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Sleepless in Montreal

Trading rest for fest north of the border


Published March 2, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

It's no secret that Montreal is an orgy of activity in the summertime -- the Festival International de Jazz, Just for Laughs and Divers/Cite, to name a few. Winter is a quieter, not to mention much colder, time in the city. Come hell or frozen water, however, things get lively in February during the 11-day Festival Montreal en Lumière -- a.k.a. the Montreal High Lights Festival.

The sixth annual event, which concluded last weekend, was actually three simultaneous festivals snuggled together, as if to preserve body heat, under one banner. There's the Sun Life Financial Performing Arts Festival, the SAQ Wine and Dine Experience, and the Hydro-Quebec Celebration of Light, which ingeniously illuminates the winter darkness. From the names you can tell there's no lack of corporate or government sponsors.

Last year the High Lights fest culminated in the Nuit Blanche, or All-Nighter, a sleepless revelry inspired by a similar event in Paris. It was so successful -- Montrealers don't need much excuse to party -- that the organizers decided to make it a tradition. Since my partner and I couldn't be in Montreal for the entire festival, we decided to throw slumber to the winter winds and purge our seasonal doldrums at the All-Nighter.

I kept trying to think of it as the Nuit Blanche instead of the All-Nighter, since the latter term conjures up memories of architecture school, Domino's pizza and red-eye flights with crying babies and Adam Sandler films. The last time I pulled a voluntary all-nighter was truly in the last century. But we were determined. If an estimated 100,000 night-owl Canadians could do it, so could we.

7 p.m.: We layer up unglamorously over long johns and head down to Place des Arts, the festival's home base. We've read the fireworks are supposed to begin at 7:30, but they actually commenced at 7. We just miss them -- not a great start, but at least we're not the only ones confused. For the next hour we hear people asking, "Do you know when the fireworks start?"

Even without the light show overhead, Place des Arts is psychedelically aglow. The buildings around the site are decked in festive hues, and plunked down in the middle of it all is La Sphere Loto-Quebec. The sphere -- already nicknamed the "magic mushroom" -- is five stories tall and mesmerizing, swirling with purple polka dots one moment, neon-rainbow geometrics the next. Turns out there are DJs inside, spinning tunes amid the spinning lights over a heated dance floor. But the line to enter is intimidating, so we save it for later.

The "Milk Ice Slide," a huge, carved mountain of snow and ice with three tube-sledding lanes, looks tempting, but we're not ready to be chilled and thrilled just yet. In fact, we already need to thaw out; fortunately, the festival provides several places to do so. Le Dome Hydro-Quebec is similar to the sphere but smaller and open to the elements. Nevertheless, when we step inside we're blasted with warming infrared rays. Even smaller-scale are the flaming grills sprinkled around the site. Who'd have guessed that, in the middle of downtown Montreal, you'd be able to incinerate marshmallows and wieners?

The ambiance -- an amalgam of high and low tech, urban and rural, big- and small-scale -- seems tres Montreal. Toss in blasting techno music, colorful street performers, a zealous troop of calisthenics leaders, and you begin to get the gist.

We find our bearings and study the brochure listing a dizzying array of All-Nighter activities, many of them free. Some venues are close enough to reach on foot; others require transportation. For the far-flung events, free shuttles make the rounds roughly every 10 minutes throughout the night; you can hop off anywhere along the routes.

8:30 p.m.: We walk a short distance west on Sainte-Catherine to the Belgo Building. Here, artists on several floors have galleries open for the occasion. The hallways are peppered with artsy types, but, compared to the throngs at Place des Arts, it's a calm oasis. We take in a variety of art, from digitally manipulated Tide boxes to photographic projections that gently transform walls into waves. We wonder whether the practicing ballet dancers who fill the room are meant to be part of the show.

9 p.m.: A packed-to-the-gills shuttle transports us to the Musee des Beaux-Arts for a "Night with the Pharaohs." Well, maybe an hour. Like many museums around town, this one is open till dawn and has special festival rates. But any hopes of time alone with the mummies are dashed when we see the line snaking down the sidewalk. Apparently others had this idea, too -- a trend we'll encounter throughout the night. I wonder why most of the statues are missing their noses, but this and other fine points of Egyptian art history are lost in the melee.

10:30 p.m.: After our stint with ancient Egyptians, we're ready for something more contemporary, so we shuttle on to Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill for music and sustenance. As we enter, a departing patron says, "I hope you like really old singers." The place is jam-packed and roasting hot, especially as my parka zipper has become stuck. I fiddle with it for a half-hour, sweating profusely, then ungracefully slide the parka down and step out of it.

The cuisine at Upstairs is ho-hum, but a bottle of wine hits the spot. The "really old" singer turns out to be the seventysomething Lodi Carr, a gregarious jazz veteran with a Dolly Parton hairdo and an undeniable authenticity in her weathered voice. Lodi is backed by the smoking Steve Amirault Trio. I could stay here all night, especially after Lodi begins telling tales at the table next to ours. But the shuttle, and other venues, beckon.

1 a.m.: We make a quick stop at the BloWup Photogalerie, where photographers and makeup artists are on hand to transform ordinary citizens into momentary movie stars. My partner, a Russian professor, is amused to find the place full of Russian speakers on both sides of the lens. We're watching mostly teenage girls getting prepped for their glossies when, suddenly, the lights die -- the result of some electrical snafu that's plagued the venue all night. This of course sparks jokes about being in the dark at the Festival en Lumiere.

1:45 a.m.: After a seemingly infinite wait in the cold -- most of the shuttles are full and fly right past -- we move to the Fonderie Darling for La Nuit electronik. The atmospheric warehouse space is crisscrossed with video projections, and everyone dancing to the electronic throb looks as if they could easily stay up for six weeks. We feel, and probably look, like chaperones at a high school dance.

2:30 a.m.: Another ride on the sardine shuttle. The driver doesn't call out the stops, and the windows are so steamy you couldn't see outside even if there weren't 100 heads in the way. We could be in Newfoundland, for all I can tell. My limbs are bent in perverse directions. But for some reason none of us seems to mind the inconveniences -- such is the camaraderie of an All-Nighter. If this were a mid-summer afternoon, we'd probably get hostile.

2:45 a.m.: We pause at the Hydro-Quebec Head Office to breathe again and see the luminous mural by Quebec artist Jean-Paul Mousseau. We and a bunch of twentysomethings grab complimentary biscotti and muffin fragments. The younger crowd sees a TV and shouts, "Let's go watch some Hydro-Quebec propaganda!"

3 a.m.: Back to the main site, where the wanderers are less numerous and more inebriated than before. A few hardy souls are still ice-tubing, but the psychedelic sphere has stopped admitting visitors. Oh, well. We console ourselves with sugar-on-snow and roasted chestnuts.

3:30 a.m.: We walk to the Societe des Arts Technolo-giques on Saint-Laurent, where they promise "12 hours of contrasting and exhilarating emotions." And we thought it was just the sleep deprivation! The music at this wee hour sounds, to our untrained ears, much like the electronik we heard earlier, but the dimly lit space is very cool. Enormous wall-videos alternate streaming white arrows with images of motorbikers. Floor-level seating provides an opportunity to collapse. The clock above the bar is spinning rapidly backwards, enhancing our sense that time has no meaning. Neither does privacy: The bathroom is open along one wall, transforming stall comings and goings into yet another form of performance art.

4 a.m.: I'm not sure settling into a darkened theater is wise at this stage of the game, but I love the idea of la longue nuit du court (the long night of shorts), and the Cinema Imperial is close enough to be appealing. Before the lights, and my eyelids, go down, I admire the cinema's red velvet seats and splendidly lush interior.

5:15 a.m.: In the lobby of the Musee d'Art Contemporain de Montreal, I realize I have no recollection of the films I just "saw." C'est la vie des fatigues. We drag ourselves upstairs to an exhibition of South African artist William Kentridge's works. There's plenty of room to walk like an Egyptian here, if only I had the energy. Somehow Kentridge's gorgeous charcoal drawings and short animated films are perfect for the hour and state of mind. In one of the galleries, people in various states of unconsciousness litter the carpet, while ants printed in negative race across the walls, forming ever-changing constellations. Opera and an ethereal version of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" drift in from somewhere. I could be awake or asleep, it doesn't matter.

6 a.m.: We join the line for the free "Convivial Breakfast." I'm on the far side of convivial, but others aren't yet ready to throw in the towel. An older man with long blond hair and purple tights sings and plays harmonica while a tiny woman festooned with pink feathers bangs a tambourine and dances.

7 a.m.: The sun is up. We go down.

For every event we experienced at the High Lights fest, there were several we missed: a Brazilian dance party, French cabaret, swimming "under the stars" at the Hilton, free garlic soup, an autopsy of a murder, celebrations of the gypsy spirit. Maybe next year. I'll start resting up now.