A newbie discovers cultural stuff. Be gentle.

I stepped aside to allow Lizzy Bennet to pass me in the hall, and then followed her into the dining room. Mr. Darcy was waiting, and I eavesdropped as they discussed the idea of humour and whether or not it had any place in civil society. I and thirty-five other eavesdroppers then followed Elizabeth into a bedroom upstairs, where she was cornered by the odious Mr. Collins–

Campbell House - Dining Room

Darcy sat right there

But wait! How could this be? How could we be walking through a house from the early 1800s, observing the events from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the sort of thing you get to see at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Not only did we see an adapted version of Pride and Prejudice enacted before our very eyes, but we followed the action, room to room, in a house from the very same time period as the novel. Talk about authentic!

This was my first time ever at the Fringe, and what an introduction! Actors Hallie Burt and Kate Werneberg performed their adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel at the Campbell House Museum, the oldest building that survives from the old Town of York, Ontario (now Toronto). And you read that correctly: two actors, performing the whole story and playing all the parts.

Campbell House - Kitchen

Lizzy refused Darcy in the kitchen

So all thirty-five members of the audience stood in the front hall, before the narrow spiralling staircase, to watch Mrs. Bennet (Werneberg) gush at the news of the arrival of Mr. Bingley in the neighbourhood. Then we followed the actors upstairs to the large room where the ball was held and Bingley (Burt) and Darcy (Werneberg) first appeared and Darcy first met Elizabeth (Burt).

We moved from room to room as the story unfolded, and although the entire production only took 75-90 minutes, we hardly noticed that anything was left out, so smoothly did the actors manage the segues from major scene to major scene. We crowded into an upstairs bedroom where Mr. Collins (played by Werneberg with delicious unctuousness) propositioned Lizzy while she firmly refused him. We sat in the kitchen area to hear her refuse Mr. Darcy’s first proposal even more firmly.

The actors managed their changes of character with aplomb and just a few minor props. For example, one moment, Werneberg might flutter as Mrs. Bennett with a frantic fan in her hand, and the next moment, she exuded a delightful smarminess as Mr. Collins, abandoning the fan and quickly adding a collar with pretentious ruffles. Burt leaned on a cane to make her remarks as Mr. Bennet, while raising her voice and squealing like a preteen as she chatted with Wickham, as Kitty.

As audience members, we needed to step out of the way if an actor had to get past us, and of course we needed to be prepared for some degree of stair climbing. But the production was so well done that these were minor considerations. The atmosphere of Campbell House provided a very realistic backdrop, while the ability of the actors to change characters on a dime brought the story to fascinating, three-dimensional life.

It was such fun, getting to be a fly on the wall for this one. I don’t know what I want more–to go to more Fringe productions next year or to see what Hallie Burt and Kate Werneberg will create next!

Campbell House - Staircase and Clock

Up and down and up and down we went!

There’s something about the second floor (*) of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that brings peace to the soul. Well…my soul, anyway. I walk up the central stairs, and the first thing that faces me when I step onto the second floor is a view of the Lawren Harris gallery, waiting in the distance. And at that moment, it’s like all the stress I’ve ever felt sluices away, and peace descends upon me.

Baffin Island Mountains - Painting by Lawren Harris, c. 1931

Baffin Island Mountains

It’s always Lawren Harris I visit first at the AGO. From the first moment I ever saw any Group of Seven paintings, Harris’s paintings have drawn me like a magnet. Though more “stylized” than the work of other Group of Seven artists (or, for that matter, than Harris’s own early work), paintings like “Mountains in Snow” or “Baffin Island Mountains” express the reality of those scenes with precision and accuracy. In particular, the blue tones he uses are so serene and clear that this is what drains the tension right out of me (**). I think I could sleep very well indeed in a room with nothing but Harris’s blue northern paintings on every wall.

Mountains in Snow - Rocky Mountain Paintings VII - by Lawren Harris, c. 1929

Mountains in Snow

I spend a lot of time in the Harris gallery–a lot. And as I wander the second floor, I keep returning to it. But even so, there are other painters on that floor whom I also love. I had never heard of Cornelius Krieghoff till I went to the AGO. But now I am always eager to visit his paintings too.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff

Krieghoff’s stunning autumn colours in the wilderness

Krieghoff did literally hundreds of paintings of mid-nineteenth century life in Quebec. He painted everything from domestic scenes in homes to communities interacting outside in the snow to stunning autumn forest scenes to wonderfully dark, mysterious night scenes with traders in their canoes on the rivers. And amidst all his small, accurate details, you find humorous notes as well: there is one family that appears in community snow scenes rather a lot, and the sleigh in which they are riding home is almost always capsized in a snowdrift.

But before I visit any other paintings, it’s always Krieghoff’s scenes of deepest darkness that I find first. All I can think, gazing into the dark night in the Quebec wilderness, with a distant moon barely peeking through a break in the trees, is, “This must be just what the night looked like to those travellers, with none of today’s city lights and only the sharp stars directly above.” I think I could meditate for hours, gazing at these paintings.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff of the forest darkness in old Quebec

Tiny campfire and distant moon–in the wilderness of old Quebec

But again, there are other painters here. And the third one I visit with great eagerness and regularity is William Kurelek. I always think of him as my “odd one,” because I’ve always viewed his style as rather awkward. And yet I can’t take my eyes off his paintings. He, too, painted everyday scenes and landscapes not just in Quebec but across Canada, but he painted twentieth-century scenes. So I often stop before a painting of a small prairie town with a couple of old, wooden grain elevators along the railway tracks, which reminds me of the towns where I used to visit my Alberta cousins. (Few of those elevators exist any longer, which is a terrible shame.) Or I stop and meditate before a night-time prairie scene with cold, stiff snow stretching in all directions and a glittering, icy moon making the scene almost as bright as day. I, too, have seen snow like that, dry and crisp, so crisp that you can walk along the crusty top of a pile four feet high.

I've seen prairie nights like this

But I always end with the same funny, amazingly detailed painting–my favourite Kurelek painting of all. It’s a kitchen scene, in a very small apartment or house, that is so full of objects and accurate little details that you could explore the painting for an hour and still not have discovered everything.

My favourite Kurelek painting ever

Has there ever been a more realistic little room?

By the time I’ve visited all the Kurelek paintings, I am usually done. I end with one more meditation in the Lawren Harris gallery, leaning against a corner of one of the wide doorways, just…gazing. And finally, realizing that I can’t actually live there and that I must get back to my life, I reluctantly pull away.

Whatever stress I brought with me to the AGO is, by now, long gone. I have visited my favourite Canadian painter and other favourites as well, and the serenity of their work, especially Harris’s, has seeped into my soul. There is no more room for stress, at least for a little while.

* * * * * * *

(*) The second floor is where you’ll find the Canadian Collection, most of it gifted to the gallery by the late Canadian businessman, Ken Thomson, the wealthiest person in Canada at the time of his death in 2006. Mr. Thompson collected many works by Tom Thomson and members of the Group of Seven, a lot of paintings by nineteenth-century painter Cornelius Krieghoff, and other paintings by Canadian artists.

(**) Note that any lack of clarity, brightness, or, you know, straightness in the above photos is entirely due to my inexpensive camera. This was the first time I’ve ever been allowed to take photos of anything in the AGO’s collection, but one’s photos are only as good as one’s camera.

Before posting this, I should explain my own position on things. I moved to Toronto from Calgary, early in 2000. So my number one team remains the Flames. But I’ve come to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan too, by virtue of living here and being caught up in Leafs Nation. I don’t live, breathe, and sleep hockey anyway, so I get to stand “above it all,” for the most part. (Except when the Flames go on one of their surprising playoff tears, though that’s not been possible in recent years.)

Anyway. Last night, on CBC TV’s national news broadcast, The National, commentator Rex Murphy took on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the “apology” they did in every newspaper after missing the playoffs again — for the seventh straight year. And Murphy’s little…dissertation…was a thing of beauty, and had me laughing so hard I was almost crying. So for posterity, here it is:

Rex Murphy’s Maple Leafs Apology Commentary

(And I have to issue my own apology, because CBC’s Embed code — doesn’t. At least not on WordPress. But click to go there, and you will not be sorry!)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.

Palenque

The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.

Doctor Stuart Clark, Image courtesy of Simon Wallace, www.meltingpotpictures.co.uk

Image courtesy of Simon Wallace, http://www.meltingpotpictures.co.uk

The way Stuart Clark describes the fascinating lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, he could almost be talking about the plot of a novel.

Oh, wait – he is. Clark recently gave a talk at the Isobel Bader Theatre in Toronto, promoting his new novel, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, the first in a trilogy about the lives of perception-changing scientists. Clark didn’t do a reading, but just described the facts behind the events in the book. And despite a dose of jet lag (he’d just flown in from London, England), he kept the audience riveted. Did you know it was Kepler’s interest in astrology that led him to the discovery of his three laws of planetary motion? Did you know Tycho Brahe kept a pet elk in his castle, free to roam the entire place and eat from the table??

Clark, a well-known astronomy journalist with a PhD in astrophysics, has planned his trilogy not merely to try interest people in science and those who practise it. He wants to illustrate just how dramatically society’s entire view of what the universe is and how it works was changed by a few pivotal scientists. So in his next novel, The Sensorium of God, he’ll feature Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, and The Day Without Yesterday will complete the trilogy with the lives of Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and George Lemaitre.

Clark frames the explorations of Kepler and Galileo as part of the quest for the Theory of Everything. Any lay person who follows popular science through books, articles, or documentaries will recognize that phrase. Scientists today are still trying to find that one, all-encompassing theory that will explain everything from the behaviour of the most fundamental particles of which the universe is made, all the way up to the behaviour of gigantic galaxies and stars.

But when Kepler and Galileo began, their society believed they already had the Theory of Everything: astrology. Kepler was trying, in fact, to establish principles for the movement of heavenly bodies so astrologers would have better data with which to work. And many other scientists who studied the stars were working to an extremely religious agenda, trying to find a way to sync their imperfect calendars with the actual seasons, so the dates of religious events and rituals would occur at the right time of year. As Clark told his audience, when Galileo was forced to read a prescribed recantation, he refused to read the part where he confessed to being a bad Catholic. He simply was not, and the church ultimately agreed.

Picture of front cover of The Sky's Dark LabyrinthClark described both the times and surroundings these two scientists lived in, as well as the development of their thought. He moved from events to theory, and back again, with delightful ease. And all his explanations were easy to understand, no matter what he described. It’s not hard to see why he moved away from the world of academic research into that of astronomy writing. He brings alive the subjects he describes, so almost anyone can understand them. He currently writes for the European space Agency as the senior editor for space science, was formerly the editor of Astronomy Now, and regularly writes articles for such publications as The Times, New Scientist, and BBC Sky at Night.

Clark is in Toronto (with a few days in Montreal) for two reasons. First, he did this talk and a colloquium as part of the outreach of the newly-established Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. The institute does experimental research, but also conducts outreach into the community, to educate and share the passion of astronomy. It’s a testament to Dr. Clark’s qualifications and his skill in handling his subject that a work of fiction would be considered an opportunity for scientific outreach.

He’s also here for the International Festival of Authors, to promote The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth simply as a work of fiction. Whatever discussions he might engage in, or whatever readings he might do, his audience is due for a treat. His novel straddles science and and fiction the way he himself straddles science and journalism. And on either side of that divide, his writing makes the subject intriguing and understandable.

Families of blood cells

Families of blood cells

Doctor Robert Morris may have illustrated more about the scientific world than he intended, in last Wednesday’s lecture, “Chemists Have Solutions.”

There’s a divide amongst scientists who want to get the public to recognize the value of what they do. (Read this book review of Don’t be SUCH a Scientist for a more detailed discussion.) Some like to use a lot of pizazz when they talk to a general audience. Others prefer to lay out all the detailed scientific information and “let the facts speak for themselves.” The criticism of the “pizazz” approach is that it often means using flashy graphics and doing a lot of pep talking at the expense of some scientific detail. On the other hand, a dry recitation of every pertinent fact tends to put an audience to sleep, and their appreciation for the value of the work is not enhanced.

As he presented his lecture at the Toronto Reference Library, Morris was clearly aware that you have to do something to grab your audience’s attention, so they’re keen to hear what you’ll say next. He started by mixing three liquids in a lab flask, promising an interesting result after it “cooked” for a while. And he made liberal use of slides, and interspersed the occasional trivia question, making a point of letting a child in the front row give one of the answers.

Yet for all that, Morris is still clearly of the “lay out all the facts” school. Most of the first half hour was about the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto. We heard how many faculty there were, how many grad students they teach, how many awards they had won, where they were ranked compared to other university Chemistry departments…we heard it all. And then, since it’s the International Year of Chemistry, we also heard about and saw slides from events held several months ago. Yes, it’s really too bad the Toronto press didn’t properly publicize or cover those events, but they really weren’t that interesting — in the present — to an audience  for whom attendance was now impossible.

I suspect what the public really wanted to hear about was new chemical breakthroughs that allowed the production of cool new gadgets or processes. Forget how many grad students are in the university department! Show us that piece of cloth made with nanotechnology, which repels dirt and water and can never get soiled!

Morris did actually show slides of a couple of those breakthroughs, later on. The most intriguing was the Lab on a Chip — a tiny computer chip that can do medical analysis of an even tinier drop of blood placed on it. When that chip becomes common, no lab tech will ever take four vials of blood from us again, for tests. And instead of waiting five hours for results, we’ll have them in twenty minutes. We also learned about a newly developed process that can send antibodies into a person with leukemia, to target the specific family of blood cells causing the disease.

And that liquid compound Morris had made at the beginning? It provided a “traffic light” type of display. It had turned to amber while it sat, but with a little shaking, it turned red. And with much more shaking, it turned green. So there were a few of the “Wow, that’s cool”!” moments. Just not enough of them.

Doctor Morris was a great guy who was clearly excited about the work he and the other faculty and grad students were doing. His department deserves its high world rank, and is making a significant contribution in many areas. But in trying to get a general audience excited about chemistry, he may not be the person to grab their attention and keep it.

kd lang

Hallelujah, what a voice!

I think k.d. lang could coax music out of a rock. Watching and hearing her coax and tease each note from a quiet, tender song, and then belt out a ballad with such pure voice and power, you start to wonder if there’s anything, musically, that she can’t do. I admit, though, that my own favourite moment in last night’s free concert for Toronto’s Luminato arts festival was when Ms. lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

I confess that I’ve always disliked that song, feeling like it was melodically kind of boring. But when lang did it on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album, all of that changed. For me, it typifies how she puts her whole soul into a song, pulling every nuance of meaning and emotion from it and sharing it with the audience. I stood in David Pecuat Square, downtown, under the stars with several thousand others, and listened literally in tears.

Once a year, for ten days, Luminato fills Toronto with art, music, and literature. Some of the events in other venues can get pricey, but the festival makes sure that there are plenty of free events too, so no arts lover is left out. And clearly, they  don’t skimp at all, even for events that are free. From Halifax alternative band, The Joel Plaskett Emergency, to Arabic fusion with Yemen Blues and the Sultans of String, to k.d. lang last night, the concerts at David Pecaut Square have been of the best quality — and the greatest fun.

The American band, the Belle Brigade,  who are currently supporting lang on her tour, got us all warmed up with some great folk rock music. But of course the square was primarily  packed with fans of lang’s music, and every one of us responded to her the same way. We swayed to “Hallelujah,” and we clapped and danced to the more lively songs, pulled by lang’s personality and artistry into what felt like an intimate circle of friends. (As she remarked at one point, “Many of you, especially of the female persuasion, may feel yourself drawn toward the stage. I want you to know…this is normal.”)

And when lang and her band, the Siss Boom Bang, burst into a hard rock version of “Constant Craving” (which had been released in a more country style originally), that was the crown of the evening for me. To combine one of my favourite k.d. lang songs with my love of hard rock, well, it made the night perfect. And again — musically speaking, there’s apparently nothing she can’t do.

Even the weather cooperated, being warm but not oppressive. And after the concert, everyone seemed relaxed and fulfilled, strolling and chatting along the streets on the way to their cars or public transit. This great festival is almost over for another year, with just this weekend remaining. But Ms. lang and the Siss Boom Bang made sure that it’s going out with a bang indeed.

Can I get a “Hallelujah?”

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