Sense of Occasion

Sense of Occasion

Talk about an adjustment. “We had just a few beautiful days between when we literally wrapped up the final deals for the festival… when the coronavirus hit,” says Bobby Asher, director of programming for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

First, it became clear that the international artists weren’t going to make it. Then indoor venues were out. Finally, even outdoor events fell through. “We sort of took a step back and said, ‘What can we do right now, and what does our community need?’”

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What has emerged is a new and different festival—one that began as a trickle back in April, swelled in May and is set to cascade into the festival’s traditional timeframe of June. Event proceeds are going straight to the artists and presenters. The festival, Asher says, is “just the conduit in administering those programs.”

One of the challenges of bringing Arts & Ideas into the world of COVID-19 is that so much of it depends on being there. Unlike a business meeting, the experience of a live concert or a group bike ride along the shore can’t easily be replicated on Zoom. And people are craving less screen time these days, not more. The good news is that, while many events are online, there are still opportunities to engage all five senses:

Food events are an Arts & Ideas staple. Just how much festivalgoers love them was proven when a cocktail pairing with Ordinary and Roia last week sold more than 300 tickets, at which point organizers had to put a lid on it. “That’s $12,000 going right to the restaurants and their employees,” notes festival press contact Steven Padla. For upcoming food events, including a Garden Cocktail Party tonight with 116 Crown ($40) and a Syrian Mezze and Dessert Cooking Class with Sanctuary Kitchen ($25), you can pick up kits of ingredients and take them home to prepare via online lessons. The chefs may be virtual, but the tastes will be real.

See the city through new eyes when you get outside on one of the festival’s free, self-guided tours. Explore our segment of the East Coast Greenway North by bike or wander through the Grove Street Cemetery arboretum. A walking tour of New Haven’s African American, Indigenous and Latin History will show you the buildings, street corners and places both public and private where that history has unfolded.

While dancing cheek to cheek may be out for now, you can feel your own feet on the floor and your own arms outstretched in Keigwin + Company’s free Let’s Make a Dance workshops. All you need is six square feet of space and the desire to get up and move. Workshop leader Larry Keigwin will take it from there, teaching you and your fellow participants in a “choreographic process that uses games, creative assignments and guided improvisation to build mini dances” in an effort to tap into your body’s “singular imagination and the performer within.”

Live music is still on the schedule. Arts on Call programming brings local artists to your preferred lawn or driveway for a personal, 15-minute live concert—or a performance of dance, puppetry, tai chi, soap bubble displays and more (cost varies). “It’s a way to engage our New Haven artistic community, be a bridge between the time we’re all completely locked down and the time we can gather together again” while helping out local artists who’ve lost gigs, Asher says.

Buy yourself a copy of this year’s NEA Big Read selection, Advice from the Lights, and breathe in that delicious new book scent before you inhale Stephanie Burt’s poetry. The collection is “a candid exploration of gender and identity that asks: How do any of us achieve adulthood?” Once you’ve read, underlined and dog-eared the pages, you can join one of the 11 events planned for the book, ranging from story time read-aloud videos with New Haven library staff to the virtual conversation “De-Centering Gender and the Politics of Trans Allyship,” with Nasty Women Connecticut, local artists and educators. Local bookstores Atticus, Books & Company, People Get Ready and RJ Julia are standing by to fill book orders. (You can also get an e-copy from the New Haven Free Public Library.)

Many of the festival’s events are fully online experiences. Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international collective that presented a widely acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice at the 2016 festival, is back with a brand new piece inspired by Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself that “combines fiddle and flute, dance, sea shanties, opera, and poetry in a declaration of American independence and diversity that invokes the spirit of Whitman’s abiding masterpiece.” More or Less I Am will be presented in a series of four videos starting on May 22.

Additional virtual events round out the schedule, which continues to evolve. As usual, the festival includes plenty of big Ideas, both interactive and pre-recorded—this year, on the theme of “Democracy: We the People.” Organizers were able to shift some of the original Ideas programming “to make it more directed to the issues that are happening now,” Asher says. “I think this pandemic has pulled back the curtain on some issues related to democracy.”

Someday, Asher says, we’ll return to “some form of okay.” Until then, the festival’s focus is on “giving people as much as we can in this moment but also working to make sure survives to support our community and all these great artists in the future.”

2020 International Festival of Arts & Ideas
through June 27, 2020
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Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, photographed by Whitney Browne, features Larry Keigwin. Image 3, photographed by Dan Mims, features Grove Street Cemetery.

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