Public Salon returns in 2016 (review from Jan. 27)

Sam Sullivan and his partner Lynn Zanatta keep hitting home runs with their public salons. They bring together a group of interesting people, each of whom is given 7 minutes to speak. The Jan. 27, 2016 edition (#24 in this continuing series) maintained the same standard that I have come to expect from these evenings.

Each salon begins with a musical group playing as people find their seats. This edition was fully booked, a credit to the interesting speakers and the networking possibilities available afterwards. This time the group was The Straight Jackets.

sj(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Sam Sullivan as host is always good-humored and upbeat. He talked a bit about learning an indigenous language (the trade language Chinook Wawa), gave us a sample of what he has learned (the words rolled off his tongue quite fluently) and urged us to participate also.

The evening began with Brett Finlay, a microbiologist talking about how excessive hygiene may be causing the high incidence of allergies, asthma, and other disorders in current Western populations. If infants have certain bacteria in their microbiome at three months, they are unlikely to get asthma. But many factors, including Cesarean births and formula feeding (both of which can clearly be life-saving interventions), can hinder the growth of an ideal microbiome.

ed2(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Next up was Kedrick James, who does what I call “stochastic poetry”. He uses randomness and remixes to create his poetry. From a data science and mathematical and computing point of view, I find the experiment to be fascinating. From a literary perspective, I longed for Keats and T.S. Eliot, or even David Bowie (who did indeed use Brian Eno’s suggestions to introduce randomness into his lyrics).

I guessed that Farzana Jaffer Jeraj might be related to Senator Jaffer, and I was right (the senator is her mother, and her mother was proudly tweeting during the session). Farzana is an author and coach, and as described by tweeter @drshimikang, “#lifehappens & what matters is how we manage it.”

Scott C. Jones talked about recovery from a stroke, and his delight when he could finally manage to read sentences again. He spoke of his appreciation for the bookstores around Pender and Richards, with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Everyone knows Bill Richardson from CBC. He talked of purchasing a house in tiny Holman, Manitoba, and the pleasures he is getting from country living. He was as witty and insightful as always.

Trevor Stokes spoke about his students in the alternative Streetfront program at Britannia Secondary School. Many of his students have taken up marathoning, with incredible results, and some of them attended the salon that night too. It is always a very special thing to see a teacher who is extremely proud of his students.

Eran Sudds was struck with postpartum depression after the birth of her son. She got the help she needed, and seeks to encourage other women to do the same.

Robert Sung operates Wok Around Chinatown food tours. He spoke with pride of his father, who helped build Canada while still not being allowed citizenship. As Chinatown is my neighborhood of choice, I am certain that his clients have no shortage of great places to visit.

Once again, Sam and Lynn brought together a group of eight local people with fascinating stories. Keep your eye out for the next one happening in a few months!



A night at the salon: Global Civic Policy Salon, October 28

I liken the Global Civic Policy Salons to a tasting menu at a high-quality, innovative restaurant. Each course is well-prepared, and some are exactly to your taste, but the other courses are still intriguing and fun.

The salon follows a format of seven minutes per speaker. It is always astonishing how much can be said in that time with a well-prepared speaker.

At the October 28 salon, I was particularly taken by Alexander Weimann on the harpsichord. In seven minutes, he not only explained how and why he had moved to Canada, and eventually Vancouver, in his dual roles with Early Music Vancouver and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, but performed a couple of beautiful pieces on a lovely harpsichord. I am constantly encouraging people to take advantage of the great cultural opportunities Vancouver offers, rather than pining and complaining about what it does not. The music that Weimann brings to Vancouver is top-quality, and we are very lucky to have his talent in our city. I strongly recommend you look up the Early Music Vancouver schedule and attend a concert.

2015-10 Public Salon-10

Sam Sullivan, who with his partner Lynn Zanatta, pioneered this salon format which originated from personal dinner parties they gave, said that he specifically tries to avoid themes when selecting speakers, but that themes always emerge. That phenomenon was clear when we heard both from Judy Graves, a tireless and well-spoken advocate for the homeless in Vancouver, and from Bob Rennie, better known as “the condo king”. Graves reminded us how the homeless crisis has mushroomed, how we never used to see homeless people hanging around downtown, because just about everyone, save for a very few, could somehow find some room somewhere. Things have changed fundamentally, for various reasons. She urged us to consider the plight of a homeless person stuck in the rain, with wet socks and shoes. The average homeless person loses 20-30 years of life expectancy. Graves often tried to find shelter spots for homeless people, and did not always succeed. For such a complex subject in seven minutes, Graves masterfully led us through the current situation, how it got this way, and what the consequences are.


In a way, I thought Bob Rennie was brave to speak after Graves, knowing that many people blame him for the current high prices of real estate in Vancouver, and see him as an evil force of gentrification, which I consider to be a gross oversimplification. But Rennie did not mention that, nor talk about condos. Rennie was there to talk about the art he has collected, including some explosive American photographic images that make very serious points about gun violence. Rennie has a public art gallery in the Wing Sang building (which he has renovated), and is Chair of the Tate North American Acquisitions Committee (have you ever been to the Tate Modern in London — if not, go!).

Another speaker, Daniel Kalla, focused on how to have a dual career, in his case as an emergency-room physician and as a fiction author (it’s interesting that Rennie also has a dual career of sorts as an art collector and condo developer). The key, as one might expect, is not to waste time on frivolous pursuits. Kalla claims to be lazy, but his literary output suggests otherwise. It is true that emergency room physicians do have the benefit of strictly defined shifts, but that just means they have what approximates to a 40-hour work week. I am always trying to balance my cultural pursuits with my need to stay current in my technical field (which I also really enjoy), so I can relate somewhat.

Corey Ashworth talked about his campaign to help LGBT seniors who have been forced by circumstances to go back into the closet. How can this be, in 2015? Sometimes they have to rely on people who are not accepting of who they are. Take a look at Ashworth’s March Sweater Project:

Nicole Bridger spoke about the importance of fashion with a conscience, and the sadness of recently closing her Vancouver factory, although she hopes to develop some other approaches to this problem. Kevin Chong sounds like a very interesting author, and Dale McClanaghan offered us the promise of a Granville Island with a lot more creative spaces, once Emily Carr University makes the move to east Vancouver.

For the $20 ticket price, you will rarely find such a stimulating and diverse set of ideas in one evening. Not to mention, the evening started with the folk duo “No Mothers” playing some fun music. Sign up so you can be sure of finding out about the next salon in a few months time.

Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon returns October 28

Buy tickets

Another diverse lineup of interesting and accomplished speakers. These are always fun, and always bring new ideas and ways of thinking to the fore. Speaker list (quoting from email):

Cory Ashworth Vancouver radio personality championing new social enterprise.
Nicole Bridger fashion designer with a social conscience.
Kevin Chong author and commentator on life in Vancouver.
Judy Graves advocate for homeless people.
Daniel Kalla renowned author and head of St. Paul’s ER on the challenge of dual careers.
Dale McClanaghan on the meaning and future of Granville Island.
Bob Rennie, Art Vancouver and the Dalai Lama.
Alexander Weimann internationally renowned musician making Vancouver his new home.

Some, like Bob Rennie, are controversial.

“Getting Under Their Skins”, lecture by Sarah Dunant, Vancouver Writers Festival (October 25)

I had heard Sarah Dunant speak as part of a panel at a Vancouver Writers Festival event a year or so ago. I always harbor hopes (I know I need an actual plan) of writing a historical novel, so I was particularly intrigued by the description of this session, which promised to tell about how Dunant had done her research for her novels based in Renaissance Italy.

I was unprepared for how wonderful a lecture this was. This article describes what is undoubtedly a very similar version given in 2014.

The moderator introduced Dunant as someone who strives to make complex information understandable. What a perfect description of a communicator, and every technical writer (like me) can recognize that concept. Dunant’s career arc began with a history degree at Cambridge, followed by a brief career as a BBC producer, before she later started writing crime novels and then historical fiction (so far based in Renaissance Italy).

The lecture began with Dunant’s 2000 visit to Florence with two preteen daughters in tow. Her efforts to excite her daughters, not necessarily enamored with Renaissance history, led her to look for the women. With the aid of numerous images of magnificent Renaissance art, we see how men, as living human beings, are brought to the forefront of religious scenes, which are imbued with the character of Renaissance Florence. Medici family members appear in a painting of the adoration of the Magi. Religious scenes occur in Florentian palazzos. But what about women? First we see Madonnas, beautiful, increasingly more realistic, but still dreamy, ethereal, and disengaged from the viewer. The increased acceptance of secularism leads to magnificent paintings of mythological figures, but Botticelli’s Venus is as dreamy and disengaged as any preceding Madonna.

But consider The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, a famed Venetian painter, in 1538. This woman looks at the viewer directly. Stepping outside the lecture for the rest of the paragraph: Note that the Khan Academy exposition claims the woman is unknown, while Wikipedia claims it is the courtesan Angela del Moro. The Uffizi website (the painting is on display at the Uffizi in Florence) does not state who she might be, but describes the painting as meant to be an instructive gift from the Duke of Urbino to the Duke’s new and very young bride.

Tiziano - Venere di Urbino - Google Art Project.jpg
Tiziano – Venere di Urbino – Google Art Project” by TitianbQGS8pnP5vr2Jg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

In any event, Sarah Dunant saw this woman, believed to be Titian’s courtesan companion by at least some experts, as the inspiration for her novel In the Company of the Courtesan. Dunant expounded on the economics and power structures of Venice, and how the oligarchic power structure meant that at least half the “well-bred” women in Venice had no choice but to accept being sequestered in convents, as there would be too many descendants and claimants to power otherwise, and dowries had become very expensive. But this also meant that there needed to be a class of women to satisfy the unmarried upper-middle-class gentry and upper-class noblemen. These courtesans were expected to be beautiful and educated, and often kept their own houses with exotic pets (including parrots who could swear in Latin). Among some courtesans’ accessories were dwarfs, who served as jesters. Dunant saw the image of a clearly perceptive dwarf in one of the paintings of Renaissance Venice, and was inspired to make him the narrator for “In the Company of the Courtesan”. If the courtesan herself had been the narrator, she would inevitably have been quite unsympathetic.

So back to the young women who were led to convents, for one reason or another, including disfigurement by smallpox or other deformities, a desire to preserve a larger dowry for another sister, or simple inconvenience caused to their families. These women are the subject of Dunant’s novel Sacred Hearts. Any upper-class or upper-middle-class woman would lead a sequestered life, whether she was confined in her home, or confined in a convent. Was the convent necessarily worse? Certainly there was violence and drama and suicide. But there was learning and art and perhaps safety. Nuns were playwrights, and enacted theatrical works for each other. Their works were distributed clandestinely among convents. They were painters and musicians and scholars.

I have skipped over the Borgia portion of the lecture, although it was no less well-done. Dunant pointed out several times that history does not need to be the progression of kings, wars, and treaties that those of us over 40 undoubtedly learned in school. History is a reflection of the questions we ask of the past. If we seek historical sources like the wills of courtesans, the ledgers of convents, and so forth, we can learn more than we expect.


Attending this lecture today was coincidental to the news that a wonderful history professor Lisa Jardine has died today, and her publisher has made her latest work, “Temptations in the Archives”, freely available. This book focuses on Dutch culture from the late 1500s, but I wanted to point out the book link nonetheless. “Temptation in the Archives is a collection of essays by Lisa Jardine, that takes readers on a journey through the Dutch Golden Age.”

Review: Serge Bennathan’s Monsieur Auburtin, at The Dance Centre until March 28

I didn’t know what to expect going into this work. Serge Bennathan’s Monsieur Auburtin is unlike any other dance work you are likely to have seen. It evocatively combines storytelling, original composition and musical performance, and dance into a seamless whole. I went with a couple of friends who are not necessarily warm to contemporary dance, and they also loved it. While profound, the piece is also very accessible and comprehensible.


(photo credit Michael Slobodian)

The piece is, among other things, an extended homage to both his teachers and classical dance virtuosos like Nijinsky, Nureyev, and Baryshnikov, as well as many others whose names I do not know so well. The love and appreciation and admiration that Bennathan expresses is indeed heart-warming.

Bennathan’s first dance teacher, Monsieur Auburtin in Metz, France, introduced him to Nijinsky via pictures of the impresario dancing in Giselle. The effect is life-changing and incredibly profound.

Wiki Commons picture of Nijinsky in Giselle.

Perhaps French elegance, if presented coldly, can be offputting. That is a classic stereotype, but Bennathan presents elegance with a warm face. The sound of his voice is a true pleasure to hear. The track his life is taken is one of coincidences and chances grabbed. But make no mistake, Bennathan is passionate and earnest about art and about artistic expression.

Throughout the evening, the composer Bertrand Chénier played on electric guitar and piano, and at one point one of the dancers played the violin. The music was a natural component of this work.

What made the night even more special was after the show, when Howard Jang, of the Canada Council for the Arts, awarded Serge Bennathan the prestigious Jacqueline Lemieux Prize, for his work in dance in Canada. Having seen the work, I am not at all surprised of Bennathan’s reputation as a teacher and mentor and choreographer. Bennathan expressed a clear love and appreciation for Canada as a country, a place, like Marseilles, where he feels he truly belongs. So much artistic development and innovation is driven by immigrants who have made a conscious decision to bring their talents to Canada. Bennathan founded the dance company Les Productions Figlio.

Afterall Journal –I love it!

I’ve written on this subject before. But I have a new love when it comes to journals. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I picked up a copy of Afterall, described as “A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry”, and it presents as a series of engaging essays related to artistic criticism.

It’s a frequent complaint of mine that academic articles purposely use pedantic, obscure, and quite likely meaningless language to establish an in-group, leaving the rest of the possibly interested public out in the cold. Week after week, someone writes that a randomly generated paper was accepted for academic publication, and although many of these cases involve vanity journals, not all of them do (Alan Sokal is probably still the master prankster in this area, with his “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”” spoof paper). And, if one has to pick a worst offender, anything postmodern can send a chill up my spine (and it’s not as if Derrida has nothing important to say–far from it!).

But Afterall is intelligent, and engaging, and it really stretches one’s intellectual boundaries without being stupid about it. Here is a review (by Anna Lovatt) of a theatrical work:

The protagonist of Janice Kerbel’s radio play Nick Silver Can’t Sleep (2006/07) is a nocturnal subtropical perennial in bloom, longing for another who blossoms just once a year.1 Nick Silver (Nicotiana sylvestris) is also an insomniac, who craves sleep with the same sultry, melancholy yearning directed at his would-be lover, Cereus Grand (Selenicereus grandiflorus). Throughout the fifteen-minute play, the polymorphous eroticism of plants becomes entangled with their narcotising properties, as Nick’s desire for Cereus competes with, and is ultimately overwhelmed by, an opposing drive towards unconsciousness. Time expands and contracts as weeks, months, seasons and years appear to pass in a single night — a dreamlike temporality, redolent also of the cyclical rhythms of the vegetable world. Breathily, drowsily, Nick awaits his languid Cereus, only to succumb to the vertiginous pull of sleep at the precise moment of her blossoming.

Yes, the play sounds fantastic, but this description is, at least to me as a fledgling critic, beautiful and evocative.The review then discusses historical approaches to the sexuality of botany and various other intriguing topics.

Another article I quite enjoyed is “Exchange and some change: The imaginative economies of Otobong Nkanga”, by Monika Szewczyk. Nkanga is an African woman artist and professor whose work, some of which is exhibited at the Berlin Bienniale, is inherently multidisciplinary and experienced in a much different way than a painting or sculpture. Too bad you need either a subscription or a hard copy (although I’m sure subscriptions would be welcome).

The main problem I have with this journal, as I do with so much reading material, is that it feels like each article deserves much more of a time investment than I can give it.

Given I have not read widely in this publication, I would not be surprised if some burdensome gibberish may appear at some point, given artistic academic predilections. But I have not yet seen it, so perhaps I should stop being suspicious.

Report: Public Salon, November 19, with Sam Sullivan and guests

Thanks to Alice Zhou (of Gracious Host Events & PR), I got an invite to attend Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon on November 19. As typical, this salon had an impressive lineup of guests, as you can see here:

Keep an eye out for the 2015 salons at the Global Civic Policy Society site.

I am sure that many of us have the intuitive sense that the political domain enforces a type of binary thinking that can work against discussing complex problems honestly and finding broad-ranging solutions. Sam Sullivan, of course, was mayor of Vancouver a few years ago, but I had forgotten that he is now a Liberal MLA for False Creek. He did not discuss his political work at all, to my recollection.

The Global Civic Policy Society, which puts on these salons, was founded by Sullivan and funded by the Annenberg Foundation, as described here on Wikipedia.

Due first to work (and just being tired from recent travel to Asia), I did not attend the pre- or post-program networking, so I undoubtedly missed out on some good opportunities to talk to interesting people. When I next attend, I hope to take full advantage of that part of the program.

For this evening’s session, as I entered the auditorium at Vancouver Playhouse, I noticed the sitarist Mohamed Assani and a percussionist playing. They provided perfect ambient music to set the pace. The musicians were dressed in traditional clothing, and although that might seem like a small thing, I felt that it is a step that can help take you of the conventional norm and perhaps cultivate open-mindedness for what was to come. Take a listen at Assani’s site:

Take a look at these musicians (photo credit: Minaz Kurji Photography):


After some introductions, we proceeded with the speakers. Each speaker has 7 minutes, so in that sense, the style is somewhat similar to Pecha Kucha. But the speakers have complete freedom as to whether to use slides or not, and their use of slides varied.

Seven minutes is not very long, obviously. We can get an idea of what each speaker has to say, but it’s our responsibility to avoid superficiality and delve deeper on our own.

With that caveat, here are some moments I really enjoyed (photo credits:  Minaz Kurji Photography):

* Genevieve Ennis Hume talking about the plight of artisanal miners. “Artisanal” might imply a high-quality, boutique operation, but in fact men, women, and children work in appalling and dangerous conditions to satisfy our hunger for precious metals. I know about this with the so-called conflict minerals, but I had not really thought about it in respect to gold.

* Kwiaahwah Jones talking about the renaissance of Haida culture, after the near-eradication of a people and its culture. I really want to see what she is doing as curator at Bill Reid Gallery.

Kwiaahwah Jones, Curator of Bill Reid Gallery

Before Kwiaahwah spoke, a Haida dancer performed onstage. His actions would have been illegal under previous Canadian law until 1951. We cannot forget that Canadian laws and practice were specifically oriented, and stated as such, to destroy the cultures of aboriginal people in Canada.
Dancer performing an act previously outlawed by Canadian law

* Mohamed Assani talking about (and playing) his journey from Pakistan through western classical music studies to his return to the traditional sitar.


* Lance Barrett-Lennard talking about the use of drones to photograph killer whales, in order to assess their weight and health. (Many killer whales starve when salmon stocks are low, and you can chart their demise as they enter a “death spiral”, becoming skinnier and weaker.) Killer whales are easily recognized as distinct beings, once you start to look at them.

There were other speakers and no shortage of insights and interest. There were over 500 people attending. I am really appreciative for events like this for their social and intellectual nurturing of Vancouver.

Jewish Book Festival until November 27, and a report of the Opening Gala with Zeruya Shalev

Lots of interesting literary events happening at the Jewish Book Festival until November 27. These are held at the Jewish Community Centre at 41st and Oak.

Take a look:

The authors and books that are featured range from self-help to memoir to young adult and children’s works to literary fiction.

One that looks particularly interesting is the Tuesday night event featuring Steve Galloway talking about his book The Confabulist (which features a fictionalized Harry Houdini) with Sheryl MacKay of the CBC.

I know Galloway’s work from The Cellist of Sarajevo (and I actually first heard him read back in 2001), so this looks to be a very interesting discussion.

On Saturday night, I attended the Opening Gala featuring renowned Israeli author Zeruya Shalev, in conversation with Marsha Lederman, arts critic for The Globe and Mail. Shalev’s books have been translated into various languages, and she has recently won the prestigious Prix Femina literary award in France for her latest work The Remains of Love,

Shalev is a striking woman who looks rather younger than her 55 years, despite a life that has included suffering injuries from a terror attack in 2004 that left her unable to walk for some months (she appears to have fully recovered). Shalev says that she starts every one of her events with reading from Hebrew, even if it’s in a location where no audience member is likely to understand it, and that is what she did here, although some of the audience could undoubtedly understand her in this case. Lederman then followed by reading the same pages in English translation. As Lederman said, the poetic sound of the Hebrew was clear, even if one could not understand the words.

Shalev was suffering from flu or a cold, but she admirably rose to the occasion regardless. She was funny, warm, and witty as she described her relationship with her characters. Once her daughter caught her crying over her characters, who were suffering so much sadness, and her daughter was puzzled as to why she, as the author, could not solve their problems. But that does not seem to be how it works. Shalev uses a method where she does not plan in advance, but allows the characters to come to life and live their adventures. I have often wondered what percentage of authors fall on the very pre-planned side of the spectrum versus the “let’s see where they lead us” side. I recently heard, at Vancouver Writers Fest, the Dutch author Herman Koch (of The Dinner and other works) describe a similar process, although his characters occasionally lead him down a contradictory road, and then he has to discard some pages.

If you have a chance to take a workshop at the Jewish Book Festival, I recommend it. I have done so in the past, with Karen X. Tulchinsky,and it was excellent. Although this festival features Jewish authors (but not exclusively) and Jewish themes (again not exclusively), anyone is welcome to attend.

Review: ‘wag’ explores emotion, music, and dance

Denise Clarke brings an engaging personality, an easy physicality, and great musical taste to ‘wag’, a hybrid work of dance, music, theatre, and even standup.

Two themes or questions I get from this work: How does one go on while suffering commonplace but nonetheless immense loss, and what does it mean to dance boldly and openly, outside in the world?

The sound and the projected images work fantastically well. When Clarke comes on stage in her Alberta-worthy winter coat, a park in the winter is projected behind her. She makes you feel the intense chill as she begins her journey to an empty theatre.

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is central, and what Clarke does with it is lovely. Music is something Clarke has found very healing, and she shares it with us.

It is hard to say too much about the work without revealing what is better experienced than explained. I will say that if you take the opportunity to wear a ball gown to the show, you might be happy you did.

Contemporary dance, or indeed dance in general, is a language. Clarke plays with this idea, and in so doing, makes dance accessible to non-experts (like me). This is a work that focuses on emotions rendered visible; it can readily be appreciated.

At the Firehall Arts Centre until Saturday.


Denise Clarke in ‘wag’ (by Trudie Lee Photography)


Indian Summer Festival, and a review of “100 Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground”

India has top-notch musicians, writers, artists, and thinkers, and a few of them are coming to Vancouver for the Indian Summer Festival, until July 12. Many locals are also involved. Some events are free, and almost all of the rest are reasonably priced. Pay attention to bundled options.

This event with Arundhati Roy, is typical of the programming you can expect:

On July 5, I heard Coleman Barks, an interpreter of Rumi and a poet in his own right. His sonorous voice revealed a southern drawl. And, in case you are wondering, a southern accent is perfect for reciting Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi mystic. So far as I can tell, every popular translation of Rumi tends to be rather loose. Barks himself does not speak or read Persian, but relies on the work of translators to make his own paraphrases.

Barks was accompanied by a diverse group of musicians who clearly could feel the sentiments of Rumi. I thought I saw an oud, but it turns out it was a barbat, a Persian precursor. There was also a sitar, a tombak, and vocals. Refer to the program for more details about the musicians.

Then, like magic, a Sufi dancer appeared. I saw him standing nearby before he went on stage, and suddenly he was moving on stage as the musicians played and Barks recited. He did not whirl at high speed, as I have seen in Turkey. He added yet another aspect to this complex, multi-layered performance. I kept on noting the Gothic arches of the church and the stained glass as this was happening.

A lovely evening, and I hope to hear more such performances.