Arts, Ideas and New Haven

Arts, Ideas and New Haven

T he International Festival of Arts & Ideas ensures New Haven is aware of how many great new creative events and concepts there are in the world. But the festival also makes sure those worldly artists get to know about New Haven.

This year’s festival starts Saturday, June 16. The day opens with an 11 a.m. screening of Man on Wire, the documentary about famed French tightrope walker Philippe Petit. A few hours later in the same location (the Yale Art Gallery lecture hall, 3 p.m.), Petit himself will speak about his adventures, which include his daring walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. While he’s in town, Petit will take in the city’s breathtaking architecture. Could our city inspire him to climb something? It wouldn’t be the first time—in the 1990s, a troupe of Arts & Ideas acrobats clambered up a Yale building. Such flights of fancy happen frequently at the festival.

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Make a Night of It in New Haven

The kickoff for Arts & Ideas 2012 may be Saturday, but the groundwork is laid all year long. Festival programmers travel to other countries to check out new acts. Relationships are fostered with important theater, dance and circus companies. In turn, artists stop by New Haven to check the place out and get to work early.

One such artist, Kyle Abraham, is a major dance talent. Before becoming a choreographer and creating his own dance company,, he worked with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a group which itself has visited Arts & Ideas several times.

Just last week it was announced that Kyle Abraham has won the 2012 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, a $25,000 prize given annually by the Massachusetts-based modern dance mecca. He’ll accept that award when Jacob’s Pillow opens its summer season on Saturday. A few days later,’s acclaimed dance event The Radio Show will begin its five-performance run at Arts & Ideas.

Several weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon in May, the acclaimed Mr. Abraham was kicking back with some dance students from the Educational Center for the Arts high school magnet program. The Arts & Ideas festival prefers artists not be strangers in the cities where they perform. Abraham agrees with the philosophy.

The dancer/choreographer loosens the 14 teen students up by asking them “What music are you guys listening to?” The responses ranged from Top 40 to Alternative to Hip-Hop to showtunes. “All right, y’all,” Abraham continued. “I am listening to this group Challenger. Maybe we’ll listen to some a little later today. What we’ll do now is inspired by artists I’ve worked with.” He mentions “my favorite teacher of all time, Kevin Wynn.”

He then leads the group through a complex series of dance moves. Abraham is a natural teacher, engaging and upbeat, and the students follow him avidly.

“Left, right, left, left, right.”
“Try this. There’s a different sensation doing this than there is putting your foot out in front.”
“Find your weakest point.”

Urging the students to stretch themselves, coaxing them with gentle exhortations like “kinda sorta?” and suggestions like “Can you do like The Temptations or something like that, those old groups?,” the dancers are challenged but not intimidated.

At first, Abraham makes use of the live rehearsal pianist, who pounds out some peppy jazz chords. Then the choreographer dismisses the musician and plugs in an old-school boombox. “Now,” he grins, shall we do some rep-orr-twah?,” dragging out the word “repertoire” in a playful mock-pompous fashion. “I’ll teach you a routine from the show you’ll hopefully come and see. It’s called ‘Check,’ ‘cause we do it to a song called ‘Check.’” He directs: “Undulate, right arm, get low, back up…” Minutes later, he’s blasting “Otis,” the Jay-Z/Kanye West tribute to Otis Redding, thoroughly exhausting everyone in the room—dancers and observers.

The Radio Show, running from June 19-23 at Yale’s Iseman Theater (1156 Chapel St., New Haven), is Kyle Abraham’s own tribute to the music he grew up with. It was inspired by an urban black radio station in Pittsburgh which recently went out of business, but The Radio Show also concerns culture, community, and how memories can fade or change.

Kyle Abraham’s open-minded, open-hearted and style-shifting choreography has sometimes been compared to another great dancer/choreographer and music enthusiast, Mark Morris. In a wonderful confluence of Arts & Ideas, Morris will also be at the festival this year, conducting an orchestra of Yale musicians and singers to accompany three classic dances from the Mark Morris Dance Company repertoire.

Over the next two weeks, don’t be surprised to find yourself relating, say, Yale professor Tamar Gendler’s lecture on “Five Ancient Secrets to Modern Happiness and the Good Life” (June 17) to the Australian theater company Erth’s “Dinosaur Petting Zoo” on New Haven Green (June 16 &17). The National Theatre of Scotland is performing a drama about spirituality, community and musicality, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, inside the Wicked Wolf Tavern on Temple Street (June 20-30). The African-American string/jug band Carolina Chocolate Drops rocks the Green June 23. A Taiwanese theater company does a one-man King Lear, in Mandarin. There are tours of local restaurants or other foodie events nearly every day of the festival, plus Dr. Daphne Miller speaking on “The Wisdom and Science of Traditional Foods.”

It’s easy to draw connections from one Arts }& Ideas event to another, even when those events seem singular, unique. Ultimately, the connection is New Haven.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas
Located outdoors on New Haven Green and indoors in venues throughout downtown New Haven.
Tickets, schedules and information on the artists can all be found at
Outdoor events, including major concerts on New Haven Green, are free. Theater shows, including’s The Radio Show, are generally $35 ($45 for premium reserved seating).

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photo by Steven Schrieber.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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