SkirtsAfire Festival is in full twirl with music, theatre, fashion — and...

SkirtsAfire Festival is in full twirl with music, theatre, fashion — and a creative delivery

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Through an act of radical re-imagination, the SkirtsAfire Festival arrives on Whyte Avenue Thursday, featuring live music, fresh fashion — and a play.

Yes, it’s true. The festival, which for nine years has celebrated the work of women and non-binary folks in the arts, has worked within onerous COVID-19 restrictions and a slightly reduced budget to create an impressive lineup combining shows to be viewed from the couch, but also from the streets of Old Strathcona.

Between March 4 and 14, musicians will perform from the storefront window of the old Army and Navy building. Watch also for six designs of fabulous skirts constructed specifically for the festival and displayed in shop windows from Bamboo Ballroom to The Paint Spot, vying for cash prizes based on public votes.

The festival’s featured play, Makings of a Voice, is a digital offering, as is a co-production with the Edmonton Ballet called Body of Words. But given the pandemic challenges, SkirtsAfire artistic director Annette Loiselle is thrilled to be mixing live and online shows for supporters of this plucky little party.

“It’s been quite the roller coaster, but it’s all come together,” says Loiselle, at the helm of SkirtsAFire since it started in 2012 as a four-day outing.

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Today, the 10-day event promotes disciplines from visual art, to dance, drumming and, this year, documentary. For a while, the documentary, shot outdoors and indoors via Zoom, was the only thing Loiselle could count on when the pandemic hit its second wave and options for performances dwindled. As it turns out, the 25-minute film — Covid Collections, playing online from March 4 to 31 — is a unique look at the pandemic that goes beyond the masks and distances, the most visible characteristics of this peculiar moment.

Loiselle hired story collectors to track down pandemic experiences of real people for the documentary, including a University of Alberta drama student who has spent the pandemic in Botswana after COVID-19 conspired to separate her from her husband and two children in Edmonton. Another story centers on an Indigenous grandmother with few resources who must move her family out of a home infected with dangerous mold. A third tale sees a queer artist pivot to a new business making aprons.

One of the most innovative features of this year’s festival is the creative use of a performance venue that’s not officially a performance venue (all of which are closed due to pandemic restrictions). Loiselle (ever the wily leader) knew markets were still allowed to operate. She approached Wild Heart Collective, which had been leasing the former Army and Navy building for a craft market, to see if the space could be made available for SkirtsAfire. Alberta Health Services agreed to the shift of purpose, and approved the space to be used to film Makings of a Voice (originally conceived as a live show in the Westbury Theatre).

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It’s a move Loiselle describes as “incredible, but really bizarre.”

“It’s an old building which doesn’t have good air exchange, and it’s not as safe as the Westbury,” she says.

Billie Zizi is one of 23 performers playing in the old Army and Navy storefront as part of this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival.
Billie Zizi is one of 23 performers playing in the old Army and Navy storefront as part of this year’s SkirtsAfire Festival. Supplied

Still, Loiselle is not complaining because AHS permission means 23 different musicians in a series called The Key of Me are able to perform in the large front windows of the former discount store. Watch for big local solo acts such as Billie ZiZi, WARA WARA, and Melody McArthur, as well as duo acts that live in the same household, such as Mallory Chipman and her husband, Brett Hansen.

Health restrictions prevent SkirtsAfire from publicizing concert times, in case a crowd of more than 10 gathers to watch from the outside, but the spontaneous shows will be a treat for passersby who happen to time it right.

Indeed, the curbside musical events and storefront skirt displays are thrilling to Loiselle, who may find a permanent place for those options in years to come.

“I think we’re going to connect to a whole new audience, which I love,” she says. “As with so many things during the pandemic, this could be something to hold on to for future festivals. It’s nice to get into the community and break out of the four walls.”

Visit  skirtsafire.com for more information.

yegarts@postmedia.com

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