"Lincoln Center Festival is about expanding the very definition of Lincoln Center," says its director, Nigel Redden, describing the annual international performance mélange, which runs this summer from July 12 through 31. "It's a question of there being other wonderful things in the world than the ones we know, and it seems especially right and necessary to see these things at Lincoln Center."
One might add that given the current political world climate, it becomes even more right and necessary that countries communicate in their common language‹that of the performing arts‹and that certain countries have a particularly audible voice. Working on that principle, the core of a theme often forms on which Redden can build.
That is true of the Festival's co-commissioned music theater piece, director Robert Wilson's production of I La Galigo, based on an Indonesian epic poem. "It was important to the Indonesian government that they have a strong presence in this year's Festival," says Redden. "It has become far more important recently." Another Festival production, Théê¢tre du Soleil's Le Dernier Caravansérail, is a daring, major theater piece (nearly eight hours long with breaks) directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. The work covers a myriad of political issues, among them the plight of refugees, which has been topical for some time, but, as Redden explains, "with its Islamic reference, it becomes all the more important for us to see it.
"I wish I could say that I was prescient and knew that the events of the world would come together as they did. However," he continues with a laugh, "that was not the case. The initial themes are a reflection of what was going on at the time, and contemporary events worked to make them more resonant."
I La Galigo and Le Dernier Caravansérail join two theater works that are very different, although, as Redden points out, "all four share the distinctive mark of major 20th-century theater directors." The other two are Giorgio Strehler's final version of Goldoni's Arlecchino, a comedic masterpiece about the transition from commedia dell'arte to contemporary Italian playwriting, and Nobel Prize nominee Yukio Mishima's Modern Noh Plays. Produced by Japan's foremost director, Yukio Ninagawa, the latter is a contemporary take on ancient Japanese dance dramas originally enacted by Buddhist priest performers. Both productions boast celebrated actors. Arlecchino stars Ferruccio Soleri, who, now in his 70s, has been playing the role for nearly 40 years. One of the Noh plays, Yoroboshi, stars Tatsuya Fujiwara who Redden describes as "the Japanese equivalent of Brad Pitt‹a young man who'll cause a frenzy in New York's Japanese community."
It has been an ongoing mission of the Festival to take a serious look at pop music and this year is no exception. American hip-hop is explored through the music of Haitian-born, U.S.-based star Wyclef Jean and Senegalese hip-hop trio Daara J. Too far afield for Lincoln Center? "There is a real excitement," exclaims Redden, "to finding out about that which you don't know; people will feel a kind of ease in coming to a hip-hop concert at Lincoln Center that they wouldn't feel in, say, a club. That provides us with an opportunity to say 'this is worth listening to; it will teach you something about your own tastes.'"
Opera of a different nature than that presented at the Met comes from puppet master Basil Twist, as he brings to life Ottorino Respighi's La bella dormente nel bosco ("Sleeping Beauty"), given voice by the Gotham Chamber Opera under Neal Goren. European puppet theater was a popular and painless way to hear operas and plays that went on in larger theaters. "This particular piece, however," Redden points out, "was reorganized and reorchestrated by Respighi for a company of much greater resources than the typical touring marionette ensemble."
My Life as a Fairytale, another music theater piece, delves into the life of Hans Christian Andersen as it's reflected through several of his fairy tales. The production is the brainchild of the collective talents of director Chen Shi-Zheng, singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, and librettist Erik Ehn. "That one is about exploring a man through the metaphor of his stories," muses Redden, "which, in a way, is the very definition of theater."
A collaboration between British composer Brian Ferneyhough and New York poet Charles Bernstein has given birth to Ferneyhough's first opera, Shadowtime. The piece is a seven-part reflection or "thought opera" based on the works and life of 20th-century philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. According to Redden, this North American premiere will introduce us to another perspective in modern music. "American mainstream contemporary music," he says, "is romantically influenced, so I think it's valuable to be aware of Ferneyhough's somewhat different, British approach. It's a difficult but ultimately rewarding piece that expands our musical horizons." Joel Sachs, directing the New Juilliard Ensemble, will further enhance this perspective by acquainting listeners with other works by Ferneyhough.
At the heart of this year's Festival dance programming are the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performances of Ocean, the final collaboration between Cunningham and composer John Cage. Performed at the 1996 inaugural Lincoln Center Festival in Damrosch Park, Ocean, an in-the-round work will now be performed inside at the new Rose Theater. "This was Merce's idea, and we were eager to accommodate him," says Redden. "The dancers are surrounded by the audience while the musicians rather unorthodoxly surround the audience."
Shen Wei Dance Arts, a New York-based modern dance company, brings the Festival an untitled world premiere as well as the New York premiere of Near the Terrace-Part 1. Dancer-choreographer Shen Wei also has a background in Chinese opera and the visual arts. As Redden puts it, Shen "applies an Eastern sensibility to Western works."
Dancer-choreographer Mugiyono Kasido continues Indonesia's voice in the dance category. Trained as a Javanese court dancer, he has emerged as a powerful voice in contemporary dance leading a community known appropriately as Mugi Dance, which is comprised of choreographers, dancers, musicians, shadow puppet masters, and stage actors, all of whom have produced and performed works in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
And Random Dance brings us Wayne MacGregor's AtaXia, an explosive work exploring the disconnection between mind and body. The company will perform AtaXia to an original score by composer Michael Gorden, performed lived by the British new-music ensemble Icebreaker. More contemporary music will be performed in a concert by the American ensemble Alarm Will Sound.
Completing this feast for mind and soul will be visual arts displays, various symposia, and, in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New York Video Festival, featuring the latest in works by masters of this contemporary genre.
One cannot help but appreciate what an accomplishment such a diverse festival gathering is these days, when procuring artist visas alone has become a major challenge. "It's extraordinary how difficult it can be," says Redden. "For example, Indonesia is a place where people who apply for visas are targeted for extra scrutiny. To complicate matters, many Indonesians have only one name. The same is true with the cast of Le Dernier Caravanserail, which includes Afghanis, Kurds, and Iranians. Ironically, some of these actors are the very refugees whose stories are being portrayed."
But the appropriateness of global culture in New York's Lincoln Center transcends the difficulties. "We all have to address the issue of whether or not artists who comment on current events make a difference," says Redden. "Lincoln Center Festival attempts to have some greater dialogue with the sensibilities, histories, and cultures of people around the world. It would be a real mistake to let anything interfere with that."
Robin Tabachnik writes frequently about the arts.