Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hearn Generating Station provides a dramatic new home for Luminato

I'm not in the habit of doing reviews in this blog of all the various theatre and contemporary dance performances we attend, but last night's was a bit special, so I thought I would make an exception.
The occasion was the grand opening of this year's Luminato Festival here in Toronto. I'm not even a huge fan of Luminato, which I feel is another one of those festivals that started small and kind of funky and edgy, but which has grown unwieldy and a bit corporate. But this year, the usually scattered and multifarious festival has found a focus in a dramatic new headquarters. And it is this location itself that is the star of the show, for me at least.
The Hearn Generating Station, a long-abandoned 1950s-era coal-fired power station in an obscure but apparently soon-to-be-gentrified part of the Portlands area of East Toronto (just a 20-minute jaunt down the cycle track from my house, as it happens), is a fascinating glimpse into a post-industrial, even post-apocalyptic, future. Looking for all the world like one of those deserted and run-down warehouses where gang bosses carry out their torture scenes in TV dramas, the Hearn is all twisted (and, yes, tortured) rebar, decomposing concrete, rusting ironwork and obscure machinery. Hell, there are even the obligatory pools of extremely suspect-looking water, and exposed electrical connections and pipework that go precisely nowhere. I'm almost certain I recognize it from more than one nasty scene in a TV show. It's also absolutely massive and cavernous, apparently large enough to fit 12 Parthenons inside (if that is the kind of image that helps you visualize things, rising 20 storeys from the main floor, scaled by iffy-looking metal staircases and cross-crossed by steel girders.
This, then, is the unprepossessing material that has been reclaimed by the Luminato people, who have added eerie lighting, ambient industrial music, and a whole host of strange interactive art installations and photo montages printed on the brick walls. My own favourite was the huge 8-metre disco ball, made up of 1,200 mirrors, slowly spinning and reflecting distorted gobs of light throughout the whole building.

The particular event we were there to see - just the first of an eclectic program of artistic endeavour planned for the Hearn this Luminato season, including performances ranging from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Tafelmusik to left-field drone-metal legends Sun O))) to the queer hip-hop of Yes Yes Y'all, and from the serious and seriously Scottish James Plays to a doggie-themed drag show by The House of Filth - was an intense music and dance performance by Vancouver’s Holy Body Tattoo troupe set to live music by Montreal’s post-rock project Godspeed You! Black Emperor (careful with that exclamation point - they are picky). Seated just a couple a metres back from the ominous signs warning "Caution - Extreme Noise", we were soon grateful for the earplugs provided, as the music morphed between delicate (if amplified) chamber orchestra sections and brutal, punishing, cacophonous crescendos of guitars, drums and feedback.
The dance likewise lurched from skittish, hyperactive, spastic movements to extended statue-like poses to apparently random outbursts of shouting, laughter and physical flailing. Most of it took place on a series of up-lit and down-lit boxes or pedestals, although this loosened up significantly in the wild second half. At times, the audience really did not know what to make of it all, including the several (deliberately uneasy) false finishes. Some of the "dancing", however, was excellent, and the sheer physical stamina of the dancers was most impressive to behold, even if the choreography was a bit self-indulgent at times. But, together with the music and the surreal surroundings, the package as a whole was really quite spectacular, well worth the extended wait while "technical difficulties" were attended to before the show began.

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