Not your first 'rodeo': How this Calgary fest has become one of Canada's most exciting art events

The High Performance Rodeo is where you might find the next big hit to land at your local theatre — and we have some top picks for its 32nd edition.

The 32nd edition of the High Performance Rodeo — one of Alberta's biggest art festivals — is here

Inner Elder. (Elyse Bouvier)

From coast to coast to coast, there's nothing quite like High Performance Rodeo. Founded in 1987 as the Secret Elevator Experimental Performance Festival by Calgary alt-performance ensemble One Yellow Rabbit, the month-long event features an eclectic mix of works, served up with a distinctly prairie sensibility.

The Rodeo stands out among Canadian festivals for the vast diversity of its programming. Along with consistently providing space to local talent — not something every festival of this stature does — they've played host to some of our countries most celebrated artists: Marie Chouinard, Marcus Youssef, Daniel MacIvor, Brent Carver and Linda Griffiths among them.

Intermingled with conventional theatre and dance, audiences have been able to catch things like Canuck sketch comics the Kids in the Hall, perennial provocateur Istvan Kantor and pornstar-turned-ecosexual performance artist Annie Sprinkle. The Rodeo has also played host to the musicians from Philip Glass and Brian Eno to Veda Hille and Tanya Tagaq. Even Laurie Anderson has made an appearance.

Both an incubator and a touring hub for some of the country's hottest shows, the Rodeo is the place to watch if you want a preview of the next big hit to land at your local theatre. As the program revs up, here are a few gems you should watch out for this year.

Inner Elder (January 15-27)

Michelle Thrush's solo has been more than 20 years in the making. The Gemini-award winning actress first began performing Kookum Martha (the grandmother character at the centre of Inner Elder) during comedy sets in the late 1990s. Then, five years ago, while living off the grid raising her daughters, she decided Martha deserved a full-length play. First adapted as a children's show, the current version — developed through countless rewrites in collaboration with director Karen Hines — takes a decidedly darker turn. Touching on Thrush's own history growing up with alcoholic parents in the deeply racist milieu of 1970's Calgary, it looks at the various female figures that have filtered through her life and the critical role imagination played in her psychological survival. Combining elements of Bouffon and Indigenous clowning, the piece reveals how and why laughter has been critical for Indigenous people in surviving hundreds of years of colonization.

Make Love Not Art. (Marie Snippa)

Make Love Not Art (January 9-12)

From increased media representation to better advocacy, people with disabilities have been making numerous inroads within broader culture. Yet, when it comes discussions around their sexuality, responses from the general public usually fall somewhere between discomfort to disgust. Collaboratively written by Elaine Lee and Col Cseke, Make Love Not Art examines this unease. Set in a gallery after an art opening, the piece introduces us to Dotty (Lee), an erotic photographer whose work centres on nude self-portraits, and Phillip (Cseke), the curator presenting her. Philip praises the sensuality of Dotty's work — but when she asks him out on a date, we find out how he really views her unconventional body. Set to make its world premiere at High Performance Rodeo, the piece directly confronts us with our assumptions about sex and disability and asks what the world might look like if we were willing to think a little differently.

MDLSX. (Renato Mangolin)

MDLSX (January 25-27)

MDLSX is not what it appears at first glance. Italian writer/performer Silvia Calderoni's autobiographical solo explores growing up gender non-conforming in a highly gendered culture and does so with an ecstatic, chaotic sensibility that's equal parts rock concert and clown show. But while the piece initially feels like a familiar tale of childhood gender dysphoria, Calderoni's story keeps the audience on their toes with some truly unexpected twists. Told in Italian with English subtitles and combining home videos, photos and music by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Talking Heads and the Smiths, the show reminds us that queerness is an infinitely complex, constantly shifting thing that is often impossible to define within individual body — let alone an entire culture.

Salt-Water Moon. (Joseph Michael)

Salt-Water Moon (January 17-20)

Salt-Water Moon is undoubtedly a Canadian classic. But David French's 1984 hit may not technically be a Canadian story. Set in 1920's Newfoundland, the tale of star-crossed lovers unpacking their pasts and contemplating their futures unfolds two decades before the province joined confederation. First staged in Factory Theatre's 2016 Naked Season — a program of Canadian favourites with stripped down production values —Ravi Jain's production meditates on these contemporary and historical questions of Canadian identity, casting Danny Ghantous (Lebanese-Palestinian) and Bahareh Yaraghi (Iranian-Canadian) as the show's leads. Offering a fresh spin on a favourite from our national cannon, the production reveals the lasting power of French's story at the same time as it updates it to match our present-day reality as an increasingly multicultural country.

High Performance Rodeo. January 3-January 28. Various locations, Calgary.