For three weeks during the month of August, audiences can take a wide-ranging cultural journey that encompasses the music, dance, and other art forms of a vast global sampling‹all without having to travel further than a city block. From August 10 to 30, Lincoln Center's outdoor spaces will host a vibrant array of events that will include artists from Tibet, Taiwan, Canada, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba, Korea, Peru, and Haiti‹as well as such legendary jazz musicians as Sonny Rollins and Chick Corea, folk music icon Arlo Guthrie, and a tribute to Gerry Mulligan.
Now in its 34th year, Lincoln Center Out of Doors reaffirms its dedication to admission-free programming that reflects the eclectic ethnic makeup of New York City, encompassing evening concerts for which music and dance aficionados will mark their calendar well in advance, as well as daytime offerings that entertain and educate young children and participatory events that directly involve the community. Much of the programming would not be possible without the generous support of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman, who have been the Festival's principal sponsors since 1995, and contributors since 1988. Their gifts have guaranteed that the arts are available to everyone, free of charge.
Within the diverse schedule of this year's festival, there is a particular thematic focus, explains Jenneth Webster, producer of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. "We've tried to look at traditional and classical cultural elements and how they are evolving in the 21st century‹how they are being modified by technology, contemporary music, and dance." Thus the offerings include such ensembles as opening-day highlight Ju Percussion, a 12-member Taiwanese group whose repertoire includes traditional Asian forms as well as compositions commissioned from leading Taiwanese composers. "They have their feet in classical tradition and their head in the future," Webster says.
Also embodying the past-meets-future theme is the Krakatau Ensemble, from Jakarta, Indonesia, performing on August 19. This group applies a traditional gamelan tonal system to a distinctive brand of music that includes specially tuned keyboards and a rock backbeat‹a prime example of classical technique interacting with contemporary technology.
You may not associate the delicate plucked sounds of the Japanese shamisen with the hard-driving rhythms of rock, but when Agatsuma performs on August 27, you'll hear how this master of traditional Japanese musical forms has powerfully fused the sounds of his instrument with diverse musical genres.
Also incorporating the traditional into something blazingly contemporary is Haale, a young guitarist-singer-songwriter whose rock band reflects both her Persian roots and her New York upbringing. Her wide-ranging approach includes setting the poems of Rumi to music while creating a category-defying sound that has been called "poetry-infused folk-alt-rock music."
Several dance offerings at this year's Lincoln Center Out of Doors also feature artists who acknowledge the past while looking ahead. The San Francisco-based troupe Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu (appearing August 15) displays expertise in ancient and modern hula forms but also creates dance numbers that combine hula with contemporary forms, including hip-hop. Making a case for "hula mau"‹contemporary hula‹the troupe performs what one critic has described as "a cultural collage that is informative, respectful, and dares to be funny."
Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu also reflects another significant focus of this year's festival‹an emphasis on the performing arts of the Pacific Rim. This vast area surrounding the Pacific Ocean represents possibilities for numerous exchanges of ideas and influences. Within the eclectic array of the larger festival's events is a mini-festival that reflects Pacific Rim cultures‹performances from New Zealand, British Columbia, China, Indonesia, this country's West Coast, and more.
Canada has a particular spotlight focused on its music during this year's three-day installment of "Roots of American Music" (August 19-21), a mainstay of the festival's programming for two decades. Producer Coleman Barkin selected artists he found by attending a variety of Canadian festivals. "We felt it would be nice to give them their national identity and let people know a little bit about Canada," Webster explains. "We found an embarrassment of riches‹wonderful Canadian talent. It's meshed together with United States talent; they complement each other." Rounding out the three-day journey, the legendary Saw Doctors will headline a show on August 20, and, on the final evening of "Roots," the silvery-voiced Irish vocalist Rosemary Woods and the ever-youthful Arlo Guthrie will be featured.
As she discusses the festival‹with which she has now been associated for 25 years, having worked with its visionary founder and original producer, Leonard de Paur‹Webster cites numerous examples of collaborations that are crucial to its programming. Organizations such as the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, the Chinese American Arts Council, the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Association, and the Mexican Cultural Institute make an important contribution in shaping programs for the festival's stages. "Here are these smaller organizations with tremendously focused expertise, and we reap the benefit of that expertise. We decide together which performances that they propose will work for us. It's a collaborative process, and it makes for a really wonderful partnership," Webster says.
One of the earliest Lincoln Center Out of Doors partnerships was forged with Jazzmobile, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary at the festival with an August 14 program that features the Heath Brothers, Dr. Billy Taylor, and Roy Hargrove.
Other jazz programming includes Sonny Rollins‹the Titan of Jazz‹making his fourth festival appearance, appearing on opening night, August 10. The first time he performed, Webster recalls, he drew such an overflow crowd‹upwards of 10,000‹to Damrosch Park that people were standing in the street. The place will no doubt be similarly packed when the protean pianist Chick Corea makes his festival debut on closing night, August 30. In between there will be such jazz events as a Jazzmobile program featuring Melba Joyce (August 12), a tribute to Gerry Mulligan (August 16), a performance by the Tin Hat Trio, an eclectic contemporary string ensemble (August 22), and the innovative sounds of Na'rimbo (August 24), a dynamic Mexican marimba ensemble that incorporates elements of jazz and Afro-Cuban music into their traditional sounds.
Much has changed‹and expanded‹since the very first Lincoln Center Out of Doors, which was a one-day street festival at a time when no other free outdoor festival existed in New York City. What has not changed, Webster points out, is de Paur's concept "that you could come for one program you were interested in, and see others you might not have known anything about before you were exposed to them. So you would have an opportunity to experience many different art forms in one sitting."
That kind of exposure to such a fascinating smorgasbord of cultural traditions continues to make Lincoln Center Out of Doors the special summer highlight it has become. It not only brings together the performers, who share the stage with or perform across the plaza from contrasting and complementary artists. Its unique, inclusive atmosphere also creates a special bond among its audiences, Webster emphasizes. "The socializing aspect of festivals like this is something that cannot be discounted. The beautiful thing is that people who normally might never meet each other, or converse together, are sitting next to each other and sharing an experience and talking about it."
Susan Reiter writes frequently about the arts.