Thursday, March 23, 2017

INTERVIEW: Adam Bailey and Laura Anne Harris on ideas whose time has come (again)

Laura Anne Harris and Adam Bailey are friends, colleagues and Fringe rock stars. Tonight, they open remounts of their national hit shows, PITCH BLONDE and ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE in a double bill at the TORONTO CENTRE for THE PERFORMING ARTS for two nights this week.

I spoke to both of them last week as they prepared their respective remounts.

Laura Anne is coming up here from Syracuse, N.Y. especially for PITCH BLONDE. Her husband, musician Chris Peterson is completing a graduate degree tin the U.S. and she decided to join him for his final year. It's her 10th year performing the show.

Ten years! Where have you been?

"All across Canada on the national Fringe circuit. Also to FemFest in Winnipeg, to Orlando and Lancaster, P.A. in the U.S.: now that I have a green card I can go EVERYWHERE in the U.S. After touring this show off and on for ten years, going back to do it this time feels like visiting an old friend."

It's certainly a great moment to tell the story of a woman who persisted.

PITCH BLONDE is the story of Judy Holliday, the Academy-Award winning actress with an I.Q. of 170 who made a career of playing dumb blondes.

"The best performance of Holliday's career wasn't her Oscar-winner in BORN YESTERDAY: it was her testimony during the McCarthy trials. She needed acting to get out of the situation she was in. She used her perceived persona to control the interview."

Holliday's situation seems eeirily and sadly current.

" Roy Cohn, one of McCarthy's notorious associates was also one of Donald Trump's lawyers. Holliday was a woman who opposed tyranny. She was Jewish, and McCarthyism had antisemitic overtones. The alt-right is doing the same thing as McCarthy did: looking for bogey-men under the bed. "

She continues: " Holliday's moment of great success ( her Oscar) was followed closely by a moment of great infamy. She triumphed."

I ask Harris what is different for her playing Holliday 10 years later. "It's more grounded. I'm more grounded. " She laughs. "I've changed the script a little bit over time. We meet her husband, David Oppenheim in this version. I wanted to show Holliday's full humanity; to honour her story and to honour her as a person."

Harris has five starred and sold out everywhere with this show. If you've never seen it before, you're in for a treat.

A few days later, I finally manage to catch up with the other half of the bill, Adam Bailey. I ask him how the double-bill came to be.

"They (Toronto Centre for The Performing Arts) asked! And Laura and I have such a great relationship."

Harris directed HENRI, Bailey's play about early 20th C painter Henri Rousseau, which he's bringing to Toronto this summer.

"I am the gay son of an Evangelical Christian minister. I grew up in Belleville where my dad ran the Quinte Christian Fellowship."

That sounds like quite a story.

"It's called ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE because there are people who think I am on fire: that I will be in hell for being a gay man. The play hasn't stopped being relevant. In the States, there's this perception of gay vs. religion. But I live between two worlds in this play: the world of my upbringing and my world as a gay man."

How dis his family take it?

"My family is not a worry: my sense of responsibility is towards the audience. The play is an exploration of me trying to be truthful to who I am, in every sense. It isn't didactic: there is no right answer."

Like Bailey, I had a very religious upbringing that I rebelled against as a young woman. We talk about that and I ask him, how wild was he?

"When Amish kids turn 16, they are no longer Amish by default. They get to decide. They have two years to make a final decision. Some of those kids are pretty wild for two years. I was pretty wild."

I'm Catholic. We can repent for our sins. If you're an evangelical Christian, what do you do, I ask?

"What is sin? Less than perfection. Sin is imperfection. To ask for forgiveness is to admit you're less than perfect. We're all less than perfect."

Bailey is older now and he's married to his husband. I ask him where he got married. "Outside." After a pause, he continues: "One of the hardest things to talk about was respectability politics within the gay community. That stuff was important to what this has meant to me. There are a lot of harsh realities about being in the gay community."

That topic is as taboo as religion.

We are running out of time. I ask Bailey what he wants people to know about the show.

"It's hilarious!" Is that it?

"A friend of mine came up to me after the show at the Fringe last summer and said"You made me laugh so hard and then you made me cry and now I have to hurt you!" Then she gave me a big hug."

I want to give Bailey a big hug but we're on the phone so I just wish him Merde and tell him I'll see him on Friday night.


PITCH BLONDE and ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE are at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Studio Theatre on Thursday March 23 and Friday, March 24th starting at 7:00 PM.  Click  HERE to order tickets.  Please note you must purchase two separate tickets for the double bill.







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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

INTERVIEW: Sean Dixon Talks About Creating THE ORANGE DOT with S&G

It's one day before THE ORANGE DOT opens at Crows' Theatre and Sean Dixon is on his way to his play's final preview. We speak as he walks to the theatre.

Dixon is an acclaimed and internationally successful novelist and playwright, who began writing in 1991. THE ORANGE DOT is anticipated for good reason: Dixon's last play in Toronto, the critically acclaimed A GOD IN NEED OF HELP was short-listed for a Governor General's award. He describes the new play as its companion piece.

THE ORANGE DOT has had a long genesis:  you might say an ancient one.

The idea came to Dixon back in 2012. Initially, he planned to write a play as a reaction/response to Harold Pinter's THE DUMB WAITER:  a challenge (and a commission) set out for him by THEATREFRONT artistic director, Vikki Anderson.

"Before my mother died, she was in the hospital for a long while.  I spent a lot of time with her there. While she slept, I read The EPIC of GILGAMESH. Do you know it?"

I've heard of it, I tell him, but I have never read it. My bad.

"It's considered the world's first book," he tells me. "The Sumerians had a massive, well-developed culture in what is now Northern Iraq."   That much I knew from a long-ago visit to the British Museum, where there's a spectacular display of  cultural artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia. "Gilgamesh is a Sumerian text. It dates to 1800 BC, about 1000 year before the Old Testament was written. In one of the stories, a goddess takes a tree and floats it down a flooded river because she wants to sleep in its branches. "

There is something inherently matriarchal about a tree:  its roots drawing from and nurturing the earth, its lofty arms variously offering shelter, challenge, and embrace. "You know that silver maple on Roncesvalles?  Outside the church?  The big one? The silver maple? That's near my house. It's one of the oldest trees in city: it's over a hundred years old. In my mind, that's the tree in the story."

So the tree is a character?  "Oh yes: there's a tree and two actors. It's a character-driven piece. I love the collaborative aspect of working with the company.  It's been fun to hand the story over to the actors and to Vikki and watch them take it over and make it their own."

Dixon is in good company:  his two-hander is being played by renowned actor Shawn Doyle making a  return to the stage, and Daniela Vlaskalic, who created and toured nationally in the acclaimed DROWNING GIRLS.

"He's (Joe, the character played by Doyle) is a regular guy with a hidden emotional life.  She ( Natalie, Vlaskalic's character) has just come back to work after the death of her mother.  They work for the city as arborists. They are waiting by this tree for a piece of equipment that's stuck in traffic.  They're killing time: hanging out with their phones, chatting, waiting to take the tree down."

Dixon has arrived at the theatre: our time is up. From our conversation I can guarantee you two things about his new play:  you'll have a lot to talk about afterwards, and you'll probably learn something you didn't know.  For me, those are always two good reasons to check out a show.

Image result for the orange dot play theatrefront  photos 
THE ORANGE DOT written by Sean Dixon and produced by THEATREFRONT continues at Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre until April 1, 2017.  To book tickets or for further information go to:  www.theatrefront.com




Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival: Good Cheap Fun!

I always find March the grimmest month of the winter. The city is coated in a film of grey grit, the weather is dodgy, and real spring seems a long way off.

In an effort to shake off the winter doldrums, I ventured off to the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival for the first time ever last Saturday night.

I had this idea that I was going to do a survey of a few of the female comedians at the festival:  Flo and Joan, Dame Judy Dench (there are guys and gals in that one) Full Time Idiot...

Somehow I managed to grab a Sunday ticket off my desk when I headed to the Theatre Centre on Saturday night.  I'm crediting pre-flu brain for that winner move.  "No problem," said the nice woman at the box office. "Do you want to see the 8:00 PM show here tonight instead?"

Why not?  So I ended up seeing OSFUG from NYC and HIP BANG! from Vancouver instead of TEMPLETON PHILHARMONIC and DAME JUDI DENCH.

This is one of the things I love about festivals:  going random - by choice or by chance, often takes me  to something really enjoyable I would have otherwise overlooked.

OSFUG it turned out is a troupe of  smart young sketch comedians from New York City doing a high-speed, high-energy series of mini-sketches with minimal, but effective props and costumes: some well used bananas, a donut box, a few hats and an excellent set of devil's horns.  I particularly enjoyed their hell-hole town hall bit. The poignancy of the young barista looking for a coffee client with the same name as her absentee father had me both laughing and tearing up.

After a brief interval ( The Theatre Centre has a lovely cafe lobby) HIP BANG! from Vancouver took the stage. The duo has played the Toronto Fringe before, but had somehow escaped my notice.
Devin Mackenzie and Tom Hill have great stage chemistry and I really enjoyed their delightfully daffy material.  I don't think water bottles have ever made me laugh before, but these two deployed them in a way that had me in stitches.

The only bad thing was this:  I couldn't go back on Sunday to see that other show.  An evil virus completely took over my being Sunday morning and I've been home, febrile and hacking ever since.

The festival begins the second half of its two-week run tonight.  There are some favourites: Pete 'N Chris, Spoon and Hammer with sections of their hit  "Behold The Barfly" on this week, as well as some big names in Canadian comedy, including a panel interview with Baroness Von Sketch the all-women comedy troupe with a hit series on CBC.

Go have fun for those of us who can't - and, if you're seeing two or more shows - go random on at least one of them. I'm sure glad I did!

The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival runs until March 12, 2017 at various venues in downtown Toronto.  For schedules dates, times and tickets go to: http://www.torontosketchfest.com or call to order tickets at (647) 505 1050.


Friday, February 10, 2017

REVIEW: At Coal Mine Theatre SUPERIOR DONUTS is a treat to savour.

Consider if you will, the lowly doughnut: deep fried, delicious, greasy goodness.

Doughnuts and comedy have a few things in common.  The pleasures they offer are often regarded as plebeian, and while both may seem common-place, they are not all that easy to make successfully as anyone who's ever tried their hand at either will tell you.

Tracy Letts has written a very successful comedy, and while some of the strokes may be broad, his hand is skillful and assured.

In Superior Donuts, Letts takes a rueful look at The American Dream:  the promise of prosperity and endless possibilities offered to the huddled masses.  Specifically he's looking at the many ways that dream gets perverted by cowardice and greed and destroyed by casual violence.

In the current political situation to the south of us, Letts offers a gentle meditation on what it means to be an American. This might not sound particularly funny, and the play is not without tragedy, but it offers a lot of joy and it has a big warm heart.

As usual, at Coal Mine, the standard of acting is one of the joys of the production. It's rare to see such a fine and skillful ensemble deliver such uniformly good performances.  I keep going to the theatre in Toronto and seeing television acting on stage.  It was nice to see a bunch of actors who know the difference between the two and give theatrical performances on a stage. The opening night audience loved it.

Director Ted Dykstra has assembled an excellent nine member cast anchored by the utterly wonderful Robert Persichini as Arthur Przybyszewski, the sad-sack proprietor of Superior Donuts, a failing donut joint in a part of Chicago where the old businesses of immigrant families are giving way to tonier chain stores like Starbucks.

The shambolic Przybyszewski has abandoned hope: his child, his marriage and any vestige of ambition either personal or professional.  At the start of the play, his shop has been trashed by vandals who've spray-bombed a sexist expletive used to describe a coward. The cops (who are regulars) are there. The female officer, Randy (a delightful and very funny Darla Biccum) is sweet on him but Arthur has long ago gone blind to possibility.

In one of his monologues, Przybyszewski describes himself as an evader, rather than a resister. "Resisters," he explains, "fight."

He hires a new shop assistant:  a young, black kid called Franco. Nabil Rajo brings a great deal of charm and youthful energy to the role of  Franco: a dreamer, a hustler and more than a bit of a gambler.  Franco's written a novel "America will be...", the title an homage to the great American poet, Langston Hughes. He believes fervently in his dreams which are the source of all his joy and most of his troubles.

In the space between Franco's exuberance and Arthur's pessimism, Letts explores some very interesting territory about what it means to be an American man in these troubled times. Anna Treush' set and costumes perfectly evoke both place and time.

Lett's Chicago reminded me of old Queen Street West, back when it was lined with East European butchers and bakeries and I went to Rooneen's bakery for soup on cold winter days while my laundry was spinning across the street. Thugs and hustlers, cafe philosophers and bag ladies inhabited the 'hood.  Now there's a Loblaw's instead of the Czech butcher and the Ukrainian baker.

The Galaxy Donut at Queen and Bathurst is long gone: replaced by a Starbucks.  You may know where Letts is going with this story but there's a lot of joy in the ride

Coal Mine Theatre presents SUPERIOR DONUTS at Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:30 • Sunday Matinee @ 2pm (new this year!)*
*Sunday, February 5 @ 7:30pm
Rush seats are sometimes available at the door at 7:00 PM.
All Tickets $35 (previews $25)  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2595274
For more info visit www.coalminetheatre.com


Robert Persichini in Superior Donuts









Tuesday, January 24, 2017

INTERVIEW: Sandra Shamas is Back! This Time, There are No Rules!

It all started with a couple of wild turkeys.  And no, Sandra Shamas is not talking about bourbon shooters.

"They were in my yard."  She lives in the country. I ask about the impact of rural life on her as an artist.

"Well, the move took a lot of creativity!  It evoked my adaptability.  You're constantly adjusting to new conditions.  Some days just getting from the house to the barn is an adventure. I have to trust myself."

Shamas' career began long before the turkeys showed up.  Her phenomenal success started  in 1987 when she won a slot in the Edmonton Fringe.  This was back in the pre-lottery days, when it was first come, first served, and hopefuls lined up to get a place.  She had an hour slot and an idea for a show: but she didn't have a play.

"I knew it was about a relationship - and I knew the end: we fall in love.  I knew there was a break-up in the middle and a week in stinky pajamas, crying on the phone with  your girlfriends.  And I knew when he came back, when I looked beside the bed in the morning at the pile of his clothes on the floor from the night before, there was going to be laundry."

Shamas figured out the rest on the plane to Edmonton. The result,  MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK AND THERE'S GOING TO BE LAUNDRY was described by one male critic "as a woman having a conversation at a kitchen table". He meant it derisively.  Who wants to hear some woman talk about her life in an intimate way?  It was an instant hit.

"I took it (his critique) as a great compliment.  I wanted to speak about the culture of women - and women talk at the kitchen table."

For legions of woman, young and old, who have spent most of their lives having some man or other talk at them, not to them, Shamas was a voice in the theatrical wilderness. The show she came up with on that fateful trip to Edmonton marked the start of a career that has spanned 30 years, many more hit shows and packed theatres across the country, including an eight week sold-out run at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre.

This time, Shamas has chosen the Paula Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront. "I wanted an intimate venue. The Fleck is 441 seats:  half the size of the Winter Garden.  And it has soft seats - soft seats are very important at our age."

I'm laughing already.

There's always plenty of laughter at a Shamas show, although she doesn't see herself as a comedian.  "I see myself as a truth-teller.  Truth-telling is primary - and the truth can be funny."

When Shamas gets hold of it, the truth can be hilarious:  also, painful, enraging, thought-provoking and very moving.

Back to those wild turkeys:  four years ago, Shamas was standing at her kitchen sink doing the dishes in her rural Ontario kitchen, looking out the window at the birds and thinking about a conversation she'd had at a dinner table the night before.

"I was the MC at a local charity event.  It was chaotic:  you know the kind of thing run by people who control by chaos? I was seated at a dinner table with several couples.  An 89 year old woman asked me, "Where's your husband?"  I said, "I don't have a husband."  She said, "What do you do all day?"  I realized she thought of her husband as her job.  This got me thinking:  how do we as women see our relevance in society as we age? If we want a partner at this point, what would we want that to look like? What do want the next 30 years to look like?"

Very few women in Canada have had lengthy and successful careers as monologists. Touring and child-rearing are nearly impossible to reconcile.  I suggest to Shamas that at the point when many women start to have career momentum, they drop out to have children. This issue continues to affect women's careers in many professions.

"I didn't have kids. My niche was to amuse the women who were having those kids. Now those kids are grown up and they come with their moms and their aunties and grandmas and form part of my audience."

We talk about how things are - and aren't different for younger women.

"We're in a period where women's rights seem to be regressing. Women are marching in the streets over blatant sexism:  Trump, Ghomeshi. Like marching, theatre is an expression of solidarity."

How does she see her relationship with the audience?

"I'm trying to ask the audience questions. Theatre is a communal experience.  We come together to have a shared experience, a shared catharsis. We're all in this together."

What's changed  for her personally as a performer, in 30 years?

"My memory. It's not as easy to remember 55 minutes! I have a special word now for the start of each piece.  I've given up certain things:  no caffeine, no alcohol."

How does she see the next 30 years of her life?

"I'm re-calibrating my direction. I have my independence, a life worth living that gives me things worth talking about.  Helen Mirren said, "There are no rules over 60. I want to see what it's like when there are no rules."

Me too:  I can't wait.




Everything But the Kitchens Inc. presents

THE BIG ‘WHAT NOW?’

Written and Performed by Sandra Shamas
Fleck Dance Theatre, Queens Quay Terminal Building, Harbourfront Centre
207 Queens Quay West, Toronto
January 25 to February 4, 2017
Wednesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm
Tickets are $45 & $55 and can be purchased by calling
416-973-4000 (Press Option 1)
or online at  my.harbourfrontcentre.com












Wednesday, November 16, 2016

REVIEWS: THE DAMAGE DONE & COMFORT

The first thing that struck me when I walked into The Citadel for THE DAMAGE DONE last week was the smell of fallen leaves.

The stage is covered with them, drifts and piles of them.  Collapsing beauty, decay, loss, remorse, and nostalgia for the long past autumns of childhood are all evoked by the dying foliage bathed in a golden light, courtesy of Guiseppe Condello .

At the back of the stage hangs an industrial window, the frame rusted, the panes dirty with one visibly cracked.  Downstage, a man in middle age uses a park bench as a balance beam, walking the planks with his arms out, then pitching pebbles at the fractured pane of glass.

This is Bobby (Wes Berger) and he's here to meet his childhood sweetheart, Tina (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) at their old haunt, a park in the working-class neighbourhood where they grew up. She's asked to meet to see if he will take their two girls for awhile, while she goes away to get straight.

If you're a George F. Walker fan (and I am) you've met Bobby and Tina before.  THE DAMAGE DONE is the third play in Walker's trilogy about the estranged couple and their travails.

In the earlier plays, TOUGH and MOSS PARK, Tina and Bobby are a young, off-again, on-again couple, struggling to face parenthood.

Nearly 20 years later, Tina has boot-strapped her way out of a childhood of abandonment and privation.  She's married a lawyer, got a house, gone back to school, become a social worker, raised two kids - and become an addict.  Bobby, a dreamer and petty criminal has gone in and out of work, and in and out of his children's lives. He's trying to write, and dreams of a life without the drudgery of manual labour.

Walker shows, as Dickens did, what poverty does to people. The stress created by insecurity about having one's most basic human needs met traumatizes survivors.  Poverty may be behind Tina, but the fear it has created in her has never gone away.  In the aftermath of a break-up, it's threatening to engulf her. Bobby, underemployed and slacking, looks like a disaster, but Tina is the one who is falling apart inside.

Berger and Murphy-Dyson have great stage chemistry and inhabit their roles with an authentic physicality, nicely enhanced by Ken Gass' confident, understated direction.

As always, Walker and Gass  underline the warmth and humour,as well as the challenges and sorrows of Bobby and Tina's troubled relationship and their messy, imperfect lives.

THE DAMAGE DONE is a clear-eyed and impassioned look at the  long-term consequences of an impoverished childhood. I had tears in my eyes at the end of the night.

Saturday night, Red Snow Collective opened COMFORT at AKI Studio, in the Daniels Spectrum Theatre.

Diana Tso revisits a particularly ugly aspect of the Second World War: the so-called "comfort women". Chinese and Asian women were captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and brutally used as sex slaves by Japanese troops.

Tso and her director William Yong tell this difficult story with great artistry and sensitivity, employing dance, live music and Chinese opera to support the well-researched text.

Tso uses the frame of a famous Chinese story, THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS to underpin the love story of Li Dan Feng and Zhou Ping Yang, who cannot be kept apart: not by class differences, parental opposition, or the truly awful catastrophe of war.

Viki Kim and Jeff Yung are very affecting as the star-crossed lovers. The rest of the cast does a fine job in a multiplicity of roles, handling the tonal shifts and physical demands of the various characters with great dexterity. I particularly enjoyed Oliver Koomsatira as Ping Yang's faithful and mischievous cormorant.

The live music by Constantine Caravassilis is wonderfully played by Cathy Nosaty (piano, Accordian),Patty Chan (Chinese  violin) and Brandon Valdivia (percussion) and greatly enhances the production.

I felt the second act could have been trimmed a bit, but the ending was heartfelt with out being in any way sentimental or cloying.

The play is not only an homage to the survivors of the comfort women's horrifying ordeal, it's a powerful plea for an end to war.
Aleppo ran out of food this week. The cries for an end to violence can't be loud enough.

These two new Canadian plays by smaller,independent Toronto companies are both well worth checking out.

The Damage Done by George F. Walker continues at
The Citadel, 304 Parliament Street (south of Dundas), Toronto

to December 11, 2016 (NOTE - No performances on Dec 1 &2)
Tues - Sat 8:30 PM,  Sundays at 2:30 PM
Sunday matinees are Pay-What-You-Can at the door. Tickets are available at  www.canadianrep.ca   or by phone at 416-946-3065.


Red Snow Collective presents Comfort until December 10, 2016 at Aki Studio Theatre, Native Earth Performing Arts, 585 Dundas Street East (Daniel’s Spectrum), Toronto, ON  Tuesday – Saturdays @ 8pm • Saturday Matinees @ 2pm   Pay-What-You-Can Tuesdays
Tickets can be purchased online at nativeearth.ca/boxoffice, by phone at 416-531-1402, or in-person at Toronto Centre for the Arts’ Box Office, 5040 Yonge Street





PROARTE DANZA Opens Tonight as part of NEXTSTEPS at the Paula Fleck Theatre



Called "the best small-scale contemporary ballet company in Canada" by the Globe and Mail, (2012) ProArte Danza has been presenting its unique fusion of ballet and modern dance  in Toronto since 2004.

I've seen the company several times now, and I've never been disappointed.  The talent of the dancers and the strength of the repertoire are both consistently first-rate.

Tonight, ProArte opens their 2016 Toronto run with a double-bill featuring Fearful Symmetries a world premiere choreographed by Artistic Director, Roberto Campanella and Diversion the Ontario premiere of a work by Artistic Associate Robert Glumbeck that Vancouver's Georgia Strait described as "mind-blowing."

Campanella's Fearful Symmetries employs American composer John Adams' composition of the same title to underscore an exploration of the choreographer's own experiences as a young immigrant arriving to Canada from Italy, against that of the current generation of young artists, with particular attention to the influence of urban aesthetics and pop culture on both.

Robert Glumbeck's Diversion examines various departures in life, both expected and unexpected, with the company of eleven dancers performing to an electronic score by Britain's Marconi Union.

This season, ProArte's  dancers are Sonja Boretski, Caryn Chappell, Tyler Gledhill, Benjamin Landsberg, Ryan Lee, Sash Ludavicius, Tori Mehaffey, Daniel McArthur, Julie Pecard, Anisa Tejpar and Christopher Valentini.

I have seen fragments of this work in rehearsal in the studio and it was both charged and beautifully danced.  I can hardly wait for tonight's performance.

 


ProArte Danza Season 2016 Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, 207 Queens Quay West, 3rd Floor  from Wednesday, November 16 until Saturday, November 19th, 2016 nightly at 8:00 PM.  Tickets range from $25 - $45 with discounts for students, seniors, arts workers and groups. To order, call (416) 973 4000 or go to http://proartedanza.com