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Old Stock: a Refugee Love Story

Reviewed October 16, 2019

NAC Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performances through October 27, 7:30 p.m.)

Stoo Metz Photography

This musical play, written by Ottawa-born Hannah Moscovitch (in collaboration with Ben Caplan and Christian Barry), is a curious and entertaining mix of tragedy and humour based on the real lives of Moscovitch’s great grandparents. Moscovitch, an award-winning Canadian playwright currently in residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, admits to taking artistic liberties with her story to fill in gaps in her knowledge of actual events.

Briefly, it is a saga of two Jewish Romanian refugees who meet at Halifax’s Pier 2 in 1908 amongst “the swirling human mass” of European immigrants fleeing persecution – a human experience that still resonates today.

Set in a shipping container, the unfolding love story takes place in Montreal, where the couple settle and go on to leave a legacy of 19 grandchildren, we learn at the end.

Photograph by Fadi Acra

Produced by 2b theatre of Halifax, the 90-minute show is dominated by storyteller/songwriter Ben Caplan, who narrates in fabulous over-the-top in-your-face style as a character called The Wanderer. He is the glue that holds the play together, the puppet-master that directs the protagonists Eric Da Costa as Chaim (who doubles as a clarinetist) and Mary Fay Coady as his wife Chaya (who also plays the violin).

From time to time, Caplan beaks the fourth wall to ask the audience, for example, if they’re alright after a particularly dark passage in the tale. Or to ask what we think of the lovers. “Can these people be happy?” he questions the audience. “They are so out of practice.”

Chaim, in spite of or maybe because he witnessed the slaughter of his entire family, is an endearing and determined young man of 19, who clings to the first woman he meets when he sets foot in Canada, and Chaya, who has already lost a husband to typhus and a baby to starvation, is a bit jaded and often unapproachable, but willing to consider the alternative to loneliness.

Caplan steers the script through the heartbreak and the sorrow with a bevy of songs set to a klezmer score, mostly written by Caplan and director (and set designer) Christian Barry.

The fact that the story is a real one intensifies its emotional impact, but the script nevertheless entwines a generous pinch of wit and charm in the abbreviated story of the lives of two people who have fled horror and heartbreak.

While the play premiered first in Halifax two-and-a-half years ago, the show’s big launch was during Canada’s 150th anniversary in the summer of 2017 at the National Arts Centre’s Canada Scene festival. Since then it has toured internationally and performed more than 200 times.

The New Zealand Dance Company

The Geography of an Archipelago, In Transit, Sigan

Reviewed October 8, 2019

Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance October 9, 7:30 p.m.)

For the first time ever, Ottawa audiences have the privilege of witnessing a small and spirited emerging 21st century dance company out of New Zealand, featuring Māori dancers and choreographers.

Of particular note is In Transit, a fascinating multi-dimensional work of dance, light, sound and images projected onto the back of the stage as well as on movable screens. Created by Māori multidisciplinary artist Louise Potiki Bryant, In Transit is predominantly dark, with flashes of scarlet and plum lighting, suggesting other worlds. There is a sense of being in a natural world of bird and creature sounds, as well as a sense of the elements of air, earth and wind, implied through the unusual soundscape created by Bryant’s husband musician Paddy Free (who is the audio visual designer for this piece) and the exhalations and staccato movements of the six dancers. The projections of human and natural images add a fourth dimension to the dance.

The hypnotic mix of music includes an extract from the sound score for The Light Dances, featuring Reo, and the reputable Māori singer Moana Maniapoto. A beautiful contrast is set up in a long phrase of deep persistent drumming against a soft lilting voice.

There seems to be a story being told, but it’s very abstract and indeterminate. It may well be mythological, or something being remembered. Throughout, some dancers carry long sticks, that appear to be symbolic or devices of connection, and are sometimes balanced on the head or other parts of the body.

In Transit is assuredly the gem of the program, but the opening work, The Geography of an Archipelago by Stephen Shropshire, is a fitting introduction. From the beginning, we feel privy to a private ritual as a trio of dancers, dressed in black and under dim lighting, perform slow, synchronized movements, while musician Rob Thorne taps out natural sounds on a traditional Māori instrument called a taonga pūoro.

The dance is unique, with an emphasis on patterns created by bare arms, calves and feet, in juxtaposition with grey-toned shapes formed on the floor by sharp floodlights. Sometimes loud percussive rhythm drives the movement, while at other times, a droning sound weighs down the performers as they trudge under the beam of a handheld light.

The work takes a sudden turn when a warbled version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor) accompanies the dancers, one by one, transforming a ritualistic performance that seems to carry the weight of history into a self-reflective enactment. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a dance performed to the Moonlight Sonata, one of the most powerful, mournful, mysterious compositions – phenomenal really, still 200 years after its creation –best absorbed with one’s eyes closed.

Ending the program is a work for four dancers by Korean choreographer and composer KIM Jae Duk, who is currently a resident choreographer at T.H.E Dance Company in Singapore and artistic director of Modern Table Dance Company. He prefers to call himself an “expresser” rather than a choreographer, interested in the harmony between dance and music.

Sigan, however, does not present as a peaceful marriage between movement and sound, but rather as a combative clash among performers. The dancers, in black, engage on a white floor, under the halo of a large white disc, or in the stark beams of harsh lighting. Sometimes the dancers “fight” in a ring of light or pose motionless in single poses.

The disturbing sound of a horn, growing ever louder like an unheeded car alarm, dominates the environment for a very long time at the beginning, followed by knocking, hammering, long blasts of brass instruments, persistent tapping, scraping metal, banging, loud drumming, a single string note, a high-pitched whine or a series of repetitive gong resonances and even sudden breaks in the accompaniment all together. The severe soundscape, which features traditional Korean instruments, actually interferes with the performance as it is hard not to separate audio from visual.

The New Zealand Dance Company is a young contemporary dance company out of Auckland, only in its eighth year. With artist/dancer/arts business developer Shona McCullagh at its helm, the company has been presenting high calibre programming in the South Pacific and Europe, drawing on choreographers not only from Down Under, but also from South Korea and Holland. This year marks their first foray into North America, performing on the National Arts Centre stage in Ottawa this week.

“Dance,” says McCullagh, chief executive and artistic director of NZDC, “is the beautifully truthful language of living.” Co-founder of the company, McCullagh has worked as a choreographer for some 35 years, including devising dance sequences for the film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. She is recognized for her services to dance and her films, in which she integrates live performance.

A production still from In Transit showing a dancer interacting with projected images.

Kemal Payza


Reviewed September 22, 2019

Gesù Theatre, Montreal

This past weekend, I stopped in to see the opening of Mythologies at the intimate Gesù Theatre in the basement of the ornate 19th-century Gesù Church on Montreal’s Park Avenue. This was the debut of a contemporary dance production by local scientist/artist/musician Kemal Payza.

Mythologies opens with Montreal-based contemporary dancer Susannah Haight (Spirit Mother) performing a short mesmerizing dance of beauty and mystique. Informed by a harp accompaniment called Imaginary Prelude, composed and performed by New York-based contemporary composer Hannah Lash, Haight is the epitome of grace in this piece. It is as if her body plays the harp, so seamlessly is the movement married to the music.

As the “story” unfolds, we meet Spirit Father, danced by David Campbell, daughter Kyzyl, played by Catherine Dagenais-Savard and, about halfway through the work, The Stranger, portrayed by Adrian W. S. Batt. Batt enters a darker stage, to a stringed accompaniment played on an old Middle Eastern oud.

mythologies rehearsalAll the dancers are strong, each displaying a distinctive character, but the standout dancer in Mythologies is Dagenais-Savard, who also choreographed a powerful vignette halfway through the show highlighting herself, Campbell and Batt dancing to a commanding piece of music featuring the enthralling Altai throat singing by an ensemble of Central Asia. Dagenais-Savard also choreographed the finale for all four dancers, to a second extract of the Altai song.

The Altai musical selection is sudden, and the dancers respond immediately and forcefully to its magnetic sound. This turn in the program energizes the full cast and takes the story to another level, one that grasps the breath with a promise of something urgent to come.

While producer Kemal Payza is reluctant to divulge any sense of the story, preferring not to bias the audience’s imagination, the names of the characters (Spirit Mother-Umai, Spirit Father-Tengki, daughter Kyzyl and The Stranger) hint at what the tale is about. Kyzyl is a city in the Tuva Republic in Eastern Russia that means “red” in Tuvan as well as Turkic languages, and the character Kyzyl is dressed completely in red. The names alone suggest something exotic and foreign from Central Asia. The Stranger could be the threatening unknown Other or simply the untrodden road that might lead to prosperity or a new vision for the future.

Either way, the daughter is attracted to The Stranger and then becomes caught between the known world of her parents (their traditional mythology) and the beckoning world of mystery beyond her childhood confines. A poem, written by Montreal songwriter Andria Piperni for the show, appears in the program and is read aloud during Dagenais-Savard’s last solo dance. It hints at “a fruitful garden in the distance/Its arms open wide with the promise of tomorrow.”

Is this not an age-old story? And is it not inevitable that youth should seek the new frontier?

In this story, The Stranger, at first feared by the parents, is ultimately accepted into the fold. This appears to be a twist, where The Stranger becomes assimilated to existing tradition – this is portrayed in a dance where Batt as The Stranger imitates the mysterious hand gestures of Campbell as Spirit Father — rather than tradition being upended by a foreign element, for example.

Several Canadian choreographers have collaborated for the show, but illuminating the entire work is a diverse soundscape of songs never before heard, including classical guitar compositions by producer Kemal Payza, new music composed by veteran Nova Scotian singer/songwriter Peter Pringle on a replica of an ancient Sumerian lyre as well as French Baroque and ancient Turkish music. The music brings an otherworldly element to the work and helps build the narrative to a crescendo as Kyzyl’s loyalty is torn between loyalty to her family and the lure of a stranger.

Mythologies is expected to play in further venues in the Quebec/Eastern Ontario region in the coming weeks.

Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier)

Finding Wolastoq Voice

Reviewed September 21, 2019

Azrieli Studio, Ottawa

(Repeat performances September 22 & 23, 8:00 p.m.)

finding wolastoq voice by matt carter

Dancer Aria Evans interprets Samaqani Cocahq’s Finding Wolastoq Voice 

Indigenous artist Samaqani Cocahq-Natalie Sappier (The Water Spirit) launched a compelling new piece of dance theatre in Ottawa Friday night that speaks gently but insistently of a young Indigenous (Wolastoqiyik) woman’s journey to self-love.

This gem of a work opens on a solitary note, a wavelength that washes over the theatre in a soothing, peaceful tone, slowing down the heartbeat, lengthening the breath . . . and effectively introducing us to solo dancer Aria Evans, who enters the spectacular set, created by designer Mushkegowuk Cree/European Andy Moro. A member of the creative team at the Banff Centre’s Indigenous Dance Residency, Moro has set the stage for Finding Wolastoq Voice with a large circular platform, inset with channels of water and surrounded by a lower circular trench filled with sand. His lighting washes the stage with warm, earthy tones, providing a sense of the natural world and at times one of the unseen spirit world.

And there, from the platform, we hear her intimate story. A voice narrative dominates the show, informing Evans’s actions. The words are beautifully poetic. They fall gracefully and with trust from the tongue. They take us, without shame, into the deepest soul and the vulnerable heart of the protagonist.

finding wolastoq voice by matt carter 2Evans is pure, definitive grace, dressed in shapeless white clothing that leaves the emphasis on her gestures of remembrance, her slow deliberate movements and her innocent and hopeful facial expression. As she climbs slowly onto the platform, performing a brief ritual of wiping her feet, she brings us directly into her world. We go back to her childhood, where she recalls wanting to be a salmon.

She plays in the water. She becomes one with the water. She becomes the salmon, at one with its blood.

We follow her through her dark, lonely childhood, when she hears the voices of her ancestors, the old songs that awaken her from a long sleep and guide her gently through conflict, abuse, confusion, despair and inevitably to a connection to home and the waters where her ancestors gathered, and ultimately to self-love.

“I used to think I was not Indian enough,” she recites. “But I am. I am here and I’m awake now. I’ve slept for awhile but while I was sleeping I was seeing things I needed to remember. I am Indian enough . . . and when I dance, I dance with spirit . . . I am here and I have stories to tell.”

Finding Wolastoq Voice is part of the Mòshkamo arts festival, a celebration of the National Arts Centre’s first ever Indigenous theatre season. Historic as the world’s first national Indigenous theatre of its kind, the Indigenous Theatre is presenting works based on, performed or created by Indigenous artists from across Canada, sharing the stories and languages of their heritage. The 19-day Mòshkamo festival runs until September 29.

finding wolastoq voice by matt carter 3

Set and lighting design by Andy Moro

Still to come (for information, see

Sept 24: Niishzhoowe, a singing duet, at the Glass Thorsteinson Staircase at noon (free)

Sept 25: a land-based calligraphy workshop with Mairi Brascoupe at the Atelier Shenkman Smith at 5 p.m.

Sept 25: Performer, composer and musicologist Jeremy Dutcher of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick’s bold approach to forgotten Wolastoqiyik songs and stories (SOLD OUT)

Sept 25-27: Mura Buai (Everyone, Everyone), a dance production by Australian choreographer Ghenoa Gela, at the Glass Thorsteinson Staircase, at noon and 6:30 p.m. (free)

Sept 26: Innu writer Florent Vollant, who recently released his album Mitsha Meshkenu (open road), a mix of country folk and Tex-Mex flavours, at the Fourth Stage at 8:30 p.m.

Sept 26-28: Dancers of Damelahamid, an Indigenous dance company from the Northwest coast of British Columbia, presents Mînowin in the Azrieli Studio at 8 p.m.

Sept 27: Métis composer Ian Cusson’s Le loup de Lafontaine, inspired by the legend of a wolf that terrorizes an old French-speaking village in Ontario, with groundbreaking guest violinist Pekka Kuusisto performing Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, in Southam Hall at 7 p.m.

Sept 27: Nunavut’s “brooding” Josh Qaumariaq and The Trade-Offs singing the Arctic blues, a blend of Inuktitut and English lyrics, at the Fourth Stage at 8:30 p.m

Sept 28: Dancers of Damelahamid’s Margaret Grenier’s movement workshop focusing on the contemporary coastal Indigenous dance form, for all dancers aged 14 and older, in the Rossy Pavilion at 10:30 a.m.

Sept 28: An Indigenous Art Market in the O’Brien Atrium at noon (free), featuring jewelry, beadwork, mittens, moccasins and craftwork by Métis, Inuit and First Nations artists, from noon to 6 p.m.

Sept 28: Young Panniqtuq, Nunavut electropop artist Riit at the Fourth Stage at 8:30 p.m.

Sept 29: Dance, music, theatre and craft workshops and activities for families in the O’Brien Atrium throughout the afternoon, from 1 p.m. (free entry)

Peggy Baker Dance Projects

who we are in the dark

peggy baker who we are in the dark

Reviewed April 12, 2019

NAC Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance April 13, 7:30 p.m.)

Peggy Baker’s newest dance project, who we are in the dark, is an impressive collaboration with musicians associated with Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire, the late artist John Heward, and Baker’s long-time lighting design partner Marc Parent.

An icon of Canadian contemporary dance, Baker often presents works that are something to behold. She is not afraid to experiment with the media of movement, music and other arts. When she teams up with others, she is at her best — the additional resources bring to life her disciplined, audacious and provocative creativity. For this latest work, all her collaborators are Canadian.

peggy baker sarah neufeld

Sarah Neufeld

Particularly spectacular in who we are in the dark is the stunning performance by abstract violinist Sarah Neufeld. Neufeld and Ottawa-born drummer Jeremy Gara grace stage right throughout the 65-minute show in a unique accompaniment. The driving drums and the soothing strings create a vibrant push-pull energy.

Also striking is the projection design by award-winning filmmaker Jeremy Mimnagh. Mostly black-and-white beautiful abstract images project onto the back wall and the floor, creating a futuristic world for the seven dancers onstage.

The performers largely work as a collective, seemingly reacting to unseen forces. Sometimes they are linked in a long chain. Their synchronized movement binds the work, portending a sense of community, the idea that they are all in this together.

Baker says who we are in the dark explores “the alluring darkness of night, intimacy, sexuality, the unconscious, the creeping darkness of uncertainty and malice, the confounding darkness of bafflement, secrets, the unknown, the dreadful darkness of cruelty, suffering, grief, the comforting darkness of condolence and contemplation.”

This may well have been a starting point for Baker’s work, but the dance does not tell any kind of story per se. The dancers are dressed in black and sometimes wear hooded sweaters and crawl animalistically across the stage, but there is no sense of malice or dread. Moreso it is a show that delights in sound, light and movement.

Cleverly choreographed breaks keep the audience focused and stimulated. For example, after a phrase of thunderous drumming, sharp spot lighting and furiously flashing projections onto the floor and backdrop, with no dancers onstage, suddenly a couple enter the stage and perform a serene duet to a soulful string accompaniment, creating a welcome tranquility amongst the chaotic sound. Neufeld gradually introduces lovely haunting vocals to her violin solo, taking us to a magical place.

Later Neufeld enters centre stage under a bright spotlight while the dancers are no more than shadowy presences. As her contribution is a significant and dynamic part of the work overall, it is only fitting that her performance should be thus featured.

The accompaniment at times is nothing more than the dancers’ own breathing, whispers, squeaks and growls or simply their exhalations of exertions.

A series of duets between two men, two women and a couple draw the work to its conclusion, which features a lone dancer on a coloured floor.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal


Reviewed April 4, 2019

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performances April 5 & 6, 8 p.m.)

LGBCM giselle

Giselle is the quintessential beautiful classic ballet. Even though this Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli creation was first performed 178 years ago, Giselle continues to draw audiences across the world because it’s a ballet that is rife with history, drama and, yes, real dancing.

In fact, it is about the young village girl Giselle who loves nothing more than to dance. And, as the story goes, she dances not only during her short, sweet life, but in her death with the hordes of ghostly “wilis,” young brides-to-be who have died before their wedding days and who condemn men to dance themselves to death.

The appeal is the timeless tale: young undying love, betrayal, awakening, heartbreak, and survival. And, in spite of its macabre story, it is a romantic ethereal dancey work that is beautiful to behold.

The Ottawa performance is a world premiere of a re-adapted Giselle, re-staged by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ new artistic director Ivan Cavallari. Cavallari, who was smitten with the black-and-white television production of Giselle he saw when he was a young boy – the one featuring Rudolf Nureyev – grew up to dance in Giselle. And now he thought it was time, after two decades, to revive the ageless ballet for Les Grands, staying true to the original’s famous tableaux of pointes and white tutus.

Cavallari has streamlined the production somewhat, maintaining the traditions of the Marius Petipa 1903 version, including the famous ballet blanc of the second act, where some 20 hypnotically graceful ballerinas, clad in full white tutus and floaty sleeves, cast a mesmerizing spell over the shadowy woodland as they dance precisely in union.

This act contrasts with the light and jubilant celebration of the opening act, when groups of young men and women, dressed in bright earthy-hued costumes, dance innocently and playfully in a field of flowers.

The music, by 19th century Parisian composer Adolphe Charles Adam and performed live by National Arts Centre Orchestra, is an enchanting accompaniment, from the elegant and joyful flute interludes of the first act to the soft strings and harp of the second.

The set, built by the scenery fabrication shop Productions Yves Nicol in Montreal, is fairly minimal – a backdrop on which projections display a field of flowers, a moonlit woodland or, for the dramatic finale, a pure white and then black ground. Nevertheless, the projections are vivid and delightfully effective.

Yui Sugawara, who danced Giselle on opening night, is an ethereal protagonist, playing through the demanding roller coaster of emotions as naïve flirtatious maiden, besotted lover or defiant yearning ghost, even if her descent into madness and death seems a little hurried and unconvincing.


Reviewed March 4, 2019

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa    

Image result for farruquito images      

Whenever I watch flamenco, I’m instantly transported back to the little mesóns behind La Plaza Mayor in Madrid, where I hung out in my early twenties when I lived in Spain under Franco rule. There, after landing accidentally on the north shores of Spain after the freighter I’d hitched a ride on re-routed mid-Atlantic, I found accommodation with a group of Spanish students and discovered the culture of Spain: its food, its language, its music and its dance. I fell in love forever.

There’s really nothing like it. And it is unique and priceless that Juan Manuel Fernández Montoya (otherwise known as Farruquito) still brings the true passion (and tragedy) of the “flamenco puro” to the stage.

The blood of the pure Gypsy flamenco tradition flows through Montoya’s veins, passed down through the generations from his grandfather, El Farruco, the untrained but naturally talented Gypsy dancer whose own story is one of passion, tragedy, adventure and success. And through the blood of his father, flamenco singer Juan Fernández Flores, and his mother, dancer Rosario Montoya Manzano.

Along with his three brothers, Farruquito was immersed in the world of flamenco and performance from infancy, becoming a professional artist at the age of 11. Now 36, Farruquito travels the world, sharing the purest form of flamenco, while collaborating with contemporary film directors, conductors and artists.

He performed in Ottawa for the first time on Monday. The 90-minute show is long enough to immerse the audience in the passionate world of flamenco. Accompanied by his 11 dancers and musicians, Farruquito is an overwhelming presence. He is rhythm personified. His majestic and magnetic style carries all the essence and grace of Gypsy flamenco, and he demands full attention from the audience. Bewitching and restless, the show is replete with the solemnity and pride of the Gypsy family, as well as the celebratory passion, beauty, energy and life that is flamenco.

I have to mention guitarist Yerai Cortés, who performed a brief captivating solo towards the end of the show, as well as accomplished flautist Juan Fernández Gálvez, and the persistent and resilient cantaor Ezequiel Montoya Jimenez, and cantaoras Mari Vizarraga and Maria Mezcle.

Bailaora Gema Moneo wooed the audience with her solo and her duet with Farruquito. She wore a white figure-hugging flamenco dress, complete with a full ruffled train, which she flipped and lifted and curled around her, revealing her blood red shoes and highlighting her restive rhythm and mesmerizing movement.

Each of these performers – talented in their own right — is an integral and intricate thread in the colourful cloak of Farruquito’s flamenco performance.

The National Ballet of Canada

Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James in The Dream. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic2.jpg

The Dream


Reviewed January 31, 2019

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa          

(Repeat performances February 1 & 2, 8 p.m.)

The National Ballet’s The Dream is, well, downright dreamy! Created by the former renowned British choreographer Frederick Ashton in 1964, The Dream is based on William Shakespeare’s 16th century romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With its cast of fairies and sprites juxtaposed with a group of Athenian aristocratic lovers, the story is rife with celebration, romance, blunder and wit (it is Shakespeare after all). It’s the kind of fantastical and whimsical story that translates so well to ballet.

Ashton originally choreographed the fairly short one-act ballet as a Victorian fantasy to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, focusing on the Fairyland story and the four confused lovers who get lost in the forest. The larger-than-life personalities of Oberon and Titania, Puck and Bottom are there, as well as a bevy of fairies and rustics besides, brought to grandeur by the talented artists of the National Ballet.

David Walker’s lush fairytale set of a moonlit forest and sparkling aquamarine-coloured costumes, and the accompanying playful Felix Mendelssohn score add a magical ambiance to this amusing and bizarre otherworldly story.

The Dream comes at the end of a triple-bill evening of dance presented by the National Ballet in celebration of the National Arts Centre’s 50th anniversary. The National, then in its youth (it’s now nearly 70 years old) appeared on stage when the NAC first opened in June 1969.

The other two works on stage this week represent the old and the new: George Balanchine’s neo-classic Apollo, one of the Russian-born choreographer’s earliest collaborations with Igor Stravinsky (first performed in 1928), which tells the tale of the young god of music and his three muses; and New York City choreographer Justin Peck’s 2013 Paz de la Jolla, a colourful two-part nostalgic summer seaside romp that hints of youth in an earlier era (when swimsuits were fairly modest).

NBC paz de la jolla

Paz de la Jolla


The Hockey Sweater A Musical

hockey sweater hockey kids

Photos by Leslie Schacter

Reviewed December 7, 2018

NAC Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performances through December 23, 7:30 p.m.)

What began as a hastily written tiny tale of kids playing hockey in post-war Quebec has become a huge Canadian story, steeped in history, Quebec culture and small-town hockey.

After Roch Carrier wrote the short story Le chandail de hockey in the ‘70s, it was translated to English, and adapted into an animated short by the National Film Board in 1980 and an illustrated book in 1984 with drawings by Sheldon Cohen. It has since become an emblematic piece of Canadian literature.

The story is based on an experience Carrier had as a child growing up in Sainte-Justine, Quebec in 1946. A fan of the Montreal Canadiens hero Maurice “Rocket” Richard, he and his friends all wear Canadiens’ sweaters with the Rocket’s No. 9 on their backs. When the young Carrier’s sweater becomes threadbare, his mother orders a new one from the catalogue and is mistakenly sent a Toronto Leafs’ sweater.

hockey sweater moss and lautier

Wyatt Moss as young Roch Carrier and Claire Lautier as his mother Anna

While the story more or less ends there, with Carrier hoping the new sweater will be destroyed by moths, lyricists Emil Sher and Jonathan Monro have taken this small iconic story and blown it up into everything quintessentially Canadian and developed a rare Canadian musical.

The two-hour show, directed by choreographer and theatre director Donna Feore, The Hockey Sweater magically captures the pride of an old Quebec town in the wake of the Second World War, thanks to the 1940s outfits of the adults and a plethora of beautifully painted backdrops designed by Torontonian Michael Gianfrancesco, whose work has appeared in theatre, opera and dance productions across Canada.

While Carrier’s famous fable focuses on one moment in his childhood – receiving the Sweater of the Enemy Team in the mail – the new musical amplifies everything about that moment: it takes us to the cold outdoor rink where a team of boys and girls play hockey religiously, it takes us to Carrier’s home with his mother Anna (who orders the wrong sweater because she struggles to understand English order forms), it takes us to the warm inviting church, and it takes us to the strict classroom environment.

hockey sweater kate blackburn

Kate Blackburn as teacher Mlle Therrien

The 80-year-old Roch, performed by Richard Jutras (who also doubles as the classic Mr. Eaton) carries us into the story with an overture at the beginning of Act One and an entr’acte to introduce Act Two. It’s an effective tool to transport us back to an earlier time and an earlier place, while highlighting the relevance of the story in any era.

Most rewardingly, The Hockey Sweater A Musical familiarizes us with the animated and dynamic cast of characters: the 10-year-old protagonist Carrier, brought to life by the staggering talent of young actor, singer, dancer Wyatt Moss; the melodramatic teacher who can’t get her students’ brains in gear once the hockey season starts, performed by the passionate musical theatre artist Kate Blackburn; and the melodic pragmatic mother Anna, realized by the gifted actor and soloist Claire Lautier. Rounded out by a pie-stealing beer-loving priest who has a secret he eventually reveals to the young Carrier, a prancing postman who delivers the Wrong Sweater, and the soldier-turned-coach who advises his young player to “fight with a champion heart” in his new blue-rather-than-red sweater.

Coach Gaétan’s pronouncement that “A champion’s heart can overcome the embarrassment of wearing the wrong sweater” is somewhat of a theme that ties the story together, along with Father Delisle’s assurance that “God loves everyone, even the Maple Leafs.”

“We can’t let sweaters tear us apart” is the timelessly relevant message of the play.


Moss with the Enemy Team colours

The eight children in the cast are real little pros, presenting an energy that connects easily with the audience. With some two dozen songs in its repertoire, The Hockey Sweater plies us with a few gems, like Anna’s quaint and endearing I Hate Hockey confession, or Madamoiselle Therrien’s Hockey on the Brain and a surprisingly winning number by the young Carrier, 100 Million Moths, which he performs in the church scene, leaping defiantly and delightfully through the sacred space, begging God to send him the right sweater. And last but not least, Different, sung by young Jaime MacLean’s Ginette and Moss in a charming poignant moment between the two teammates.

While the children make up nearly half the cast, the adults are definitely not the invisible Charlie Brown type of grownups. They have boundless passion, fun and a remarkable dash of sass.

This singular musical, Canadian through and through, is a full evening of delightful entertainment.

Alberta Ballet

The Nutcracker, Alberta Ballet

The Snow Tsarina enters at the end of Act I

The Nutcracker

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Performances November 28 through December 2, 7 p.m., plus Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m.)

When The Nutcracker comes to town, for me it’s the official start of the holiday season.

And this year, the Alberta Ballet presents its traditional and opulent version of this 125-year-old ballet that is based on the original 1816 story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann.

A two-act Tchaikovsky ballet, The Nutcracker continues to enchant young and old year after year, as it takes its audience into a magical world of battling rodents, waltzing princesses and, of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The story opens on a festive Christmas Eve party that takes place in 19th century Imperial Russia, introduces the mysterious Drosselmeyer, who performs a strange play about a nutcracker soldier and a ballerina who fall in love, and then takes us into Klara’s dream world on the other side of midnight, where she witnesses a battle with Cossack rats.

Nutcracker,+Alberta+Ballet+2018The first act ends with the appearance of the magical Snow Tsarina, entering the stage with her attendant white wolves and snow princesses, who dance under a sensational shimmering “snowfall” that drifts seemingly endlessly onto the stage against a starlit backdrop.

The second act features the palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where dancers from all over the world entertain Klara and her nutcracker soldier companion.

Award-winning choreographer Edmund Stripe created Alberta Ballet’s nostalgic and whimsical version 10 years ago and features American designer Zach Brown’s delightful costumes.

Nearly 100 young dancers from local dance schools will join the troupe on stage as party children, mice, rats, soldiers and pages.

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