With listed events from January through mid March, Winter Light at first appears to be the ultimate marathon festival—even for the city that can't get enough of festivals.
You may have seen its glowing LED lanterns strewn along Victoria Promenade during the Olympic Torch parade or a mobile video installation in Abbey Glen Park, or perhaps you may warmed your hands over one of its fire sculptures. At its peak thus far, Winter Light was producing up to four events in six hours at various locations across the city.
"We have a SWAT team capacity for winter art," laughs Pamela Anthony, producer of Winter Light, which is now in its second year. Keeping Winter Light mobile, its signature appears to be its uncanny capacity to set things up quickly, including shelter stations with flooring, campfires and often hot chocolate that remains consistent as it moves across the city.
"We're like gypsies moving from site to site carrying an atmosphere," explains Anthony, who distinguishes Winter Light as produced by the Edmonton Arts Council as something separate from Edmonton's existing and independently produced Deep Freeze Festival, Ice on Whyte and SilverSkate Festival.
"For people who go outside, we give them something to do. There's a destination affect, and that's really important for tourism and regional representation," continues Anthony.
Attempting to make Edmonton a destination spot in the winter, Anthony, who admits to bundling up and wandering around outside on the recent coldest place on Earth day to take in the awe of mother nature, she notes how there are untapped possibilities in a well-resourced urban environment, "For us [winter] is ordinary, but for other people the idea of winter is exotic. Northern Canada is intriguing and astonishing, and falls into the category as a unique experience, and because you really need to see it to really get it, we say if your feet are warm, it's actually pretty fun out here."
On January 22 and 23, the Winter Light team once again takes over 1.6 kilometres of Whitemud Park, re-creating the story of the Slavic favorite Baba Yaga folk tale. Framing the walk as similar to the journey of the tale's heroine, Vasilissa, visitors will be able to encounter various characters, diversions and surprises all along the way, as well as warm up at designated resting stations. Says Anthony, "It's a hero's journey, and it is a bit of a hike, but you're invested as an audience member. We're creating an interactive experience with one of the most exquisite areas in the city, and I can say last year this delighted everyone. Grown ups, not just children, expressed how delighted and surprised they were, to be bewitched and feel the magic of walking through the woods."
Perhaps to some, Winter Light appears much more subdued in comparison to the winter wonderland festivals from across the country such as Carnaval in Quebec City or Winterlude in Ottawa. Beyond just budget differences, the vision is also quite different in emphasizing the idea of place by exploring the city beyond a city block.
"We're not performing on traditional festival sites like Churchill Square, we're out in our river valley and parks. That distinguishes how people experience our events, and distinguishes how we do our programming," explains Anthony.
With its main office on East Jasper Avenue looking over the Rossdale flats, Anthony connects Winter Light back to Edmonton's pre-fort history, particularly along the flats, emphasizing that the city has a long tradition of being a meeting place during both summer and winter periods.
"[The flats] was a gathering place, a celebratory gathering place for rituals and trades and ceremonies. Regional groups and tribes met during summer and winter gatherings and celebrations," she shares. Although she is still exploring the First Nations history of the flats, Winter Light has worked with the aboriginal community from day one to integrate their voices into how the festival thinks and proceeds.
"The festival's main themes are light, fire, and shelter, which are all markers or rituals of gathering and civic bonding."
*First published in Vue Weekly