The Big Idea

The Big Idea

F or the finale of his one-man show L’homme Cirque, performed several times daily inside a small circus tent erected on New Haven Green, David Dimitri shoots himself out of a cannon onto a hanging rope, climbs the rope to a highwire, then walks along the wire through a hole in the top of the tent out into the open air above the Green.

That image exemplifies the Arts & Ideas experience. The festival brings you indoors and outdoors, forming new connections among parts of New Haven you might never have thought of as compatible before. It makes you look at the city in a new way. It makes you marvel and pause in wonder at a place you thought you knew pretty well.

When Dimitri did the tightrope-over-the-Green trick at the end of his 5 p.m. Sunday performance, it was a natural lead-in to a performance on the same Green (at ground level this time—for the most part) by another small, acrobatically inclined circus act, Red Trousers. The flame-twirling, headstanding, backflipping duo in turn kept crowds spellbound until the evening mainstage concert.

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The Société Anonyme at Yale University Art Gallery

Sunday night, the main musical on the Green was the lilting Peruvian singer-songwriter Susana Baca, her flowing gown wafted by a New Haven breeze as the band lifted her lyrical songs with sharp rhythms and robust guitars. Baca’s ensemble was followed by Calexico, the punchy yet poignant Latin American-influenced indie rock band from Arizona. Calexico co-leader Joey Burns expressed genuine awe that his band was sharing a stage with Baca, whom he said he had admired for years. Burns invited members of Baca’s band to do a song with Calexico, which led to another. The collaboration was so impromptu Burns was schooling the Baca players on the chord changes right onstage. Calexico got back to their own main set eventually, but brought some of the Baca band back again for an encore.

Such grace and fluidity, such a confluence of talents, such widespread mutual admiration among artists, such expressions of cultural community can be dizzying. One thing’s for sure: you see things at the Festival of Arts & Ideas that you’ll never see done the same way anywhere else.

Seen dancing to Calexico in the VIP area around the bandstand were members of the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That show takes elements with which theater-rich New Haven is well familiar—Shakespeare, puppets and ensemble-based theater—and dazzles audiences which are exactly the type which this Midsummer was made to dazzle. The show isn’t the silly superficial fantasy that so many productions of the play settle for and doesn’t rely on class and social stereotypes for its humor and drama. It does add depth and detail to Shakespeare’s story of the many manifestations of passion.

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Sidewalk Sale - The shops at Yale

Another multi-layered performance at the festival this year, The Quiet Volume, is of a much different character. Where A Midsummer Night’s Dream shocks and tickles and explores numerous gnarly textures and multiple dimensions, The Quiet Volume (created by Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells) gets inside your head—literally, via headphones and mental exercises—to explore the act of reading. Arts & Ideas is presenting the piece in the lower-level reading room of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which lends gravity and intensity. In Volume, the reader is the performer, given written and spoken cues for what to read, where to look, how to behave while reading and when to share with the person sitting next to you. The sensations can be both isolating and mind-expanding. It is about focus, and it is about never losing touch with your environment—an ideal Arts & Ideas experience.

Multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural and multi-media shows like Dream and Volume—not to mention other 2013 indoor stage highlights such as the homegrown, history-concerned Freewheelers show by A Broken Umbrella Theatre and the modern chamber opera My Friend’s Story by Martin Bresnick and J.D. McClatchy—have become emblematic of the festival.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas has, as usual, lived up to its name. It’s provided plenty of arts and lots of ideas, bringing provocative performers and speakers from all over. And it’s made the most of that ampersand in its title, connecting arts to ideas through such presentations as a film festival of Spike Lee and Sam Pollard documentaries and talks such as the one Wednesday at the Yale Center for British Art, “Reintegrate: Enhancing Collaborations in the Arts & Sciences,” where journalist Carl Zimmer and a panel of scientists and artists discussed extraordinary cross-disciplinary collaborations between sculptors and geologists, atomic researchers and dancers, glass blowers and surgeons.

We are now nearing the midpoint of the festival. Today is the sixth full day of performances. (The festival takes a break on Mondays.) There are seven full days of Arts & Ideas left to go. There’ll be a world-famous new-music quartet playing to large crowds on the Green, a quieter though no less modern classical concert in a botanical garden, an Indian funk band, a classical Indian dancer with modern dance allegiances, a traditional Italian music/dance troupe, a traditional Ethiopian music/dance troupe, choral concerts, yet another circus theater act and Ideas talks on everything from Shakespeare to country music to “the politics of food.” There are bike tours and walking tours and restaurant tours and gallery tours. There are master classes.

If you are downtown in New Haven this week, you will find that you are looking at a different yet still wonderfully familiar city than you are used to.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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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 www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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