At Nightfall, by Sursaut Dance is just on of the Québécois offerings at this year’s festival.
With an expansive name like the Calgary International Children’s Festival, it’s no surprise that Calgary’s annual theatre for young audiences (TYA) showcases performers whose mother tongue isn’t English. Some of the shows are able to deal with this disconnection by remaining nonverbal — such as dance pieces from the Sursaut Dance Company (At Nightfall) and the retuning Aché Brasil company — but language is also a difference the festival embraces.
This year’s 12 productions feature four Quebec companies, including Sursaut Dance, providing a distinct French flavour to the festival. For artistic director Kate Newby, those productions are a chance to bring superior work to the city and to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in allowing non-English companies to present in both English and their native language.
“Part of why I bring in a lot of shows from Quebec as well is the excellent quality of the work, but there’s also a strong francophone community here, as well as immersion schools,” says Newby. “I think it’s really important, since we are a bilingual country, that companies be able to perform in their own language, and the francophone schools can experience these wonderful pieces in their mother tongue. Or, in the case of an immersion school, to help promote language learning.”
Théâtre des Petites Âmes is one company representing the Québécois perspective. Their puppet play, Pekka, follows a baby turtle who goes in search of her bedtime story characters. Théâtre Motus, meanwhile, will provide a unique synthesis of both Quebec and Mali in Baobab, a collaborative piece based on Malian folk myths created with Mali’s SÔ Company.
But bringing non-English works to a primarily English-speaking audience also presents fresh challenges. Newby spends the year touring children’s festivals around the world, and while many of the works she sees are roaring successes, it isn’t always clear that these same works or their actors will translate.
“Even if you say you can do it in English, it doesn’t mean you can do it well,” she says. “If they’re not comfortable in the language, it can really ruin the flow of the piece. I have to be able to see the show in English now, though I may love it in German.”
Sometimes, though, the festival just has to take the chance. Théâtre Tout à Trac will be bringing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (Alice au Pays des Merveilles) that includes puppetry and a pop-up book set filled with hidden crevices and exploding features. Newby hasn’t seen the recent English translation, but she has faith in the company and its process. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the company will be bringing a host of puppet characters along for the ride.
“I think stories are so rich when they’re told with objects that become something else,” she says. “Kids relate to puppets, they just relate to small figures onstage. They say ‘yes’ a lot easier than we do. If you tell them it’s this way, they say yes to the improv and go with it. But it still has to be good.”
As theatrical languages, puppetry and object theatre offer an accessible, magical simplicity. This year’s puppet-based offerings include two Scottish companies — Puppet State Theatre (The Man Who Planted Trees) and Visible Fictions (Jason and the Argonauts) — as well as Stories of Faces by Horta Van Hoye, a German visual artist who constructs larger-than-life figures out of paper before an audience’s eyes. And while Van Hoye’s expressive work allows for minimal story, Stories of Faces will also feature one show entirely in German.
With returning favourites like Splash ‘N Boots and Gustavo the Impossibilist, the shows of the Calgary International Children’s Festival are all geared toward a single objective: pleasing the families that go through the festival’s doors. The language in these productions might not always be the same, but the opportunities they create are universal.
“We’re so isolated in the West and so close to the States,” says Newby. “Everything [children] encounter is very Anglo. In this festival I think I have an opportunity to share the culture, and that includes language from around the world.”