Arty party: cultural organizations fete Canada on its 150th

From an orchestra made up of new Canadians, to photos that speak of the struggle for human rights, arts institutions kick off projects that reflect and examine Canada on its special birthday

Music, theatre productions tour the country as institutions kick off crowdsourced projects

Performers scheduled to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday include, left to right, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tibetan-Canadian instrumentalist Dorjee Tsering and the National Ballet's principal dancer Jillian Vanstone, holding a pointe shoe. (Canadian Press/CBC)

How do you throw a party for a country?

Canada will celebrate its 150th anniversary on July 1, 2017, and for many arts organizations, projects that honour and examine the country on its landmark birthday are well underway.

Here is a look at how five major Canadian cultural institutions are planning to celebrate.

Royal Conservatory of Music

What does Canada sound like in 2017? That's the question the Royal Conservatory of Music wanted to answer when it went looking for new Canadians with musical backgrounds to audition for a new orchestra.

"There are so many talented people here," Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the conservatory, said in an interview with CBC News.

He expressed frustration at seeing one professional musician after another play only within their communities, never getting the mainstream exposure they deserve. "So I want to bring them all together, all these talented people, and then see if we can create a new sound."

The Royal Conservatory of Music's Mervon Mehta on how this new orchestra, comprising newcomers from Burkina Faso, Ukraine, Brazil and beyond, came to be. 1:18

More than 100 people auditioned, and 12 made it. They come from countries as diverse as Burkina Faso, Ukraine and Brazil. These instrumentalists had to demonstrate not only musical aptitude, but also the ability to work with each other.

For many, that meant harmonizing with instruments that, in the words of Tibetan musician Dorjee Tsering, he'd "seen on YouTube only."

The New Canadian Global Music Orchestra will perform a concert at the Royal Conservatory's Koerner Hall in Toronto on June 2, followed by dates around the country and a residency at Alberta's prestigious Banff Centre in the fall.

National Ballet of Canada

A pointe shoe has symbolized ballet for centuries. A professional dancer like the National Ballet of Canada's Jillian Vanstone spends thousands of hours in them and goes through dozens of pairs in a year.

Now the ballet wants the shoes to take centre stage in a series of selfie-style photos snapped across Canada.

"We're sending 150 of these guys across the country to individuals, arts organizations, community groups," says Vanstone, surrounded by slippers at the National Ballet's "shoe room" in Toronto. "We're asking people to take a photo with a pointe shoe in recognizable Canadian locations."

The pictures will be posted on the National Ballet's website, cheekily telling a visual story about how the arts bind Canadians together coast to coast to coast.

Museum for Human Rights

In Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights also wants to exhibit user-generated photos. The images they're interested in are about not only beauty, but also hardship. Canadians are being asked to submit pictures that speak to the ongoing struggle for human rights.

Helen Delacretaz, director of exhibitions at the museum, says there are four categories of photos.

"We're looking for inclusion on diversity as well as reconciliation, freedom of expression and human rights and the environment, so far-reaching topics," said Delacretaz in an interview with CBC News.

The top pictures, selected by a jury, will be shown at the museum, and Delacretaz hopes the exhibition can travel across Canada. She says the more than 700 photos they've received have been extremely powerful.

National Arts Centre

One of the most ambitious Canada 150 plans belongs to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The NAC is sending its acclaimed orchestra to cities across Canada, as well as many productions of both its English and French-language theatre.

It is also inviting big names like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rufus Wainwright to the festival in June and July.

"Canada Scene is going to be the largest art party in the country in 2017," says Heather Moore, NAC's executive director of the festival.

"We're inviting more than 1,000 artists from coast to coast to coast, from all provinces and territories, and they're going to be performing in more than 100 events in music, theatre, dance, visual arts, film and even culinary arts."

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Among the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's many offerings for Canada's 150th, one stands out for its focus on the youngest Canadians.

DAM! The Story of Kit the Beaver will pair a new animated film with a live score performed by the TSO on Feb. 25 in a concert for children. Composer Erica Procunier wrote the score, which included sounds of animals, translated into music.

Composer Erica Procunier wrote the score that will be performed live to accompany the animated film DAM! The story of Kit the Beaver. (CBC)

"I literally grabbed sound effects of wolves and put it through a program that told me the pitches that the wolf sounds make and combined that into my orchestral piece," says Procunier..

She calls the project "100 per cent Canadian" in its portrayal of animals collaborating with each other.

"We are very diverse and all work together, and I think this film is a very good representation of our personalities."

More arty parties

For more, watch the CBC New Year's Eve special with Heather Hiscox on Dec 31, 7 to 9 p.m. ET.

The complete list of Canada 150 activities is available on the government's web site.

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson


Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.