The breadth of programming at Lincoln Center Out Of Doors (LCOOD) continues to inspire awe for a simple reason: year after year the Festival finds excellence amid the exceptional. The rule, according to Bill Bragin, Lincoln Center's director of public programming, is that the music, dance, performance, and poetry on display mirror the pulse of New York City by staying attuned to what's happening both far and near. "It's a festival that encompasses several missions," says Bragin, "and we like the challenge of building bridges between them. Sometimes the goal is to help great artists reach audiences that are less familiar with them; at other times it's to nurture the spirit of the creative community right here in our midst. There also may be a desire to have art indirectly address the specifics of the time - maybe it's an election year or a grand international event like the Olympics is happening. There are a number of ways to bring the program together. Commissioning our own works is another way we approach it."
From July 25 to August 14, the spirit of ecumenicism will envelop the open-air spaces of Lincoln Center. The stage is set opening night, when the campus becomes the site for two extraordinary examples of how spontaneity engenders connection. Composer Phil Kline taps into music maverick John Cage's centenary with the premiere of the LCOOD-commissioned dreamcitynine, a season-long performance endeavor in the form of an audio app that allows audiences to experience an original work inspired by Cage's storytelling piece Indeterminacy (dreamcitynine is an anagram of the title). "It uses a downloadable app that is global-positioning system software-based," explains Bragin. "Hot-spots around the campus will trigger new 'texts' that Phil commissioned from various artists and thinkers, among them Philip Glass, Jim Jarmusch and Luc Sante." Later in the summer, the audio app "installation" will be complemented with a live performance by 60 percussionists, spread throughout Lincoln Center's plazas.
Another definition of the phrase "hot spot" applies to the proceedings that night in Damrosch Park, when LCOOD welcomes iconic pop guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers heading his CHIC Organization. The funk of 40-plus years - expressed in Rodgers-penned hits like Chic's "Le Freak," Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," Duran Duran's "Notorious," and Diana Ross's "I'm Comin' Out" - has been known to tempt all within earshot onto dance floors worldwide.
As in previous years of the now 42-year old program, reaching across generations is a high priority. "Atop the ethnic and stylistic considerations I'm always aware of, I've found that there are many different audience dynamics and expectations," says Bragin. Tangle, a work by the Australian-based Polyglot Theatre, addresses this through playful interactivity; a site-specific structure of colorful ribbons encourages the whole family to participate. Other evenings showcase mash-ups of the old and the new, the youthful and the mature. G.R.U.B.B., an acronym for "Gypsy Roman Urban Balkan Beats," corrals high-stepping teen MCs and traditionally inspired brass-band players from Serbia. An afternoon celebrating the Irish verse of W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde and traditional a cappela singing turns into a rollicking night of all-star round-robin jams curated by renowned pop singer Joe Hurley and Don Fleming of the Alan Lomax Archives. The U.S. debut of Los Irreales de Ondatr‹pica matches veteran Colombian luminaries such as Michi Sarmiento with Quantic and Frente Cumbiero, both movers and shakers in the South American nation's vibrant club culture, while singer Will-Dog of the Latin-funk group Ozomatli, using the moniker El Gavachillo, refashions punk songs in traditional Mexican banda style with a 15 piece brass band from Los Angeles.
One commission in particular has the feeling of homecoming, even though its presentation at LCOOD is a New York premiere. With the leadership of Duke University's Duke Performances, last year Lincoln Center co-commissioned On Sacred Ground, a multimedia rendering of Igor Stravinsky's seminal work The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) by the piano trio The Bad Plus. The group is well known for its raucous, splatter-jazz renditions of rock tunes by Blondie, Nirvana, and the like. Although their renamed version of Le Sacre has played selected dates around the country for over a year (with visuals by Christina Guadeloupe and Noah Hutton), Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson still confesses awe at Stravinsky's innovation. "The thing we in the band keep coming back to is simply, 'How did they play [this] thing back in 1913?'" he asks. "The rhythms are incredibly hard, even now. We play a lot of odd-meters in The Bad Plus, but it is safe to say our butt is kicked."
Bragin has uncovered a more literal tradition of butt-kicking in Finland, courtesy of firebrand accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and the Olympic-style wrestlers in Helsinki Nelson. It's hard to say whether Finland's record number of gold medals in the sport are a virtue of the squeezebox music that had historically accompanied matches there, but the dance-theater piece Pohjonen has devised takes the idea directly to the mat. It's heritage-based movement research of a more experimental stripe than the high-flying company of Denver choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson, whose dancers maintain the traditions revolutionized by her onetime mentors Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham.
Soulful music from around the globe has long been a hallmark of LCOOD, but several of the evenings rounding out this year's Festival hark back to a time when the word "soul" was synonymous with Black Americana. R&B's exalted place in pop history, as social conscience, reaffirmation of the spirit and party staple, is celebrated with both tributes and missives for the next generation.
First, the dance-rock outfit !!! (pronounced "chk-chk-chk") heads up an evening that brings back former Tower of Power and "You Got Me Running" singer Lenny Williams, whose legendary slow-jams have been given new life in the hands of rappers like Kanye West. Then, in Valerie Simpson & Friends: Tribute To Nick Ashford, the surviving member of the dynamic songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson presents an evening packed with songs ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "I'm Every Woman,"and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing") that have never gone out of fashion. "Simpson has deep roots in our West Side neighborhood." says Bragin, alluding to the singer's popular music and dining haunt, Sugar Bar. (Trivia: a 1972-73 Lincoln Center series called Soul At The Center helped launch the songwriters as a performance entity.)
With the season closing as America heads into the fall presidential election campaign, the Festival capper, Pardon Our Analysis: An All-Star Gathering for Gil Scott-Heron, is part of a weekend-long Roots of American Music Festival that also includes Tom Paxton, Aloe Blacc, Erin McKeown and Taylor Mac. It's topical and tr_s timely. It's the second evening to bring the spirit of "black rock" back to LCOOD. The first happens a night earlier when Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, formerly two-thirds of the psychedelic girl-group Labelle (who were also featured at Soul at the Center), headline an all-star fete - The Triple Goddess Twilight Revue - for recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Laura Nyro. (A pre-psychedelic Labelle collaborated with Nyro on the album Gonna Take a Miracle.) Gil Scott-Heron's razor-sharp observations of the personal and the political were getting another hearing when he passed in the summer of 2011. Bragin likes the fact that the show taps into the community mission of the Festival. "Because we're a multi-disciplinary program, we have a lot to get to every year," he concludes. "The more bridges we can build, the more fun it is for everyone."