"Ten years ago," says Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, "we embarked upon a grand experiment to turn on the lights in some dark Lincoln Center theaters and provide New Yorkers with cultural summer fare." With the Festival celebrating its tenth anniversary this summer, that experiment has exceeded all expectations, even as it has dared to push boundaries and, according to Redden, allowed its mission to evolve.
"In the early years of the Festival there was more mainstream participation from Lincoln Center constituents," says Redden, who began as consultant to the Festival before assuming the directorship in 1998. "But as time went on it became clear that we needed to do something that was fundamentally separate from the others. The New York Philharmonic can commission a symphony better than we can; Lincoln Center Theater can commission a musical better than we can. Therefore, we need to be doing something different and separate for the most part. And where there were ways in which we could work naturally with the constituents, we needed to take advantage of that.
"For example, the Kirov Opera came to the Met in 2003 in a miniseries that was fundamentally different from what the Met has during its regular season. That same year we did two different versions of The Orphan of Zhao. Lincoln Center Theater collaborated with us on the English version; then we did a Chinese version as well. So," says Redden, "it became very much a question of expanding the definitions and possibilities of Lincoln Center."
Another thing that has developed during the Lincoln Center Festival's first decade is what Redden calls a "house trust" that ensures certain kinds of audiences for certain kinds of pieces. "The 1996 Festival proved that there was an audience out there for all 19 plays by Samuel Beckett," he says. "Two summers ago, we were sold out for the Kabuki theater of Heisei Nakamura-za, and last year there were audiences willing to give up a sizable amount of time for Le Dernier Caravansérail because the two-part piece was so engaging."
Each year of the Festival has made headlines, stirred controversy, and opened up new worlds to Lincoln Center audiences. "In 1996," Redden recalls, "we were still experimenting, but clearly the Beckett Festival and the New York premiere of Merce Cunningham's Ocean were amazing‹and they marked the beginning of the Festival's long and fruitful relationship with Merce and the Gate Theatre's wonderful artistic director, Michael Colgan. I was less involved in 1997 but I thought Les Danaïdes, done by the National Theater of Craiova, was extraordinary. And Benjamin Bagby did his wonderful reading of Beowulf, which he reprises for Festival 2006." Bagby will read the complete Part One of the legend in Old English to English supertitles. "You never have to worry about understanding the language in that production, however," says Redden, "because Bagby embodies the drama for you."
In 1998 Redden experienced one major disaster when the Festival's world premiere of Chen Shi-Zheng's complete production of The Peony Pavilion had to be postponed. "It was literally my first official day as director of the Festival and I was awakened at 3 a.m. with a phone call stating that Chinese government officials wouldn't let the production's boat out of the harbor. In some strange and crazy way I thought it was a wonderful way to start my tenure as director since things couldn't possibly have gotten any worse. But the U.S. premiere that summer of The Street of Crocodiles with Simon McBurney's Theatre de Complicite was fantastic enough to compensate for the loss. Simon is someone who we've tried to involve in the Festival as often as possible."
The Peony Pavilion finally made it to Lincoln Center the following year and proved to be a groundbreaker on many levels. "It still holds the record for the longest piece we ever did," Redden declares. "And many people in the U.S. didn't know what a Kunju opera was prior to that, nor the depth that Chinese opera could assume." Another highlight in 1999 was Merce Cunningham's 80th birthday celebration, which included the New York premiere of Biped and the world premiere of Occasion Piece, danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
One of Redden's favorite performances from 2000 was the Netherlands Opera's marvelous Writing to Vermeer by Louis Andriessen in the New York State Theater. But that summer also featured some memorable offstage drama revolving around the Vakhtangov Theatre, a Russian company that performed Ostrovsky's Innocent as Charged. "We did it in a small open-admission theater where the setting changed from one scene to the next," Redden recalls. "People were offering large amounts of money for tickets and one audience member attacked another‹quite literally drew blood‹because they were so eager to get in. That brought audience enthusiasm to a new level," he says with a laugh.
"In 2001 we had the marvelous Harold Pinter Festival. That remains my favorite dream come true as well as the most difficult to obtain. It took many long dinners with Harold, who's very opposed to American government, and we were working with three prominent theater companies as well‹the Gate Theatre, the Almeida Theatre, and the Royal Court Theatre. It was a question of getting everyone to agree. To have had Harold here as a writer, director, and actor was amazing. Another wonderful feature was Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and John Guare, three great literary figures discussing Pinter, himself one of the major forces in contemporary literature."
In 2002 a Japanese production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures stunned audiences and critics alike and was eventually adapted and recast for Broadway. "The musical is an American's view of the opening of Japan by Americans," says Redden. "So doing a production in Japanese with a Japanese company in Avery Fisher Hall had all the makings of a logistic nightmare. No one was more concerned than Sondheim himself. But it was brilliant and Sondheim was the most pleased of all."
Then there was the Ta'ziyeh from Iran, which‹coming as it did in that summer after the 9/11 attacks‹was one of the most controversial productions that the Lincoln Center Festival has ever presented. "The Ta'ziyeh dramas are the indigenous form of music theater in the Islamic world," explains Redden. "There are maybe a thousand of these plays and we did three. It didn't work out quite the way we'd hoped because we couldn't get everyone into the country due to immigration problems. We had to decide if perhaps this was too provocative a subject at that particular time. Many of us felt it was the right time but we got letters disagreeing with that position. But after the last play there wasn't a dry eye in the house‹they were very moving pieces and that ultimately won out over the pain that people were still feeling."
Another healing moment was a standout production from 2003, director Deborah Warner's The Angel Project. "That was a breathtaking, site-specific experiment that took the Festival outside the field of Lincoln Center," Redden notes. "We used various access points along 42nd Street, stopping at the Chrysler Building, and at times you couldn't tell the passersby from the vignettes.
"The next year, we had the Ashton Celebration‹11 performances marking the centenary of the birth of English choreographer Frederick Ashton. That was wonderful and difficult to organize. Clearly the Royal Ballet had to be involved but there was the issue of sharing a stage with the Joffrey Ballet and the Royal Birmingham Ballet. But they were extremely gracious. Logistically, having multiple dance companies sharing the stage of the Met took an enormous amount of coordination and flexibility‹the amazing Met production staff accomplished that but it was all very expensive.
"Then, in 2005, we had Theatre du Soleil's Le Dernier Caravansérail, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. Its sheer size posed many logistical problems as well, over which I'm glad to say we triumphed. It was an extraordinary piece about many cultures struggling to maintain dignity. It was tellingly done and so visually beautiful that the fact that each part was so long did not deter many people from coming to both."
Redden is now looking forward to Lincoln Center Festival 2006 and another summer of diversion and diversity. "One of our themes this year is epics," he says. "Grendel, composer Elliot Goldenthal's first opera directed by collaborator Julie Taymor (with a libretto by Taymor and J.D. McClatchy), is a unique and stunning retelling of the Beowulf tale from the point of view of the monster; it's something that I've wanted to do for years." Benjamin Bagby's performance of Beowulf will complement the performances of Goldenthal's opera.
The Festival has also commissioned a fascinating retelling this summer of the Thai national epic, Ramakien: A Rak Opera, with some of Thailand's most celebrated rock musicians and visual artists. "It will be an unusual way of looking at another culture," says Redden, "causing a jolt in both our cultures, which is exactly what we want!" Meanwhile, Ireland's Druid Theatre director Garry Hynes will present DruidSynge, the complete theatrical works of John Millington Synge, one of Ireland's seminal playwrights. "The plays make great sense when connected to one another," Redden explains, "and all together, they make a striking portrait of Synge's Ireland."
Dance at this year's Lincoln Center Festival forms a particularly rich tapestry including three Israeli companies with radically different visions‹Batsheva, Emanuel Gat, and Yasmeen Godder. No less a study in contrasts are the works of three Americans: Mark Morris's new staging of a story-ballet classic, Sylvia; Bill T. Jones's multimedia Blind Date, which makes use of social and political commentary, and another Festival commission, STREB vs. GRAVITY by Elizabeth Streb. "Elizabeth's been fighting gravity for quite some time now," quips Redden, referring to the acclaimed choreographer's attempts at changing audiences' perspective on how dancers move through space. In addition, there will be Japanese modern dance choreographer Saburo Teshigawara's Bones in Pages. That piece consists, says Redden, "of a series of unfolding images, enormously evocative, elegant, and beautiful."
Musical offerings range from Heiner Goebbels' Eraritjaritjaka, which Redden describes as "a gorgeous piece about nostalgia for distant lands," to celebrated Balkan composer/performer Goren Bregovic, who will make his U.S. debut with his Wedding and Funeral Band & Orchestra. Finally, director Ong Keng Sen will do Geisha, a theater piece inspired in part by the life of a disciple of Sayuri, the woman depicted in Memoirs of a Geisha. "Ong Keng Sen feels all traditions are his to embrace," says Redden, "various Asian cultures, Western European cultures, everything. It's a very appropriate approach for this festival."
Robin Tabachnik writes frequently about the arts.