January 10, 2019 2:22 am
Updated: January 10, 2019 1:52 pm

Diverse artists converge on 33rd High Performance Rodeo in Calgary

WATCH: The international arts festival opens in Calgary on Wednesday and, as Deb Matejicka reports, has been drawing award-winning, world class productions to the city for more than three decades.


The creativity flows, covering an array of stages in Calgary as a different type of rodeo hits the town.

The 33rd annual High Performance Rodeo runs Jan. 9 to 27 and features 25 shows in 16 venues.

Festival producer Laurel Green called Calgary’s international arts festival a destination for culture lovers.

“It really brings the best in theatre, dance and music from around the world to Calgary for some wild weeks in January,” she said.

Festival producer Laurel Green called Calgary’s international arts festival a destination for culture lovers.

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The rodeo has been a launching pad for many artists, Green said.

“The festival started in an elevator,” she said. “It started as a small place to take risks, as the idea that folks wanted to come and see some really wild experimental performances, and it kind of grew from there.”

The diversity of the lineup and range of experiences presented is the event’s selling point.

“We have artists coming from all backgrounds and forms of self-expression,” Green said. “It gives audiences a chance to meet a lot of different people from different places.”

Surprises in store

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua is a drag show that takes place in a tent with room for 40 people, and depends on the talents and desires of the audience.

“Pearle takes you through an old-time tent revival for a post-truth world and tries to bring everybody back together even if the world’s falling apart,” said Justin Miller, the show’s star and creative director.

The performance is always full of surprises, he added.

“Pearle’s just talking to you eye to eye, breathing with you and leading the audience through all these different communal experiences, exercises, her storytelling, her song, and you have decisions that you make,” Miller said.

Justin Miller gets into character as Pearle Harbour for the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary.

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The queen listens, paying attention to what people need, Miller explained.

“I just kind of go in the backseat and let Pearle take over and she delivers me to the end,” Miller said.

The best fests are about challenging yet delighting audiences, he said.

“If you have an audience’s attention, if you have butts in seats, and they’ve paid for a ticket, you may as well prove to them that their time is worth it and you may as well entertain them,” Miller said. “I think that the best theatre and the theatre that can change people the most is entertaining — I think that’s how you reach people. And I think the rodeo does a spectacular job of that.”

The daring power of drag

Miller has always appreciated what dressing up in women’s clothes can do to boundaries.

“I really love the power of drag with an audience, how intimate you’re allowed to get, how much access you have to people — not just physically, but also to their deep, sticky centres.”

“The relationship that an audience has with a drag queen — it’s really special in that it’s intuitive and it’s very ancient. I think it reaches back to a time of a high priestess around a fire, the storyteller, the fool and the court. This figure who’s very supersized, very different, very outwardly extreme but can speak truths that the rest of us don’t dare to speak and can access parts of their humanity that we’re all afraid to go into, and we rely on storytellers to bring us to these moments of ecstasy.”

With its outspoken nature, drag has always been political.

“It’s always been about challenging your preconceived notions whether it’s about gender, or for me, whether it’s about ideas of coming together, communion and community,” Miller said. “I think you can get away with a lot when you’re wearing a mask like this.”

Justin Miller applies lipstick, getting into his drag character, Pearle Harbour, for Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo.

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A full face of makeup — taking up to three hours to apply — gives a performer a licence to take bigger risks, Miller said.

“When I draw the lips on, that’s when I really start to see Pearle,” he said.

A Toronto-based performer, Miller is excited to put on a show in Calgary.

“Just being here in this kind of environment that brings together really daring artists, really different kinds of performers, my clown daddies and my clown mothers who have all come through here before — it feels like kind of living up to that legacy.”

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