The final three weeks of January in Vancouver will see dozens of live performances by both Canadian and international artists enliven a dreary post-holiday slump. The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is back and as startling, innovative and inspiring as ever. With eyes firmly set on expansion and a close association with the city’s cultural identity, the festival shows no sign of slowing its committed effort to providing a diverse platform for connecting artists with the greater community. Nor does it make any apologies for venturing to cross the line – that is, pushing audiences beyond the boundaries of their expectations, conventions and comfort zones.

The latter is an important distinguishing feature of PuSh for Norman Armour, the festival’s artistic and executive director. Armour co-founded the festival with Katrina Dunn out of a partnership between Touchstone Theatre and Rumble Productions in 2003 and now works alongside Joyce Rosario in the curation of festival’s mainstage performances. Since its foundation, PuSh has focused on exposing contemporary works that are venturesome and multidisciplinary in the hopes of challenging audiences and bringing new and exciting work to Vancouver. Over the course of the festival’s development, Armour and his team have continued to focus on challenging boundaries, whether they are between media or audience demographics.

“For us, the festival was an opportunity to break down silos, to bring audiences together who hadn’t normally been together,” Armour explains. “We’ve also been trying to break down loyalties in terms of theatre versus dance, or dance verses music, and presumptions about what is theatre, or what is dance, or what is music.”

What makes the festival’s focus on innovation and experimentation all the more appealing is the amount of importance placed on audience outreach. Intrinsic to the festival are the PuSh Assembly and PuSh Conversations, which serve as opportunities for public engagement and an additional point of access to an artist’s work.

“Many of the people who are going to the talk-backs [PuSh Conversations] chart their festival experience in that way, because they want to connect to the artists who made the work. It’s key to the mission and key to the spirit of the festival.”

In addition to these talks, the intimate space offered at Club PuSh, the social hub of the festival, ensures that no one is left unsatisfied by opportunities for discussion and interaction.

The festival’s dedication to the enrichment of Vancouver’s performing arts scene should have audiences looking forward to what the future will bring. “While there have certainly been challenges in the city over the last few years,” Armour admits, “performing arts in Vancouver are in a really great place right now; a really great place of regeneration and growth and celebration.”

The increasing success of the festival and its expansion into a wide variety of performance venues, such as the new Fox Cabaret, speak to this growth and healthy development. The festival’s recently launched Youth Program and Artists-in-Residence Program have also expanded the inclusivity of PuSh and deepened the impact of the performing arts on the city.

Interested audiences should look out for PuSh and pay special attention to the scope of its featured presenters. Some of the mainstage performances that come highly recommended by Armour include Gob Squad’s Kitchen, apparently “one of the most remarkable pieces that [he has] experienced in the last 10 years,” the not-to-be-missed Usually Beaty Fails, a dance work from Montreal, Nanook of the North, starring Tanya Tagaq, and António Zambujo, the Portuguese fado singer whose performance will be a wonderful way to end off the festival.

But beyond these highlights, the best suggestion offered by Armour for selecting performances to attend is simple: “Go with your instincts. The festival is nothing if not, hopefully, responding to desire and interest in the city. We think very hard about the shows and the artists that we bring into the city and that they might have resonance and meaning to local audiences.”

Visit http://pushfestival.ca/ to view the full list of performances.

By Natalie Cammarasana
Photo: Gob Squad Arts Collective

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