Wednesday 14 February 2024

Hand-Painted Works by Kyivan Artist Alexander Khomenko

 St. Nicholas icon

Since my current University of Toronto Slavics course on The Origins of Russia and Ukraine covers icons and cossacks along with Ivan the Terrible and Putin, I went through some of the late Alexander Khomenko's art that I still have on hand.

In the 1980s the artist worked in church restoration at Kyiv's Pecherska Lavra Monastery of the Caves and at churches in Tokmak, Zaporizhia, and Sevastopol.

Below are a few selections from his 1995-2008 pen and ink works.

Dmytro Vyshnevetsky


Ukrainian Family

Kozak with Sabre




Tuesday 26 December 2023

My Reimagined Spaces: Toronto and Hamilton House and Condo Renovations

Existing features dictated what style direction each reno would take

Home redesign has always been a passion for me and my family.

Over the last 20 years, we have renovated several condos and houses that we lived in and then sold. We redesigned and fixed them up gradually, outside of our full-time jobs. 

Whether reenvisioning an elegant, spacious condo in midtown Toronto or a suburban house nestled in the majestic landscape of the Niagara Escarpment, each of our renovations uncovered hidden beauty that was already there. Here are a few of our transformed spaces:

North York condo renovation

- This transformation included new hardwood flooring throughout, new paint, new appliances, new plumbing, and new electrical switches

- We tore up the old parquet floor and laid rich brown hardwood flooring ourselves with the help of a friend, and did all of the painting ourselves

- We focused on the flooring, warm paint color to make this large 2-bdrm condo feel more inviting, and new lattice on the 2 balconies overlooking the urban landscape below

High Park condo painting

- We repainted one wall of this new build a brilliant vermilion to create a distinctive look
- The large west-facing balcony was great for gardening and brought the outside in

East Hamilton house renovation

- The extensive work completed on this reimagined space included new hardwood flooring throughout, new paint, new lighting, replacement of old lead piping, and a new A/C system that replaced a window fan

- We laid all of the sub-flooring ourselves and most of the hardwood flooring, strapping construction kneepads to our legs for protection

- We prioritized the flooring, the new soft white paint color that restored the space as a peaceful sanctuary, the 3-bedroom house's historical features, and the view of the lush yard

Downtown Hamilton loft painting & re-lighting

- Fresh white paint throughout, new unique light pieces, and new gold paint on the exposed pipes accentuated the gorgeous wooden beams and ceiling in this character loft

Dundas house makeover

- We tore up all the wall-to-wall carpeting and uncovered beautiful hardwood flooring throughout
- The tall fir trees in this large treed lot tend to dwarf humans
- Dundas Valley Conservation Area trails are a short walk away

The way to make a home renovation stand out is to accentuate and develop the existing features that first took your breath away when you bought the place. Your vision will develop on its own from there.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

National Ballet of Canada Welcomes Live Audiences Back with Chords of Mysticism

 When Dance and Spirituality Go Hand in Hand


When you witness NBOC's first live ballet performance in 20 months and hear the striking intros to two ethereal Tchaikovsky numbers, you know that spiritual power will be talking to you in this opening program.

And it does. George Balanchine's Serenade, Jera Wolfe's Soul, and Crystal Pite's Angel's Atlas are all transformative ballets that touch on our mortality, impermanence, and microscopic size in relation to the vast universe. There's a subdued mournfulness standing right beside passion and perfection in each of the works. Moreso, there's deep honesty and humility running right through the whole National Ballet of Canada November 2021 program.

Dance has never seemed to perfectly express its era better than right now - or, at least, during the past century. You can see it just by observing how dancers' arm movements have changed over time, regardless of whether it's a classical or contemporary technique that the work is set in. While dancers in Serenade, choreographed in 1935 just after the Depression, confidently spread their wings in arms that perpetually point up to the sky, in Angel's Atlas, choreographed in 2020, they collect and draw the vast energy around them towards themselves using their elbows, in a lostness. And in Soul, choreographed during the pandemic in 2021, the dancers' arms intertwine with each other in the depth of love and all of its complex subjectivity. 

Angel's Atlas

The first time I saw Crystal Pite's Angel's Atlas with a friend, I was a busy, tired commuter and the experience was apocalyptic and jarring. It was February 2020, literally a month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Now, seeing it again as part of the National Ballet of Canada's Welcome Back season, it seems reverent, humble, and overwhelmingly eye-opening. 

Tchaikovsky's sacred Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Opus 41, No 6 Cherubic Hymn sets the tone of the ballet before any of the dancers start to move. Together with Tom Visser's lighting design and Jay Gower Taylor's reflective light backdrop concept, Owen Belton's music affects the audience in a very profound way. The hymn's words speak to humanity laying aside all cares of life to receive the King of All, invisibly upborne by the angelic host. While the words are sung in Old Church Slavonic, the feeling of one's own soul opening up is evoked from a combination of things. It's both the music and the mystical wall of light that displays the slow discovery of a vast and unknowable universe. 

The dancers are barefoot and dressed identically in loose black pants. Slowly they start to move in unison from their crouched positions where they were spread like shells across the stage. As they get up, they seem to be discovering their world and who they are in relation to everything else.

There is both joy and anguish in the movement throughout Angel's Atlas. A couple discovers each other and lives a form of life, then they part. Movement is repetitive and elbows seem to lead, where humans eke out a more primitive existence. The music evolves into flowing, abstract harmonies with bells, the black pants become long skirts swishing freely, and graceful, fluid movements start to form a visual culture onstage. At points, there are two groups who each move exclusively in unison, and sometimes the groups are divided by gender. This made me think of Pite's earlier work, Emergence.


Sourced from

A circle is closed. The storm has passed. A song resolves in its final chord. Everything is OK. Powers greater than us are in place, and we feel them. Resolution. 

This is what screams out at you when the curtain opens after the first couple of bars of Serenade for Strings. 17 female dancers in blue hold their hands up to the moonlight, both signaling it and shielding themselves from it. You feel the abstract power of human resilience.

When Balanchine choreographed Serenade and it was performed in 1934 by the School of American Ballet students, he had no idea that almost 100 years later it would become a lasting, emblematic piece of inner power featured at post-pandemic theatrical re-openings. Its lasting quality is in its balance of surprise and inevitability. 

Serenade still looks modern and is known for its technical difficulty to execute. Most of the movement and jumps are executed "en arabesque" (with the back leg stretched up high), requiring a lot of back strength. The intricate pointe work includes turns of the whole body executed on the toes with a sudden lift of one foot up to "retire" (pointed down at the other ankle) when the dancer faces front, and then down again to the top of the toes for yet another turn. And it's all done fast, to music that flies along quickly.

Balanchine's difficult technique was danced flawlessly this week by the National Ballet's Sonia Rodriguez, Jurgita Dronina, and Calley Skalnik in the principal roles. The choreography expresses harmony, goodwill, and togetherness. Serenade is Balanchine's elegy to women, but the ballet ends sadly and mystically. One of its themes is mortality yet it also suggests collective strength.

The Welcome Back Performance Touched Audiences Collectively

As we searched for the patterns in dance movements that were executed quickly and collectively on stage, the performance had already tapped into our subconscious. Controlled chaos. Resolution of forces. Connection to a wild beyond. 

These are the common themes of all the pieces billed as NBOC's Angel's Atlas in this season's opening program. I still have Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings going through my head every morning when I wake up. It feels like a good thing.

Monday 12 August 2019

The Meaning of Farm to Table

Declining Number of Fruit Farms in Niagara Region Affect Supply

A lone tree reaches across the expanse of a Niagara-on-the-Lake field

Whenever I eat a fresh peach, cherry, plum, nectarine or pear in Niagara in the summertime, I notice how much better it tastes than the fruit I buy at home in Toronto stores, just an hour and a half's drive north.

If Niagara fruit farms still exist (which I found they do) why can't we purchase their produce in the urban outlets in Toronto? When I tried to find out more, I found a great list of fruit farms in the Niagara area, as well as another helpful resource about where to pick your own fruits and vegetables in the Niagara region, but no real explanation of why this natural wealth isn't part of the major distribution networks supplying our urban supermarkets.

Grapes on the vine in the July Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside

It turns out that many of the various fruit orchards that filled the Niagara countryside have become endless rows of grape vines. If the larger Niagara fruit farms were supplanted by the needs of the grape-growing and winery industries in the Niagara peninsula, I don't remember hearing who made the decision. Why can't we have both the Niagara winery and fresh fruit industries succeeding side by side? Was there ever a public consultation about it?

When I was growing up in Niagara Falls in the 1970s one of my favourite summer jobs was strawberry-picking at Tregunno Farms. I would ride my bike the 20-odd kilometres along the Niagara River Parkway to Niagara-on-the-Lake and hit the fields with my fellow fruit-pickers, eating as many strawberries as I could while I worked. Happily, Tregunno Farms is still in the same location and managed by the fourth generation of the family. But now their main crops are peaches and grapes and they are trying to grow plum-apricot hybrids currently shipped to us from the U.S.

One of the many palatial wineries that dot the Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside

Food Giants McCain, Saputo and Maple Leaf Helped Grow Canadian Food Sector

The more I dug for information on who is really in charge of the quality of fresh food available to put onto my family's table, the less I found out it was a story of small or medium sized business success. A couple of years ago a Globe and Mail article described the Canadian food industry sector as being the largest manufacturing industry in the country in terms of sales, surpassing auto parts or high-tech gadgets and achieving sales that quietly passed that of textiles, paper, machinery, and aerospace combined. It goes on to describe how "giants like McCain, Saputo and Maple Leaf" helped the sector to expand over the past decade and keep growing even in the recession when most other sectors slumped.

I'm still trying to find out what farms exactly, are producing our local food. According to Statistics Canada, 70% of our food comes from our own country and only 30% of the food we eat comes from somewhere else. A full 80% of meat and dairy products and 76% of breads and cereals are produced here, and imports account for 40% of all fruit, vegetables and fish we eat.

When I looked at the Farm and Food Care Foundation, I found Sobey's, Ontario Pork, The Centre for Food Integrity,  and Cargill writing and distributing consumer-friendly brochures from the voice of Canadian farmers. The messaging was that "big corporations have not taken over Canadian farms, and more than 97 per cent of Canadian farms today are still family-owned and operated." But the brochure did not stipulate the most important point: What percentage of our food do these family-owned farms actually produce?

Monday 5 March 2018

"Made in Canada" Choreography for National Ballet Transcends the Classics

Mesmerizing Ode to Lawren Harris

Image via

Lawren Harris, Robert Binet, Lubomyr Melnyk, and dancers of the National Ballet of Canada, will the dreamers ever leave you? 
The Company's final performance of Made in Canada yesterday at The Four Seasons Centre in Toronto was a testament to the power of nature in the Canadian psyche. Canadian choreographers, composers, lighting designers, set designers, costume designers and dancers came together to celebrate a bond that we Canadians innately feel but rarely articulate. 
A pre-performance announcement by Artistic Director Karen Kain expressed gratitude towards the indigenous people of yesteryear on whose land the ballet company now operates at the Lake Ontario waterfront. When you look south across the lake from where the company's astounding artistry is now created, you can almost see Lewiston, NY beyond what is a relatively new border. After you've seen "Made in Canada" choreography however, you'll probably agree that our bond with the land emerges as a much more primal force than nationalism. What you see is the connectedness of land to water over time, not different countries. The dreamers are alive and well.

Opening to choreography by Binet in Dreamers Ever Leave You, the flowing, continuously meandering music of Melnyk takes centre stage while cool shades of blue envelope pondering dancers. As if on a kinetic moon walk, their outstretched arms yearn toward something beyond themselves. Stark sets of smooth ice chunks slowly move across time and space, and dancers become individualistic silhouettes on symbolic Harris ice mountains. 
With porte de bras marked by hands inverted outward at the wrist, dancers enact and seek majestic heights in a reverence. Seldom in unison, individual dancers intertwine within space and with each other, pursuing inner heights of the Harris mountains. As the dramatic, soaring cadences of the music reflect both dancer and our collective knowledge of Harris, we follow a river flowing emotionally into turns of minor keys and peaks. 

Kudelka Freshens the Baroque with a Timeless Story

Image via
Second on the program was James Kudelka's The Four Seasons, set to Vivaldi's well known score of the same name. Kudelka's genius never lets you down, and there are few ballets as consistently satisfying as this resident choreographer's creations always are. With full integration of musicality, sets, costumes, lighting and movement, Kudelka is all about the staging. His dancers fill the stage in wonderfully balanced compositions that incorporate all artistic elements in equal measure.  A duality exists in the soloists' expressionism and corps de ballet's commentary that resembles a Greek chorus, each level telling their story simultaneously. Few other choreographers achieve such theatrical balance, and you can see it in Kudelka's "czarist" style Nutcracker too.

The Four Seasons' story is about aging, and in the Spring concerto the dancers are Venetian courtiers in taupe silk crossed with Alberta youths who could be freely riding around the prairies in a borrowed pickup truck. With hopeful expectation, their arms jut upright like waiters with no trays, and they tumble around on stage energetically in a hopefulness. In the Summer concerto, passionate love is strikingly choreographed in signature movements that fly by quickly; one reemerging motif has a woman commanding her lover in a sweeping downward arm movement that later reappears as she commands herself with that same move. It's like Kudelka captures the subconscious at times. 
Everything works in concert: the taupe-themed Baroque-inspired costume has now become a romantic sheer, and Monet-like sets have transformed from subtle green lilies to passionate reds and maple leaf oranges of November. The Autumn concerto brings a panicked kind of energy as dancers fly through the air doing grand jetés - and you cannot help but know what's ahead in this trajectory. In the Winter concerto the Venetian courtiers are back, the grand jetés are gone and no one is flying through the air anymore. One female dancer wears a hat like the Queen wears, and you almost expect to see her start waving. A formalized, ancient tiredness pervades everyone's movement and death takes centre stage.

Amphibian Humans

Image via
Humans are mammals, but in Crystal Pite's Emergence it's never been clearer that we strongly resemble amphibians in social ways. Pite is an Associate Choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater, and as anyone who has seen that company can attest, her last minute decision in rehearsal to add dancers' whispering to the staging of her choreography here marks her style with a distinctly European trademark. 

Emergence constructs abstract modern choreography within balletic structures. When Pite's female dancers prance like grasshoppers across the stage en masse, they are "en pointe", and when her shirtless male dancers show their backs marked by identical spider tatoos crawling across their shoulders, they literally look like the shells of bugs crouching in collective impulse. In this ballet instinct not only rules, it reveals all - and groups are divided by the sexes like separate lines within wolf packs. 
In one scene a long line of women strung from upstage to downstage moves across the stage, hypnotically whispering uneven bars of  music to counts of 6 and 11. Individual males regularly "impregnate" females by ejecting a movement and then withdrawing. In what may be a subtle comment on sexual politics at one point, one of the males tries to run through the long line of women in attempted escape, only to be prevented from breaking through the female chain by their unassailable solidarity. 
This brilliantly visceral performance of Emergence was flawlessly executed by dancers of the National Ballet, while abstract cricket sounds in the score composed by Owen Belton droned in the music. 

As with any artist's oeuvre, Pite's beliefs can be seen in what she has created through subtlety and subtext. Although Emergence is abstract and its music primal and raw, the work nonetheless reassures you with an undercurrent of natural rules that prevent our self-destructiveness. 
In Pite's vision, everything will be OK. Her women protect the species with a bond stronger than anything else, and her men believe in each other and the life and society they've created. They may be figuring it out as they go, bug-like and collective, but it's correct as long as it remains instinctual.

Millennials we spoke to after the performance were blown away by Emergence. Well, droning music and abstract dance explorations have been part of the baby boomers' genres since before the 80's, so we were not surprised. Yet the superb performance of this amazing choreography by the highest quality classically-trained dancers from around the world, assembled by the National Ballet of Canada, definitely left us speechless. 
Read about Crystal Pite's 2020 work, Angel's Atlas.
Made in Canada is compelling in its display of the National Ballet's virtuosity and diversity. This program should be toured to schools and universities as a fundraising strategy to build a millennial donor base to replace the current senior one.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Stress Management Over 40

Revisit Your Own Idealism to Handle Work Stress

Revisiting idealism can help you survive the stresses of a neoliberal world
What are the best ways to handle stress as a baby boomer still dealing with demanding clients, high-pressure days and daily operation in the thick of the rat race? When your kids are grown up, when bar-hopping after work with colleagues is too unhealthy an option, and when retirement is not in your plans any time in the foreseeable future, how do you unwind? The answer may be to revisit who you were at 15 or 20. The seeds of old dreams are still there, sitting in time capsules waiting to be opened and reclaimed. The difference now is that you can actually pursue them.

Dialing Down Stress Means Focusing on Positive Mechanisms

The "fight and flight" instinct that helped you respond so well to emergencies and perform so well at work for so long is actually on a timer. The stress response has an effect on our bodies in a way that can compromise health and well-being in a very big way. According to the American Psychological Association, "the long-term activation of your body's stress response impairs your immune system's ability to fight against disease and increases the risk of physical and mental health problems."

This means it's time to get creative about coming up with ways to transform stress into inspiration. This can involve doing many of the things that never quite fit into our super-practical way of life. It also means dedicating some time, effort and funds to exploring them. For some it's a year of travel, for others it's starting a second career that may not make much money but is fulfilling creatively, intellectually or in terms of its societal value. For still others, it's going back to school while still enjoying one's career. One of the best resources to explore the rekindling of your inner creative is Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book Women Who Run With the Wolves - Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (oh so 80s but still so useful).

Tactics to Handle Stress Better

Aside of aspiring to do things you've always wanted to do and cultivating your own wild creativity, here are some other constructive ways to handle stress:

  • meditation - incorporating this into your daily routine can go a long way in managing stress
  • exercise - an hour of exercise three or more times a week is recommended, even walking
  • yoga - take a class or do it at home with the help of some online classes or guides
  • dance classes - contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a dancer to join a class
  • community involvement - engage with anything you are interested in or care about
  • diet - you can't go wrong with more fruits and vegetables
  • go out - take in sports, culture, or anything outside yourself
  • chemicals in food - avoid them wherever possible, even though it's pretty difficult
  • pampering - treat yourself to hair appointments, manicures, massages, and spas 
  • socialize - make a practice of drawing people you like closer to you

Sunday 31 May 2015

Walking in a Wildlife Sanctuary Across the Lake from a City

A Bird Sanctuary as Well as a Healthy Getaway for City Dwellers

Tommy Thompson Park offers a healthy alternative for wildlife and urbanites alike
Have you ever walked just outside a city's perimeter where the air is so fresh that you feel dizzy? At Leslie Spit/ Tommy Thompson Park on the waters of Lake Ontario, it is possible to completely escape the air pollution of 3-million strong Toronto just a short distance away. You are literally on the water looking into the city from across a lake. The fresh breeze that blows across the lake feels fresh and pollution-free.

Tommy Thompson Park is a former dump site that grew into a wildlife bird sanctuary on an isthmus in Toronto. It is entirely human-made.  As described in its history, "the natural processes that evolved during the long construction and planning of the site had shaped [the park] into a truly "accidental wilderness".   A map from shows where the park is situated in relation to the City of Toronto.

A map from shows where Leslie Spit/ Tommy Thompson Park is situated

Leave It For The Birds

Eventually it was decided to leave the park for the birds. Visits to the wildlife sanctuary are allowed during restricted hours.

If you walk the 2+ hours to the end of the Spit, you end up in what feels like the middle of Lake Ontario. Now a popular destination for bird watchers, cyclists and conservationists, the only sounds you can hear as you walk are the chirps and songs of numerous species of birds rarely seen elsewhere.

Hand-Painted Works by Kyivan Artist Alexander Khomenko

 St. Nicholas icon Since my current University of Toronto Slavics course on The Origins of Russia and Ukraine covers icons and cossacks alo...