Much has been said about Vancouver arts visionary Norman Armour since he died on November 19. However, the co-founding artistic and executive director of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival did more than produce culturally significant events in Vancouver, for which he’s been rightly lauded. He also went out of his way to advance long-term connections between Asian and Vancouver cultural producers.
Armour developed an interest in Taiwan through his long-term friendship with Charlie Wu, managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association.
“He thought of Taiwan as a place with a lot of young and enthusiastic artists,” Wu says.
Armour moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 1978. He graduated from Simon Fraser University eight years later with a bachelor’s degree of fine and performing arts, theatre and interdisciplinary practices.
Before Armour became ill, he was working with Wu on a concept called “Reflect”. They were examining ways to promote region-to-region understanding between Taiwan and Vancouver through arts and culture.
“The word that he used a lot is curiosity,” Wu says. “He was curious about a lot of things. He was also very disciplined.”
According to Wu, they wanted to go beyond working with just one single artist or institution. Rather, they hoped to nurture curators together in themes that they all share.
“It’s a constant renewal—a new festival that would kind of spread over three months, allowing different organizations to contribute,” Wu says. “We felt it was important for Vancouver and Taiwan because we are on two different sides of the Pacific Ocean. This is an opportunity for Vancouver to dive in more on the Asian side.”
Norman Armour speaks about his concept of Reflect in this video.
Reflect appeals to Taiwanese artists and organizations
In pursuit of this goal, Wu and Armour met leaders of various cultural organizations, such as the Cultch, Vancouver International Film Festival, and UBC Museum of Anthropology. Wu, Armour, and Museum of Vancouver CEO Mauro Vescera also got together periodically to discuss forging stronger cultural connections between Vancouver and Asia.
Moreover, Armour’s passion for Reflect ignited the enthusiasm of Wu’s partners at Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei. This facility was once a winery but now it offers visual and performing artists a place to develop creative projects. In addition, it’s a venue for nonprofit organizations to showcase their works.
“Discussions have started with artists and organizations in Taiwan,” Wu reveals. “I am very excited to see how some of the conversations will develop. I would dedicate some of the works to Norman.”
Wu points out that Reflect is rooted in building and fostering long-lasting connections. That differs from having one international artist fly into town, perform live for a local audience, and then hop on the next plane to go back home.
This new approach would advance Armour’s mission of making cultural exchanges transformational rather than transactional. Because the concept of Reflect is centred around a desire to promote intercultural appreciation and international cultural literacy, Wu feels that it needs to be talked about and embraced.
“It’s also a way that celebrates Norman’s legacy,” Wu says. “This is something that he really cared about.”
Norman Armour talks about curiosity in this 2020 TAIWANfest video.
A Taiwanese interpretation of King Lear
Wu deeply appreciates Armour’s mentorship. Armour kept abreast of what Wu’s team was doing with TAIWANfest, conveying his respect for the festival’s partnerships with artists from other countries.
“He would share his thoughts with me and those were actually very important thoughts that we benefited from as a team,” Wu says.
Armour lavishly praised the most recent TAIWANfest, describing it as “very exciting stuff for audiences”.
“I’ve been meaning to write to say how extraordinary your programming is… Thought provoking and expansive,” Armour wrote to Wu in an email.
Wu and Armour met in 2010 after the Cultural Olympiad. That’s when Vancouver and the Sea to Sky Corridor came alive with more than 600 ticketed and free performances coinciding with the Winter Olympic and Paralymic Games.
Wu created LunarFest for the Cultural Olympiad to promote contemporary expressions of Asian arts and culture. Meanwhile, Armour oversaw the PuSh Festival.
“We wanted to create a platform—a situation, a moment—for which Vancouver artists could have their work seen, but also tested and challenged,” Armour says in the video above, which was created for TAIWANfest during the 2020 pandemic year.
Armour and Wu’s first cultural collaboration came when the PuSh Festival presented Taipei Contemporary Legend Theatre’s King Lear in 2013. It marked the festival’s first Mandarin-language show and featured creator-performer Wu Hsing-Kuo in the title role.
“Wu [Hsing-Kuo] has been called by some a betrayer of the institution of Peking Opera,” Armour wrote in his curatorial statement. “Ironically, King Lear was betrayed by his closest family members.
“Does not any new art form always begin with some sort of betrayal of another?” he asked. “We sometimes to use the word ‘vision’ to describe a successful form of betrayal.”
Watch the trailer for King Lear at the 2013 PuSh Festival.
Reflect blossoms through breakfast meetings
Their second collaboration occurred five years later when Taiwan’s Legend Lin Dance Theatre presented Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of the PuSh Festival. In addition, internationally renowned choreographer Lin Lee-Chen delivered an artist talk at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.
“My introduction was more to help finalize this collaboration,” Wu says.
After the Legend Lin Dance visit, Wu and Armour developed a closer relationship. They would meet for breakfast at The Basic Eats on Main Street.
“He was quite straightforward,” Wu recalls. “He would tell you exactly what he thinks.”
As a result of these meetings, Wu re-examined how his own festivals should be presented. Many years ago, Wu would conceive of events in relation to the audience, asking himself who might be interested in attending. Armour taught him the importance of curiosity—and asking if an event is sufficiently interesting or intriguing to keep an audience enthralled once they were in their seats.
Wu also appreciates Armour’s generosity. He didn’t only think of his own events. Instead, he tried to help others succeed by sharing his cultural contacts.
“This is why his contribution and his loss is beyond my comprehension,” Wu says. “I don’t see anybody who has the same capacity as he did to say, ‘Let’s do this for the good of everyone.’ ”
In 2022, Norman Armour spoke on a panel at Vancouver TAIWANfest.