Montreal Musts, to see: Watch La Vie unfold on the stage at La Tohu

Talk of circus spectacles in Montreal almost always centers on Cirque du Soleil, but a quick walk across the street from that troupe’s headquarters will bring you to another performance at La TOHU. More than just an acrobatic exhibition, Les 7 doigt de la main‘s (seven fingers of the hand) La Vie weaves the physical feats into a full performance that fuses familiar themes from French literature and comedy. Frankly, it’s almost as though Tohu is the intersection of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, the famous anti-war film Le roi de coeur (King of Hearts) and the acrobatics of the well-known performers across the street.

Dark comedy pervades La Vie, which unlike its title (life), talks about everything that comes after. The cast comes face to face with the many sins they have enjoyed – or not – over a 90-minute performance that is performed in English or French, depending on the night you attend. Coping with insanity, sexual frustration and a devilish host committed fully to the discomfort of his “guests,” the performers mix dialogue with singing, dancing and the disturbingly integrated creations of a DJ whose mouth provides some of the soundtrack. Moments of comedic lightness only intensify the anxiety, as they mock the victims who are so obviously in various states of physical, mental or emotional agony.

But, it’s still really funny. Seriously. At times, you feel like you shouldn’t laugh, but you can’t help yourself.

If you’ve ever wondered what purgatory is like, La Vie has all the answers. It’s a flight – but any frequent traveler knows this already. Perhaps worse for the Francophones in the audience, it’s a flight with an English-speaking attendant whose pronunciation of the French language is very clearly that of an American who took three years of high school French from a teacher that never lived abroad. Yes, she gets the words right, in the manner of an honors student, but the purity is noticeably absent.

A French (of the “from France” variety) acrobat presides over the afterlife – at least this portion of it. Clad entirely in white, contrasting with the nature of his reign, he pushes each of his guests through several trials ostensibly related to how they lived. He is assisted by a bookish assistant (who also plays the flight attendant) who is clearly ready to burst with a lust she could never have satisfied while alive.

The biting wit throughout this performance does not overshadow the physical prowess of the performers. How could it? Even the most compelling of dialogues could never overshadow a scantily clad beauty entangled in chains several dozen feet above the stage. Jugglers always delight audiences, but when they are standing on the shoulders of others, this gives way to sheer astonishment. And, there’s nothing quite so unusual as a voluptuous young lady resting her head against the bottom of a loose noose, casually smoking a cigarette while showing no concern for the fact that the slightest slip would lead to several broken bones.

The company’s name becomes clear shortly into the show. It seems, sometimes, as though they must have seven fingers on each hand to endure (and even enjoy) the maneuvers they complete. There is no room for error in La Vie … the performance that is. In the real thing, la vie that we live daily, however, there is a bit more forgiveness, even if Les 7 doigt de la main would have you believe otherwise.

Whether you appreciate the acrobatic, love the intertwining of anguish and humor or simply want to see a girl in a straightjacket contort herself on a gurney, La Vie is an essential stop in Montreal.

Since there aren’t any clips of La Vie on YouTube yet, check out one of Les 7 doigt de la main’s other performances below.

Disclosure: Tourisme-Montreal picked up the tab for this trip, but my views are my own.

“Ugly” Girl was Cut from Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony last week in Beijing was quite memorable. The sheer magnitude of the spectacle was, in fact, almost unbelievable. When former Olympic medalist and millionaire clothing designer Li Ning made his lap around the roof of the Bird’s Nest without falling or extinguishing his torch, China must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. The whole thing went off without a hitch.

But a bit of controversy has come to the surface recently. Remember that little flying singer with the pig-tails who almost stole the entire show? According to the ceremony’s music director, Chen Qigang, she was simply mouthing the words.

That’s not really a controversy. Singing in front of so many people is a lot to ask of someone so young.

But wait. The little girl, Lin Miaoke, was not even supposed to be part of the show. She was a replacement for the original singer, seven-year-old Yang Peiyi. Yang was not going to lip-sync. What happened? A sore throat? Stage fright?

Government officials and the ceremony’s producers decided to cut Yang in favor of Lin because Yang, with her crooked teeth and baby-fat cheeks, was deemed too ugly.

Chen explained: “The reason why little Yang was not chosen to appear was because we wanted to project the right image…”

Yang’s voice was still heard on the stadium’s sound system. Apparently, Lin didn’t have the singing chops to match her good looks.

Related story

Journey Girl and Melburnalia: Theatrics on Flinders Lane

Ahhh, the stories I have to share about my recent two-month stay in Melbourne. It’s such a fantastic place. But until I get my arse in gear and bring those tales your way, let me at least suggest one spot you should check out if you’re headed to the Victorian capital in the near future:

fortyfivedownstairs is an art space located on fabulous Flinders Lane in Melbourne’s central business district. The venue features a constant lineup of cool exhibits and theatrical performances. Two of their upcoming productions are travel related, so I felt obliged to let ya know about them straight away:

Beginning October 24, the theater will showcase a one-woman Australian musical called The Journey Girl. Emma Caldwell plays Annie, “an adventurous young Aussie woman attempting to conquer the world with nothing more than a backpack and a map.” Next up is Melburnalia, which debuts on November 1. The play weaves together five short works (by local writers) into a single journey through the diverse suburbs of the city.

I’d sooooo love to see both these theatrical explorations, and after living in Melbourne for awhile, the second one sounds especially interesting. If you live there, or will be traveling through town, be sure to check out the lineup at fortyfivedownstairs, and tell us what you think.

Band on the Run: A Roadie Without The Heavy Lifting

Alright, this is the first post of a new series entitled “Band on the Run,” (as you can see above.) This is a blog about travelling on the road as a musician here in North America. It’s about what we see and where we’ve been – the stories that go along with those journeys and the images to accompany them. It’ll be like you’re the roadie that gets to witness what happens behind the scenes without having to carry any heavy equipment.


(I mean, I’m the bandleader and I don’t even get out of carrying the heavy stuff!)

Specifically, I’m a Canadian musician with a Canadian band who performs more than half of my shows south of the border. And yes, I have provincial license plates on my van and work permits for the U.S.of A. for all of my band members, so I’m down on American soil legally, don’t worry!)

We are on the road A LOT, which sometimes means that we’re home less than we’re away. In fact, at one point just a few years ago, we peaked at 200 days on the road during the year. I am happy to report that we’ve calmed down slightly and probably are out only half the year now. That’s slightly healthier all around, for everyone.

The downside of this life is the fact that we’re travel-tired most of the time and we spend copious amounts of time in moving vehicles, most notably our van (or occasional rental vans if there’s a flight involved.) Sometimes we joke that we’re professional drivers who moonlight as musicians.

Sometimes it feels like that.

The upside of this life is that we get to make music for different audiences sometimes four and five times a week. Music is what we love to do the most in this world. Music is the drug of choice for this band; it’s the art; it’s the heart; it’s the fuel. Without it, why would we do this to our bodies? Why would we sit in a van for ten hours in a row, for example?

Honestly, music has taken me far and continues to pull me farther still. I am tempted by its long distance promises and its moments of brilliance on foreign stages, no matter what it takes to get to them. (So tempted that I sometimes make bad touring decisions, but I’ll leave that for the blog as they happen…)

Music is my nightlight. It’s the good dream. It’s consistent.

Stylistically, it’s a rather mixed-up folk-jazz-funk-pop-world combo (check out samples here). It’s lyrically-driven music and the show is as much about what’s being said in the songs themselves as it is about what’s being said between the songs. I sometimes write about topics that people don’t want to discuss. I also write about love and beautiful summer days and funny situations worth laughing at. All in all, the music has listeners and that’s all that matters.

After ten releases (counting the 2005 documentary-stye DVD, of course), five vans (we’re on our fifth now), uncountable tours across various parts of Canada and the U.S., eight trips to Australia, two tours to New Caledonia (link to where that country is, as it’s little known!), and one solo trip to China, the adventure continues.

We’re not famous, but we’re well-known in some circles. We have fans – listeners and supporters and friends – and we continue to sell albums. We continue to perform live. People continue to buy tickets to hear those shows.

Life is good.

We’re independent, too, which is important. These tours are not being funded by big label tour support or sponsorship dollars or product placement. We aspire to sustainability and this means we ride waves of occasional prosperity and occasional poverty. In the midst of it all, we find the balance of a living and breathing career that has careened along the corners of mountain passes for over a decade now.

No complaints.

I don’t think it’s poised to stop anytime soon. It always changes shape a little as time loops around us, but the wheels keep turning on these travelling vehicles and we keep finding ourselves in them along with gear and contracts and passports and a well-calculated number of clean underwear tucked away in our suitcases and stashed around guitars and amps and on top of boxes of CDs to stop that incessant rattling of plastic against plastic.

It’s not all glamorous, but what is really?

Behind the scenes is just behind the scenes. It’s my job to strip the scene for you, I suppose. It’s my job to bare all.

(But it’s not that kind of show, so get your mind outta that sticky trench now!)

Now if you do enjoy these stories and we end up in your town all of a sudden, we won’t deny you the opportunity to lift some heavy stuff if you show up early to help us load in or you stay long after the rest of the audience has gone home until we’re finally loading out.

In fact, temporary roadies are the BEST.

They have enough strength to lift the bass amp…

And that same strength didn’t require a meal buy-out.

Love it.

[All photos except the van shot by Desdemona Burgin, a fantastic friend and photographer]

A Canadian in Beijing: Performing at The 4th Annual Olympic Cultural Festival

About a month ago, I introduced you to my friend Chairman George, a performer and musician from Canada who tours his music in China once a year. (Well, at least once a year.) I met him in May and then we said goodbye. Fortunately, George came back at the end of June before I had to leave Beijing and I had a chance to connect with him again.

This time on the stage.

George does quite a bit in association with the Olympics here in Beijing. In 2004, he was a volunteer for China at the Athens Olympic games. It made perfect sense since he has a Chinese profile (and speaks the language), is Greek by descent (and speaks the language) and is Canadian (always a neutral nationality that puts people at ease!) He was actually a torch bearer and told some colourful stories about his time in Athens. I listened to each intently.

As a result of this experience, George does a lot of performing for various Olympic committee events or conferences in Beijing. . .

On the 24th of June, he asked me to perform with him at Renmin Daxue 人民大学 at an Olympic Conference performance and it was a great success. I sang backup on one of his songs and even a short excerpt from a famous Chinese song that I’ve been singing lately: 月亮代表我的心 “Yue Liang Daibiao Wode Xin.” The response was fantastic and so he asked me if I wanted to be part of another Olympics performance the following night.

I agreed.

This, too, was a great success. It was outdoors and filled with excited people, television cameras, several famous Chinese vocalists and performers, big screens broadcasting the stage to the filled audience, etc. It was quite remarkable, honestly. (I’ve included some pictures of this night from both the daytime sound check and the evening performance.)

Well, another opportunity rolled around for yet another of these gigs on Friday night of last week. Both of the latter shows were part of the 4th Annual “Beijing 2008” Olympic Cultural Festival events. They were open-air concerts and were packed with attendees and enthusiasm.

As you know, my sister was in Beijing with her fiancé and I was conscious that they had already crossed off the “see Ember perform in China” item from their list (the night before). So, I wasn’t sure if they’d be interested in attending such an event. I spoke to them about it and the mention of the 2008 Olympics piqued their interest instantly. They agreed to attend and so I put on my fancy red dress once again and headed to meet George.

We made our way down to the 世界艺术馆 or The World Art Museum. I still haven’t seen inside this museum (save the backstage area) but it’s in a dense section of town and the building was immense and looked a bit like a spaceship. They had set up a huge outdoor stage behind the building and it was lit up like a stadium with lights and action everywhere. The audience had all been given these large blow-up plastic toys like pool toys and they were waving them and bouncing them up and down. Each performer was greeted with cheers and their performances were applauded vigorously. It was the kind of audience you dream about; the audience that wants you to succeed and so your performance is successful before it has even begun.

I paused before going backstage to take it all in. The movement of the plastic toys was like a wave of colour across the audience. The dry ice was blowing onto the stage in big bursts capturing the stage lights in all their rainbow glory and the excitement grabbed the hairs on my forearm and made them stand up, alert and ready. This image reminded me of candy, somehow, and I smiled at my inner child and the simple association my brain had just made.

I hadn’t been there even an hour before it was time to get on stage. George entered the audience in his official Olympic outfit, slowly carrying a torch and jogging up and down the aisles to screaming cheers. He arrived on stage and played his first song solo (in Chinese, of course) before inviting me up with him. The audience welcomed me with a roar and when he started the chords for the famous Chinese song I was about to sing, the love was sealed. They sang along and gave me only joy. It was impossible to lose.

Afterwards, I signed autographs for many sweet young girls before the security personnel insisted we break away and head backstage once again.

Only an hour after the show ended the place was deserted. I am always amazed by how quickly events start up and close down here in China. All of the plastic toys had been collected in large plastic bags and were being put back in storage. The cameras were long gone. They wanted to shut off the building’s lights and lock the door and they were urging us to leave. We were ushered out with a smile.

My spirit felt full. I was thrilled to get the opportunity – the spontaneous opportunity – to perform one last time and in such a unique environment. My sister and Steve were also smiling from ear to ear. They had had a great time and were just as charmed by the whole event as I was.

Thanks George!

The night came to a late close over drinks in Hou Hai. The day had been intense and it was only the end of the first full day as a tour guide for my family. (Don’t forget that the day started with The Great Wall of China and then shopping at two different markets (more on that soon!) and then this concert!) I have a new-found respect for the travel and guiding industry!

I fell into a deep sleep that night, prepping my body for day number two of their visit and my second last day in my beloved China.

I dreamed sweet dreams filled with candy and colours and laughter.

And music.

Don’t forget the music.