The Celtic Yule

As far back in history as anyone in my family knows, beginning in the hills of Ireland, on this night (December 21, or around that night) our family lights a Yule log, wrapped with holly.
On the longest night of the year, the sun’s “rebirth” was celebrated, symbolized by the return of the Oak King (thus, the oak Yule log). From this day forward, the days become longer.
In Celtic tradition, there is a legend of a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, who fight for control as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Yule (which simply means wheel), the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, when the Holly King returns.
After we light the Yule fire, each person in the house, beginning with the youngest, tosses a holly leaf into the fire in hopes/making a wish/saying a prayer for something in the coming year. When we hear the holly leaf sizzle or crack, we know our intention has been heard.
The following day, after the fire has completely burned out, we save the few charred remains in a special box, which has a Celtic knot carved into the top. Each year, when we light the Yule fire, we toss in the remains of last year’s fire, thus giving us a connection to years and centuries past, while moving into the future. As much of Ireland was settled by Scandinavians more than 1000 years ago, it’s likely that’s where this tradition actually originated.
My grandparents brought this tradition to Canada and then my parents continued it.
The image I’ve attached is from one of our past Yule fires.
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David Bowie: Dignified Genius

bowieMy Metroland Column from December 28, 2016

On January 8, 2016, David Bowie turned 69. His wife, Iman, knew something the world didn’t. Her husband was dying.
She tweeted: “I will love you til i die….”
Bowie’s album Blackstar made its debut on his birthday.
Two days later he died.
I hold David Bowie in the same class of genius that contains the likes of Nikola Tesla and Harry Houdini.
Bowie’s death served as harbinger of what a brutal cycle around the sun 2016 intended to be.
As his finale, Bowie left us with yet another brilliant score, Blackstar, in which he foretold his death. Blackstar typified Bowie’s genre-ignoring style. More a librettist than a lyricist, at any point in his career, when the public thought they’d pinned him down, he changed course and explored a new path.
There was but one constant: artistic integrity and personal dignity, maintained even as he approached death.
No grief porn emanated from the artist who gave us Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, and Let’s Dance. The musical legacy he left us is priceless.
His death, both quiet and shrouded in privacy, fit the pattern of his life. Renowned for his glamorous and extensive stage shows, he lived much of his off-stage life avoiding the spotlight.
The last two decades were largely spent as a stay-at-home caregiver to his daughter, even picking her up after school in downtown New York. When he died, it had been more than ten years since his last interview.
He could have gone out in a grand slam, had the world on its knees in tears over his impending death. Instead, no one even knew he was dying. Bowie’s shining star held no place for gratuitous grief.
One of the flashiest of the rock’s icons went out in the quietest of ways. Perhaps he’d done it all, was known around the planet, sold more than 140 million albums, and was recognized virtually anywhere. He didn’t need one last grab for attention, one last attempt to appear relevant. Bowie simply is, was, and always will be relevant. He had nothing to prove. He’d done it all.
In fact, after suffering a heart attack in 2004, he said that was his last tour. And, unlike most other stars/bands who announce their final tour for the fifth time, it really was his last tour.
One never knew what to expect as Bowie’s next move. The same artist who appeared on stage in a dress also joined Bing Crosby in a Christmas television special and sang a duet of Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth.
His rock and roll lifestyle of the 1970s and 1980s was well-known. Like it had with Lou Reed, that lifestyle may have contributed to his early death.
But once he met and married Iman, he spent the last 24 years of his life deeply in love in a monogamous marriage.
I only met him once, five or six years ago (a man holding the hand of a little girl, his daughter) and did not realize I’d met him until after the fact. Inside a pet store in Greenwich Village, as I watched a cute puppy frolicking I commented out loud, “What a cute wee beastie.” I saw the fellow standing next to me nodding and he said, “That he is. The world needs more cute like that.” Then in a quieter tone: “But never get one from a pet store. Go to the pound.” To which the little girl with him agreed. “That’s right, the pound.”
The man’s voice was unmistakable. I looked at him and the little girl, smiled and nodded in agreement, while thinking, “that guy really looks and sounds like David Bowie.” Despite looking at him and sharing a smile, it wasn’t until we’d each left the pet store that I realized, Oh. My. Goth. That was David Bowie. Just out wandering the Village. No security entourage to bolster his sense of importance. No sense of self-importance whatsoever. Just a guy, a dad, a husband, checking out some cute puppies with his daughter. Oh, and, on the side, a music icon, one of the greatest of our time.
In many ways, despite all the musical transitions he’d been through, on the personal level not much had changed in 20 years. In 1996, Bowie told Newsweek magazine: “These days, my buzz can be obtained by just walking, preferably early in the morning, as I am a seriously early riser. I leave only if work demands it. I am not a secretive guy, but I am quite private. I live as a citizen pure and simple. I don’t go for the disguise thing — I’ve never found it necessary, at least not since my real hair colour grew in years ago. I suppose wearing jeans is the nearest I get to confounding expectations.”
This ultra-private man could have announced his diagnosis and travelled the world, fed his ego selling out 50,000 to 100,000-ticket stadiums night after night for month after month. Instead he went out quietly in the loving arms of a very few loved ones.
Bowie did not foster the sense of self-importance that’s so rampant in the entertainment industry. The artist lived and died with dignity.
Bowie’s artistic output has often involved issues of death.
So when it came time to leave this Earth, the grim reaper visited someone who had dealt with the metaphysics of life, death and dying throughout his career.
Some of those who’d inspired him had left shortly before his own departure.
Lou Reed had been gone a mere two months.
From “Five Years” and “Ziggy Stardust” to “Heroes,” “Ashes to Ashes,” or “Lazarus,” death hovered over many of his songs.
As Simon Riches and Andrew Watson wrote in David Bowie and Philosophy: Rebel Rebel, “Bowie was a unique performer. No other artist has ever written his own obituary in the form of an album release, just days before his death….Bowie’s illness was known to very few people. To the very end, Bowie embodied the unconventional and the contradictory.”
On January 10 of this year, I was about to travel to New York City when suddenly the world changed. I received the news that David Bowie had died. I had just purchased his newest CD, Blackstar, as well as ordered the vinyl release of the album. Two days later, the artistic genius who had created Blackstar was gone.
I listened to the lyrics and realized he’d told us the end was near. The ageless 69-year-old had left us. How was that even possible. He was the ultimate Pan.
My admiration for him grew (if that was possible) after his death. I already considered him in the same category as Tchaikovsky, Stokowski, and Philip Glass.
His music provides solace in times of pain and crisis. Think Heroes. It also provides an outlet for confused and unknown feelings. Think Rebel Rebel—an anthem if ever there was one. A simple riff based around D and E chords. His lyrics a catalyst for rage: Diamond Dogs.
His talents extended far beyond music. Unlike many rock stars aspiring to the world of theatre, Bowie was an actor first, as well as a fine sax player. The Rock & Roll world came later.
His final album could have attracted the crème de la crème of the world’s musicians, any of whom wanted to work with him. Again, not his style. Instead, he scoured jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. In 2014 he walked into 55 Bar, a small jazz club a few steps from the Stonewall Inn, liked the jazz quartet he heard and contacted them to be the backup band on Blackstar.
That album was a lengthy goodbye to his time spent on Earth. Like many of his works, the music is almost unclassifieable, except as his producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone magazine: “The goal, in many ways, was to avoid Rock & Roll.”
By the time most people heard the album, the lyrics were being sung from another world.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” is chilling to listen to from the man now in his grave.
The mesmerizing track “Lazarus” gave not so much a warning as a simple message of truth: “Look up here, man / I’m in danger.”
Visconti posted on Facebook and told Newsweek: “His death was no different from his life—a work of Art.”
David Bowie left behind a son, 44-year-old Duncan, a 15-year-old daughter, Lexi, and his wife of 24 years, supermodel Iman, who, on the day of David Bowie’s death tweeted, “The struggle is real, but so is God.” She also said, “Rise.”
She tweeted: “Life isn’t about avoiding the bruises. It’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it.”
Perhaps, after such a dismal year, it’s a time for rebirth. Or, as Iman noted: “Rise.”
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin

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Is Youth Wasted on the Young?

One of my Metroland Newspapers columns from March 31, 2016

KSD_6393_CSm “I think morals are getting much worse….There were no such girls in my time as there are now. When I was four or five and twenty my mother would have knocked me down if I had spoken improperly to her.”  (Attributed to 60-year-old Charlotte Kirkman)

It’s difficult to listen to conversations in the local pub or coffee shop without hearing someone dissing young people, with the griper giving a nod to days gone by as better times.

As for the above quote, it was uttered in 1843, which leads me to believe that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

You can go back to a much earlier time to Greek education between 300 and 600 BCE, and find this paraphrase from the Schools of Hellas.

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Still, our world has survived.

Do some young people cause trouble? Certainly. But so do some less-than-young people.

Over the past five years of writing my other column, Enchanté, I have featured and will continue to feature many young people who are contributing much to the world. They give me hope for the future.

Last weekend, I had an opportunity to work with Move Collective, a dance/movement/youth group that performs in many areas of the City of Kingston. The session featured parkour-themed movement behind the Tett and Bader centres. It was a testament to creativity and positive energy.

Members of Move Collective jumped from ledge to ledge, flew over a metal park bench, and pounced up and off the walls of the Tett Centre.

The session even provided some entertainment for Kingston Symphony-goers. During the symphony’s intermission, many attendees drifted outside to watch the action going on at the lakeside behind the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Some concert goers asked questions. A sophisticated, impeccably dressed elderly gentleman chatted with a teen whose attire was less than impeccable. Both nodded, smiled, and laughed. It was a fascinating mingling of street and symphony culture.

So, are we headed down some highway to hell?


There never was a Golden Age of the past in terms of childhood and youth behavior.

I simply do not see that poor behavior in many young people. Do teens swear more and take drugs? Sure. So do their parents. Children learn what they see.

If we perceive more youth crime, it’s because anything even slightly outside the norm, that might have been considered quirky in the past, is no longer accepted. What would have been settled on the school yard twenty years ago now becomes a cause for major crisis intervention. We’ve pathologized youth.

If there is a problem, it doesn’t lie with young people; it lies with parents and with corporate manipulation of the youth culture. The adult world beckons. It tempts a teenaged (or younger) person to jump into adult activities. Then when they do, we condemn the teen. We glorify the sexualization of children and we commercialize youth culture. Just look to childhood beauty pageants and dance competitions for proof of that.

At the same time that many parents make few life demands on young people, we have also come to see typical youthful behavior as harmful or criminal. The Western world perceives any childhood activity as harmful if it falls outside some rigid norm. Never mind helicopter parents who hover over their children lest they feel any anxiety or pain, our entire culture is hovering over the young.

There is no time or place for a young person to legitimately experiment. No climbing; you might fall and get hurt. No running; you could scrape a knee. Don’t go up that tree, you could break your arm if you slip. Here, let me put a tracking device in your backpack so I can hover over you 24 hours a day.

All this monitoring gives children the message that they will never be capable of handling themselves without some outside authority taking care of everything. It also leads them to grow into adults full of anxiety because they were never allowed to learn the skills to deal with falls, pain, and failure.

According to a British Broadcasting Corporation report, youth crime rates have been falling consistently in the United Kingdom for over a decade, yet the climate of suspicion toward young people has consistently increased. There’s almost a panic that many have about the perceived poor behavior of youth.

There is a similar situation in Ontario, Canada. According the Dr. Scot Wortley of the Centre of Criminology at the University of Toronto, in a report on the roots of youth violence, prepared for the Ontario Government, the fear of crime in Ontario has been increasing, despite a lack of actual increased crime.

The Media focuses on what will draw ratings and website clicks; in other words, anything that will lead to advertising dollars. Individual crime cases draw huge ratings. According to Wortley’s report, focusing on sensational individual cases, creates fear of crime and increases the belief that violent crime is getting worse.

“Media coverage of individual cases still has a powerful impact on public perceptions of crime and violence,” wrote Wortley. “Criminologists, on the other hand, tend to rely on both official and unofficial crime statistics when forming their opinions.”

There is a trend that has not changed over time and it has to do with brain development. Young people have always committed more crimes than older members of the population. We also know that risk-taking is higher among young people. Those brains just haven’t developed enough to keep the owner out of trouble. Violent and criminal behavior decreases drastically in the late twenties. Wortley refers to this as the “age-crime curve.”

Wortley notes that the majority of Ontario residents believe that the violent crime rate is increasing.

“The results presented…suggest that this widespread perception is fundamentally incorrect,” he concluded.

The youth crime rate has steadily been falling, although there was a marked apparent increase in the 1990s. But that increase came after the Safe Schools Act was passed and many school boards adopted a zero tolerance policy.

Again, from Wortley’s report: “Critics have argued that this increase in the province’s official violent crime rate had more to do with the increased use of police in schools than with real changes in youth violence.”

So is there any real cause for concern? There is, but it is related to socioeconomic status, not age.

In his conclusion for A Province at the Crossroads: Statistics on Youth Violence in Ontario, Wortley noted:

“Finally, though overall crime rates have remained stable, severe violence is apparently becoming more and more concentrated among socially disadvantaged minority youth. Most disturbingly, recent data suggest that this general pattern of violence may become more entrenched if current economic trends continue.”

In addition to my photography and writing work, I teach at St. Lawrence College. In photography, video editing, music, and media classes, I witness amazing young people every day doing things that have never been done in the past. I watch our future nurses, police officers, electrical engineers, biotechnicians, and child and youth care workers grabbing the world and taking over from the previous generation. I proudly pass them the torch.

I’m thrilled at the quality of the people who will be running our country in the next generation. Many of them seem much less self-centered than the older generations. They’re thinking globally with a social conscience and acting locally with integrity, intelligence, and perseverance.

From examining current research as well as writings of years gone by, all I can conclude is that each generation thinks there is some kind of crisis in relation to the behavior and actions of its youth.

George Bernard Shaw claimed that youth is wasted on the young. Perhaps it’s not wasted, but it would be nice have a share of that energy once in a while.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin


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Be the Love


My Enchanté column from this week.

With Valentine’s Day looming, what is one to do if there is no special someone in the picture? How did we become so programmed to feel embarrassed if we’re single, or guilty if we are coupled but don’t spend enough coin on our romantic partner?

As I started to write this column, I kept humming This is Not a Love Song, Public Image Ltd’s 1983 post-punk critical four-and-a-half-minute visit to the world of love. If you don’t know the tune, just keep singing, “this is not a love song” over and over. That’s the framework for the piece.

So, starting in the cynic’s mode, I have to wonder, why do we bother celebrating Valentine’s Day? It’s got everything to do with sales, and little to do with true love. If I love someone, should I not show that every day?

The first known reference connecting Valentine’s Day and romance is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382). By the 15th century, lovers were exchanging poems and handmade cards, often sealed with red wax. During the late 19th century, commercial cards had become popular. The corporate world never looked back.

What will I be doing on Valentine’s Day? Possibly cynically watching some movie like Manhattan Murder Mystery or something equally Woody Allenesque. If I’m in a somewhat less cynical mood, the perfect Valentine’s movie would be The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki‘s beautiful tribute to aeronautical engineer, Jiro Horikoshi. In many ways, the film’s full of love, especially that shared by Horikoshi and his beloved Naoko Satomi. The movie also features some of the most beautiful animation ever created.

Valentine’s Day is a time when many hopeful thoughts drift to marriage, with a desire of joining with a life-long partner. Some who are struck with Cupid’s arrow plan a big moment to propose. What bigger moment than February 14? And what better way than with a big sparkly rock? That’s where the diamond ring comes in. Not trying to ruin your moment if that’s what you have planned, but the sparkly rock things is another corporate-controlled plan.

Think diamond engagement rings have been popular forever? Nope. It was New York’s Tiffany & Co that introduced the humongous (or less so) diamond solitaire in 1886. But the idea didn’t skyrocket until the late 1930s when the De Beers diamond company carefully crafted one of the world’s most successful marketing campaigns. Ever hear the phrase “Diamonds are forever”? That came from the original De Beers campaign to lure buyers with the thought that the diamond equated everlasting love.

De Beers is also responsible for the idea that the proposer should spend one month’s income on an engagement ring. That was such a successful marketing ploy, that they later upped the ante to two months income. You can see why I’m a little cynical and skeptical of all the love we associate with Valentine’s Day. We’re programmed by sly marketers to buy stuff.

To quote another song: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Seriously, what does love have to do with any of this commercial nonsense? Am I being cynical or simply realistic? I’m not averse to love (or romance).

What are all the people who are single—by choice or otherwise, or just not into the whole consumer mentality supposed to do on February 14?

If love is truly about giving, not receiving, they you can share love in numerous ways on Valentine’s Day. Be a secret Cupid and leave a little something special on the desk of someone who needs cheering up. Maybe they’ve had a rough year. Or maybe they’ve been unlucky at love lately. Why not cheer up their day with something special? A book to read. A Lindt & Sprüngli  chocolate. A single rose. A package of M&Ms. A cheery photograph.

How about smiles for strangers on the street (without being creepy about it)?

I recently experienced several situations of love, not the mushy romantic type, but the kind where a person truly gives of him/herself.

Amidst more than 80 mm of snow (almost 70 mm of it coming within less than 24 hours), I made my way around New York City during the recent mega-storm. I experienced the many communities of a city going through a difficult environmental moment.

One thing stuck out. Lots of smiles and laughter. People made snowmen in the middle of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, streets usually teaming with traffic. They tossed footballs on West 54th. New Yorkers are supremely resilient.

By noon, the Metro buses were shut down. As of 2:30, all non-essential vehicles were banned from the streets. By 4 p.m. the subway system was shutting down and Broadway went dark for the night.

On Pell Street in Chinatown, a location where the crowds are usually shoulder to shoulder and cars bumper to bumper, a young boy, alone in the middle of the street with his parents watching from a doorway nearby, lifted piles of snow on his little shovel and tossed them in the air, laughing with each batch of snow he sent skyward. His parents shivered, but with smiles on their faces. The family lived in that moment where love is lived. They smiled at me as I walked by.

On a subway platform, itself covered with snow blown from outside by howling winds, a tall man, a Samuel L. Jackson doppelganger (or maybe it was the real dude, New York’s like that), whistled Stand By Me. The ghost of Ben E. King lives. Within seconds, three young women snapped their fingers in time to the beat. Within another minute, all 15 people on the subway platform sang the song. At first I thought it was a flash mob, but I found myself joining in with what was simply a community coming together in a difficult moment. Love is found in community support.

Love is about giving. I recently witnessed it in the form of a young woman, still living in Goth or post-punk mode with beautiful hair in shades of jet black, blue and purple. Piercings filled her ears, lips, nose, cheek and eyelids. The razor blades attached to her leather jacket completed the look. Her partner was equally adorned.

With the snow up to my knees and 80 kph winds making the falling snow feel like sleet, I saw an elderly woman with a walker hobbling at the corner on the other side of a snow bank. There appeared to be no way she was going to make it across the street. I wanted to help her, but, before I could, the post-punk couple approached her. I don’t know what was said, but each of them took one of the elderly woman’s arms (the young woman also carried the walker and the woman’s bag of groceries) and helped her cross a four-lane street.

I stood and watched and realized the dampness in my eyes wasn’t from the snow pelting my face.

As they reached the far side of the street, the pair remained with the woman until she walked up to a door. The couple gave her a long hug and helped her up the steps. She was safe from the storm. She opened her purse and tried to give them something, but they gestured refusal and shook their heads. She waved at them as they walked away, then she closed the door, probably feeling quite cared for in that moment.

Forty-eight hours earlier I’d heard that a brutal storm was about to hit the east coast, but what I experienced over the day was love. No romance. Just love. I’ll take that any day.

So, on Valentine’s Day, if you want to express and feel love, be like the young couple who helped the elderly woman with her walker cross the street.

I’m trying to find a way to express mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. I’m failing badly, so I’ll end with a quote from Jack Kerouac:

“One day I’ll find the right words, and they will be simple.”

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The boy in ballet: a young trailblazer

Photo by Nadine Baker / Cameron Baker colors his pointe shoes black.

Photo by Nadine Baker / Cameron Baker colors his pointe shoes black.

My Enchanté column from June 25, 2015

You won’t find one of the most powerful—and at the same time graceful—14-year-old athletes on the soccer pitch or at the hockey rink.

Cameron Baker spends many hours a week training in ballet. Barely into his teen years, he’s breaking ground for other dancers, young and old.

Cameron didn’t set out to become a pioneer in the world of dance. In fact, as a child, he initially resisted taking dance classes.

Now he’s following the path of Rudolph Nuryev and Mikhail Baryshnikov and pushing the boundaries of dance.

Rudolph Nureyev, born in Russia, was a natural-born rebel in politics and the arts. In a field where the focus was always on the female dancers, the ballerinas, Nureyev created a place for men. He defected from Russia and eventually became the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. His rebelliousness helped create an arts world where men were accepted as dancers.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Latvian-born dancer who studied under George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet, helped make ballet more accessible to the masses. Both Nureyev and Baryshnikov became folk heroes in the world of dance.

Several centuries earlier, during ballet’s infancy, men performed the fancy footwork. If women performed on stage at all, they remained in the background. The 15th century saw the introduction of ballet masters. Louis XIV was responsible for the creation of the first ballet school. The centre’s ballet master, Pierre Beauchamps, developed the basic foot positions of ballet, which, at the time, was an almost exclusively male-dominated dance form. Around the same time, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who founded the Paris Opera Ballet, started to include women in ballet dances.

Prior to the French Revolution, during the last decade of the 1700s, men ruled the world of dance. They were expected to be both graceful and strong. It was considered unseemly for a woman to dance on stage. One questioned such a women’s femininity and morality.

Ballet was associated with the aristocracy, and, after the French Revolution, it was suddenly considered a disgrace for a man to dance on stage.

Dance is an area of language confusion.

There isn’t a male word-equivalent to the female ballerina, although one might expect ballerino, the Italian male form, to fit. But ballerino is considered arcane, and rarely, if ever used in English, except in slang. Depending on the country, male ballet dancer, danseur or danseur noble are the most common terms for males who dance in ballet performances.

Much of my professional work in photography is in the field of dance. Although I feel like I’m in excellent physical condition, I’m always in awe at the strength, stamina, flexibility and sheer power of dancers. The professional and pre-professional dancers I know are in as good or better shape than most professional sports stars.

Cameron Baker is no exception. He’s strong and agile.

“I’ve always been dancing since I could walk,” he says. “I figured out it was such a cool thing when I would spin on the kitchen floor tiles at home. People would say, ‘Why don’t you take dance?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t want to.’ Another year later, same thing.”

He finally caved into the idea of dance classes when he was about nine years old.

“I went to hip hop,” he says. “It was like, okay guys, make your own choreography. It seemed like the only thing the guys knew to do was slide across the room. I didn’t go back, but when KSD (Kingston School of Dance) was in the downtown studio, I joined the Bboyz class. It was great. I loved it.”

He kept going to Bboyz classes. Ebon Gage, the school’s Artistic Director, suggested ballet to Cameron.

“He told me it would really help with my strength,” says Cameron. “I tried it and I was one of the only boys in class.”

What’s unique about Cameron is that in ballet, he dances en pointe, something typically associated with female dancers. It is a brutally demanding technique, for which dancers spend years of preparation. Those who are pushed to start too early or who are trained poorly can end up with career-ending injuries. The technique requires intense stamina and strength as well as perfect execution of technique. A dancer has to be developmentally ready and physically able to handle the grueling work.

When Cameron told his dance teachers he wanted to work en pointe, they fully supported his decision.

“I deeply admire his willingness to blaze new trails by taking on something as difficult and non-traditional as pointe work, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity as a teacher to work with him on this exciting new path, ” says Melissa Mahady Wilton, one of Cameron’s ballet instructors at Kingston School of Dance and the Dance Engagement Coordinator for the City of Kingston.

After Cameron achieved the milestone of being ready for en pointe, he traveled to Ottawa for a fitting for the proper shoes. You can’t walk into a store and buy a pair of generic pointe shoes. As important as technique, a dancer’s pointe shoes have to be carefully fitted by a master fitter who crafts the shoes to an individual dancer’s feet. Failure to do this, as much as poor technique, can lead to a devastating injury.

But Cameron wasn’t pleased that he could only get pink shoes. So, calling on his creativity, he took a black magnum Sharpie marker and colored his pink pointe shoes black.
With that little bit of ink, Cameron Baker claimed his place as a danseur in the world of ballet.

“It’s kind of scary at first,” says Cameron. “You’re the only guy in your school doing pointe and think, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I’m doing something wrong and they think that’s how all boys will work en pointe and maybe guys shouldn’t do it.’ But after doing pointe a bit, I know I’m doing something different. That makes it cool.”

Cameron currently trains in hip hop and several forms of ballet specialties, including jumps and turns, pas de deux and en pointe. He has some wise words for others who want to follow in his footsteps, or, pointe steps.

“For boys who want to do ballet and don’t think they can, that mindset has changed,” says Cameron. “Ballet definitely makes you stronger. You’ll feel more confident. Now, rather than just saying I do dance, or I do breakdancing, because that’s what boys do, I say, ‘I do ballet.'”

His teachers have watched Cameron’s skills excel.

“Cameron has grown tremendously in his technique as a dancer over the past year, but the most wonderful thing has been watching his confidence grow,” says Mahady Wilton. “He has a self-assurance now that contributes to his stage performance, his partnering skills and his willingness to take risks and tackle new challenges.”

Dance is supposed to be about expressing yourself, not expressing the mindset of a group, explains Cameron.

“That’s what I think is the coolest thing about guys doing dance,” he says. “It’s about being yourself and expressing yourself.”

He says he thinks there may be one other boy in the region rehearsing en pointe, and two others who have been fitted for shoes.

This summer, Cameron will be participating in a Ballet Jörgen intensive training program in Toronto. He’ll be involved with ballet with every breath he takes during the day. He’d also like to work with Melissa Mahady Wilton on his ballet skills, particularly en pointe technique.

Mahady Wilton says that, despite Cameron’s young age, he serves as a mentor to others:
“I think that he is a wonderful role model for our younger male dancers, who can see, via Cameron, endless artistic possibilities for themselves.”

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin

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Passion for Life Inspires Artist’s Sculptures

JohnBoxtel7806CSmMy September 3, 2015 Enchanté column

Art has shaped John Boxtel’s life just as he has shaped a life for and from his sculptures. Creation is his destiny.

The 85-year-old sculptor lives in a secluded home he built near the river outside of Napanee. His sculptures rest in the forest, on his lawn, by the water and in his home. Everywhere I look, I see movement where none exists. A fairy flutters outside the back door.

There’s a passion to his work that matches the excitement an observer can see in Boxtel’s eyes as he walks around his property. Away from the outside world, it’s easy to believe that you’ve entered an enchanted land when visiting Boxtel’s home base.

During his career, in addition to woodworking and sculpting, he’s been a teacher, he’s built and repaired boats, and he’s designed a hotel.

He’s just returned from Lunenberg. He wanted to see where the Bluenose was built. Boxtel is a free spirit who meanders where the wind takes him.

His connection to his art is a constant. There’s a stability within him.

A pair of wooden shoes sit on a step at the entrance to Boxtel’s home, a reminder of his Dutch roots. Inside the front door hangs a pair of Dutch vintage skates—Boxtel’s own—hand-forged blades (theyr’e still sharp) under a wooden footplate, with tie-on straps.

Boxtel grew up in Holland and came to Canada in 1954.

“I was 24 going on 14,” he says. “I think I came because I wanted freedom. I said it was to get away from my mother. I needed space.”

Yet, when he approaches a sculpture of his mother in his yard, he rests a hand fondly on the shoulder of the life-size work of art.

“That’s me with my mother,” says Boxtel, as he looks at the sculpture of a pregnant woman holding a young girl on her lap. He points to the girl. “That’s my sister. She died as a young child. I am still inside my mother there. My mother wanted to replace my sister with me when I was born, and that just doesn’t work. It was difficult.”

He admits that there were other reasons for leaving his native Holland.

“The caste system was still very strong in Holland,” he says. “There was no way to move or grow, even laterally.”

Boxtel studied building technology in Holland but wasn’t happy.

“I never had a sense of direction,” he says. “I left on impulse and followed a path all over the globe. I found a new freedom in Canada.”

After arriving in Ontario more than 60 years ago, Boxtel met woodcarver Claude Taft, connected with the Kleinburg Gallery.

Boxtel eventually landed at the Ontario College of Art where he completed his degree over six years. Along the way he got married and had three children.

“I was so lucky,” he says. “At that time, all the great artists were still teaching at the college. Thomas Bowie taught me sculpture, Gould taught painting, [Richard] Nevitt taught life drawing. I got well educated from the ground up, then went on my own and did my thing. But I never really believed I was an artist. Only in the last five years have I accepted that I’m an artist. All of a sudden, it explains all these things, my restlessness.”

Divorced in 1967, Boxtel lived in Fenlon Falls, where he started an industrial program in the local high school. He taught architecture, drafting and design. In an odd twist, he also taught ballroom dancing.

“They were putting on a play, Annie Get Your Gun. I was friends with one of the English teachers, so they got me to create the set. It turned out no one knew how to dance for the show, so I also became the ballroom dance teacher.”

Teachers from Burlington visited Fenlon Falls and convinced Boxtel to move and teach at their larger school.

But by 1975 he was restless again.

“I took a year and bummed around Europe on a bicycle.”

Back in Canada, he continued his career in sculpting, woodworking and design. He even designed a hotel in Mexico and built all the furniture.

“My girlfriend at the time was a real estate agent,” he says. “She wanted to manage the hotel. I was supposed to be part and parcel under her management.”

He stops and smiles at me.

“I’m not very manageable, so I left.”

After retiring from his teaching duties, Boxtel left his home in Stoney Creek and bought a house on Wallace Island in the St. Lawrence River and lived there for about five years.

“For my dock light, I built a sculpture of Diogenes.”

Somehow that seems fitting, but the Goddess Libertas would have been equally apt.

From there, Boxtel moved to Portsmouth Village before finally settling at his current location outside Napanee.

The original model of one of his prized sculptures is in a field on the way to his home.

“It’s ten kids flying kites,” he says. “I didn’t sell it. After it was cast in brass, I donated it to my home town in Holland. I am celebrated, and I am absolutely happy. It made my life come full circle.”

He takes me to a room in his home where there is a giant wood carving on the wall. He touches and runs his hand across it.

“This was the first piece I ever carved,” he says. “I was in Holland recently and discovered it.”

He bought back the carving, created when he was 23, and brought it home to Canada.

Although Boxtel started carving when he was a kid, he didn’t seriously get into sculpting until 1960.

He’s been sculpting since. You can see his beautiful bust of Molly Brant in a courtyard behind Rideaucrest Home in Kingston, facing the river, just as Molly Brant’s home would have in the 18th century.

“I spent a lot of time in Deseronto and heard quite a bit about Molly Brant,” he says. “Molly Brant became my hero. I decided to do a sculpture of her head and donate it to the Native community for Kingston. But this guy from the ‘Hysterical Society’ wanted to put it on a cairn. I didn’t allow it. I designed a column and said I was donating the head but it had to be on the column.”

Boxtel says the organizers insisted on a cairn and he finally relented. He shakes his head and waves his arms as he explains this. In other words, this time it wasn’t worth his effort to fight the bureaucracy.

Now that Kingston’s newest school will be named in Molly Brant’s honor, Boxtel is proposing to create a full-sized sculpture of the First Nations woman. But after the trouble he had last time, this one won’t be a donation.

 In Kingston, Boxtel became friends with Flora MacDonald. She sat for him as he created a sculpture of her. He hopes this sculpture finds a home in Kingston.

He takes me into his workshop and shows me large barrels full of clay.

“I’ve kept that clay damp for more than 50 years,” he says.

He dips his hand into the clay and looks at it. He holds it for a moment, then puts it back and gently covers it with a wet cloth. He closes the lid and rests his hand on top for an extra moment.

“Every piece I’ve ever created is in there. That’s the clay that’s formed everything I’ve done.”

At 85, John Boxtel continues to find new things to do.

“If there’s no hope, there no life anymore. I always assume there is a future. Life goes on. You live until you die. You can’t stop living or you die. A lot of people retire and then die.”

He still sculpts, but admits he pulled away from the scene for several years.

“I got sick of the politics,” he says.

He builds tree houses and does a lot of woodwork in his studio. He teaches drawing at the local outreach centre. He’s also completed a book—Studio—about his work. He’s looking forward to the book’s release next month.

This wonderful artist, who lives in his own idyllic setting, says life is not about the material.

“I don’t give a shit about money,” he says. “I always tell people I’m independently poor.”

Perhaps, but there’s a richness to his spirit and art that is priceless.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

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Dancing in a dangerous time

Nat Horne at home in New York City / photo by Mark Bergin

Nat Horne at home in New York City / photo by Mark Bergin

My Enchanté column from August 13, 2015

Part 1: Dancing despite the odds

In his New York City Hell’s Kitchen home, filled with reminders of a dancing life, 86 year old Nathaniel (Nat) Horne lives with Princess, an older and large black lab. There’s also Bosco, a mostly black cat with some white patches. Princess holds the role of greeter of guests. Nathaniel Horne is recovering from spinal cord surgery and moves slower than normal.

As a show of welcome, Princess brings visitors her plush toy stuffed human. It’s a sign of respect for all who enter the realm of Nat Horne.

Walking into Nat’s living room, a Bette Davis musical is playing on his large screen television.

“I love musicals,” he said. “Nothing can make me happier.”

Surrounded by a sense of elegance, I’m sitting in a room with a man who worked with Matt Mattox and Alvin Ailey and played a significant role in the development of modern jazz dance.

Oversized hand fans decorate the walls. They’re from the Cotton Club, and not the new revamped version. Nat Horne taught jazz dance to performers in the revered Harlem jazz setting.

Horne has seen it all. Born in 1929 in Richmond, Virginia, he didn’t set out to become a famed dancer of an era where race determined much in life.

“I have been very lucky, extremely lucky,” he said.

It’s a statement that could be easily argued against. Horne’s life is based on far more than luck.

Born into a devout Baptist family, his father a minister who did not believe in dancing, Horne always knew he wanted to dance.

He held his arms out straight at about waist level and said, “Since I was that high, I knew. My father asked me one day what I wanted to do. He was in a leather rocking chair and I was on his lap. I told him I wanted to be a dancer. The next thing I knew I was on the floor.”

From then on, Horne never stopped dancing, except when his father came home.

“In my heart I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I danced around the house all the time, but, when dad walked in the house, everybody was religious. I came along at a time when you didn’t smoke, drink, play cards or do anything but go to church on Sunday and crowd meetings on Wednesday.”

Nat talked about the Bible being the best book ever written.

“But the stories have all been interpreted wrong. Too many religions have taught people to live in fear. Everything we do is out of fear, not out of love.”

Growing up in Virginia, churches for Blacks were in isolated locations, out in the woods.

“It was a wonderful time, going to church with my father, the minister. But it was also a dangerous time coming back from church at night. The Ku Klux Klan liked to ambush Blacks. I was taught to respect everybody, which is good. But I was also taught to be passive; that’s why I don’t like to make waves. I saw the movie Twelve Years a Slave, and I understood how some Blacks were brainwashed to be passive and how others became militant.”

The Ku Klux Klan was responsible for ongoing and organized terrorism aimed at Blacks, Catholics, Jews and the Civil Rights Movement. The organization thrived on bombings, especially at Afro-American churches, and lynching of Blacks, especially men. Reported (there were probably many more) lynchings included 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites in the United States between 1882 and 1968.

Horne doesn’t mention any of this, aside from calling it “a dangerous time.”

“I always respect people, which is good,” he said. “But I know now that you have to always understand yourself before you can understand another person.”

So how did this natural-born dancer follow his dream, despite a father who disapproved and a culture which oppressed not only creative expression but the very existence of Black Americans?

“My aunt would take us to see musicals,” he said. “I loved dancing by instinct. I made up my own routines.”

Then, in a scene that could just as easily have been written for Billy Elliott, a young Nathaniel Horne happened to be playing basketball at the YMCA when a Miss Carver, who held dance classes in the building, was looking for male dancers to be partners to the girls in her classes.

“I said I’d come up,” said Horne. “I always attributed my dance experience to Miss Carver.”

Like most devoted students of dance, Nat still calls his first dance teacher Miss.

But Nathaniel was still officially not allowed to study dance.

“My mother allowed me to slip out every Saturday night to rehearse,” he said. He laughed, holding up his arms. “I got all my muscles by lifting girls.”

During high school, he performed as the prince in Beauty and the Beast, dressed in gold lamé‎ and knickers. His father saw the show and liked it.

“It was fun for me,” said Horne. “I thought my father had adjusted.”

Apparently not.

After high school, Nat’s father sent him to theological school. Nat ended up with a Bachelor of Science degree. Around 1950, he was drafted into the army.

“I wanted to go into special services and entertain with my dancing,” he said.

Again, no go. The Army didn’t agree. They were looking for well-educated Black officers.

“I did not want to be an officer,” said Horne. “I wanted to dance. I’d been rejected so many times, I wondered if I would ever be a dancer.”

He finally got a break, in the oddest of places, in a region known as a stronghold and centre of Ku Klux Klan activity.

While stationed at Camp Breckenridge, the hostess of the officers’ club told Nat that performers were needed for club entertainment. Horne assumed he would be performing with the hostess.

“I had a St. Louis Blues 12-inch platter (vinyl recording) and prepared a dance for us,” said Horne. But there was to be no duet. The hostess was white and could not be seen performing with a Black man.

“She told me to make up a dance. I did and she thought it was great, but said I had to have a costume.”

He laughed again. He enjoyed recalling this event. In hindsight. It wouldn’t have been so funny at the time.

“I had to have a costume. She gave me sailor’s pants, one of her blouses, along with a tam, and tied a scarf around my neck,” he said.

Then he had to get through a large number of soldiers to get to the stage.

“This was not going to work,” he said. “I knew the cat calls, or worse, that I was going to get.”

He’d seen a movie where Gene Kelly did a belly slide across the floor. He used that scene to his advantage. He asked the band’s drummer to play a drum roll and not start playing the record until his got to the stage.

“I backed up and started running,” he said. “I dropped down and did a belly flop and slid to the stage. I came up on my knees and there I was. Then they wanted an encore. I ran off the stage and said ‘No more dancing.'”

Next week: Part 2 / Nathaniel Horne’s life on Broadway, teaching, and a Kingston dance connection.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin

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Chilina Kennedy feels Carole King’s love

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

My April 16 Enchanté column

“I have often asked myself
The reason for the sadness in a world
Where tears are just a lullaby
If there’s any answer, maybe
Love can end the madness
Maybe not, oh, but we can only try” (from Beautiful, by Carole King)

Canadian actor Chilina Kennedy weaves her unique skills into her role as Carole King in the Broadway show Beautiful.

Not only did she make the grade in her Broadway audition, but Carole King herself had to sign off, approving Kennedy for the role. The praise can’t get any higher than that.

Carole King has had more than 400 of her songs recorded by over 1,000 artists. A hundred of those songs became hit singles. All of that success came at a time when people had to shell out some serious coin for hard copies, i.e., records.

But Carole King’s life and career didn’t involve an easy ride.

“She was song writing in a time dominated by men,” says Chilina Kennedy. “She was quite brilliant. I don’t know if many people know how many number one hits she wrote and how much material that we listen to came from her.”

Kennedy, herself, is no slouch. Born in Oromocto, New Brunswick, she lacked a geographic stability through her younger years. The daughter of a career military officer, the family moved regularly, often spending less than a year in each location. Finally, to provide some sense of a safe nest, her family made Kingston home during her high school years. While her father continued to travel for military duties, Chilina and mom remained close to home.

Kennedy attended Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI). While there, she immersed herself in theatre, music and dance. She also attended Kingston School of Dance and trained under Len Stepanick.

“I loved my time at Kingston School of Dance,” she says. “And Ian Malcolm at KCVI was great.”

While in Kingston, Kennedy made her first trip to New York.

“When dad worked at the United Nations, we visited him in New York,” says Kennedy. “I might be a small town girl, but if I had to pick a big city, it would be New York where I’d live.”

During post-secondary training in theatre at Sheridan College, she made a trip to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to see a Canadian actor she admired perform in the lead role in Anne of Green Gables. Kennedy had played the role herself on the stage of KCVI.

“I went to see Tracy Michailidis,” says Kennedy. “After that, I was so inspired by Tracy. And then, later, I ended up playing that role in Charlottetown.”

It didn’t take long for Kennedy to become a darling of Canadian theatre. She has performed as a member of the Stratford Festival for several years. With her 2009 performance as Maria in West Side Story she became a Stratford star. Other roles at Stratford have included the lead in Evita, Rose of Sharon in Grapes of Wrath, Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Lois Lane in Kiss Me Kate. She also performed in the Shaw Festival for three years and in Mirvish’s world premiere of The Lord of the Rings.

In 2012, she got her first taste of Broadway in the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, after the show transferred from Stratford to New York. But the production lasted less than four months on Broadway and it was back to Stratford for Kennedy.

In 2014, she had to withdraw from the Stratford season when she became pregnant. But in an odd twist of fate, that opened the door for the biggest role of her career.

Kennedy was 32 weeks pregnant when she flew to New York City and auditioned for the role of Carole King in Beautiful. She landed the Beautiful part, replacing Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller. Then, shortly after giving birth to Henry, she performed as the lead in Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius production of Mary Poppins. After that show ended, Chilina, her partner, Jacob James, and wee Henry moved to New York.

Now, six days a week, she performs in the world’s theatrical epicentre on the stage of Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street, a couple of blocks from Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.

Kennedy reported in a recent interview in New York that “Carole King is a glass half-full kind of person and I think I’m a glass half-empty person sometimes.”

I asked her about that view.

“I just sometimes think it may be the nature we’re born with,” she says. “Carole King sort of talks about it in some of her songwriting. In the song Beautiful, she’s watching people on the subway with grumpy faces, yet she writes in such a beautiful way. She casts a happy shade of yellow on everything. I guess I’ve seen poverty and negative things, as has everyone, but I’m more beaten down by them. I’m learning to appreciate a glass half-full approach. To see the forgiveness Carole King has inspires me to be more that way.”

Kennedy explains that Carole King’s bravery extended to her public life.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “Her bravery allowed her to tell her story publicly. She talks candidly and openly about physical abuse she suffered with one of her partners. She said if she reached one woman and that woman then went for help, it was worth it.”

The very existence of theatre is important to Kennedy.

“I truly believe that the theatre a culture produces reflects the values of that culture,” she says. “You can tell a lot about society by what kind of art is going on and how the arts are being produced. Theatre allows you to share with one another in a live experience. There’s a person-to- person energy exchange going on. It’s an experience you don’t get with TV or movies. It’s live, in the moment in front of you. It’s a way we connect that you don’t get on Facebook; you only get it in person-to-person contact.”

In some past performances, Kennedy has used a brilliant and interesting method of getting into her role and inside her character. She’d cover every mirror where she could see herself.

“It all gets a little much,” she says, “There are mirrors everywhere and we’re always looking at ourselves. Every time there’s a quick change, there’s a mirror to check yourself. Not to be too precious about it, but it’s not helpful. And it can be hard to get over, especially if you’ve had dance training where you’re always checking to make sure your form and lines are right, it’s hard to retrain the brain.”

So to get more into her roles, she would cover every mirror and dive into her character from the inside out, rather than looking at the outside appearance.

“It’s a form of sense memory,” she says. “When you are first learning something, if you are always checking yourself on the outside, the learning process becomes stressful. I want the learning to be something positive, not stressful. Now I don’t worry about mirrors so much, but I always try to remember what the character feels like from the inside out.”

She’s found another piece of life that helps keep her centred and grounded: a baby named Henry.

It’s hard to get your head stuck too high in the clouds when you’ve got a baby back here on Earth.

“When I get home from a performance and I see my baby, I realize what’s really important in life.”

As we chatted, there was no half-empty sense hovering over the interview. It was all positive. Open. Refreshing. Chilina Kennedy, despite her self-evaluation, strikes me as having an attitude quite like that in the role she plays in Beautiful.

For more information about Chilina Kennedy and the Broadway production, Beautiful, visit and

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

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Ballet: a feted feat of the feet


My column from April 2, 2015

Ballerinas move across the stage like elegant fairies dwelling in a forest of the Otherworld.

Many the young child dreams of being on that stage. In December, I attended a matinee performance of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. It was ideal timing for those whose bedtimes arrive before 9 p.m. As I looked around the sold-out 2586-seat theatre during intermission, I smiled: more than half of those in attendance were pre-teens, each in her or his personal dream.

For many, it was a first introduction to live ballet. Chloe, a six-year-old beside me, smiled throughout the entire first act, her legs not quite reaching the ground, wiggling back and forth. As the curtain closed on Act One, she stood and twirled.

I see the same reaction when children see ballerinas I’m working with in public around Kingston. Frankly, I often see adults in awe of dancers.

One of my photo sessions in January involved three dancers—Kara Gooding, Meggi Graham and Natalie Palma— visiting a Grade 3/4 class at St. John XXIII Catholic School. The dancers moved slowly around the classroom while children worked, first in reading time, and then language arts. At the end of lessons, the ballerinas answered questions during a talkback. The children grilled them. They were fascinated to learn that the dancers train longer and harder than many professional athletes.

Dance enthralls us. During one of my recent Tett open studios, a gentleman asked me about the history of the tutu.

Public misconceptions regarding dance are rampant. Something I’ve heard consistently from the uninformed and culturally inept is the notion that ballet is not healthy for dancers, that they bend and twist in ways that aren’t good for them, that damage their bodies.

That may happen—especially for dancers who work en pointe too early—with inept teachers in schools that push children to do things that are developmentally inappropriate with regard to their physiology, but it won’t happen in ballet training with professional teachers who themselves understand a child’s physical development and its relationship to dance.

As for the tutu’s history: ballet has been around since the 1500s, the tutu, not so long. Today, the tutu is synonymous with classical ballet.

It is believed that Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) wore the first tutu on stage in La Sylphide in 1832. Others point to Virginia Zucci in the 1880s, because her dress bore a stronger resemblance to the modern tutu.

As the technical skills of ballet intensified, and as the footwork became more intricate and required increased training and skills, it became natural to allow the public to see what the body was doing.

The tutu developed so the audience could witness the fine art of the dancer. Most early tutus were white. Today, tutus come in a wide range of colors and styles. Nothing beats the elaborate costumes worn in George Balanchine’s Jewels, where the ballerinas appear as emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The tutus are heavy and elaborate, and the sparkles can be seen from the farthest corner of the theatre. Likewise, there is little on stage more extreme than the difference between Odette and Odile, the White Swan and Black Swan in Swan Lake.

The tutu, by its very nature, appears ethereal, surreal even. In addition to highlighting the legwork of the ballerina, the tutu also allows the dancer to appear as if she is floating through the air on a glistening cloud.

The tutu can range from the longer, flowing Degas-style to the classical pancake or Balanchine’s powder puff look.

Until the early 1700s, dancers wore elegant, floor-length dresses. But in 1730, Marie Camargo raised the hem of her dress enough for audiences to see her feet and ankles, to demonstrate a bit of legwork. Over the decades, the ballerina’s dress continued upward until it became what we now know as the tutu.

Former ballerina, Jennifer Homans, traced the history of ballet in her book Apollo’s Angels. Ballet arose in the Renaissance court cultures of Italy and France. In the days of Louis XIV, men performed the intricate footwork that we now associate with women in the ballerina role.

The French Revolution in the late 18th century changed that. As the populace rebelled, the refined movements of men in dance became symbolic of the aristocracy. Homans explains that by the mid-1830s, it had become a disgrace for a man to dance on stage.

As women took over the techniques requiring extreme leg extensions and high jumps, anything covering their legs hampered their technique.

“Female dancers take the ideals that existed in the aristocratic art form and turned them into a feminine and spiritual ideal of which they are masters,” notes Homans. “Then you get this image of the ballerina on toe, in these more Romantic Era ballets of sylphs and unrequited love and the romantic themes that carried ballet into the 19th century.”

According to Homans, the tutu has a storied past.

“With a name probably derived from the French children’s word ‘tu-tu’—meaning ‘bottom’—the costume is a product of evolution that made its debut in 1832, an instant classic, so to speak, that’s been swathed in magic ever since.”

By the 1940s, the ballet skirt had evolved to new levels of intricacy; some included wire hoops, nylon and rayon.

The most famous tutu designer/maker was probably Barbara Karinska (1886–1983), born in Russia, but who later made New York her home. She worked on more than 75 Balanchine productions and originated the powder puff tutu, which is not as flat as the pancake tutus favored by Russian dancers. Of the costumes she created, 9000 are still housed in Lincoln Center’s wardrobe department below the home of New York City Ballet.

To help tutus remain stiff when not worn, they are hung upside down. Some are hand-washed after each performance, while others are dry-cleaned after three or four performances.

As for en pointe work, its history started as entertainment. Travelling troupes would thrill audiences by walking on their toes. Dancers displayed strength and skill by dancing on their toes. It made them appear taller and even more graceful. Marie Taglioni of the 19th century Romantic Ballet Era is credited as the first dancer known to dance in a ballet en pointe. She changed the face of ballet, turning en pointe work into a form of artistic expression requiring skill, strength and stamina.

Each pointe shoe is painstakingly fitted to a dancer’s feet, so she can dance on her toes without injury. You cannot simply walk into a generic shoe shop and buy pointe shoes. Here in Kingston, a ballet master fitter travels from Ottawa a few times a year to provide the fitting for dancers serious about their art. Failure to be properly fitted can end an aspiring ballerina’s hopes for a career in professional dance. This needless tragedy happens far too often and is easily preventable with the competent knowledge of a skilled shoe fitter combined with a dance teacher knowing when the ballerina is ready to move to en pointe work.

Melissa Mahady Wilton, the City of Kingston dance engagement coordinator and a teacher at the Kingston School of Dance, who regularly assesses dancers’ readiness, fears that many dancers are allowed to move to en pointe far too early, years before her body and skill level should. This is where the misconception about ballet injuries arises.

When Mahady Wilton’s own students are assessed as ready for en pointe, she recognizes it as a great achievement, an acknowledgement of a dancer’s hard work preparing for the physical and technical demands of this advanced technique. Sometimes it takes several years for a dancer to reach this stage. Some never work en pointe.

To witness dance and ballet at the highest level, keep your eyes on the calendar at the Grand Theatre and the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning. Watch for the upcoming Kingston School of Dance annual performance at the Grand Theatre in June. You can even see ballet classes in action at KSD through the windows at the Tett. Often, when dance companies visit Kingston, free master classes are provided at the Grand Theatre.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

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Nevermore: hope hovers beyond darkness

Scott Shpeley as Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe / Photo by Joan Marcus

Scott Shpeley as Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe / Photo by Joan Marcus

My next Enchanté column

There can never be a more haunting line in literature than, “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.'”

Likewise, there is no more memorable theatre than the Canadian production, Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, now playing at New World Stages in New York City.

The soul of Poe lives on the stage in Nevermore. The show’s poster reads: “His darkest story was his own.” That pretty well sums it up.

Born in Edmonton at Catalyst Theatre, Nevermore has made its way over tens of thousands of miles, across Canada, to England and now in a second run in New York City, this time moving up to New World Stages, in the heart of the theatre district.

Actor Scott Shpeley, who plays Poe, joined the cast at the show’s inception. Like several others involved in Nevermore, Shpeley trained at the University of Alberta. Six of the seven original Canadian cast members are still with the show. The lone newcomer is an American, Lindsie VanWinkle.

“In 2008, I auditioned right out of school,” said Shpeley. “Ryan [Parker, who plays Rufus Griswold] and I were in the same class. I’ve been really lucky to be part of projects like workshops of new plays and musicals.”

Once a show has its official opening, nothing is changed. Usually. Nevermore bends that rule.

“It’s been an adventure,” said Shpeley. “This show has broken the mold with changes happening throughout, since the opening. That’s what I love about Catalyst [Theatre]. They’re not scared of diving back into a work and adjusting it.”

Shpeley as Poe has a pivotal and crucial role in Nevermore, as I saw it performed last week.

“When the show started, I said almost nothing, and only sang twice or thrice,” he said, sounding rather Poe-like. “Now I’ve got bigger songs and more speaking. The narration of the story has changed. The story has evolved. Even the costumes have had to evolve with the show and new things have had to be built or adjusted on stage. The fearlessness and joy that the [Catalyst] company brings into the room is unlike many companies.”

Shpeley is spellbinding. It’s difficult to take one’s eyes off of him throughout the show. But the entire cast is special, drawing the audience into their collective and individual worlds.

Immediately after the show, I tweeted: “Nevermore….a haunting play with a darkly fun script, work-of-art costumes, dance and music in a Gothic manner. Poe lives @nevermorenyc.”

There is nothing with which to compare this play. It’s breaking new ground. I could say it reminds me of some bizarre, grotesquely beautiful combination of Gothic, steampunk, Devo meets Rocky Horror meets Edward Scissorhands. And for good measure, throw in the innocent lovable nature of Winnie the Pooh. It’s romantic and terrifying in the same moment. There are deeply tender scenes; there are also disturbing scenes.

Nevermore was written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson, Catalyst Theatre’s Artistic Director. Bretta Gerecke, also of Catalyst, designed the physical world of Nevermore, including sets, costumes and lighting. That’s a lot of talent in two people. Now multiply that several times and add the entire cast and crew.

After its initial Alberta run in 2009 to commemorate the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (January 19, 1809), Nevermore went on the road, touring throughout Canada and then to London, England, where it played at the prestigious Barbican Centre. It touched down at the New Victory Theatre in New York City for its first run in 2010. That’s when big time producers took note. Radio Mouse Entertainment headed up production. They brought it back to the City this year.

The show starts the moment you enter the theatre. Music sets the tone. Haunting and
As Nevermore unfolds, there are time you’ll feel like you’ve hopped onto the wondrous and scary boat ride in Willy Wonka.

Watching the show, awe filled me from beginning to end. One moment it was the costumes, the next the music, then the movement on stage. Rarely have I experienced such a flawless production. The choreography by Laura Krewski is a unique combination of contemporary, ballet, lyrical, even jazz. Like other aspects of the show, dance weaves itself seamlessly into the spell that is being cast for two and a half hours.

Is this a musical? Certainly not in the traditional sense. In fact, some promo material calls it a musical play. Actors sing most of their lines, but more like they’re reciting poetry (Poe’s).

Is it a play? Again, not in the traditional sense. It’s performance art in that it challenges traditional theatre. It also challenges audiences to combine opposing feelings. The main themes running throughout this production are despair and hope.

“For me, this play is important because everything about its style is heightened,” said Shpeley. “What I love is that we ask the audience to live as large as we’re living on stage and to dive into the hope that Poe experienced, as well as his despair, but always his return to hope out of despair. We all go through phases, and we have to find a way back to hope. This guy’s journey through life is like that. He’s got a belief in the world that there’s beauty and love and he’s happy, then sad. I think it’s that theatrical adventure that makes this so important.”

When Shpeley moves on stage, there’s no doubt about Poe’s torment. Death and abandonment followed him throughout his short life. Diseases like tuberculosis stole key people from him. Be it caregiver or lover, significant loved ones disappeared from Poe beginning early in life with the loss of his mother. You hear her take her last gasps as young Poe watches her die. In Nevermore, you witness the genesis of famed Poe stories.

“Much in his life was heartbreaking,” said Shpeley.

The show opens with Poe holding a massive bound text, asymmetrical in proportions—of course, everything about this show is out of proportion. There’s an oversize quill, which Poe holds onto through much of the show.

In that opening scene, Poe blows a cloud of dust off the text, opens it, and then the stories unfold.

Like Poe’s poetry and prose, Nevermore has a unique rhythm. It takes a heightened sense of the musical awareness for actors to capture that. It’s comes as no surprise to learn that Shpeley is a multi-instrumentalist. He plays piano, drums, bass, guitar (acoustic and electric), cello, accordion and has performed in a nose flute ensemble.

“I really like music,” he said. “That’s kind of why I love theatre. When you get a group of actors in theatre or musicians playing together, there’s a community that can do things with and without speaking. There’s nothing else like it that you can build as a community.”

He is particularly fond of drums.

“It’s the instrument I love playing the most,” he said. “I really dig the drums. The rhythm of Poe’s work is so delicious, so mesmerizing and all of his work has such a unique rhythm. You hear that in The Bells and in The Conquerer Worm. A lot of the show is Poe’s own words. That fits the rhymes, the images in the show. You’ll see images from The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Black Cat.”

You can also sense traces of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death meandering into the script.

Shpeley said that he loves the vocabulary of Poe.

“I find that theatre can do that really well; you almost hear his voice.”

As the curtain closes, you will feel changed, moved by this unique experience, hopeful, despite the great despair that ever threatens to overwhelm us in life. As one audience member said following this seductive stage production: “Don’t miss this show. Don’t waste time on other shows. Just see this.”

What’s next for Nevermore. That’s an unknown. Wherever it plays, it’s worth traveling great distances to experience this masterful creation.

“The producers are very excited with plans for the show,” said Shpeley. “They’re just as passionate about this piece as we are. They want as many people as possible to see it.”

Visit for some video clips.

Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is currently playing at New World Stages at 340 W 50th Street, New York, until March 29. I’ll announce future dates and locations through Twitter @markaidanbergin

Cast and Creative:
Jonathan Christenson (Writer, Director, Composer, Lyricist)
Gaelan Beatty (Henry Poe, Ensemble)
Shannon Blanchet (Elmira Royster, Ensemble)
Beth Graham (Rosalie Poe, Fanny Allan, Sissy Clemm, Ensemble)
Ryan Parker (Rufus Griswold, Ensemble)
Garett Ross (David Poe, Jock Allan, Ensemble)
Scott Shpeley (Edgar Allan Poe)
Lindsie VanWinkle (Eliza Poe, Louise Gabriella, Muddy Clemm, Ensemble)
Bretta Gerecke (Production Designer)
Laura Krewski (Choreographer)
Wade Staples (Sound Design)
Matthew Skopyk (Music Producer)
Betty Moulton (Voice, Speech and Text Director)
David Wilson (Singing Repetiteur)
Michael Cassara (Casting Director)
Candice Charney (Production Stage Manager)
Trish Henson (Assistant Stage Manager)
Susan Keappock (Company Manager)

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