Monday, January 23, 2012

René Dupéré's 'Xotika' Soundtrack Review

The artwork cover of Holiday on Ice' Xotika (1998).
Xotika may have been released in the last decade but, much like the brilliance of the composer, apparently no-one took any notice, or gave a second thought to it. So, almost 14 years after the release, here are my thoughts on the soundtrack.

René Dupéré, composer of Xotika.
Written for Holiday on Ice's 1998 production, the unique score to Xotika was composed by René Dupéré for the figure skating visual extravaganza. Dupéré is dreadfully underrated, and although his music has been heard by tens of millions of people through his scores with Cirque du Soleil, the French Canadian composer is relatively unknown outside Canada. Xotika is written in a standard Dupéré style, with a melody that presents itself then is repeated while being layered with additional counter-punctual accompaniments through an exotic fusion of alien synths, classical and world instruments. Élise Velle, Dupéré's wife, is also the featured vocalist on the album, showcasing her phenomenal vocal range and her unique timbre. With a range of suites, stunning ballads, and soaring instrumentals, Xotika is an absolute delight and one of Dupéré's best scores.

There are so many fantastic pieces on this album. For the instruments, 'Windspirits' is an ingenious piece which utilizes a sampled windpipe and crafts a whimsical arrangement around it and 'Finale' (Fire/Eroe) is a whirlwind of strings which produces a thunderous climax. 'Snow', the best of the instrumentals, is a light and gorgeous piece which incorporates an entire string orchestra for waltz which evokes romance, yearning and searching. 'Passione' is utterly stunning, beginning as a subtle paean to evolve into an amalgam of striking brass with entrancing strings topped with Velle's vocals for a phenomenal tour-de-force.

The three suites on the album showcase a variety of shorter tunes that are bound together by themes (Earth, Dance, and Freedom) and each piece unite had a standout piece. For the most part they're upbeat and vibrant, and craft quite a visual through their varied textures on their corresponding theme.

Élise Velle, featured vocalist on Xotika. LOOKIN' CRAZY!
There are some moments on the album I can't really stand. 'Enero' just doesn't sit with me, its mixing and instrumentation isn't as fleshed out as the rest of the album and it's much too souped up, a similar thing happening with 'Echo'. Velle's vocals become somewhat androgynous and a little too headstrong for me to enjoy the melodies. The reprise 'Journey to the Heart' unfortunately features lyrics by Jim Corcoran, a talentless hack who spews the most inane lyrics that seem to lack any structure or rhyme. My pick for the most inappropriate line on this album is 'You're sleeping when I kiss you.' Thanks for that, Jim. I'll be sure to notify the police so they can put you on supervision, you perverse sexual offender.

Anyway, any mistake on the album is forgiven and forgotten once the middle of the album is reached. 'Femininity', which is unparalleled in terms of its complexity, melody and the emotions it evokes. Words can only describe so much, because 'Femininity' is ineffable. It is like a journey, a stunning, fantastical and lyrical journey. Velle's soaring vocals reach unbelievable heights while being backed by a medieval wood-nymph like instrumentation, evoked by flutes and harps in combination with the grandeur of a complete symphonic orchestra. The result is an indescribable joyous, magical feeling (if that's what you're thinking, yes). It's probably one of the best songs I've ever heard.

Fans of Dupéré's work with Cirque du Soleil or his signature sound, fans of Velle and cinematic soundtrack lovers will all enjoy this work. Xotika has some spectacular numbers and overall the album is a solid experience. It's a shame that more people don't know about the record and its a crime in the music world that people don't know of Dupéré in general.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Love Letter to Avatar

I am in love (hopelessly in love) - I just finished watching the complete series of Avatar: The Last Airbender for a second time, and I am just as dazzled and captivated as I was the first time. The series is practically flawless, boasting magnetizing characters, a thoroughly engaging storyline, gorgeous visual design and a witty script. This is a television series for the ages. Although it was conceived for a younger demographic, Avatar manages to transcend the usual restrictions and limitations of a cartoon, and manages to forge a notable series which is incredible experience.

The world where Avatar takes place in.
Avatar takes place in a world where human civilization originally co-existed in harmony, through the division of nations corresponding to Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Each nation has a distinct heritage and society, with trained people possessing the ability to manipulate the eponymous element that correspond to their nation. However, the balance of human existence in the universe has been disrupted by the relentless assaults of the supreme leader of the Fire Nation, Fire Lord Sozin. Obsessed with world dominance, Sozin wages a campaign to conquer all nations to bind them under the sole rule of the Fire Nation. The lone force that can oppose his malevolent regime is the Avatar, a supremely powerful figure who possesses the ability to control and master the four elements to keep the ultimate balance in the universe. However, when the world needed the Avatar to bring a stop to the Fire Nation, he disappeared. A century later, the Avatar, a 12 year old Airbender named Aang, is released from an iceberg where he was in suspended animation by Katara, a fourteen-year-old Waterbender girl, and her brother the fifteen-year-old warrior Sokka. With the aid of Katara, Sokka, an Earthbender named Toph and a few other regulars that join their team, the series revolves around Aang's mission to learn and master all four elements while evading the clutches of the Fire Nation.

That was a pretty brief overview of the plot, but it's original, striking and suspenseful in nature. Although Avatar is lighthearted, it's refreshing to have a series that also approaches its themes and concepts with more maturity and doesn't shy away from examining darker themes. The overall pacing of the drama of the series is excellent, rarely does a cartoon manage to be so entertaining while simultaneously developing and fleshing out intricate, multi-layered plots.
The main characters: Katara, Toph, Aang and Sokka (and Hokoda).

As one of the shows greatest features, each of the central characters are phenomenal, having vibrant attributes that make them extremely likeable but still have limitations and flaws to create a more believable and humane aspect. Essentially, the characters are what holds the series together - it's easy to be swept away in the magic and it's great that there has been so much dedication to developing strong figures. Each have distinct traits, such as Toph's callous and cracking one liners, Zuko's annoyingly relentless pursuit to find honour, and Sokka's 'jokes', which are crammed full of puns and similes that it's hard not to chuckle at how dreadful they are. Even the antagonists are interesting and are explored with their own sense of humour while acting deliciously evil. The voice acting is also wonderful, and perfectly compliments their character design (my picks for the most entertaining would be the spectacular Grey DeLisle as Azula and the wonderful late Mako as Iroh).

One of the only things that irritates me in the series is that the characters are so young. I don't have a problem with the show centering around kids, but the themes and concepts are so mature and the characters approach scenarios with such practicality and sensitivity that their behaviour more closely resembles to that of adults. I sat through the series this time pretending that all the characters were an extra two years older and it all seemed to make more sense (luckily I think the creators acknowledged this and in the sequel the characters are slightly older).

Appa, an artistic triumph.
The visual design for the series is gorgeous, the style is alien but ephemeral and so immersive. Pulling on influences from Asian styled graphics, Avatar is heavily inspired by Korean and Japanese anime and their cultures, and designs to craft its overall aesthetic. The result is gorgeous, with the series fusing cultures and eras of time to create their stand alone universe. The distinct style of series comes from animals which are created from a hybrid of species and locations which draw inspiration from cultures around the world.

The movie which is inspired by the series is a cataclysmic debacle that had no business being ever being created. It's best just to pretend it wasn't produced because M. Night Shyamalan is like King Midas, except rather than gold everything he touches turns to shit - an issue with his directing that will apparently never change since his attitude matches his style (retarded).

Avatar is my favourite television series ever. It's utterly charming, captivating, thrilling and intriguing. The series is unusually balanced, managing to maintain an exquisitely entertaining plot and character development with a level of sophistication that appeals to all ages with incredible visuals.

A montage of characters - from left to right: Sokka, Mai, Katara, Suki, Momo, Zuko, Toph, Aang and Iroh.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cirque du Soleil unveils Amaluna

While I knew the newest Cirque du Soleil show was going to be called Amaluna (the name was trademarked last October), it was still a thrill for the show to be announced last Monday. Amaluna by Cirque du Soleil will open this April under the direction of Diane Paulus, and will revolve around the themes of femininity.

Amaluna director Diane Paulus.
Amalauna (a word which amalgams the Latin word for mother 'Ama' and the general word for moon 'Luna') is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, in addition to drawing upon influences of. The titular location is an exotic island which is inhabited by the powerful sorceress Prospera (played by the fabulous Julie Andrea McInnes), who has invited the goddesses of the world to join with her in a ceremony which will celebrate her daughter's ascension to womanhood. The ceremony involves Prospera conjuring a gargantuan tempest, which coincidentally ensnares a passing ship in the ocean's currents and causes it to crash on the island. It's love at first sight when a handsome young sailor among the crew falls head-over-heels in love with Prospera's daughter, who returns his affections. Once the couple surrender to their emotions and conquer their obstacles, the inhabitants of the island led by Prospera hold a celebration for their love and her daughter's rise to womanhood.

I didn't really handle it well when I first heard the vague briefing back in August. When I first heard the theme was revolving around women power and to be based on The Tempest, I was pretty distressed. It was around August last year (the same day I saw Sarah Winter's incredible Scratch piece) I spent a good hour clawing at my face and walked around the rest of the afternoon with my fists clenched - when I ran into David Berthold he tried to shake my hand and I had to refuse since I said my hands were all sweaty. He probably thought I'd been masturbating or something. Anyway, my initial reaction has pretty much totally faded away and I am confident this is going to be a fantastic production.

A rendering of the Amaluna set design from Scott Pask.
Diane Paulus has an impressive resume track record of working in real theatre. Some of her most notable pieces in her career include the 2009 revival of Hair, which was awarded the Tony for Best Musical Revival, and last year she directed Canadian Opera's new production of The Magic Flute.  She has most recently risen to public attention through her controversial adaptation of Porgy and Bess, which opened in New York earlier this month. Although the production is provoking mixed reactions, I am thrilled that Cirque has made the choice to employ a director who is not afraid to take bold decisions and directions, to hopefully break them out of their formulaic and lacklustre era. Paulus' random approach might blow up in their face, but she is not some random choreographer, a defunct clown, or a figure who has no association with theatre. She is a qualified, experienced theatre director. Because of Paulus' leadership, in addition to her husband Randy Weiner seving as a dramaturge, this work will focus on the theatrical elements of Cirque du Soleil. Interestingly, Paulus and Weiner staged a rock opera adaptation of The Tempest a few years back (Cirque's website neglects to mention this anywhere in their theatre credits). I was a little put out that the concept wasn't entirely original, but I'm a fan of creative development, and hopefully Paulus will draw upon the successes and failures of their last production to ensure that this one works.

The rest of the creation team generally sound quite promising. World renowned and long-term collaborator Debra Brown returns to work her magic on choreography, and Mérédith Caron returns to Cirque for a second time after Believe in 2009 to work with her magic on costumes. Tony award winner Scott Pask is working on the set design, which looks amazing with the utilization of plants and other foliage to decorate and transform the chapiteau. Originally to be led by French-Canadian world vocalist Nitza Melas, the creators I'm most uneasy on is the return of Bob and Bill. The Canadian duo are composers who have worked for Cirque on several projects, including being the composers on Robert Lepage's 2010 production of Totem. Their music is fine and appropriate but lacks the power and grandeur of previous Cirque scores. Hopefully they will really utilize their fantastic singers and pump out some great anthems for this show - this sneak peek of the material at Cirque Week 2011 sounds promising, although the promo on the official website sounds like it was written for Ruben Guthrie.

Acts that are billed to appear so far are Aerial Hoops (featuring Cirque veteran Marie-Michelle Faber), High Bar, Aerial Straps, and a new dicipline will join Cirque when Lara Jacobs from Rigolo Nouveau Cirque will perform her Rigolos Sanddorn Balance act.

What excites me most about Amaluna is that it will most likely return Cirque to its real roots. Not their tacky original image of circus driven by people who perform tricks, but their amalgam of avant-garde theatrical elements with incredible acrobatic feats. It's very early to make any real calls on the quality of Amaluna, but the website launch and press release earlier this week are good signs. The aesthetic on the website is gorgeous. The combination of colours rarely gets pulled off properly since pink and blue are usually hideous, but it seems to be used in appropriate proportions here to make a really interesting, contrasting design.
Despite what most audiences think, merely performing a sequence of tricks does not warrant a good Cirque du Soleil act. Although almost all the acts within the show are technically proficient, in terms of its value as a theatrical work most of Cirque du Soleil's recent offerings have been severely lacking. Hopefully under Paulus' direction Cirque will be able to reconnect with the image that distinguished them as an entertainment empire of the highest quality.

I'm really hoping that this production will be excellent. The synopsis and premise sounds whimsical, the show will have phenomenal artists appearing in it and the creation is being handled by people who are experienced in creating theatre. I'm hoping that the show won't flop like Zarkana, which looked fantastic then tried to shit on New York (which thankfully saw through it). I guess we'll have to wait for the show's premier in April.

Amaluna by Cirque du Soleil opens in Montreal on April 19th. Tickets range from $40 to $139.50. Book by visiting Cirque du Soleil's official website or by calling 1-800-450-1480.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Birthday, Calendar

It's crazy to think that around this time last year, it wasn't actually New Years Day for me since I was in Paris Craaaazzzzeeeee.

The final bow from the cast of Zed.
Yesterday I was feeling very nostalgic since it was the final performance of Cirque du Soleil's Zed. I was fortunate enough to see the show in 2009 with my parents and Rhed, and it ranks among the best theatrical experiences of my life. It has my favourite music in the world, the most stunning costumes I've ever seen and the best mise-en-scène in a Cirque du Soleil production since Franco Dragone's departure from the company. Well, it's the best show they've made since Dragone left the company, and it's a real shame (a crime?) that garbage like Ovo still runs and draws a larger audience than this gem which was hidden in Japan.

Originally slated for a 10 year run at Tokyo Disneyland, Zed wrapped up after 3 and a half years. The show had played to over one million visitors since its opening in 2008, but due to poor marketing by Disney's OrientalLand the show was bleeding money and most of Japan didn't even know it was there. Regrettable, but since Cirque wasn't doing marketing it was out of their control. 

My thoughts and best wishes to the cast, crew and creators of Zed. Goodbye to a wonderful, beautiful and magical piece which was dubbed a 'living poem'.

The greatest costume of all time.
I spent New Years Eve at Maddy's house. While I spun around on the computer chair listening to Jorane and Maddy played Skyrim, before Luke and Kim came in to watch Psycho with us. Unfortunately I'd read the plot somewhere around 2 years ago so I knew what happened, but it was still a thrill to see the movie finally. I really liked it. It was really smartly shoot and very sophisticated for a such a low budget movie. I loved the music (also I'm informed that it's just a huge rip off Shostakovich's work) and I loved the use of the graphic and violent motif which only appeared at the start and managed to stick around long enough for us to recognise that danger was coming. The acting was really great and there was only one scene where I had to chuckle unintentionally. Really original and I had a great time watching it, although it annoyingly finished at 12:02am or something, so the entire reveal of who did what and what the twist was was totally interrupted by our 'Happy New Year' wishes, and outside people were screaming and letting off fireworks.

2012 is going to be a really good year. I will make sure of that. My goals are to write the best score possible for Vena Cava's Atrium (providing they accept my application) and to get a GPA of 6. Both of which will happen. Happy Birthday, Calender! Here's to another year.