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.

Posted in Ballet, Dance, The arts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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)

Posted in Art, Dance, Music, New York City, The arts, Theater, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A love affair with New York

Strawberry Fields in Central Park.

Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Photo by Mark Bergin

My Daytripper column from February 19, 2015

In the uber village called New York, millions of people mingle in hundreds of small neighborhoods and communities.
Street smart and gritty, those people who inhabit one of the world’s greatest cultural centres are also the friendliest. They tolerate anything and have lived through everything. They look out for each other. We look out for each other. I’m torn between calling Canada and New York home. When I’m away from the City, I crave its energy.

I have heard from quite a number of people heading to New York over the March break, so I think it’s time for another love letter to the city of aspiration.

From fine cuisine to street vendors, world class museums to underground (literal and metaphoric) performance art, the New York City Ballet to spontaneous dance in Washington Square Park, from renowned jazz musician Ron Carter at The Blue Note to a busker in Central Park, you won’t find greater expressions of art and culture anywhere. Period.

Countless songs have been written about New York and recorded there. What musician doesn’t want to call New York home? From John Lennon and David Bowie to Patti Smith and Taylor Swift, they all end up living in New York. Where else would you hear about someone like the late Lou Reed showing up in person when he heard there was going to be a public listening to his first album to commemorate its anniversary? Mr. Reed walked into the gathering in a bar and sat and listened, along with his fans.

As for film, a lengthy list of movies and TV segments are filmed there every year. You can take tours of famous filming sites.

You can walk in the footsteps of folk and protest music pioneer Woody Guthrie. A book called My Name is New York came out a couple of years ago. It documents Guthrie’s haunts in Gotham. You can see many of the places where he lived, played music and hung out with friends like Pete Seeger.

Last year, not long after Pete Seeger’s death, a friend and I were walking past the New York Society for Ethical Culture building on West 64th Street and heard some amazing sounds coming through the doors. We peeked in, and were beckoned in by welcoming smiles. It was a memorial for Pete Seeger with many of his friends, fellow musicians, and family members. At the end of that evening, my friend and I could only look at each other, shake our heads and say, “Only in New York.”

It’s a city where you could actually run into Sir Patrick Stewart on the subway on his ride to a theatre for his performances on a Broadway stage. Or Michael Buble performing with an a cappella group on a subway platform, my subway platform no less—the #1 train 66th Street/Lincoln Center stop.

It’s not unusual to run into your favorite actor on the streets, especially on the Upper West Side, away from the tourist epicentre in midtown.

New York etiquette: this is their home; don’t go screaming for an autograph, freak out, stare or point. If you must go nuts and touristy, do it at the stage door after a Broadway show. That’s where actors expect to sign autographs and talk with fans. Don’t do it if they’re sitting at the table next to you having dinner. Respect and privacy, please. I confess I had to restrain myself the day I ran into Scarlett Johansson. Even moreso with Jennifer Connelly. Those things give New York its glamor; but it’s the little things that give it humanity.

A woman with her daughter in a stroller walked nearby when I was asking for a new subway map at a Metro booth. I was told they were all out. The woman heard this and turned back and handed me a subway map. “I got two yesterday, ” she told me. “You can have one of them.”

Or a street kid with at least 20 piercings on his face holding up his hand to stop four lanes of traffic on Ninth Avenue to help an elderly man with a cane cross the street. Or the homeless man, Larry, I got to know over coffee and cookies on a cold winter day. I asked if I could take his photo. He was okay with that. I ended up selling a copy of the photo for a nice price a few months later. When I found Larry to share the money with him, he told me, “No, man, just give it to the shelter. That way we all benefit.” That’s my New York. That’s the New York I know and love.

If you’ve never been to New York, I’d advise spending your first trip just getting oriented. New York is a wonderful, walkable city. Once you understand the street grid, it’s hard to get lost. That statement goes out the window when you are south of 14th Street in Manhattan. Then you’re looking at the lines of the old Dutch settlements. Streets radiate from central squares and turn every which way. It’s easy to get lost. But that makes it fun. Just start wandering Greenwich Village. It gets even more chaotic south of Grand Street and into Chinatown and the Financial District. If you’re exploring south of 14th, keep a map with you.

If you’re into jazz, The Garage at 99th 7th Avenue, at the #1 Metro stop at Christopher Street/Sheridan Square, is one of my favorite locations. There’s live jazz nightly (until 2:30 a.m.) and all day on Saturday and Sunday. Don’t be surprised to see Grammy winners get up on stage to jam. The food is great or you can just sit at the bar and listen. There’s no cover charge.

I’m often asked what some “must-see” sites are in the city. That’s difficult to answer. Depends on your interests. If you’re into art, obviously MoMA (Museum of Modern Art); for theatre lovers, there is no end of live theatre. You’ll see the finest performances in the world in Broadway and off-Broadway productions. The scripts gets edgier (meaning, to me, better theatre) off-Broadway.

The only difference (aside from off-Broadway costing half the admission price) is that Broadway theatres seat 500-plus and off-Broadway venues seat 100 to 499. Sometimes, shows are testing the waters off-Broadway before moving to Broadway. Some of the best and most powerful plays I’ve seen have been off-Broadway.

You’ll see the same actors in either setting. Famed Broadway (and TV) actor Bebe Neuworth and film star Cristina Ricci performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a small off-Broadway theatre. So do not hesitate to take in a good off-Broadway show.

If you are a theatre lover, don’t miss Alan Cumming in Cabaret. You won’t see a better actor than Cumming or a quirkier, yet very touching, show than Cabaret. It’s closing on March 29, so this is your last chance to catch it.

New York’s Central Park is an absolute must during a visit. Central Park is a free adventure. You can relax and be entertained. Musicians busk in many locations. There’s breathtaking scenery and beautiful bridges, along with fresh air and exercise. Many visitors have fun recognizing locations from movies or TV shows. Don’t be surprised if you see your favorite actor with a child in tow or walking the dog. I spend a fair amount of time in Central Park to get away from the sensory overload of the city.

As for getting to New York, there are only two ways I’d travel. By plane or Amtrak train from Syracuse. I love trains, and you can get from Syracuse to Penn Station (34th St) for about $110 return (CAA/AAA gives you a 10% discount). Seriously, I can’t get to Toronto for that amount. Amtrak has free wifi, a club car, and you can change your itinerary without outrageous change fees.

Next week, I’ll look at how to be a tourist in New York, and, more importantly, how to not act like a tourist.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

Posted in Art, Dance, Music, New York City, The arts, Theater, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Following the beat of her heart

My Enchanté column from January 8, 2015

Art, to Yessica Rivera Belsham, is about celebration. It’s also about joy, healing, and building community. She’s recently found a new home for her creativity. She’s one of the resident artists who opened their creativity studios at the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning on January 1.

She’s a drummer and drum maker and is also skilled in the visual arts and movement.

“I’ve always had a big passion for rhythm and dancing,” she says.

Her interest in the beat of the drum became intensified several years ago.

“It started here in Kingston,” she says. “I was having a horrible night. I was heading toward my car and something stopped me; I heard this beat. Something within me was literally drawn to the beat. I followed my intuition and it led me to a performance by Wuawuanco Todos, Samba Kingston.”

“Those drums touched a part of me and changed my life. It’s like the heartbeat of the core. I just feel the music.”

She auditioned for the group in 2007 and a week later was part of a performance. Next, she started to make drums. She used recyclable materials.

“I wanted to bring an awareness of how much we throw away,” she says. “I’ve always been very crafty and heavily into the arts. I want drumming to be accessible to many people.”

She applied for funding from Awesome Kingston and was successful. That allowed her to expand her drum making.

“I got more material to make drums. I wanted to make them more sustainable. The drums I did have, I’d put a lot of work into, but they weren’t durable.”

There had been a community drum circle in Kingston, but the person running the group ended it. Yessica wanted a community group, so in June started a new group. She also uses the sounds of crystal bowls in her musical work.

She says she’s quite shy at heart, but has no trouble talking in public about drums and drumming.

Her dream was to have her own studio where she could make her drums, as well as a place for her painting and jewelry-making.

She heard about the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning and the arts hub’s call for resident artists to work on site in the eight creativity studios. Around mid-November, she learned that she was one of artists chosen by the Tett’s selection committee.

“I’m so excited,” she says. “I want to be there to be part of all the creative work that is going to happen. I feel like I’m getting to the point where everything is coming together, all the things I want to do, drumming, painting, sculpting. My cultural roots are Mexican and another passion is Aztec drumming. My dream is to incorporate drums with dancing as part of a full-body experience.”

With the Kingston School of Dance nearby in the Tett Centre, she is in an ideal place to combine drumming and dance.

Yessica has both an arts and a scientific background. She attended Regiopolis-Notre Dame Catholic High School and received Visual Arts, Media Arts, Creative Arts and Graphic Design Awards. She also studied for two years in Karen Pepperkorn’s Creative Arts Focus Program.

In 2003, after high school, she attended the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). During the second year, she took part in artist and illustrators sessions working with a body donation program at the University of Toronto.

“I was fresh out of high school and in my second year of drawing and painting, and here I was in a room of cadavers. There was a box of feet. It was a spiritual experience for me. I wondered where these feet had been, where the person had walked. It was very profound for me.”

This catalyzed an interest in nursing care, especially in the areas of gerontology and hospice. She’s currently studying for a nursing degree through the combined Laurentian University/St. Lawrence College program. Her goal is to become a palliative care nurse. But she’s never leaving her drumming and arts talents behind.

She founded Circle of Wellness, an organization that promotes holistic wellness and integrative therapies, as well as connecting communities.

In 2008, she moved to Mexico for a year to teach English and immerse herself in her Mexican heritage. While there, Yessica was part of a Tahitian performance dance group and participated with a West African performance group. She also studied under Mexican curanderas (shamans). Her fascination and passion for her own Mexican and prehispanic culture inspires her. She has also travelled to Hawaii to take part in a cross-cultural nursing program.

When she returned to Kingston, she rejoined the Samba group.

Yessica serves on the Board of Directors of the Gerontological Nursing Association of Ontario, is an executive of the Palliative Care Nurses Interest Group, Student Co-Representative of the Mental Health Nursing Interest Group. She is also the interim communications officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) Kingston Chapter.

She is certified in the Music Care Certificate Program, a program for healthcare professionals using music therapeutically.

She has volunteered a great many hours in medical and social service settings like Ongwanada, Hotel Dieu’s spiritual care team, Hospice Kingston, Kingston Parkinson’s Society, and Immigration Services of Kingston and Area. She provides drumming workshops with a group of individuals with varying abilities, seniors, children, and individuals in homecare and healthcare settings.

She’s passionate about wellness and the importance of end-of-life care. She rhymes off research about well-being, healthcare and things like meditation.

She’s also concerned about accessibility to resources. That’s one of the reasons she makes her own drums: she can provide them in groups for members who cannot afford their own.

“Everyone is important,” she says. “I’m passionate about our elders and their experiences and stories. I want my work to be accessible to everyone, including the homeless.”

She lists more research, specifically about the homeless and health care.

Does she consider her work daunting? Yes. Impossible? No.

This woman is real. She’s an artist and a healer. When she speaks about painful life processes or situations in the world, she doesn’t try to foolishly hide her feelings and pain. Tears flow down her face for long moments as she talks about the hurt in the world, the physical and emotional pain that many face. The next moment her face lights up with joy and passion as she talks about the importance of healing for everyone.

“I love the quote: ‘Be a part of the change you wish to see in the world,'” she says. “For me, just one person can make a difference; there’s a ripple effect. So many people are disconnected. At times I’ve struggled. It’s taking me so long to finish the nursing degree. But had I not taken the pause, all of this—she moves her hands through the air, referring to her involvement with the Tett arts hub—wouldn’t have happened. Things happen for a reason. I’m passionate about my heritage and roots, but everyone is important, regardless of their culture. Every person who is alive is important. No one is better than anyone else.”

At her new Tett studio, Yessica has lots of ideas about reaching out to the community. She wants to incorporate drumming into community building. She talks about a lantern lighting festival as a way of honoring our ancestors, linking this with bereavement, connecting more with Hospice Kingston. Her hands and face become more animated as she talks about her hopes for community outreach. She mentions Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival.

“The festival on the Day of the Dead is about celebrating life. We are honoring those who have died. It’s about a community coming together and not being afraid of death. Our culture is death phobic. It is not something we should be afraid of. Everyone will die. It is part of life.”

You can meet this fascinating artist in the creativity studios at the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning.
You can find out more about Yessica’s work at (drum circle), (Yessica’s site), or (Aztec drumming)

Posted in Art, Dance, Music, The arts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Spiritual Journey in Theater

My latest Enchanté column

The Oldest Boy LCT 10-14 124 copy Caption

When great actors of the stage are mentioned, we often think of those in their golden years. Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Patti Lupone come instantly to mind.

But one of the greatest stage actors of this generation will be in her thirties for about four more years, and she could easily pass for a much younger twenty-something. Celia Keenan-Bolger blasted onto Broadway in 2005, garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her debut as Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. She won a Drama Desk Award and the Theatre World Award.

In the past few years, her skills and performing diversity have glowed wherever she’s set foot. In Peter and the Starcatcher (the back story to Peter Pan), she won the hearts of thousands in her role as Molly, the adventurous girl for whom Peter would fall, if he could grow up. She won the Audience Choice Award for the role and was again nominated for a Tony, this time for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play.

Last year, as emotionally pained Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, alongside other stage greats Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Brian J. Smith, Keenan-Bolger again tugged at heart strings. She took a classic role and made it her own, defining for years to come the young woman with a limp and a searing insecurity. She received another Tony nomination for her portrayal of the painfully shy girl. She won every other award for which she was nominated, including a Drama Desk Award and the Theatre World Award.

But it is her current work as “Mother” in The Oldest Boy that has taken everything to a new level and depth. The off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater is a masterpiece in its own right, with a cast and crew that do it justice. It is probably the most aesthetically beautiful production I have ever seen.

Sitting with the stage phenom at Lincoln Center Theater after a recent matinee performance feels more like a late night metaphysical chat.

In The Oldest Boy, the fourth wall, that psycho-emotional boundary between performer and audience, is more a thin veil than solid wall.

The Oldest Boy opens with Mother walking onto stage, the house lights still on, sitting in a meditative posture, facing the audience. Mother looks into the eyes of audience members, acknowledges the awkwardness of the situation and turns herself around.

“I have a different relationship to this play,” says Keenan-Bolger. “The audience is the last character of the play. I look into people’s eyes and try to connect with them. What happens couldn’t be manufactured. In this play, that’s such a huge and important part of telling the story.”

She explains that she’s gotten more comfortable with the process during the play’s run.

Celia Keenan-Bolger brings the bittersweet magic of Peter and the Starcatcher and the pain and sorrow of The Glass Menagerie to her new role as Mother in The Oldest Boy.

This, once again, is why I love off-Broadway so much. So many more risks; so much depth. It’s a two hour spiritual dance (and literal ritual dance, at times) between Tibetan Buddhist culture, with its spirituality and ritual, and Western Culture: the value of ritual; the beauty of spirit; the confusion of rationality; the agony and joy of parenthood; the pain of letting go; knowing when to let go; the foolishness of parenting theories, which change with the seasons.

A monk sums up Western love in one sentence to Mother: “You confuse attachment with love. Love is not attachment.”

I can’t say enough good things about this play. Suffice to say that when I first saw it, I went back two days later to experience it again.

Celia Keenan-Bolger breaks hearts with her acting in this one. But every actor is strong. The rituals are mesmerizing. The dance. The tea ceremonies. The excruciating joy of childbirth. The excruciating pain of letting go. The risk of feeling. Simply overwhelming.

“It’s a beautiful new play by Sarah Ruhl about a woman, who lives in the United States, married to a man from Nepal,” says Keenan-Bolger.”They have a three-year-old toddler, Tenzin. Her husband is Buddhist, and she is interested in Buddhism as well. Two monks come to her house and say that they believe that her child is the reincarnation of a High Lama, a teacher. They want to take him back to India to educate him. She has to decide if this is even a legitimate claim and then has to come to terms with the decision of letting her child be taken away and educated as a Buddhist.”

Given the emotional depth of this production, I asked Celia what she’s learned about herself.

“I think what I learned about myself.” She pauses. “I haven’t totally answered this before. I think…” She pauses again. She’s thinking this one through.

“I do different things, like a play’s revival or a musical and that fulfills me.” She pauses again. Silence. She leans back and looks upward, then makes eye contact again.

“From the many roles I’ve had before, I’ve taken bits and pieces of things I’ve learned and put it all together in this one,” she says. “This was the first time I was on stage for the entire show. It felt like I had so many tools to do that. I realize how many amazing actors and actresses and directors I’ve learned from. As you work on stage, you really are building a body of work. Everything you do influences the next work you do.”

Celia Keenan-Bolger grew up in Detroit and has been performing since childhood. Her younger brother (Andrew) and sister (Maggie) are also theater professionals.

“I was the oldest of three and have loved theatre since I was very young,” she says. “I went to a community theater production of Sound of Music in Detroit and fell in love with it. I always had a sort of talkative precocious side. And I have amazing parents. My mother is a teacher and dad is an urban planner. They had no stake in our being in theater. They really let us be our own people. It’s like what this play addresses. I probably talked a lot and got up from the dinner table to tell stories. That was embraced by my family and not shut down.”

She started performing in children’s theater at a young age.

“I never really stopped,” she says.

She attended a performing arts school in Detroit and then attended the University of Michigan for musical theater.

“There is something amazing about theater,” she says. “It’s hard to master it. I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of different types of characters.”

The Oldest Boy is about attachment, love and letting go. It’s also a spiritual journey.

“I think when I first read this play many months ago, I had a very emotional reaction to it. It’s a strange ephemeral experience in this play. I dig deeper night after night. The writing and direction help to sustain an emotional response. I’m very curious about the questions this play is asking. They are very difficult to grapple with. The play has taken care of me. It’s not just about giving away your three year old. We all have things to let go of.”

In her preparation for her role, Keenan-Bolger spent time at a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York.
“They said something so profound. True love is wanting what is best for someone else. That’s not how we’re conditioned to see love.”

She explains that at recent student matinees of The Oldest Boy she thought it might be at a level that was too adult in orientation.

“There are so many ways to keep our brains occupied with screens and you don’t do interesting things with other people,” she says. “Theater is one of the few places where we all come together and have this shared experience. I really felt it at the student matinees. I thought it was a pretty adult play for Grade 8 and high school students, but their response has been so incredibly moving to me. I wonder if it just feels good to be in a space with a bunch of other people and get to talk about it when it’s over. Today, we are not called on to do that very often. I love going to a theater. I always have. I’m not religious and have never gone to church, but I think theater is like a religious experience. It’s that place where you watch people fail and overcome insurmountable odds. You also have this religious and ritual experience of doing something over and over again. You don’t have that in any other part of life.”

I asked her how she was going to say goodbye to such a masterpiece of a production.

“It always happens; you get the post-show blues,” she says. “Saying goodbye is done in such a beautiful way in this play itself. There’s so much to talk about around attachment in this play, it gives me a different perspective on leaving it. You can really care about something and let it go. We invest a lot of our lives in something and then have to deal with it being over. The play is about learning to love something and not hold onto it.”

It brings to mind one of Keenan-Bolger’s lines as Molly in the last scene of Peter and the Starcatcher, where she’s explaining goodbyes to Peter Pan: “It’s supposed to hurt. That’s how you know it meant something.”
What’s next?

“I’m working on a great piece by Ethan Lipton,” she says. “I saw his No Place To Go and thought I would give anything to work with him. He’s writing a new piece, and I actually get to do something with my husband (actor/producer John Ellison Conlee). We don’t get to work together, and now we are. It’s Ethan’s new play called Tumacho. It’s a comedy and it’s wacky. It’s very different from [The Oldest Boy]. We’ve been doing readings and workshopping it.”

She pauses again. Her eyes widen and the corners of her lips reach upward. “And we also get to go on vacation soon. We’re going to go to Turks and Caicos.”

Sounds like she’s returning to Neverland.

Keep your eyes open for Celia Keenan-Bolger. Don’t miss any chance to see her perform.

The Oldest Boy closes on December 28, and it is worth every effort you can put into getting to Lincoln Center Theater in New York to see it.

For tickets to The Oldest Boy, go to

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin

Posted in Buddhism, The arts, Theater, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Keen and Quirky Observations


My December 3, 2014 Enchanté column

A woman sits on a metal bench in a courtyard, talking on a cell phone. Her legs are crossed and turned toward a wall behind her, like she’s positioning herself away from the world. It looks like she’s also biting her nails.

It’s a private moment. But not really. She’s being watched. Observed.

She’s the subject in a photograph. There’s also a security camera in the photograph recording everything she does. It’s an iconic comment on our security-obsessed world. It’s also an ironic image, a moment on the street that many people wouldn’t notice. Wayne Hiebert notices. He records. The photographic specialty of this retired photojournalist is candid street photography. He’s one of the best at it.

As he looked through a window on a walkway above the street, Hiebert saw the woman who became the subject of his photograph.

“There’s sort of a decorative pattern on the glass I’m shooting through,” said Hiebert. “You see her sitting there. There’s a pattern on the glass with holes you can see through. It looks like the woman is the focus. You can also see the security camera above. You don’t put it together in your head immediately at the time, but it’s an interesting comment on how everybody’s looking in a voyeuristic way and everybody’s being watched. Cameras are everywhere. Then there’s me looking, and there’s the security camera in the foreground of the photo. This woman has no idea she’s being watched by anyone.”

That’s the kind of thought that goes into Hiebert’s work. Not at the moment of image capture, but on his own subliminal level. A great deal of what we call intuition is simply a vast storehouse of experiential knowledge that our mind draws from. Hiebert’s heart and intuitive mind are like parts of his camera equipment.

You can see some of Wayne Hiebert’s photographic works of art at the Central Branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.

What you will see in this show are a number of images of day-to-day life on the streets, on buses and in water. To the normal eye, these images pass by unnoticed. Hiebert catches the artistic in everyday moments, unguarded moments. He has four decades of work to choose from.

I detest the staged shots that are so common today. You’ll see them in magazines, newspapers and everywhere on social media sites. We confuse the real with the staged.

Everything in Hiebert’s work is real. There are no facades.

Hiebert grew up in British Columbia and remembers always taking photographs, even when he went to school in San Diego. After returning to Canada, he took on freelance work with a British Columbia newspaper. He’s been a photojournalist and street photographer ever since.

When his wife got into a PhD program at the University of Toronto, the couple moved east. Hiebert took on freelance work for the Toronto Star, Canadian Press and other organizations. He ended up with the Ottawa Citizen as a staff photographer. As the newspaper publishing business took a nose dive, Hiebert took early retirement. He’d been commuting to Kingston on weekends for about ten years as his wife had a teaching position at Queen’s University. Kingston became his home. He’s continued with freelance work and street photography.

There’s nothing setup in his photographic art. They are pure guerrilla images, taken stealthily as he goes about his walks. Hiebert’s work is radically different from what you see in many shots from today’s journalistic world. In his exhibition, no photo is staged.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), the father of modern photojournalism and street photography, once said: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment when the photographer is creative. The Moment. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

People generally don’t even know that Hiebert is taking their photo. He’s good at his work. Very good. Hiebert attended an opening of an exhibition of my photographs last winter. He had his camera, and I suspected he took a photograph of me, although I never saw him doing it. He later gave me a CD with the images he’d taken.

I seriously avoid having my photo taken. I hate posing and do not like seeing myself in images. I prefer to be hidden in the background. If a Potter-like cloak of invisibility ever goes on sale, I’ll be first in line to purchase one. But in one hour, Hiebert captured more photos of me than have probably been taken in the past ten years. And I didn’t see him doing it. He’s that good.

“Generally, people don’t know I’m taking their photo,” he said. “I haven’t asked anyone to pose. Cartier-Bresson was the father of the street. He was just a man who wandered the streets with a Leica shooting black and white photos. I really enjoy the spontaneity of the street. I like the tradition of capturing real moments as opposed to setup moments.”

The oldest photo in Hiebert’s current exhibition goes back to the late 1960s. He took it while he had his first newspaper reporter job in British Columbia. It features three white dogs in the rear window of a Volkswagen.

“I don’t usually do cute,” he said. And that photo is cute, but with the magical Hiebert touch. One can imagine the shot being on the front page cover of a fashion magazine. It’s quirky in its cuteness. It’s one of many everyday moments that Hiebert has transformed into art.

There’s a certain humor to his work, too. There’s an abstract image of a Canadian flag in his exhibition. It’s a reflection of the flag in rippling water.

“I shot that at the harbor when I saw a boat with a big flag on the back.”

The photograph’s title? Eau Canada.

One of the most unique photographs in the collection is an abstract London, England street scene. It’s shot as the reflection Hiebert saw looking into a Salvation Army musician’s tuba. It looks like some genetically modified combination of Dickens and Tim Burton or Dr. Seuss world views.

In short, another brilliant image.

In addition to a few such abstracts in the exhibition there are many realistic images, including several of Hiebert’s works of people on public transportation, everyday moments turned into decisive artistic moments in the hands of this photographer.

Hiebert calls his photograph of a man with a bicycle, taken across some train tracks in Melbourne, Australia, the “only formal portrait in the collection.” Still, it’s obviously a Hiebert image. He calls this a formal portrait, because the man who is the subject of the photograph saw Hiebert and looked at him. That’s a comment on the purity of Hiebert’s work. In a world that is so full of setup and posed shots, where this image would qualify as street photography, Hiebert refers to the image as a formal portrait.

It’s been two years since a previous Hiebert exhibition, Stolen Moments, was held at Verb Gallery.

“I’m at this point now where I have been amassing a body of work,” he said. “It’s time to start getting things out there. It doesn’t do any good to go out with my camera and look at the photos and file them away for nothing. If you consider yourself an artist, you owe it to yourself to get it out there.”

I consider it an honor to call this unassuming and brilliant artist a colleague. Check out his work in an exhibition—appropriately called Observations—in the foyer of the Wilson Room at the Central Branch (top floor) of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library at 130 Johnson Street. The show runs until January 3, 2015.

Posted in Art, Photography, The arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Oldest Boy


Celia Keenan-Bolger brings the bittersweet magic of Peter and the Starcatcher and the pain and sorrow of The Glass Menagerie to her new role as Mother in The Oldest Boy.

This, once again, is why I love off-Broadway shows so much. So many more risks; so much more depth. It’s a 2+ hour spiritual dance (and literal ritual dance, at times) between Tibetan Buddhist culture and Western Culture. The value of ritual. The beauty of spirit. The confusion of rationality.

I can’t say enough good things about this play.

Brilliant Buddhist philosophy….”Do you want to know how to never become unfashionable? Never become fashionable.”

The agony and joy of parenthood. The pain of letting go….and when to let go. The foolishness of parenting “theories”….which change with the seasons. “You confuse attachment with love. Love is not attachment.”

CK-B broke hearts with her acting in this one. But every actor was strong. The rituals were mesmerizing. The dance. The tea ceremonies. The excruciating joy of childbirth. The excruciating pain of letting go. The risk of feeling. Simply overwhelming.

Have to see this one again.

Posted in Theater, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment