TORONTO — When Gemini Award-winning writer Dennis Foon was asked a year and a half ago to pen a play on wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen for a debut at the 2010 Winter Olympics, he was a bit intimidated.
“The really daunting thing about it is, you know, you’ve got this huge life, this living legend, and how do you approach a living legend?” Foon, a Vancouver playwright and novelist who has also written for TV and film, said in a recent telephone interview.
“This guy has done miraculous things. I mean, he wheeled 25,000 miles around the world, he created this amazing foundation and . . . this Spinal Cord Research Centre that they put together is you know, one of a kind in the world. It’s daunting.”
Foon’s solution was to look to Hansen’s formative years in Williams Lake, B.C., to explain “what made him.”
The result is a multi-media show that uses four actors and six giant screens with projections to explain how Hansen became paralyzed from the waist down, then went on to wheel through 34 countries in the 1980s. His “Man in Motion” tour raised $26 million for spinal cord research.
“I thought that this is a story for right now,” said Foon, who won a Gemini for co-writing the 2002 film “Torso: The Evelyn Dick Story.”
“In the era of Obama, you know, you’ve got this guy who’s been saying . . . that change comes from within and you can do that and we’re capable of incredible things and (Hansen) proves it every day.”
“Rick: The Rick Hansen Story” – one of 35 arts projects recently added to the entertainment lineup for the Winter Games – traces a fishing trip Hansen and his friend, Don Alder, took in August 1973.
As the then-teens were hitch-hiking in the back of a pickup truck on their way home, Alder asked Hansen to switch places so he could sleep better. The truck then went off the road and Hansen sustained a spinal cord injury while Alder was uninjured.
“What we’re really tracking is Rick’s struggle to overcome this incredible challenge and Don, meanwhile, is sinking lower and lower (with guilt),” said Foon, who first met Hansen in 1994 while doing research for a movie of the week on Terry Fox.
“Finally Rick finds a way through it and then helps Don realize his own potential and releases him from the feeling that it should’ve been him.”
Alder, now an acclaimed acoustic guitarist, may perform during a film montage at the end of the play, said Foon. Vancouver actor Kyle Jesperson will play Hansen while the other roles are still being cast, said the playwright.
“Rick: The Rick Hansen Story” is being presented with Manitoba Theatre for Young People in partnership with Rotary Okanagan International Children’s Festival and the Rick Hansen Foundation. It’s commissioned by Arts Partners in Creative Development.
A national and international tour is also being planned, said Foon.
Other arts events added to the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad this week include a rare collaboration between the National Ballet of Canada and Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Mark Godden’s “As Above, So Below.”
Organizers say it marks the first time in two decades that the two ballet companies will perform on the same stage.
“I wanted to present something that was more athletic, essentially, more extreme ballet,” said Andre Lewis, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
“I didn’t want something that was romantic. I wanted something with more punch to it because of the ambience, the feeling, the sense of what the Olympics is about, which is pushing yourself.”
Each ballet company will also perform their own productions in the showcase.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet plans to mount Itzik Galili’s trademark “Hikarizatto,” and the National Ballet will present “24 Preludes” by renowned Quebec choreographer Marie Chouinard.
“I think it shows the diversity of our company,” Kevin Garland, executive director of the National Ballet of Canada, said of “24 Preludes,” in which dancers wear fishnet bodysuits and sport mohawk hair styles.
“It’s quintessentially Canadian, it’s world-class, and it’s not at all what one thinks about if one has any stereotypes in their head about ballet.”
All the arts events for the Winter Games are slated to unfold at 50 venues in Metro Vancouver and Whistler.
The program starts on January 22, 2010 and runs throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to March 21, 2010.
By Victoria Ahearn
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.