights, Big City). Still to come—and more in the competitive spirit of the Olympics—are the national finals of Poetry Sweatshop, a contest in which participants have half an hour to write a poem based on a word they find on a page torn from a thesaurus. The finalists include a Halifax insurance agent and a reptile expert at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Quipped sweatshop organizer Jim Coburn: “We’re going to have a doctor on hand to test the poets for steroids.”
The arts festival is full of surprises and strange quirks. Last week’s snow-sculpting contest on downtown Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park, located in the middle of the Bow River, was remarkable for the range of countries competing. In addition to such predictable entrants as Switzerland, the United States and Finland— whose team created an abstract sculpture that won the competition—there were also participants from Israel and Morocco. But the skills of all the sculptors were tested when warm chinook winds began to melt their works.
Sassy: Another kind of warm wind blew in with last week’s sassy and vocally stunning production of Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s opera about blacks living in rural southern United States. Presented by the Calgary Opera Association and directed by Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., the show featured only one Canadian in a leading role—24-year-old Edmonton soprano Sharon Anne Miller, who, in the role of Clara, sang a languorously beautiful Summertime.
Art and athleticism overlap in some of the offerings. Mask, a photographic exhibition in the lobby of the Olympic Saddledome, is a collection of photographs of the often ferocious-looking masks worn by hockey goaltenders. Visitors first encounter an explanatory note quoting Jacques Plante on his reason for donning the first goalie mask in NHL play in 1959, when he was with the Montreal Canadiens. “Three minutes into the game Andy Bathgate lifted a puck right up at my face and it tore off my nose,” said Plante, who died in 1986 at age 57. After the incident, a doctor stitched Plante’s face, and the
goalie returned to the game wearing, for the first time, a protective mask.
Crowns: But some of the most enthralling visual arts shows have little or no connection with sports. The mostpublicized arts festival event, the $2.6million collection of Canadian Indian and Inuit artifacts drawn from collections around the world, is also the most spectacular. The Spirit Sings, at the Glenbow Museum, features such intricate and remarkable objects as a pair of beaded Micmac moccasins made for Queen Victoria’s 1897 jubilee. The mauve slippers, which are adorned with crowns, are delicate in every respect except size: because the Micmacs perceived Queen Victoria as a white man’s god, they assumed that she must have been a towering giantess.
The show has been the target of a boycott called by Alberta’s Lubicon Lake Indians, a small Cree band with a long-unsettled land claim. The Lubicons are no longer demonstrating in front of the museum, but their cause is still a controversial subject in Calgary. After accepting a Governor General’s Award last week during a ceremony held in Calgary to coincide with the Olympic Arts Festival, Toronto novelist M. T. Kelly endorsed the Lubicon cause. In his speech the author, who won for his novel A Dream Like Mine, which addresses issues of native culture, said that the Lubicon Lake Indians —like all native people — are “not simply artifacts to be displayed in museums,” but people “from
whom we can learn another way of looking at the world.”
Many major events are yet to come. British-born director Peter Brook will bring his Paris-based company to perform Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, a radical opera-and-drama revision of Bizet’s best-loved opera. The set required two tons of earth, and Brook sent a sample from Paris of the kind of sand that he wanted. After consulting with a geologist, festival organizers found the right material in Lacombe, 190 km from Calgary. This week, Toronto’s Desrosiers Dance Theatre will present Incognito, a work commissioned by the festival which combines contemporary choreography with the technological wizardry of Winnipeg magician Brian Glow.
Glow: For most Calgarians or Olympic visitors, there is too much to see and too little time. “You have to be incredibly selective,” said Betty Walpot, a former social worker and a volunteer guide at The Spirit Sings. Many members of Calgary’s arts community, while still basking in the glow of so much creative energy, predict that the city will experience a letdown when the festival closes at the end of the month. “It has been like an extraordinary Fourth-of-July fireworks display,” said Brian Brennan, assistant entertainment editor at The Calgary Herald. “We probably won’t see anything like it for a long time to come—maybe never.”
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