Dispatches from the road

Linnea Gwiazda in the watery climax of For Body and Light's Coming & Going sequence.
For six weeks in the summer of 2014, Ian Ferrier went on the road with a troupe of dancers to bring their collaborative show, For Body and Light, to Fringe audiences across the Prairies and the West Coast of Canada. For Body and Light is a fusion of dance, music and spoken word that has been presented in New York, Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. Below are a few excerpts of his tour diary – dispatches from the road. To hear more about what Ian learned along the way, read the Litlive Guide for Poets at the Fringe.
 
Saskatoon Fringe Festival
August 2-9, 2014
First stop on the Fringe tour
 
It’s preview night at the Saskatoon Fringe Festival, and it’s only our second time bringing our poetry/music/dance show called For Body and Light to a theatrical audience. The first was a fantastically rewarding series of shows at Kraine Theatre in New York City. That tour brought us just about the best review you could imagine.
 
Here in Saskatoon, the crowd is lined up down the block outside our venue, the Broadway Theatre, for a festival that shuts down traffic and creates its own pedestrian mall for ten days. I’m hanging out with Jem Rolls, the UK poet who was one of the first to realize that the Fringe could be a good circuit for creating and performing spoken word. He doesn’t put out books or CDs. Everything he does is onstage, in more than 60 performances a year. He has been doing the worldwide circuit for years now.
 
From his blog bio:
“Went nomadic in ‘06
No home for 43 months & counting
Write shows over winter, perform over summer
Bags of laughs
Bloody marvelous
How did it all work out so well?”
 
There is only one other poet doing a spoken word show at the Saskatoon festival this year. Buddy Wakefield, who works out of Kingston in Washington State. From what I can tell from the preview, he seems to work mostly with audience expectations, setting you up for the obvious punchline and then subverting that, avoiding it, or doing something totally different: A sly, good-humoured mixture of bravado and self-deprecation. His show is “Riled Up and Wasted on Light.”
 
I don’t know how our work will come off here. While other shows force themselves on you, grabbing your attention, ours asks you to be captured by beauty. We are playing against the grain, which is never a bad place to be. But I do wonder what people will think. There’s a lot of intensity and emotion in our show, and I am very much looking forward to playing with as many contexts as we can, indoors and out, over the next ten days.
 
***
 
Victoria Fringe Festival
August 21-31, 2014
Fourth stop on the Fringe tour
 
Victoria is the first place I’ve been on this tour where all the major grocery stores have bulk food sections, so I can finally buy staples like sunflower seeds, cashews, natural peanut butter and miso soup in quantities I can eat before we pack up for our next stop on the tour.
 
The question of how much we carry ties in to the book I’m reading: Maps and Dreams by Hugh Brody. It’s about the culture and land of the Dane-zaa people near Peace River in Northeastern BC. The book is more than two decades old and addresses, among other issues, the controversy surrounding the Alaska Pipeline that was built on their land. Twenty-five years later, land and pipelines still fill the news with a vengeance, with oil magnates and the provincial and federal governments wanting to push the Tar Sands through to the BC coast.
 
Oil is the engine that drives Alberta. During our time in that province, we saw big cars, big pickups, big tires, big cities. Oil is not the whole story, though; more like the big engine rumbling in its basement.
 
Brody has one sentence in Maps and Dreams that has been reverberating inside me ever since I first heard it four years ago. “To Western eyes, a hunter-gatherer culture doesn’t look like culture at all.” It has no prisons, no churches, no buildings or ships or architecture, no streets or farms, no history that cannot be carried in the mind. To hunter-gatherers, I suppose anything extra that one has to carry is more burden than value.
 
Except for music equipment, a laptop and a change of clothes, this book and its ideas are one of the few things I’m carrying from place to place. I feel like this is what I have to learn: how much I can let go. I have spent the last three summers on the road, travelling across the country the first summer and back the next and, this year, touring for six weeks with For Body and Light. We’re headed into our 35th performance today.
 
We are in the home stretch now, with three shows remaining in Victoria and only another half-dozen or so in Vancouver before we head home.
 
And what have I found out on this tour? First of all: that I hardly live where I am. For better or worse, I live in my own mind, which, other than the raw hand of happenstance, is the main arbiter of whether I am happy, sad, overwhelmed, content or curious.
 
Of the sightseeing we’ve done, only the swift current of our swim in the South Saskatchewan River remains in my mind. I am by far the most useless tourist who ever lived. I don’t want to see or do anything. I don’t even really understand why anyone would want to see or do tourist things. I just want to write well, perform well and enjoy the feeling of the places we’ve landed.
 
How did I ever amass the mess of equipment and guitars that fill my life at home? A 3-bedroom apartment full of stuff and a full storage locker on top of that, filled with artifacts of the spoken word scene in Montreal, multiple guitars, keyboards, bicycles, hundreds of books and enough audio equipment to rock a 500-seat concert hall.
 
And what do I really need? After half a century on the planet, it has come down to: a laptop, a guitar, a book to read, a bike to get across town, good friends and collaborators, good coffee, good health for the people I love; shelter from the rain and snow, a loaf of bread, a supply of green apples, a jar of peanut butter and reliable wifi.
 
And that’s all. As I look at this massive car culture we’ve built, it escapes me why we have given up so much of our lives to it. I just can’t fathom how or why it became so important.
 
***
 
September 4-14, 2014
Last stop on the Fringe tour
 
I want to start by saying that I haven’t had an easy time in Vancouver—there is something about this town that can short-circuit my intuition and leave me wandering around in a daze.
 
At our first show in Vancouver, the house manager at our theatre threatened to cut the last act of our show because of the amount of water we throw around—water which we know how to manage and contain. (Water is the core element in an intensely beautiful and climactic series of movements that are essential to the final sequence in the show.) In another performance, I discovered a short circuit in the power supply to one of my looping pedals for my guitar just before we went on; then later on that same night, we headed down to Granville Island to preview our show for the press and the general public and, somehow, the organizers had not put us in the lineup. Plus, our venue is miles from any of the others, which makes promotion much harder—though that’s balanced out by the fact that we are in the best part of town: just off Commercial Drive, a street that reminds me of the Plateau/Mile End district where I live in Montreal.
 
Today started out as a quiet morning—until I looked at our promotional flyers and did a double-take: we made a mistake on the dates!  Which meant that there were typos on all the flyers promoting our show—flyers we had already distributed everywhere. I hopped on my rental bike and flew down the hill to buy whiteout and Sharpies to correct them. In front of me I see a bus pull a hard turn across traffic, and I slam on the brakes. The handlebars on my rent-a-wreck drop about three inches, swinging both of the brakes out of my grip, and I am hurtling towards a Vancouver public bus. At the last second, I’m able to wrench the bars back into place, grab the brakes and come to a screaming halt! Close call.
 
So, by this point, I’m thinking it is time for something good to happen: something to turn my stay around. But I soon discover that I’ve found it already.
 
The night before, I was walking out of the Fringe Festival bar when I saw this tall, striking, rake-thin presence looking straight at me. I stared back. She stopped me in my tracks like the sight of a heron. I walk towards her and, within seconds, we are telling each other stories. Her name is Naomi, and she tells me she’s about to take her life and put it on a freighter across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, Southeast Asia and Japan. I realize quickly that I’ve found someone I am meant to know.
 
Then, here I am by chance this afternoon, and the venue where I’m fixing my flyers is where she’s performing that evening. I go to watch her show, which has smarts, style, precision and the intuitive audience connection of a born storyteller. And I knew that she’d have that just from looking at her, but it was still lovely to see it in action. And we wander out together into the cool, Vancouver night and the moon is high up over the Fraser River and who walks up to greet me but Lishai Peel—one of my favourite poets from the Toronto scene. (How did she get to Vancouver and onto this block at this moment?) She’s out with another girl and they are off to shake booty at a dance club up the road. Before she goes, I ask if she’ll come and open for our show this Wednesday. She says yes maybe.
 
I should mention that one of our best ideas on this tour was to ask poets from each city to perform a ten-minute set just before each of our shows. We have met fantastic poets and performers this way, and in the midst of the desert of dried up intuition that always comes to me in Vancouver, somehow the whole flow has changed. This is what we are here for, to meet the people in these communities where we land, the ones we can teach and the ones we can learn from, the ones we fall in love with. And what we encounter ends up being the same thing Keats talked about: beauty is truth, truth beauty.
 
Pretty soon, Naomi and I are in a Mexican bar and I am talking with a really lovely and intuitive friend of hers and they are serving us $6 hibiscus flower margaritas with $4 duck-and-sweet-potato tacos and this whole table is filled with dancers, storytellers and designers—all of whom want to come out and see our show.
 
I cycle home through the dark Vancouver streets, under the lit-up rumble of the Vancouver Skytrain and down Commercial Drive with its Friday night revellers and traffic. Right turn on Gravely to avoid the crazy drivers on First Ave, and I stop on the median halfway across the road from where I’ll be sleeping tonight. I am standing on the grass hearing the cars roar by and just looking at the white three-quarter moon that’s staring down on this blessed planet. And when there are no longer any cars whooshing by, and I should be crossing, I am still standing there staring at the moon, knowing I will write about this when I get home and feeling completely happy.
 
Tonight must have been, if not the most beautiful night of this tour, then as close as you can get. It reminded me of why I love what I do. Who else gets to do this? Travel across the country with three intelligent, talented, beautiful, inspiring dancers, to entertain crowds in five cities?
 
I was born to do this and, on some nights, I do it just about as well as it can be done. I am really proud of this work, and want to keep showing people what we’ve created. I feel humble thinking about everyone that has helped me so much along this path: my parents, my lovely and generous ex and our two amazing children, and my collaborators in For Body and Light: Stephanie Morin Robert, Linnea Gwiazda and Allison Burns.
 
How is it that the world has opened up so much as to allow us to be here, on this amazing tour across the great Canadian West?
 
Ian Ferrier is a professional spoken word & music performer but a newcomer to the Fringe. Last year, he toured the Fringe circuit with For Body and Light, a show featuring his words and music alongside the work of three contemporary dancers. The troupe presented more than 30 shows in New York, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. This year, Ian’s Wired on Words Productions won the CAFF lottery, so he and the rest of the troupe will be off again next summer to tour Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver.