Internationally renowned, locally grown

Yeehaw?

The High Performance Rodeo and the Calgary Stampede; a brief comparison. The Rodeo is a month-long arts and entertainment festival featuring works from across Canada and beyond, representing a variety of disciplines and media. The Calgary Stampede lasts for two weeks and sees drunken businessmen line dance while wearing overpriced western wear. While both are entertaining in their own way, only one will provide its audience with a cultural experience that doesn’t have to be heightened by Budweiser or the smell of cow manure.

Over the years, the Rodeo has grown to become an important showcase for emerging and existing Canadian talent in areas encompassing theatre, dance, film and music. From local theatre groups appearing away from the festival’s main stage to internationally renowned artists such as Phillip Glass, the High Performance Rodeo is a venue that affords its audience an experience that is decidedly unique. Its beginnings, however, are less auspicious.

“[One Yellow Rabbit] had just been kicked out of another space and we needed a way to promote and support ourselves,” recalls the festival’s creator and curator, Michael Green.

“The first festival was unlicensed and ran for two weeks. Despite the fact that we weren’t able to advertise, all the shows were still full.”

As the festival expanded, Green found himself “feeding the beast,” maintaining contact with Canadian and international artists in order to bring fresh, contemporary works to the Rodeo such as Beautiful Jew.

Running January 16-18, Beautiful Jew is One Yellow Rabbit’s first foray into feature-length film. Written jointly with and shot by Vancouver-based filmmaker Oliver Hockenhull, Beautiful Jew represents the independent, unique character of the festival.

“We had taken Beautiful Jew to film festivals across the country and no one would show it,” says Green. “I realized that here we have this venue to showcase our film. We can ask, ‘Do you love it or hate it?'”

Shot entirely using digital video in order to preserve the spontaneity of the Rabbit’s theatrical experience, the film is a testament to the progressive spirit that underlies the festival.

But the struggling times of the Rabbit’s infancy have not been forgotten. That’s why the Rodeo caters to the burgeoning local talent that is trying to make its entrance into the arts community. Often still on the post-secondary scene, Rodeo extras such as Camera Obscura, Mutton Busting and Solosnippets already draw a larger audience than the Rodeo’s first incarnation. Little known but certainly professional, these performances burst with energy, sincerity and cleverness.

Experimental theatre, which involves the artists in both the creation and production of the performance, is at the heart of these short pieces. Jenny Repond, artistic director, co-founder of Solocentric Theatre and Dance and co-ordinator of the Solosnippets show, (running from January 17-19) describes experimental theatre as “simple, intimate and genuine.” The basis of Solosnippets is a series of one-act solo performances, ranging from theatre, to dance, to stand-up comedy.

“This is where the audience can enjoy taking a risk,” says Repond. Too true. When you go to see The Christmas Carol at Theatre Calgary, you know that Tiny Tim makes it. However, there is a certain excitement in going to a performance where you can be shocked, insulted and pleased, for a small $2 fee for a Solosnippets show or a Camera Obscura event.

“The Rodeo is a real communion between learning and applying, where the artists can be seen and heard,” says Repond. It’s where many get their big break or, at least, get to be a part of an internationally acclaimed event. With a venue to showcase their talent, many of these artists will continue toward the festival’s larger productions.

The 10 Minute Play Festival, produced by Ground Zero Theatre and one of the main-stage events earlier on in the Rodeo, is the next step on the ladder to Rodeo fame. The event showcases seven young local theatre companies, each given 24 hours before show-time to create a ten minute play. What comes out is something that Ryan Luhning, artistic director of Ground Zero, calls “an intense diarrhoea of sleep-deprived creativity.”

“You can really feel the audience rooting for those guys,” notes Luhning, “they know how it is to be up there.”

With a reputation built around four years of Rodeo experience, these high-energy productions will likely headline next year’s festival.

After a few years of intermingling in the festival’s lair, local artists can strive for a more intimate relationship with the Rodeo and its audience. Natalie Zylstra, who wrote and performs in The Heights main stage performance from January 22-24, can attest to the privilege. When asked how she landed a spot in the festival, she replied simply, “I just asked Michael [Green].”

Obviously, it is not that simple, and Zylstra is no newcomer to the local arts scene. A graduate of the U of C MFA programme, this artist is an interdisciplinary queen. She makes her mark in playwriting, acting and directing, while holding a steady role in Calgary’s comedy soap-opera improvisation show, Dirty Laundry. For Zylstra, the Rodeo is a metaphor for what the Calgary arts scene as a whole has to offer.

“The community here is still small, and has a lot of room for growth,” says Zylstra. “The Rodeo is a great place for artists to expand their talents.”

This year, Zylstra is getting an opportunity to act in her abridged rendition of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a dramatic story of the destruction and viciousness of love and life.

What is usually a quiet month for the theatre scene has, for the past 17 years, been turned into a large intermingling of the young and the experienced, of regular arts audiences and curious outsiders, of international and local talent.

“It’s a meeting place of the whole arts community,” says Repond.

With a community of progressive artists creating works that are as unique as they are personal, the Rodeo has grown from an illegal happening in unlicensed retail space to a staple of the Calgary arts scene.

The High Performance Rodeo runs until January 27. For information, phone: (403) 264-3224.

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