Neema Bickersteth in Century Song. Photo by John Lauener.
Neema Bickersteth in Century Song. Photo by John Lauener.

One hundred years flies by quickly in Century Song.

A hybrid musical-operatic-dance piece, Century Song deals with the experiences of black women in Canada through the twentieth century.  Co-created by soprano Neema Bickersteth, Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, and choreographer Kate Alton, the format is like an ultra-theatrical music recital: on top of Bickersteth’s compelling, wordless, singing, she physicalizes each story through dance, accompanied by projections designed by Germany’s fettFilm.

The through line of the entire piece is the question of what Bickersteth’s world would have been, as a black woman, had she been here in different times throughout the past hundred years.  This leads her through a compelling journey that begins as a slave in the early 1900s through to her own life as a singer at present day.  In between, she is a jazz performer, a factory worker, and a busy office executive.

The pace of the show builds with each transformation, and it is heartbreaking to watch a common theme emerge: with each new identity, she seems to find a sense of strength and self, only to have it transformed into pain, anger, violence, and a loss of voice.  Her jazz singer, at first sensual and free, is violently thrown out.  The factory worker, at first determined and strong, is scribbled out, her scream silenced.  As an urban executive, her frantic rushing begins with a sense of accomplishment that quickly gives way to the overwhelming pressures and anxieties of trying to keep up.  It isn’t until she emerges, in the end, as herself that there is a sense of true ease.

Mid-show, and mid-century, there is an odd video bit showing Bickersteth as a “quintessential woman” from the fifties through the eighties, watching television, exercising, and cleaning her house, culminating in each of these women standing together in a civil rights protest.  While the final image is powerful, the video feels like the odd piece out in the show, designed perhaps to fast-forward through a few decades and give Bickersteth time to change costumes.

Strange video choices aside, fettFilm’s projections are beautiful, creating all-encompassing environments that reveal both the literal setting and inner world of each woman’s story.

Bickersteth is, quite simply, a captivating performer.  Vocal power aside, her quality of movement, from a more traditional African-style dance to variations on contemporary dance and physical theatre, is almost mesmerizing.  Her total embodiment of each character and movement is incredible to watch, and it is surprising that she has no formal dance training.  Her movement is truly incredible.

Century Song is, without a doubt, an incredible feat of dance, music, and theatricality, and it is well worth a visit.

Century Song created by Neema Bickersteth, Ross Manson, and Kate Alton. A Volcano Theatre production playing as part of the 2016 PuSh Internatoinal Performing Arts Festival. On stage at The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until February 6. Visit http://pushfestival.ca for tickets and information.

Vancouver Presents!

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