Risk. If you want to summarize Rhubarb in a single word, that’s it.
Now in its 33rd year, Buddies’ annual new works festival has long sought to distinguish itself as a platform for voices not otherwise heard and creations not otherwise seen. Originally devoted to works by queer Torontonians, in recent years it’s blossomed to include an array of international performers and artists who don’t identify as queer, at least in terms of who they fuck. Projects are almost always in their first incarnation; no one, including festival curator Laura Nanni, is entirely sure what will happen. And that’s exactly the point.
“It’s a place to be surprised, to be shocked and to be challenged,” says the Toronto-born visual artist, now in her second year at the helm. “I’m trying to bring together works that stretch and redefine the possibilities for performance. It’s a group of rebels, queers, misfits and activists making theatre, performance art, dance and music under one roof. The goal is to break down boundaries between different artistic forms and communities.”
The unpredictable nature of the festival can provoke certain anxieties in audiences; past years have seen everything from dances with chainsaws to onstage masturbation. That sense of being constantly on edge is reflected in some of the works themselves, such as former Buddies artistic director Sarah Garton Stanley’s The Failure Show, which tackles the premise that for creative genius to flourish, failure must be possible.
“I’m aware of the anxieties felt around creating and experiencing new work, and some people won’t like what’s on offer,” Nanni says. “I want to give artists the space to try things that might not work, to build new collaborations and to venture into unfamiliar territory. But I don’t program safe bets.”
Other established artists trying new things include sex educator and activist Mikiki (famous for onstage champagne enemas), who adapts Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors to the stage in Night and Day. Headlining the fest is “noh-wave” duo Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, presenting their rock opera 33. The often bikini-clad and face-painted pair have worked together since 2008 and are set to explode internationally since becoming the darlings of Pitchfork (the music blog that ostensibly launched Arcade Fire’s career). See them while you can still afford tickets.
Another chance to catch fresh talent pre-explosion is via the Young Creators Unit. The four-part series pairs young artists with established mentors to develop solo shows. Past works include Waawaate Fobister’s Agokwe (which went on to win a stack of Dora awards and toured internationally) and Xtra staff writer Rob Salerno’s Fucking Stephen Harper. This year’s group includes Daniel Jelani Ellis, who tackles queer Jamaican identity in speaking of sneaking, and Michael David Lorsch, in As in Happy, as an advice columnist speaking on the eve of the 2018 national referendum on marriage.
While curators often pitch their events with the “something for everyone” cliché, in the case of Rhubarb it’s more likely the reverse is true — that nothing’s for everyone. Eclectic as the programming is, it’s by no means haphazard or unconsidered. Rather, works brought together can inform each other in unexpected ways.
“I don’t start out curating with a specific theme in mind,” Nanni says. “I consider the conversation certain pieces can create in relation to each other, along with the overall visual and sonic experience of the evening. What emerged this year was a series of bold and thoughtful considerations about the body, history and politics.”
“We encourage artists to venture into new and unfamiliar territory,” she adds. “If you leave saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before,’ I know I’ve done my job.”