Jazz Fest officials address 'SLAV' controversy at closing press conference
Published Saturday, July 7, 2018 6:45PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, July 7, 2018 8:10PM EDT
After 500 performances in over 11 days, the Montreal Jazz Fest will wrap up tonight.
But at the festival's closing press conference, only one show was up for discussion: SLAV, a theatrical take on black slave songs, featuring a mostly-white cast.
Following its debut were protests, open letters, and a scathing response by black artists.
Moving forward, officials at Saturday's presser said the focus is now on one main thing: doing better.
The show was cancelled earlier this week after a public backlash drew international attention - however, festival organizers told reporters Saturday that, overall, they were surprised and unprepared for the backlash that followed the production's festival debut.
For one, President Jacques Andre Dupont explained, the staging of SLAV was based on the resounding success of another, similar show by artist Betty Bonifassi. Called 'Lomax,' the performance used many of the same traditional slave songs, and was altogether well-received by international audiences.
By commissioning a second show, he explained - this time with Robert Lepage as a producer - Dupont said they thought they were set up for a runaway hit.
For a time, SLAV held the record of the highest ticket sales for this year's lineup before it was officially cancelled earlier this week.
Certain performances had already been stalled due to Bonifassi's broken ankle.
Dupont said Bonifassi notified organizers - after the controversy, and her injury - that she was "uneasy" with continuing the scheduled performances. He explained, however, that it was unclear whether Bonifassi's decision was driven only by her physical health.
"She called us and she said 'in the present context, I cannot pursue this production right now,'" Dupont said. "From the conversation we had with her, it was clear she was suffering physically and that she probably also felt a lot of anger, and that was probably part of her decision."
The losses due to the cancelled shows totalled in the hundreds of thousands, Dupont said, but that the loss was accepted because "the debate was much more profound than the performance."
In the post-mortem, he compared the Jazz Fest's booking process to that of a film festival - picking up ideas, and not finished projects. In that sense, he explained, there's no way to oversee a show's development from start to finish and avoid controversy.
And freedom of expression, he added, is often left in the hands of the artists.
Since the show's debut, the festival has received countless complaints and appeals about the show's purported cultural appropriation and the use of white actors in a show built from black history.
Moving forward, he says, an open dialogue with black and other cultural communities is necessary to avoid artistic altercations.
"I would say that we're just starting to listen, and it's a very complicated conversation - I haven't started understadning everything," he said. "That said, I don't think the festival should be the only one having a dialogue. I think that everyone needs to be involved, and so next time, hopefully that's what will happen."