PuShing the boundaries of performance

Liesbeth Bernaerts / PuSh

Human Library, Le Grand Continental bring diversity to 2015 festival.

Liesbeth Bernaerts / PuSh
Liesbeth Bernaerts / PuSh

By Samantha Thompson
[executive editor]

At the PuSh festival’s Human Library, you’ll be able to check out books with titles like “Middle-aged Punk Rocker,” “The Butterfly Boy,” and “Single Straight Mom of Sperm Bank Baby.”

They’re not actual books, but rather real people who have a story they want to share. Dave Deveau, who operates the festival’s youth program and is curating the Human Library for the third consecutive year, stresses the importance of creating space for that conversation.

“I find a lot of people who move to Vancouver talk about Vancouver being a really lonely city,” he says. “It’s really difficult to meet people here. And what I love about this project is that it creates an immediate sort of safe place for people to have a meaningful conversation. The design of the project is to get people talking.”

The Human Library project originated in 2009 with an organization in Copenhagen called Stop the Violence. The project has transformed into a movement that aims to “promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.”

At PuSh, people volunteer to be a part of the event, and Deveau works with them to determine what the title of their book will be. He believes that everyone has at least five potential Human Library titles within them.

This year, the Human Library will be held on weekends at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch. PuSh will have their own circulation desk set up, with various binders featuring human book titles. When readers decide on a book, Deveau will take them over to the table where that human book is sitting.

“You will sit across from the actual person who is the middle-aged punk rocker,” he explains. So you’re not actually reading a book, you’re getting 20 minutes one-on-one with an actual person. These people are not actors, these are people who have chosen titles that reflect part of their actual lives, and they’ll tell you their story. You’re welcome to ask whatever questions you might have, pertaining to their title. At the end of the 20 minutes I will come collect you and you can check out another book if you like.”

“Once you actually meet the face, once you actually meet the human being behind the label, it’s amazing how much that can change your perceptions,” he says. “It’s about creating incremental change in people. I don’t think we’re here to change people’s ideas overnight, but if we can get people actually talking to people who they perceive as being so fundamentally different from themselves, and having a meaningful, honest 20-minute conversation, I think that gets us way further than just telling people what they should and should not think.”

Joyce Rosario, associate curator for the festival, echoes the importance of conversation.

“What’s really important about festivals is the kind of civic dialogue we can have around our city, and connecting people and ideas,” she says. With such a diverse range of artistic production, she notes that the festival is unique in its ability to mix different types of audiences.

“There’s such a range of different experiences,” says Rosario. “What’s common amongst audiences is being surprised, [and] finding things that are unexpected–that’s what I hope people will get out of the festival.”

The 2015 festival boasts a number of unique characteristics, including that there is a solid balance of male and female artists. The youth passport program is entering its second year, which allows attendees aged 16 to 24 to register for a passport and then see PuSh performances for $5 each.

One of PuSh’s big projects this year has been Le Grand Continental, where 75 non-professional performers have come together to learn a choreographed performance. Montreal-based choreographer Sylvain Émard has worked with performers from a diverse range of cities, and for the Vancouver show she auditioned community dancers who have been rehearsing a production that combines elements of traditional line dancing with contemporary dance.

“Being witness to that has been really incredible,” says Rosario. “I think it’s taught me a lot about what building community means–just watching them come together and rehearse.”

“PuSh is all about pushing the boundaries of contemporary performance,” says Deveau, “And fusing different genres.”

It looks as though the 2015 PuSh festival will be achieving that goal without hesitation.

The PuSh festival runs Jan. 20 to Feb. 8 at various venues in Vancouver.