Mapping Performance Studies

Reviewed by Kailin Wright

In their introduction to Performance Studies in Canada, Laura Levin and Marlis Schweitzer begin by analyzing a 2012 boxing match between Liberal MP Justin Trudeau and Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. The scene illustrates one of the book’s primary arguments: that performance is essential to local, national, and transnational culture. Performance Studies in Canada, however, does more than assert the diverse uses of performance on national and international stages; it also traces the development of performance studies in Canada and contributes an essential mapping of this burgeoning field. The eloquent introduction offers a genealogy of performance studies in Canadian institutions and publications, distinguishes between “theatre” and “performance,” and charts the influence of interdisciplinary fields in Canadian contexts. Careful to avoid arguments of national exceptionalism, Levin and Schweitzer present a survey of performance studies that takes into account the Canadian contexts of the field while at the same time acknowledging transnational influences. This complication of Canadian nationalism also serves another major thread in the book—namely, decolonization and Indigenous perspectives.

The book is divided into four parts: “Performative Geographies,” “Spectacles of Nation,” “Reframing Political Resistance,” and “Practising Research.” The first section moves from Susan Bennett’s reading of Calgary streets as performance to Heather Davis-Fisch’s consideration of the renaming of Xeyxelómós and Lady Franklin Rock in BC’s Fraser River. Peter Dickinson’s discussion of dance in Vancouver illustrates another site-based approach. He analyzes transcriptions of three walks he took in April 2014—a methodology derived from Andrew Irving’s “ethnography of interiority.” Julie Nagam’s powerful piece on missing and murdered Indigenous women considers a community art exhibition, Walking with Our Sisters, as a “living archive” in order to explore how performance studies can act as a decolonizing tool by remapping space, confronting colonial legacies, and rearticulating Indigenous stories.

“Spectacles of Nation” moves from site-based performances to examinations of the nation through performance, covering a range of topics including the American Girl store in Canada (Schweitzer), military training simulations (Natalie Alvarez), and spectacles of nationalism at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 (Helene Vosters). How, Schweitzer asks, is the “identity of Canadian girls . . . performed with and through the consumption of US brands?” Shifting from uniformly dressed American Girl dolls to the uniformed Canadian military, Alvarez engages an emerging body of research on military training simulation as both a performance and a pedagogical act that stages “experiences of the other.” Vosters examines the mutually constitutive relationship of statecraft and stagecraft at Sochi in juxtaposition with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and Jeff Barnaby’s Mi’gMaq film Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013).

“Reframing Political Resistance” begins with Dylan Robinson’s provocative question: “to what degree does performance studies efface a colonial enterprise in its desire to understand, and perhaps in the process normalize, Indigenous cultural practice as ‘performance first’?” In his analysis of affect and activism in Idle No More, Robinson explains that Indigenous traditions “have always held functional significance for what they ‘do’ as politics, acts of history, and law-making.” Levin’s welcome analysis of Rob Ford as performance artist and Erin Hurley’s examination of material objects as political performance round out this section.

Performance Studies in Canada culminates with a self-reflective section on “Practising Research” and the methodologies that “translate sensuous and lived experience into writing.” Brian Rusted uses “emplaced writing” to re-enact site-specific elements of Maritime artist Don Wright, while MJ Thompson presents an “emplaced reading” of Montreal dancer Louise Lecavalier. Naila Keleta-Mae’s chapter shares an “auto-ethnographic account of the development, teaching, and production” of spoken-word poems on Black slavery in Canada. Further demonstrating the possibilities of “art as a practice of research,” Pam Hall discusses the Newfoundland art project Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge. Each of the essays engages with and refers to at least one other chapter in the collection, magnifying the book’s rich dialogue. Ric Knowles’ afterword further contributes to the cohesion of the collection by gesturing to the introduction and considering how Indigenous performance grounds the volume with “a genuinely unsettling, decolonizing body of work.”

Performance Studies in Canada is an ambitious collection of essays that maps the methodologies, histories, and futures of performance studies in Canada. It is essential for scholars and students of theatre and performance in Canada and beyond.

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