100 years of black female history in Canada? Yes please!

Published on: January 13, 2016

Filled Under: Featured, Progress Festival

Views: 2064

Solid partnerships are one of the best ways to bolster creativity. Starting tomorrow is the 2016 edition of Progress, the International Festival of Performance and Ideas presented in partnership by the Theatre Centre and the SummerWorks Festival, and curated by a slew of other local creative and intelligent minds.
Century Song, one of the 13 shows in Progress continues the theme of partnership-makes-perfect. It was created in a partnership between Neema Bickersteth, Kate Alton and Ross Manson, but also with heavy influence from a heap of other women over the last 100 years.
Here, creator and performer Neema Bickersteth gives us further insight into the unique work of dance and song. (For a TID 2014 Q&A with Bickersteth click here)
TID: Century Song seems to encompass not only two huge and vast literary works, but also a lengthy history of women, how did you go about distilling the narrative down to create the show? What was the process?
NB: I would say that all of this serves as inspiration. It began as a series of songs with movement – like a recital. These songs were written approximately 15 years apart starting around the beginning of the 20th century. This chronology reminded us of the first literary work, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, with a woman not aging and experiencing her/his life through centuries. In the second literary work, In Search of our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker writes about a black enslaved female poet who did not even have a room of her own. I realized that even though I have european-based classical training I am not that. As we looked at each time period for each song, I asked myself who I would be in that time?  I’m black, Canadian, female, etc. This is where the historical women came from.
TID: How did the idea of Century Song begin? What were the initial creative seeds that were planted and why did you feel compelled to create the show?
NB: Initially, I wanted to experiment to see if I could sing and dance at the same time. Like in other cultures or musical theatre or pop singers. But with my classical voice instead. Kate Alton and I chose some of the songs (wordless songs seemed the most appropriate) then she choreographed them for me, and then Ross Manson came in to see our work and saw something bigger than just a successful experiment.
TID: Is there any part of the production – emotive or otherwise – that you find difficult to portray not using words? Or, contrary to this question, is it easier to tell the story without words?
NB: I think it can be easier to tell an emotional story without words, but I’m not that great with words! That being said, I feel as though the beginning is the hardest part. To introduce myself and the first of the women without saying anything… yeah, that’s strange.
TID: What did you learn about being a woman though this process?
NB: That’s a strange question. But I did learn about some amazing women that inspired many aspects of the piece. Alice Walker, Virgina Woolf, Kathleen Munn, Käthe Kollwitz, Mildred Lewis, Ruth Bailey, Gwennyth Barton, Nina Mae Mckinney, Molly Lamb Bobak, my mother… and so many more.
TID:  Was your perception of women altered through your work on this? I’d love to know how or why not.
NB: I feel very connected to all of the versions of women that I portray. Most of the female inspirations had to overcome some major hurdles, but this isn’t surprizing. I feel that the piece isn’t the story of women, but a journey of one woman represented through many. Her journey to her present self. In the creation of this some of my beliefs were confirmed. Things like – our ancestors are a part of us or there is more to you than what you wear.
TID: Theatre is an experience that’s unique to each audience member, but if you could choose one message or memory from the show that all would remember, what would it be?
NB: See above.
TID: What’s the next step for Century Song? Who can look forward to seeing it next?
NB: We are in Toronto for Progress Festival (Jan. 14-23), then tour to Calgary for High Performance Rodeo, then on to Vancouver for Push Festival. In May we will be in the UK and Belgium!

Century Song is part of the Progress Festival and is on in the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. W.). For times and tix click here.

Photo by: John Lauener. Neema Bickersteth in Century Song.

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