Toronto’s Sony Center adds international flavors

Revamped theater opens with edgy Cirque Eloize

When the Sony Center for the Performing Arts reopened its doors on Friday after a two-year closure for renovations, a lot more had changed than just the look of the building.

True, the public spaces were more inviting, the refreshment facilities had multiplied exponentially and the once cavernous interior (while still seating an impressive 3,200) had been made to seem far more inviting.

But the biggest change was onstage. When the building opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1960 (then known as the O’Keefe Center, named after a Canadian brewing dynasty), the major attraction was the out-of-town tryout of “Camelot,” complete with Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, a four-hour running time and endless backstage panic.

Friday night the tenant was “iD,” the edgy new show from Montreal-based Cirque Eloize, which brings street dance and acrobatics onto the stage in a style so tough it makes “Stomp” look like “Mary Poppins.”

This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision for Sony Center CEO Dan Brambilla but something that had been gestating for a long time.

What until 2006 had been the designated home of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada, along with a series of giant roadshows and popstar appearances, had been reconceived as an artistic home for Toronto of 2010.

Recent Statistics Canada surveys show more than 50% of the city’s population is foreign-born, reflecting an ethnic mix more diverse than in any other North American city.

For years, the Sony Center presented Caucasian-aimed attractions such as tours of “Grease” and Anne Murray in concert. But things changed by chance when Brambilla booked a road company of “Bombay Dreams,” the Indian-British hybrid musical that had flopped on Broadway in 2004.

“To be honest, I thought it was something to keep the place open for a couple of weeks during the dog days of summer,” admits Brambilla. “It turned out to be one of the biggest hits we ever had.”

He began pushing the envelope by adding Iranian rock stars or other acts from South Asia. In every case, he found his theater filled with audience members who had never been there before.

“That’s our brand, I realized. I looked around and saw there was a gaping hole in programming to our multiethnic population in the city,” recalled Brambilla. “And like any entrepreneur, I realized my primary job was to find a need and then fill it.”

He spent the two years the theater was dark not just supervising renovations but spreading his booking network far around the world. Some of the numerous shows he’s scheduled for the first season are firmly aimed at audiences from India, Iran, China, Japan, Poland or Russia, while omitting popular favorites like the Canadian Tenors, scheduling in a holiday run of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and even making room for material as artsy as Robert Lepage’s dance/theater piece “Eonnagata.”

He’s also actively soliciting the under-30 crowd with a $15 rush seat program, and the vastly expanded catering facility now offers ethnically appropriate food for each program.

“You come here for the Kirov Ballet, it’s chicken Kiev and veal Orloff. During ‘The Merchants of Bollywood,’ we’ll be serving samosa and vegetable korma,” Brambilla said.

“They say you can’t be all things to all people,” he observed, “but I’m damn well going to try.”

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