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Wealth of Nations: Your Guide to Luminato

The all-encompassing Luminato festival bestows the world’s artistic riches on Toronto.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (photo by Johan Persson)

It’s always a bit of a challenge to write about Luminato. Where has been covering this summertime celebration of the arts and creativity since its inception in 2007. Back then, newness was the event’s hook, and a small coterie of marquee stars were easy to pluck from a list of about 100 projects, but we quickly discovered many of Luminato’s smaller happenings, from public art installations to author discussions, were equally deserving of our attention, and that of our culturally astute readers. It proved very difficult to pick and choose.

Luminato continues to grow as it reaches its fifth anniversary. Its sheer scope is perilous for the scribe who would attempt to pare its programming for quick consumption. That same largesse is a boon for eager attendees. More than 150 ticketed and free theatrical and dance productions, concerts, readings and art displays are booked from June 10 to 19, and while it would be impossible to see everything on the schedule, that certainly shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.

As with many arts festivals desirous to share a cultural vision, Luminato carefully selects its programming on the basis of a particular yet broadly interpreted theme. This year, Luminato’s connective tissue is the idea, the tradition, and the many modes of storytelling, reflected foremost in its headline production, One Thousand and One Nights. Created by British director Tim Supple and Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, and performed in Arabic, French and English (with surtitles), this special commission weaves the enthralling yarns of Shahrazad into an ambitious, two-part drama that comes complete with its own intriguing backstory. Although the show’s rehearsals in Egypt were disrupted by that country’s recent revolution, last-minute accommodations were found in a Moroccan palace—perhaps an even more fitting space in which to craft such an opulent tale. Canadians spin yarns with universal appeal, too, in such on-stage offerings as Tout Comme Elle—an oratorio for 50 voices that delves into the relationship between mothers and daughters—and the provocative Andromache, which frames the Greek myth and 17th-century French play as a tragedy of lust and obsession.


Of course, speech and writing are not always vital to communication; the language of the body, both at rest and in motion, is the currency of Luminato’s dance card. In addition to a hotly anticipated ballet set to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, entire worlds are founded on music and movement in Taj and Confluence. The former conjures the Taj Mahal’s epic creation story in a world premiere dance-theatre production. The latter presents something of a greatest-hits performance by frequent collaborators Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney that seeks to illuminate the art of invention.

The flip side of invention, arguably, is stasis, and the high-concept visual art piece Habit has equal parts of both. An installation by Berlin-based artist David Levine, this fully functioning “house” is occupied by three actors who, for eight hours a day, recite a repeating script while going about their own spontaneous business. After viewing this subversion of reality, one is no doubt primed to witness a complete disregard of its rules. A roster of expert illusionists is all too happy to oblige. In Masters of Magic: Vodavil, an eclectic group of magicians hearkens to the golden days of Vaudevillian entertainment at the Winter Garden Theatre, itself a landmark of that era, while premier sleight-of-hand artist David Ben revisits some of history’s greatest illusions—and the stories behind them—in Natural Magick.

Kronos Quartet (photo by Zoran Orlic)

As far as festivals go, Luminato remains relatively young and dynamic; it’s not yet in need of radical re-invention to ensure freshness. Instead, its successful formula continues to be refined. Take, for example, new versions of returning favourites, including a late-night performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra—this year featuring Mahler’s stirring Symphony no. 5—as well as the fourth consecutive edition of The Canadian Songbook, in which top musicians play the tunes of an even more renowned troubadour. Heart-on-his-sleeve singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith gets the tribute treatment this time around. The musical dialogue is further enhanced by the renowned Kronos Quartet, which performs with four distinct guest artists on four separate evenings, including a free show at David Pecaut Square. In the heart of the Entertainment District, this space, recently renamed for Luminato’s late co-founder, is a hub for live concerts throughout the festival, with featured artists like They Might Be Giants, the Art of Time Ensemble and k.d. Lang.

And what would a festival dedicated to the tales we tell be without giving voice to our modern-day bards—novelists, poets, essayists and journalists. If you’re seeking a counterpoint to the ancient legends of One Thousand and One Nights, the young Arab writers participating in the Beirut39 literary roundtable is recommended, as are readings by Modern Day Shahrazads including award-winning Canadian authors Elizabeth Hay and Miriam Toews. This year, Luminato has also partnered with The New Yorker to present a series of discussions on current and future affairs with the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Rebecca Mead and Colm Tóibín.

It is these “comings together,” this interaction and exchange between people with different, often provocative perspectives that defines the Luminato experience. Whether you choose to enjoy one production or many, it’s clear that this year’s festival aims to engage audiences with a surfeit of stories—some centuries old, some newly told, but all certain to inspire tales of your own creation.

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