Staged: Music and theatre at water’s edge

Spending a summer evening at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre watching a cultural festival doesn't at first seem to have much to do with going to the beach. Visitors come to watch a performance, and then they usually leave. They may walk along the sand-free walkways at a safe distance from the waves, but they don't tend to stick around for whole afternoons lounging on beach towels. Yet the presence of water, which seems almost unnecessary to Harbourfront Centre, might actually inspire the use of the space. With craft centres, educational programs, international markets, and roughly 4,000 performances a year, Harbourfront Centre aims to offer its visitors a never-ending spectacle and an engaging experience of wonder and diversity — exactly what bodies of water have always delivered to those willing to pay attention.

People go to beaches to be entertained by spectacles and to see and be seen. On a day at a good beach, we'll peer with curiosity at water creatures and the novelty of distant sailboats and windsurfers cutting intricate lines across the horizon, look in awe at anyone who can make a bikini seem flattering and display our own spandex finery in exchange. We'll watch delighted and scampering children with amusement and let out a sigh of relief when the exhausted, whiny ones, sticky with sandy ice cream, aren't our own. Then we'll lie on our backs and give our bodies to the sun. At some point later — time takes on different properties at the beach — it will sink low, eventually dropping slow-motion into the water that rolls around like unstoppable, animated videos on repeat. In aerial photos of crowded beaches, people tend either to be looking out over the water or lying down and looking up. Beach-going may be an elaborate public ritual of spectatorship.

While we expect spectacles at the beach, harbours have their own set of associations. As places, they link cities to the outside world by exporting domestic culture and products and by injecting goods from abroad into the community. Although now we tend to come and go by less watery routes, harbours historically took people away and brought new ones. Given the connections to outside influences, other places, and new possibilities that harbours have gathered over the centuries, it's appropriate that a city aware of its own multiculturalism today should celebrate its many identities by water. If beaches promise spectacle, then harbours symbolize cultural exchange.

Our habits of watching and the cultural engagement that we attach to beaches and harbours make us eager to use the space bordered by water for similar activities — this is why cities around the world make good waterfront development a high priority. Though Toronto is not a city that naturally tumbles pedestrians out onto its waterfront, congregating by the lake has seemed necessary to Torontonians for decades. City founders chose the site of Toronto for its ideal harbour, but the 1847 extension of the railway along the original Front Street shoreline effectively blocked that natural community attraction to the water, and gave it over to industry.

Though barred from enjoying it, Torontonians didn't forget about the water downtown and the vibrant and bustling 12 acres of Harbourfront Centre began as a Crown corporation in 1972, eventually becoming a charitable organization. Its festivals and programs now draw 12 million visitors a year across those train tracks, under the Gardiner Expressway, and down to the water.

While we don't go to the Harbourfront Centre to stare at the waves or at our neighbours in various states of undress, we do go to be spectators, and to let the programming expand our cultural horizons as a harbour might have done in the past. Harbourfront Centre is a model of how a modern urban place can recall memories of older places, with different uses. Cast in this way, the string of lights in the shape of a sailing ship over the white bridge between the quays at Harbourfront loses its touristy tackiness and becomes rather touching and poetic, electrically illustrating how past meanings and uses of the space endure today.

On summer evenings, festival-goers watching performances at the outdoor stage sit with their back to lake. But if they're bored with the song, dance or touring review, they can shift their eyes out from under the overhang and look at the CN Tower and condo buildings growing and glowing up from the shoreline. Seen from this waterside public space, the lit windows hint at the life happening in the hundreds of private spaces floating above a spot that, just a hundred years ago, would have been well offshore. Later this year, when the new HtO park opens just to the west, complete with Harbourfront's first beach, the spandex spectacle may finally happen.