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PuSh Festival restores its international lustre with nuanced perspectives on identity

Gabrielle Martin_PuSh Festival restores its international lustre with nuanced perspectives on identity_Photo by Jeremiah Hu
Gabrielle Martin looks forward to the international artists at the PuSh Festival. Photo by Jeremiah Hughes.

It’s not always a straightforward process coming to terms with one’s identity. PuSh International Performing Arts Festival programming director Gabrielle Martin came face-to-face with this reality when she visited Zimbabwe, where her dad was born.

“There really is not a large Black community in Vancouver,” Martin tells Pancouver by phone. “When I was growing up, even less so. So, I really identified as Black.”

When her father was a child, his country was called Rhodesia. It had a race-based classification system very similar to apartheid in South Africa. As a result, that led to the lengthy Zimbabwe War of Liberation, which ultimately brought Robert Mugabe to power in 1980.

Even though Martin’s father had dark skin, he fell into the “coloured” category, rather than being classified as “Black”. So, when the westernized Martin visited in Zimbabwe with a lighter skin tone than her father, she recalls being perceived as “almost white”.

It’s given her an appreciation of how identity, race, and class can be uniquely place-based and localized.

“There’s so much complexity in identity,” Martin says.

Rakesh Sukesh
PuSh Festival artist-in-residence Rakesh Sukesh addresses the roots of xenophobia in his show, entitled because i love the diversity. Photo by Irene Occhiato with artwork by Irene Narys.

Festival brings the world to Vancouver

Martin’s sensibilities have informed the programming of this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. In the wake of a pandemic that restricted travel, Martin and her team have put the “International” back into the18-day event, which includes a breathtaking array of diverse perspectives.

“Not only does our program have many works by Indigenous, Black, and people of colour artists, but also immigrant artists and artists from the Global South as well as the Global North,” Martin says.

One example is Smail Kanouté, a Paris-based French-Malian multidisciplinary artist. He choreographed Never Twenty One, which honours young Black victims of gun violence on three continents.

Then there’s Jaha Koo’s Lolling and Rolling, which addresses linguistic imperialism in South Korea. Koo, a South Korean-born and Belgium-based theatre maker and composer, has created a show focusing on extreme measures taken by some South Koreans to ensure that their children learn English.

Watch the trailer for Jaha Koo’s Lolling and Rolling.

Another Belgium-based artist, South African–born Moya Michael, has created Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s reMix. It’s a creative, often joyous, and visually dramatic response to how people of colour are often reduced to one aspect of their identity—i.e., their race—rather than being viewed in all of their complexity.

Coloured Swan 3 features several mixed-race artists in an exploration of the past, present, and Afrofuturism. The show relies on symbols to reflect historical suffering and the promise of far better days to come.

Watch the trailer for Coloured Swan 3: Harriet’s reMix.

From Israel to Argentina to India

Like Martin’s father, Michael was lumped into the “coloured” category as a child, even though she identified as Black and Indigenous.

“There are so many different perspectives that are part of this festival,” Martin says. “I’m really excited about that. It should be a goal of an international multidisciplinary festival.”

One of those perspectives will come from former Israel Defence Forces soldier Itai Erdal in Soldiers of Tomorrow. Erdal, a Vancouver lighting designer, has created this self-reflective show based on his experiences, which led him to immigrate to Canada. He will be joined by a Syrian-born and Vancouver-based musician, Emad Armoush.

Another comes from Tizano Cruz, an Indigenous artist from Argentina. His performative monologue, Soliloquio (I Woke Up and Hit My Head Against the Wall), explores how white supremacy has imposed suffering on his people. It’s based on letters that he wrote to his mother in North Argentina during a lockdown in 2020.

Watch the trailer for Never Twenty One.

Meanwhile, the PuSh Festival is one of the funders of Rakesh Sukesh’s because i love the diversity (this micro-attitude, we all have it). Sukesh, the PuSh Festival’s artist-in-residence, is working with award-winning Vancouver playwright and director Marcus Youssef, who’s the writer and dramaturgic adviser.

Bollywood disappoints Sukesh

Martin says that she met Sukesh at a dance festival in Spain.

“He just stood out so much because of his incredible physicality and intensity as a mover. I actually had the opportunity to take a dance workshop from him at the time,” she reveals.

Martin says that Sukesh provides a transcultural perspective to the festival because he’s an Indian artist who’s lived for a long time in the West and performed internationally.

Sukesh’s biography notes he began his career as a Bollywood dancer. In a YouTube interview last year, he spoke about the hierarchy of the Hindi cinema industry, with dancers ranking far below others in the pyramid, such as the director and the lead actors. For him, this came as a “moment of realization”.

“In India, you know, we had a very strong culture of traditional art forms,” Sukesh said. “And in those times, people considered dance as very holy.… It’s actually all about dancing for gods. Even now.”

Rakesh Sukesh speaks on a wide range of topics in this 2021 interview.

“Necessity” drives festival programming

Sukesh’s PuSh Festival show reflects his experiences, according to Martin. This includes how his image was used without his consent in a right-wing propaganda campaign in Europe.

“I appreciate his understanding of the nuance and complexity of issues of race, racism, xenophobia, diversity, and these things,” Martin says.

Life in India these days is indeed complex, given the growing Hindu chauvinism under the rule of the xenophobic BJP. Similar political sentiments are on the ascendancy in many other countries.

In fact, the rise of fascism internationally coupled with the climate crisis have led Martin to program this year’s PuSh Festival “with the notion of necessity in mind”.

“Everything has to count,” Martin insists. “When I see a work, I want to feel like I’ve been transformed by it.

“I also want to feel I haven’t seen anything like it before,” she continues. “And I want to feel like it’s really pertinent and relevant to pushing forward the conversations that are happening now—or speaking to the unique experiences of our time.”

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival takes place at various venues from January 19 to February 5. For more information and tickets, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.