By Rodney Barnes
The city has a lot more to offer than Dance Cave and Mick E. Fynn’s. On the hunt for high society, I cultured myself in the way of the affluent — scoping out theatre, dance, art galleries and concerts — all on a student budget. And it even held off those mid-winter blues.
I started down the path to enlightenment at the Bata Shoe Museum. Classy? Ironically. In an “I’m doing something that nobody else is interested in” kind of way. I saw shoes worn by early humans, learned that men had clomped around in high heels for a good century before giving them up, and wondered how thin leather moccasins kept feet warm in the snow. Did those early North American travelers also have to muck through filthy slush, or is that an invention of the city?
The sterility of the place was emphasized by its emptiness. I walked through the exhibits on the heels of a family whose daughter took great delight in crawling around the carpeted floors. I think I’ll join her if I’m ever back, though it is a nice place to go if you’ve got nothing else to do. I mean, for $6, you too could be in the same room as Napoleon’s black socks, worn during his exile on St. Helena. They looked comfortable.
The Bata Shoe Museum Cost: $6 Class: 3/10
Hit The Rex later that night for some sultry tunes. It’s not the fanciest joint around, being a bar. But it’s a jazz bar, and jazz is classy. I mawed down my basket of fries with a fork while a print of Monet hung on a wall opposite me, and John Cheesman’s Jazz Orchestra filled the room with its soulful brass horns. Surrounded by students, I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the ‘beautiful people,’ though. I think it was time I raised my expectations.
The Rex Cost: $5 Class: 4/10
Zipped out between classes to catch the New Music Festival launch by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. It was an eccentric display of modern chamber music at the swank Four Seasons Centre down near Queen Street and University Avenue. I felt intelligent listening to music that was at times both erratic and inaccessible. I suspect some of the screeching and piano mashing was to deliberately shake the yoke of the classical chamber tradition, but who knows? The best part was that it was free.
New Music Festival Cost: $0 Class: 5/10
Bought student rush tickets to see Medea at the Canon Theatre near Yonge and Dundas streets. For $20 I was just seven rows from the stage and two seats from the aisle. I could see the nostrils of Seana McKenna, the lead actor. I was even sitting beside an upscale theatre director from Cleveland who comes to Toronto every year to see the plays.
The theatre was immense; the arched ceilings felt a hundred feet high, and the dark stage deep and brooding. Soft white columns, crowned with elaborate gold designs, stood like solemn guards behind the private boxes. And the people around me smelled beautiful.
The play was an old Greek tragedy. It showed an intensity I had experienced only in the most powerful movies, though its edge was sharper because of its more pungent reality. When the women shrieked I heard it not through speakers but from their throats; and when the pillars of flame shot up I could feel their heat on my cheek.
The performance touched upon something deep and raw within me, exposing me to the darker side of human nature. I saw love corrupted, its potency twisted black and violent. And I realized that if a play could be so influential then my search for high culture might bring more than just the posturing and glitz of the upper class; that there could be something real beneath money’s mask. Or maybe I was just looking too hard.
Medea Cost: $20 Class: 7/10
I thought the Art Gallery of Ontario might be a good place to find any sort of meaning in Toronto’s high society. I went with my friend Jared to take advantage of the AGO’s free evening. With the doors open to the public there was a noticeable lack of hoity-toity people, though the pretentious art more than made up for it. In one of the top floors displaying contemporary pieces was a hideous, untitled painting by an artist I’ve forgotten who had taken a canvas and coated it sheer with this flat, fleshy beige. Jared said it was the ugliest colour he had ever seen.
Later on we stood before “Venetian Blinds,” a series of self-portraits in the Michael Snow room. Snow, a prominent Toronto-born artist who is well known for the Canadian geese sculptures in the Eaton Centre, had taken 24 photos of his face at arms-length as he made his way up the Grand Canal in Venice. It looked to me like a snide commentary on the usual shots taken by sightseers of their smiling mugs as they stood in front of some tourist hotspot. In these pictures his eyes were closed and his face, caught in a grimace, was blurry.
We made our way downstairs and chanced upon Roman, a German fellow who told us he was more into the modern art upstairs than the collection on the lower floors.
“This stuff,” he said, motioning to a series of four knitted Canadian flags on the wall, “this is too kitschy for me.” I asked him if he could explain the meaning of that fleshy painting we saw earlier.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes artists don’t want an interpretation of their piece.”
It was while Jared and I were doodling idly at one of the sketching workstations that I decided I could also produce crappy — er, incomprehensible — art. I wrote down mostly random sentences on the sheets the gallery provided and shoved them into the hands of unsuspecting visitors. One read, “I shit talent,” and at the bottom: “Michael Snow.”
Art Gallery of Ontario Cost: $0 Class: 4/10
Tonight would be my best chance at schmoozing with a resident of the upper class. I was heading up to Avenue Restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel where I was hoping to chat up a local Yorkvillian. Noticing a dress code on its website, I hit the nearest Value Village, where I picked up the required threads — dress shoes, pants, and a peacoat — for under $50.
Walking down the street, my shoes, though a size too small, clicked smartly on the pavement; my pants swished elegantly around my ankles and the popped collar on my coat demanded film noir. Whether I felt rich or not, I certainly looked it. And with my long johns underneath I was cozy, too.
I took a seat at the polished-marble bar and ordered a 3 oz. martini, which cost nearly as much as a full week’s groceries. I had been sitting for a while reading the newspaper and munching on elaborately spiced cashews when the woman beside me remarked to the bartender that she was “bored.”
This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. And though I had been preparing for this conversation, and had by now a thick buzz coursing through my head, I was nervous as hell. It took a full 15 minutes of running through my opening lines, and a healthy swig of my drink, before I turned to her and said, “Hi. Have you been to the art gallery — the AGO?”
She turned, eyebrows raised, and said, “no.”
“Well, I went last night and it was quite good. Some of it’s a little kitschy” — I made sure to hesitate, so she would notice my newly sophisticated vocabulary — “but I liked the contemporary stuff. There’s this one on the fifth floor — have you ever used Photoshop?”
Again, a negative.
“Well there’s this effect called stretch, that stretches the image, and there’s this guy who used it to stretch a face, so you’re looking at this sculpture that’s about 15 or 20 feet high and you don’t know what to make of it because there’s this facial recognition system in our minds…” I stopped, seeing she wasn’t really listening to me.
“Anyways, it was pretty cool.”
I changed tactics, asking her about what she liked doing. She told me she had been coming to Avenue for six years because of the quiet atmosphere and the polite people. The one drawback?
“I’m allergic to alcohol. If I have more than one I get light-headed.” She giggled. She had just ordered a light beer in a lowball, and was already at work with another drink, this one beside two empty glasses.
“Can you look after my coat?” she asked, standing up. “And if you’re going to slip drugs in there make sure they’re good.” I looked at her uncertainly.
When she got back she grilled me about my background.
“God, you’re young,” she said. “I just did the math in my head, and I’m twice your age! Plus one! You just made me feel old.”
“No, I’m just kidding. If you’re worrying about your age there’s something wrong with you.”
After a pause I told her I was heading out to go to a concert.
“I didn’t get your name,” she said, offering her hand.
“Rodney,” I replied, pulling on my jacket. “Nice to meet you. And yours?”
“That’s s-h-e-r-r-y?” She smiled.
“You’re good,” she said, winking.
Avenue Restaurant Cost: $20 Class: 10/10
I took the subway to Union and walked east to the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, where the Tokyo String Quartet’s Beethoven series would help cultivate my peasant tastes. At $5 for a student ticket, it was a performance I could afford to hit.
They came out to modest applause, wielding instruments so fine the violinists put white towels over the chin guard so any sweat wouldn’t mar the finish. I read that they had been made by Stradivarius, a world-renowned luthier whose skill has defied explanation and reproduction, and played by Paganini, one of the most revered violinists of all time.
I was overwhelmed by how effortlessly the notes flowed from their fingertips, forming compositions so complex my brain started throbbing. Completely enthralled throughout the first movement, I allowed my mind to wander past the second as it got to be too much to handle.
“These guys are supposed to be the best in the world,” said Adrian, who sat beside me. A bass student at the Royal Conservatory of Music, the 19-year-old told me he wished he saw more young people coming out to performances like this.
He laughed after the first movement when the general age of the audience became apparent; all the old people, respecting the code of silence during playing, let loose their pent-up coughs, filling the room with their barking and hacking.
“I’ve been coming to these subscriptions for years,” said Bob, a man in his 50s, “and the people are always my age and older, never my age and younger.”
Tokyo String Quartet Cost: $5 Class: 9/10
On the last day of my week-long immersion into Toronto’s high society I decided to tour Queen West’s selection of art galleries. Before me were blossoms of imagination as manifest in photographs, paintings, and assemblages that ranged in price from $200 to the many thousands of dollars. In the Stephen Bulger Gallery I peered at a vintage portrait simply named “3 female basketball players,” where photographer Mike Disfarmer had shown his contempt for the community and his family by taking candid shots of his subjects so they looked miserable. The receptionist said the unprecedented spontaneity justified the $25,000 price tag.
I felt the culture and the class just oozing from the exhibitions. I stood for many minutes in front of Sung Ja Kim’s “Wilderness” series in the Loop Gallery, stroking my chin at the bits of canvas pasted to the weathered barn wood and hoping that if I stared hard enough at the shapes I could get some sort of obscure meaning from them. I ended up having to ask Ester Pugliese, the receptionist at the Loop Gallery, whose vague explanation I promptly forgot, though I enjoyed nodding my head in understanding and felt self-satisfied anyways.
Art Galleries and exhibitions Cost: $0 Class: 6/10
I ended the evening, and my week, in style. At the Harbourfront Centre I caught a showcase of various Toronto dance groups. I was humbled by the fluidity in their steps and leaps, knowing I could never pull off those moves — at least until zombies hit the stage to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Dance, Ontario Dance Cost: $10 Class: 7/10
It was the end of a week I spent groping the city for high culture and those activities its affluent citizens engage in — activities that weren’t the sole privilege of high society, but were open to students on a budget. It’s a side of our city that’s more than just slick threads and ritzy restaurants, but a culture full with raw experience — and all of it affordable.