For its first five years, PuSh International Performing Arts Festival co-founders Norman Armour and Katrina Dunn ran their program cautiously. Then only minnow-sized, the locally unprecedented multi-disciplinary festival was testing the waters of Vancouver’s cultural receptivity—would a zany, genre-bending celebration of music, theatre, dance, and performance, created without the resources available to larger cities, take hold in the community? Thirteen years on, the answer is clear. With annual attendance hovering around 24,000 and many performances quick to sell out, PuSh is the lodestone of Vancouver’s cultural calendar, showcasing acclaimed international, Canadian, and local artists alike.
“The festival itself this year is distinctly about parsing the uncomfortable,” says Armour of 2017’s program. “There are a number of pieces that are wrestling with things that are uncomfortable to talk about.” For instance, Jess Thom’s performance, Backstage in Biscuit Land, explores a woman’s experience with Tourette syndrome. Jonny Donahoe and Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing confronts depression, while Caroline Horton’s Mess sets a woman’s battle with anorexia to music. “All three of those are British works,” notes Armour. “A certain strain in British culture is this desire to talk about what shouldn’t be talked about.”
Befitting Canada’s sesquicentennial, pieces honouring remembrance, reconciliation, and the unceded territories of indigenous populations also feature among this year’s most-anticipated—namely, in performances of Dirtsong by Australia’s Black Arm Band. “There are 10 or 11 indigenous languages in the work, which speaks of waking ‘sleeping languages’,” says Armour of the live choral and documentary film performance, which draws on 40,000 years of tradition. “There’s a real gentle aspect and tone to the work, and that’s one way to address these things. We have a First Nations guest vocalist, Michelle St. John out of Toronto, and four local musicians through the curation of the Coastal Jazz Festival. [The performance is] in many ways a conversation with First Nations in Canada, offering up a cousin to our conversation around land rights and indigenous culture and language in a very contemporary medium.”
Overall, Armour sees this year’s PuSh as allowing artists to assume leadership—illuminating the past, interrogating the present, and perhaps, offering a glimpse into a way forward, intellectually and in terms of attitude. By offering humour and entertainment entwined with a lucid appraisal of the present, PuSh 2017 demonstrates a strength and maturity of programming of which Vancouver may be rightfully proud.
PuSh runs January 16 to Feburary 5 2017, click here for tickets and further details.