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First February Post: Two Arts Docs and a Doc Fest Preview

First February Post on Two Arts Docs and a Doc Fest Preview
3 February 2020

Chaakapesh (Canada 2019 trailer:
Directors Roger Frappier and Justin Kingsley record the remarkable collaboration that took place during 2018 between the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Indigenous artists resulting in a new work that traveled to Indigenous communities across Quebec’s northern “Nunavik” region.  The title comes from the original composition, an opera “Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest”, with a libretto by Cree playwright Tomson Highway and music by Matthew Ricketts.  An underlying theme is that of mutual cultural encounters and musical expression as a means towards reconciliation.  Symphony conductor Kent Nagano stresses this point.  Of Japanese-American ancestry, he could pass for an Inuit elder.  Highway refers to the role of laughter in the Cree mythology of the divine, absent from the gendered Christian concepts with which he was raised.  One performer Florent Vollant speaks about overcoming his experience of residential schools.  In bringing together different artistic traditions the orchestra’s tour across Nunavik becomes a spirited learning experience for everyone—with a program that ranges from the opera and Inuit throat signing to pieces from the classical repertoire.  We see the benefits of this in the rapt attention of the Indigenous audiences, in the delight on the faces of children exposed to the orchestra’s instruments for the first time, in the testimonies of performers discovering novel modes of expression.  It makes for a viewing experience as enlightening as entertaining, and which one hopes will inspire more.  A
Cunningham  (Germany/France/U.S. 2019
Writer-director Alla Koygan’s homage to the celebrated New York choreographer and teacher Merce Cunningham will be of particular interest to aficianados of modern dance of which he was a controversial innovator pushing the boundaries of the form in which the human body is the prime instrument for artistic expression requiring a disciplined combination of athleticism and grace, movement and control.  Koygan’s profile intersperses mostly black-and-white archival footage from the career of Cunningham and his company (the master died in 2009 at age 90) with fresh performances of major works, in chronological order, that he created over the period 1942-1972.  Much of the musical accompaniment was composed by John Cage (also Cunningham’s life partner). Although Cunningham resisted any label such as ‘avant-garde’, his collaborations famously included with pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.  More than a conventional biopic, the contemporary performances in varied settings summon an aesthetic effect showing why Cunningham is regarded as a major figure in the development of American dance. (The Toronto film festival version was in 3D while the Ottawa screening I saw was 2D.  But unlike Wim Wenders acclaimed 2011 documentary Pina, a tribute to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, I’m not sure that 3D technology would add much to the viewing experience.)  B+    


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April 24, 2019 was the official launch of The Best of Screenings and Meanings: A Journey Through Film at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon, SK