For those who view the arts not as relics of the past but as elements of a continuum, the hardest part of organizing an arts festival is often knowing where to begin. Despite its usual wide range of eras and traditions, this year's Lincoln Center Festival had no such problem. The summer will lead off with a centennial tribute to the English choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton at the Metropolitan Opera House with four great ballet companies: the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Japan's K-Ballet, and The Royal Ballet.
"Ashton embodies the very core of the Western European classicism that the Lincoln Center campus represents," says Festival director Nigel Redden. "There is something extremely theatrical about his work, and when it's performed extremely well, a certain delicacy as well."
Ashton was also, Redden is quick to admit, someone who came out of the world of popular entertainment to achieve the highest levels of artistic refinement‹something that makes him a connecting thread between other Festival offerings as far-flung as authentic Kabuki, a three-night tribute to Elvis Costello, and a video remix of film director D.W. Griffith in DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation.
First is the North American premiere of The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka by Nakamura Kankuro V and his company, Heisei Nakamura-za, which strips the highly stylized Kabuki tradition to its roots as street theater. Damrosch Park will be transformed into a Kabuki setting as it might have originally existed in 17th-century Japan, with the performance area surrounded by food and crafts. "We want the sense that the audience is in a Japanese village rather than a temple," Redden explains. "More on Main Street than the mountain."
From that point, several centuries and half a world away, it's only a short step to the high-tech edginess of Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre, which offers the North American premiere of Simon McBurney's The Elephant Vanishes, a co-production with McBurney's company, Complicite, based on three stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. "This piece really is about the earth no longer being firm under one's feet, where last year's laws may no longer apply," says Redden.
Also making its U.S. debut is Russia's Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko in a pair of works adapted by director Piotr Fomenko from Tolstoy's War and Peace and Pushkin's Egyptian Nights. Writer-director Rezo Gabriadze returns to the Festival with the New York premiere of Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and The Patient, his first English-language play, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jon DeVries in the title character roles.
Falling somewhere between the Festival's earlier global pop music explorations and composer tributes that have spanned the range from Morton Feldman to Ornette Coleman lies a three-program series devoted to songwriter and composer Declan MacManus, better known to three decades' worth of fans as Elvis Costello.
"This is less of a retrospective and more a celebration of an artist in the moment," says Festival general manager Erica Zielinski, a self-confessed Costello fan who spearheaded the tribute. "Here's an artist whose work has spanned many genres, who's as comfortable working with Tom Waits as he is with Anne Sofie von Otter. This seemed a perfect way to celebrate his turning 50 this summer and becoming a new resident of New York."
The series opens on July 13 with Costello and the North American debut of Amsterdam's Metropole Orkest, a 52-piece jazz ensemble that will break into smaller groups for arrangements of various Costello songs. The second night features Costello with his band the Imposters singing new and recent material, and the third evening features the Brooklyn Philharmonic performing Costello's Il Sogno, a 65-minute orchestral work based on an Italian dance company's commission for a ballet inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the Costello tribute, will also get a thorough makeover for a seven-hour musical vigil entitled The Veil of the Temple by the celebrated English composer John Tavener. Blurring the line between performance and ritual, the event will begin around 10:30 p.m. and end at sunrise, "the closest thing to an all-night rave you can get at Lincoln Center," Zielinksi jokes. The work is a journey across the religions of the world that includes a 120-voice choir, ancient texts ranging from Greek to Sanskrit, and instruments blending Western strings with such Eastern instruments as Tibetan horns and temple bowls. Seating will be removed from the orchestra level, where the audience may come and go while performers envelop them on all sides on the upper tiers.
Stephen Sondheim, whose Pacific Overtures at Lincoln Center Festival 2003 similarly transformed Fisher Hall, returns to the Festival this summer with a revival of his 1974 musical The Frogs based on Aristophanes' ancient comedy. Presented by the Lincoln Center Theater, The Frogs will premiere at the Vivian Beaumont Theater with actors Nathan Lane (who will be playing the part of Dionysus as well as reworking Burt Shevelove's script) and Chris Kattan.
Other returning artists include the New York-based Shen Wei Dance Arts and Israel's Gesher Theatre with the North American premieres of The Slave and Shosha, two plays based on the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer. American Opera Projects, which earlier brought a production of Patience and Sarah to Festival 1998, returns with the world premiere of Nicholas Brooke's innovative chamber opera Tone Test, for two singers and phonograph, based on Thomas Edison's early tone tests in the 1910s and '20s.
Another interesting take on early technology will be DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation, a deconstructed look at Griffith's still controversial yet highly innovative and influential 1915 film. Remixing pieces of the film like bits of music, DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) layers cinematic elements‹along with other visuals such as a Bill T. Jones dancer‹with an original violin composition by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Earlier that week, DJ Spooky curates an interdisciplinary anthology entitled TransMetropolitan, tracing the modern urban relationship between music, literature, and video as manifested in DJ culture.
"We have an enormous range of works available, and I think it's tremendously important to see them as a continuum, to see how we got to where we are, individually or collectively," says Redden. "Often it's the same message in many different ways, but anything that has lasted for so long and fascinated so many people has something to tell us as human beings."
Ken Smith is the New York correspondent for Gramophone magazine and the Financial Times's performing arts critic in Asia.