PuSh Fest 2018: Storytelling for All of Us

Image via  PuSh Performing Arts Fest.

Image via PuSh Performing Arts Fest.

This coming January the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival hits a major milestone, marking its fifteenth year as an internationally-regarded festival for groundbreaking multidisciplinary productions.

Though it began as a mere three-show series that drew 2,500 people to 21 performances, the PuSh Festival has grown into a cultural staple for Vancouver’s arts scene, and has, to date, welcomed more than 300,000 people to 366 productions from 30 countries.  

For Interim Artistic Director Joyce Rosario, the festival’s growth has mirrored that of the city’s. ‘In many ways,’ she notes, ‘Vancouver is more of a known place on the map – and so too is PuSh in the international performing arts landscape. We’ve become more self-assured.’  Heading into its fifteenth year, the festival holds firm to its core values of celebrating the innovative, the political, and the extraordinary, by showcasing works that subvert and destabilize dominant narratives.

“I'm from Vancouver,” says Rosario, “I grew up here, I was born here, and it's as simple as wanting to have the work that we present reflect the people that are in our city.” The festival wants to see Vancouver’s diversity in its audiences as well. “My favourite thing is when I walk into an audience, and in a city that I think I know so well, I see a room full of people I don't know at all. I want people to be led by their curiosity and know that they’re welcome.”

Balancing the local with the international, this year’s festival focuses on showcasing works that forge new links between the Pacific west coast and the wider world. Rosario cites works that speak to legacies of diaspora, slavery, and settler-colonialism: Selina Thompson’s salt., which captures Thompson’s journey on a cargo ship, retracing the Transatlantic Slave Triangle route;  Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, a multimedia performance between Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and queer theatre-maker Evalyn Parry; and the festival’s opening performance, D’BI’s Word Sound Have Powah.

Prodigious and multifaceted in nature, D’BI is an award-winning Jamaican-Canadian performer, who feels like a natural fit for the PuSh Festival. (When asked why she was so excited to bring D’BI to this year’s festival, Rosario replied with enthusiasm, the answer self-evident: ‘Well, it’s D’BI.’) A prolific poet, playwright, performer, director, educator and scholar, D’BI’s work is voracious as her practice. Word Sound Have Powah is a musical and poetic performance, blending Jamaican dub poetry with dancehall reggae, Afrobeat with punk, hip-hop with performance art. D’BI describes it as being “people-political,” explaining, “Word Sound Have Powah is a poetically musical performance celebrating our commitment to social change and to cultivate deep joy while making social change.”

“The work itself is joyful,” D’BI continues, “I think the way that I share poetry and music is joyful. The content of the work, even though it’s challenging, is celebrating our ability to rebel.”

In her unique fusion of genres, D’BI captures the most potent abilities of storytelling. Her message is sharpened not only through her years of experience on stage, but also through her practice as an educator, in which capacity she has developed a globally-taught creative praxis for artistic self-recovery and self-actualization. The method walks artists through a series of questions: How do I recognize and use my power? How to do I communicate – and with what intentions? What stories do I retell and perpetuate? They’re the same questions she hopes to impart to her audiences.

“I feel like my work is attempting to bridge the gap between the macro-theorizing and the micro-experience [of life] that human beings go through every day.” It’s the kind of work she believes performance art is particularly well-disposed to share.

“Without essentializing or romanticizing the past,” D’BI says, “I do feel like storytelling is one of the technologies that survived the transatlantic slave trade. Storytelling is a mentorship technology, and, really, it’s about levelling things out. When we gather to hear stories, we're sitting in the circle together”. True to the spirit of the festival, D’BI sees her work as part of a dialogue with her audience, opening up crucial conversations with larger systemic forces. In performance, we engage with new ways of relating to one another.

“It’s an opportunity to remind ourselves that storytelling belongs to all of us, is for all of us, and we can do with it whatever we want when we gather in an equal space to talk through issues together.”

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival runs from January 17 to February 3, 2019, at venues across the Lower Mainland. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit their website, and keep an eye out for more PuSh content from SAD in the new year!