W hat becomes a community arts festival with a global bent? For Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas—who officially announced this year’s festival schedule yesterday during a reception at The Study at Yale—the answer is “when we can take what’s world-class about New Haven and connect it to the work of world-class visitors.”
The 19th annual IFAI, held June 14 through 28 this year, applies this approach to the theme of “Transformation & Tradition.” Says festival Director of Programming Cathy Edwards, “Many of our cornerstone events this year involve an expansive look at traditional cultural forms. They’re works that are heavily informed by love for a particular tradition or story of origin—but that just becomes fodder for an imaginative journey or reinvention that we call ‘transformation.’”
These performances rarely stand alone: “We’re always looking to string the beads,” Aleskie says. One of this year’s strings is a quintet of events that examines the evolution of southern U.S. culture through dance, music and cuisine. From June 18 through 21 at Yale’s University Theatre, Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group—a dance company that combines its roots in blues, slave and spiritual cultures with freestyle, disco and classically inspired moves—will present Moses(es). It’s an exploration of the Exodus story inspired, in part, by renowned Alabama-born folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s work, Moses, Man of God. Hurston is also the focus of one of the festival’s many events in its “Ideas” series, a June 19 panel discussion anchored by Wilson and library curator Melissa Barton at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where many of Hurston’s manuscripts, notes and letters are housed.
Related events include a concert by Detroit-born jazz violinist Regina Carter, a MacArthur Fellow whose work has traced the African roots of the violin. But in her June 17 concert at Sprague Hall, she’ll be giving a contemporary spin to Cajun fiddle music through early gospel and work songs that were important to her paternal grandfather, a coal miner in Alabama. Earlier that day, she’ll helm an Ideas discussion at the Yale Center for British Art on cultural heritage and improvisation. Her appearance will be followed on June 18, again at the British Art Center, with an Ideas talk by culinary historian Michael W. Twitty who will trace his own Southern “foodie” heritage back to his family’s origins in West and Central Africa.
Aleskie hopes that a lineup such as this will inspire festival attendees to examine their own roots and traditions. “The thing I’m most excited about with this festival,” she says, “is that as big as it is, it’s impact can also be intimate and personal.”
Other keynote events include:
• The festival’s customary series of free concerts on the New Haven Green promises a “rootsapalooza,” featuring artists such as 2014 Grammy Award-winning rhythm-and-blues artists Lalah Hathaway (daughter of legendary soul singer Donny Hathaway) and Ruben Studdard, contemporary country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, New Orleans combo Nation Beat and 2014 Grammy-winning Latin American ensemble La Santa Cecilia. On June 15, Martha Redbone—an Appalachian folk musician of Choctaw, Cherokee and African descent—spotlights her 2012 album The Garden of Love, a musical transformation of the poems of William Blake, and acclaimed jazz singer Dianne Reeves joins the New Haven Symphony Orchestra on June 21 for a night of standards by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Also planned are a couple of well-loved community traditions: the presentation of the State of Connecticut Governor’s Arts Awards June 14 and, on June 21, preceding Ms. Reeves, an all-musicians “play-in” with members of the NHSO and Music Haven.
• In Lemon Andersen’s County of Kings, poetry is transformed from a formal literary exercise into a powerful contemporary force for personal redemption and cultural reclamation. Andersen, a Brooklyn, NY, native of Puerto Rican and Norwegian-American parentage, endured a childhood blighted by the heroin abuse and AIDS-related deaths of his parents and a young adulthood spent in and out of prison. His rollicking, uplifting, hip hop-inflected, slam-poetry-styled autobiography—which he’ll perform at Yale Repertory Theatre June 14 and 15—chronicles how Andersen was saved by his exposure to, and enthusiasm for, the arts. He’s since become well-known for his work in Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on Broadway (for which he won a Tony Award) and the Spike Lee film Inside Man (with Denzel Washington).
• A far more absurd kind of linguistic “poetry,” which The New York Times described as a “Lewis Carroll-styled stately nonsense verse,” is created in Arguendo by the New York-based theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service, at Yale Rep June 18 through 22. It centers around the 1991 First Amendment U.S. Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theater, Inc., brought by two businesses employing erotic dancers in Indiana. “The entire script is basically a transcript of the court’s oral argument about what constitutes art and free speech,” says Edwards. Arguendo will cap its run with the Ideas discussion panel “Speech: The First Amendment in the Spotlight,” June 22 at Yale University Art Gallery. Participants include Yale Law School Dean and First Amendment scholar Robert Post, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse and Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon, both Supreme Court experts.
• Global xenophobia and its local consequences are examined—in both music and prose—in The Events, a U.S. premiere by Scottish playwright David Grieg, which plays Yale Rep June 24 through 28. Set in the aftermath of a violent community tragedy, the play grapples with universal issues of tolerance, obsession and forgiveness. It debuted last summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, earning the prestigious Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award and a Best Theatre Production of 2013 accolade from The Guardian. Each of its six festival performances will feature a different New Haven choir—acting as the play’s Greek chorus—and will be followed by an audience conversation with local spiritual leaders.
The IFAI’s two-week itinerary also includes performances by contemporary circus troupes (including Montreal’s 7 doigts de la main [“7 fingers”], which inspired much awe from the stage of the Shubert Theater during last year’s fest, and France’s Compagnie Barolosolo), walking and bicycle tours, films from the Yale Summer Film Institute and “foodie” experiences at local restaurants. While the festival has gone through plenty of its own transformations in 19 years, it seems to have found a recipe for success—last fall, the directors announced that 2013’s fest had had an economic impact of $34.3 million (the largest in its history) and in January, CNN.com named it the top “something fun to do in Connecticut” for 2014.
One crucial tradition has remained the same since its inception: over 80 percent of programming is free of charge, so anybody can charge ahead freely come June 14.
International Festival of Arts & Ideas
June 14-28, 2014, in venues around New Haven
Written by Patricia Grandjean. Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photograph, of The Events, taken by Stephen Cummiskey and provided courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.