Faculty of Fine Arts and Harbourfront Centre launch partnership

The day after the world premiere of Voice-Box in Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage series, the creative team behind the show, produced by the Toronto-based interdisciplinary performance collective urbanvessel, visited York University to present hands-on lecture-demonstrations about their creative process.

The Nov. 11 sessions by urbanvessel, led by Voice-Box choreographer Julia Aplin, writer Anna Chatterton and composer Juliet Palmer, mark the start of a new partnership between York’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Harbourfront Centre.

Voice-Box generated a major buzz among critics and audiences alike during its run as part of Harbourfront Centre’s national commissioning program, Fresh Ground new works. Combining boxing and the power of the singing voice, the show defies assumptions about female aggression, unveiling women’s power to withstand blows and go beyond expectations. The production, featuring set and costume designs by York Theatre professor Teresa Przybylski, was staged in-the-round in the Brigantine Room at York Quay Centre Nov. 10 to14.

The Voice-Box demos at York gave undergraduate and graduate dance students, plus a number of students from theatre and music, the opportunity to gain critical insights into how the show was developed – both as a creative transformation of the physical and sonic language of sport and as a collaborative, collective process of creation.

The guest artists began the workshops with the same phonetic and kinetic warm-ups, incorporating dance, vocals and boxing, used by the performers at the start of rehearsals. During the boxing segment, the predominantly female students learned everything from the proper wrist alignment for a punch, to the jabs, uppercuts, hooks, bobs and weaves that are the mainstays of boxing vocabulary.

Right: The urbanvessel workshop in action

Video, audio and anecdotes illustrated the creative team’s inspiration and source material. They presented clips of Muhammad Ali’s pre-match verbal challenges, a short film from the Thomas Edison film archives of the “Gordon Sisters” boxing and YouTube videos of modern-day Foxy Boxing and online boxing guru Albert Pope. The captivated audience was also given a primer on the history of women’s boxing, including the eye-opening facts that women’s matches were illegal in Ontario until the early 1990s, and that women’s boxing will be an official sport at the Olympics for the first time in 2012.

The sessions concluded with an insightful question-and-answer period. Students’ probing questions revealed the improvisational nature of the work – the outcome of some of the fights in the actual show was not determined until the performance began each night – and also the larger message that the artists sought to convey to their audience: boxing as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life.

Right: Anna Chatterton (left), Juliet Palmer and Julia Aplin

The Voice-Box workshops with urbanvessel represent the first step in a long-term partnership between Harbourfront Centre and York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, working together to nurture a vibrant and thriving arts ecology in Toronto.

“We both recognize the importance of the other in maintaining and developing the high level of talent creating work in the city,” said Faculty of Fine Arts Dean Barbara Sellers-Young.

Harbourfront Centre has access to some of the most cutting-edge theatre and dance in the world, as well as the ability to give both local and international artists a platform to perform and discuss their work. As one of North America’s leading fine arts schools, the Faculty of Fine Arts is educating the next generation of performing artists who will both learn from, and challenge, more established artists, said Sellers Young.

“It is vital that the rising young artists in our program are immersed in a wide range of performance and discussion to help them develop their own style, technique and critical thinking abilities,” Sellers-Young said.

The partnership will be built around creating opportunities for dialogue and exchange at a number of different levels. Future initiatives under discussion include a  workshop on campus with Glasgow-based artist Adrian Howells during Reading Week in February 2011, Faculty of Fine Arts Summer Institutes with other Harbourfront-affiliated artists, and other long-term projects, performances and placements to bring York University students to Harbourfront Centre and vice versa.