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Arts on Parade

On the national stage, British Columbia’s artists put on a happily confusing display
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Carl Wiens

On the national stage, British Columbia’s artists put on a happily confusing display

This spring, about 600 artists of every stripe flew from British Columbia to the nation’s capital in time to catch the cracking of the tulips. They were there for a two-week festival called B.C. Scene, engineered by the National Arts Centre as an expo of our province’s culture. (Atlantic Scene happened in 2003, Alberta Scene was in 2005, and Quebec had its in 2007.) For those two weeks, the one place in this country meant to studiously represent everyone took a stab at regionalism.

Within a five-block radius of the stout brown N.A.C. complex, there was a constant flow of airlifted artists: Bramwell Tovey, Valdy, Douglas Coupland (who Tweeted his arrival, calling Ottawa “the Bonn of Canada”). Amidst Ottawa’s usual crowd of well-suited bureaucrats and ill-suited CBC correspondents there moved a recognizable fleet of cultural ambassadors greeting each other with the pleased but cool recognition that the wealthy issue when they run into friends in Saint-Tropez.

What surprised many attendees (American talent scouts in particular) was that this flock of artists had no hammered-down “scene” to sell them. In fact, the more you saw at B.C. Scene, the harder it was to isolate a B.C. trait.

Each song, dance, and exhibit seemed to offer a separate account of the province. When roots phenom Alex Cuba sang at Centrepointe Theatre, it was entirely in Spanish. And Cuba poked at the Englishness of his adoptive home: “The first time I spoke to a lady in Vancouver, I was almost arrested.”

The next day, during an intimate concert in the National Gallery’s Rideau Chapel, 22-year-old opera starlet Simone Osborne premiered a song in Farsi by UBC student Iman Habibi. Also at the gallery, the superb Nomads exhibit only served to muddy the waters further: it positioned Vancouver’s visual artists (Geoffrey Farmer, Althea Thauberger, Myfanwy MacLeod) as heroes of rootlessness. And a (rather lame) production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe reminded everyone that B.C. culture is always laid atop the decimated First Nations cultures that preceded it.

The most anticipated B.C. ambassador at the Scene was Diana Krall, whose consummately performed Peggy Lee-like ballads did little to clarify local culture. Between her jazz standards, she joshed a fan (“Shut up; it’s my show”), swooned about the joys of sleeping with Elvis Costello, and, most bizarrely, said that the botanical gardens in Brazil remind her of Vancouver.

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