The Legacy of One Yellow Rabbit


High Performance

by Stephen Hunt


We now know it as the High Performance Rodeo, the event that turns Calgary into the cultural capital of the world, more or less, every January.


It’s a festival that over the years has brought internationally-acclaimed artists such as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, playwright Young Jean Lee, Daniel McIvor, macabre puppeteers Mump & Smoot, theatre troupes from Iceland, Ireland, Germany, the UK, the United States, lucha libre wrestlers from Mexico, burlesque dancers from LA, and from provinces all across Canada, to Calgary -- in January! -- in order to expose Calgarians to art that, as its founder, the late, great Michael Green once put it, is “a little bit out of their comfort zone.”

But dig into the formidable archives that are the memories of the founding Rabbits -- Blake Brooker, Andy Curtis, Denise Clarke, and even, posthumously, Green himself -- and what you discover is an internationally-acclaimed, beloved performing arts festival that grew, step by unsteady step, in the most idiosyncratic, grassroots way imaginable.

“It started super organically - and it just grew. It was (originally) people we knew, people we wanted to know, and largely people from the milieu,” says Brooker.




The Soma Building Penthouse


2019 marks the 33rd High Performance Rodeo.

It all started rather inauspiciously, 33 years ago, when One Yellow Rabbit was in its fourth or fifth year of existence, says Brooker.

After spending a few years in various basements, office buildings, art deco nightclubs (the Harris Sky Room on 11th Avenue SW) and its first real space -- the back room of an artist-run gallery called Off Centre Centre, on -- where else? -- Centre Street and Eighth Avenue, upstairs in a sandstone building.

The Rabbits back then were a group of young Calgary artists who were a little cross-disciplinary, before that word existed -- fusing visual art to movement to storytelling to create a kind of performance style that was light years away from what was happening on Calgary’s main stages in the mid-1980s.

Which was exactly how the Rabbits wanted it.

“We came from the gallery world more than theatre world, and were interested in non-specific spaces, etc etc., non-traditional spaces,” Brooker says.

“Not only were we interested in (non-traditional spaces),” he adds. “It was the only place we could go (to perform)!”

Around 1987, the Rabbits were renting out the penthouse of the Soma Building -- a name the literarily-inclined Brooker adored because ‘Soma’ was the name of the drug people took in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World to act normal.

However, the reality of why a Calgary apartment building was called Soma was far less prosaic.

“The guy who owned it, his name was Amos,” Brooker says, “Soma is Amos spelled backwards.”

The penthouse was a step up from earlier locations. Green wanted to invite people over, to perform.

“Michael invited a number of people to come -- local people who had done performance art or performative artifact type of stuff,” Brooker says.

“I remember there was this guy in town called Henry Viney and Henry Viney was a famous sportscaster on Channel 4 -- the CFCN affiliate -- and he had a son called Windsor Viney.

“Windsor was a studious, ascetic dude -- and I remember he played prepared, toy pianos,” he adds.

Little did the Rabbits know it, but a festival, as yet unnamed, was born.

“It was basically a vision of Michael Green’s eccentricity,” Brooker said.

As far as the naming part of the equation goes, that emerged from a Banff Centre residency that the Rabbits were invited to attend.

“At the time, there was a magazine called High Performance,” Brooker says. “It was about performance art, and performance -- not theatre, but performance.”

It was two-thirds of the way to creating a name for Calgary’s second most iconic (after the Stampede) festival as well.


A Theatrical Banquet


The Rodeo has such an eclectic, multi-disciplinary range of acts each year that one of the most frequently discussed questions in the community -- and theatre communities across the country -- is ‘but is it a Rodeo show?’

No one really knows, but maybe for a glimpse into the Rodeo founder’s mind, it’s best to go straight to the source himself.

Back in 2014, Green spoke to me for a piece about the Rodeo that I wrote for the Calgary Herald.

“When I think  about how we choose the different shows and how we present them, I often am reminded of how one puts together a banquet,” he said

“Some banquets have themes - an Italian style buffet, or Indian buffet - but for me, when we’re putting together the High Performance Rodeo, it’s like we’ve invited everybody to come to our High Performance Rodeo and we’re putting out different kinds of dishes,” he said.

“It’s not as if they’re (all)  necessarily connected, or related to each other,” he added,  “but they complement each other.

“Some things are going to be popular, so you’re going to have to have enough of a certain kind of thing, and there’s got to be enough of certain other things - and then not everybody is going to like  the horseradish or the rollmops - but you’ve got to have them (as well).

“You’ve got to have that variety, and different flavours that complement each other, so that by the time you’re finished January with us, with High Performance Rodeo, you’ve really had a well-rounded experience.”


The Present


What Rabbit Andy Curtis longs to preserve from the earliest days of the High Performance Rodeo is the sense of inclusion, innovation and even a little bit of anarchy that came out of its earliest days.

Or to put it another way, he wants a new generation of Calgary theatre artists -- or theatre artists from anywhere, really -- to feel as if they have access to and inclusion in, the High Performance Rodeo.

“Part of me remembers, with deep fondness, when the doors were more widely open to certain untried entities within the performance world,” Curtis says.

“Like (for example),  the kids had a room of their own -- here you go, kids. Have fun! We’re not gonna come down there to bug you!”

“I guess this is an I-miss-the-spirit-of-Michael-Green moment, but the spirit of Michael Green, I can’t think of the Rodeo without having my own nostalgic desires and memories of when Michael would support something (he didn’t know much about),” he says.

“(Basically, it was like), I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t need to see specs and numbers I don’t need to see a video. If you’re young and hot for it, and it might fail miserably -- we love that.”

The bigger, and higher profile the Rodeo gets, Curtis worries that there’s less chance for the happy accidents of young artists getting their big break to happen.

“I understand when the shows are expensive, that there’s a little bit more care taken with those numbers,” he says, “but I really believe that one of the roots of the festival -- of any festival, really -- but particularly the High Performance Rodeo, is that sense of ownership, that we make that festival, ownership on the part of the creative people.”


The Labbits


As they enter their 38th year, the Rabbits are working on a new show to debut at the 2019 Rodeo.

They’re also taking the opportunity to reflect on how four decades spent being located in Calgary has spawned several generations of theatre artists and dancers -- Labbits! -- who trained with Denise Clarke, Brooker and the other Rabbits as part of their Summer Intensive.

Clarke -- who just choreographed Hadrian for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto -- and who has taught as part of the Rabbits Summer Intensive for many years, says there’s no real secret to it.

“It’s been an open door,” Clarke says. “Come and hang out. We’ll do whatever we can.

“That (open-door philosophy)  all comes from the work, from a real focus on integrity-filled work.

“I feel like that just spins a universe of positivity that’s inviting and fun,” Clarke says.

Four decades on, the Rabbits are working on a new show for the 2019 Rodeo with playwright John Murrell that’s a comical look at ageing, featuring Murrell as a 1970’s personal empowerment guru who’s got a hit YouTube channel.

Over the past several years, they’ve endured the deaths of Green and longtime sound designer Richard McDowell, as well as enduring the financial struggles that every local arts company has endured of late.

As the sisters ask in one of those Chekhov plays, what is to be done?

For Clarke and the rest of Rabbits, the only answer to dealing with grief and recession is: keep making work the best way you know how.

And keep presenting their favourite idiosyncratic artists that they encounter from their travels around the world.

“It was so hard to lose the boys. (Michael and Richard McDowell),” Clarke says.

“The deaths were really heart blows -- but we still actually believe in the resilience piece, in being like -- that’s what you do (as an arts organization).

“You don’t give up.

“You just keep going.

“You try harder.”




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