Nothing - except perhaps steamy subway rides - signals summer in New York like the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival.
This year's festival, which runs from August 4 to 27 with 100 free performances all over the Lincoln Center campus, takes "The Spirit of the Blues" as its central theme. But within the festival, as its programming director Jenneth Webster points out, is a playful core that should appeal to kids (and adventurous adults) of all ages. "The spirit of play is why I do this job," she says. "It totally infuses the whole festival."
The programming of the 36th annual Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival reflects Webster's firm conviction that children should be exposed to a wide variety of artistic experiences in hopes that something will take hold of their vibrant imaginations.
Play encourages the realization of possibility. Without the realization that things are possible, people don't make them possible," Webster says. "The possibility of possibility is very important in teaching children. Until you know you can't fly, you pretty much think you can!"
Feet will certainly be flying on August
5 during Playday, which features a wealth of interactive events, including Irish
reels and jigs, koukou from the Ivory Coast, Middle Eastern debkah, and uprocking
and electric boogie from Brooklyn. Audience members are encouraged to bring their
own drums to workshops with Mecca Bodega, a percussion ensemble that plays djembes,
dumbeks, frame drums, and anything else they can get their hands on. There will
also be a Chinese opera workshop, an all-ages vaudeville show by
the Big Apple Circus, and a variety of subway musicians presented by the MTA's Music Under New York Program. The Puppeteers Cooperative and Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center return to the festival with Big City Blues: A City and Country Mouse Adventure, a giant puppet pageant in which kids help create and perform a play based on a myth or a literary classic.
Puppets will help kids learn about the natural world around them during Arm-of-the-Sea Theater's At the Turning of the Tide, a performance spectacular celebrating the Hudson River estuary on August 8.
It should come as no surprise if the crowd is compelled to get up and dance during the performance by the Lula Washington Dance Theatre of Los Angeles on August 9. Washington herself was inspired to a life in dance after seeing a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "Kids are always turned on and motivated by our performances," she says. "They go out dancing the dances that we do. They enjoy learning about history and culture through dance."
Washington's company will be performing excerpts from various pieces, including "Tasting Muddy Waters," a day in the life of a woman who experiences joy and tragedy, set to the music of the blues giant; "Blues for McCoy," featuring jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, who anchored the great John Coltrane quartet in the 1960s; and "The Movement," which draws from African American street dancing.
Washington says that she is also working on an as-yet untitled piece just for Lincoln Center Out of Doors based on hip-hop and games that children play. "It's going to be a wonderful, unique, inspiring, motivating evening of dance that will incorporate spoken text as well as singing," she notes.
On August 10, We B*Girlz turns Josie Robertson Plaza into a cauldron of hip-hop and breakdancing. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first public hip-hop dance challenge presented outside of a club (which took place at a Lincoln Center Out of Doors event), the festival presents an all-girl competition judged by some of the dancers who participated in the original challenge.
The series also affords young minds the opportunity to experience arts from some more exotic locals. The Kusun Ensemble, a collection of dancers and musicians from Ghana, fuses traditional African rhythms with jazz and funk, creating a new style they call "Nokoko." Founder Nii Tettey Tetteh leads the raucous group on August 11.
On the following day, Kaleta and ZoZo Afrobeat carry on the tradition of legendary African musician Fela Kuti on the Plaza. "There are five remnants of Kuti's band now functioning in the world, and this is one of them," Webster says proudly, adding that guitarist Kaleta often dances and sings masked. "I mention this because kids can get up and move to all of this," she explains.
It may be hard to envision modern dance
rolling scaffolding, but that is what Wire Monkey Dance, also on August 12, will undertake. The added element of risk definitely puts the performance in the "Don't try this at home" category.
On August 15, the Carpetbag Brigade Physical Theater Company performs Mudfire, an evocative piece about a forest fire in which the dancers combine ballet and modern dance - all while balancing on stilts.
Hawaiian father-and-son duo Dennis and David Kamakahi - who were responsible for some of the music in the animated movie Lilo & Stitch - are bound to get some hips swaying with their slack-key guitar music on August 16.
Because of its previous success, festival programmers asked the Trance Ensemble to reprise its tea party, which features traditional Chinese instruments and music inspired by various forms of the brewed beverage on August 24.
From Chinatown with Love," presented in cooperation with the Chinese American Arts Council on August 25, features excerpts from Chinese opera interspersed with martial arts.
And parents may be strongly tempted to overlook a few bedtimes when confronted with some of the spectacular musicians performing during the evenings at Damrosch Park, starting with jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri on August 4. "If there is another spirit as playful in Latin music, I can't think who it is," says Webster of Palmieri. "The guy is just a musical imp." Fellow jazz pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Junior Mance, and Arturo O'Farrill follow on August 6, and world jazz innovator Randy Weston will light up the bandshell on August 23. New Orleans mainstays The Dirty Dozen Brass Band swing into Josie Robertson Plaza on August 9, and titanic tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returns to Damrosch Park on August 27 for what has become a quasi-annual tradition, to close this year's festival. If any musician has a sound big enough to fill up the great outdoors, it's this saxophone colossus himself.
Things happen to performers outside that cannot be duplicated inside," Webster observes. "Dance companies take on a kind of mythic quality in the bandshell that they don't have when they perform indoors. It's almost like they're dancing in the sky.
And the music floats out over all these spaces, so that it surrounds you," Webster continues. "It's not in front of you the way it is in a concert hall or a club. It's all around you."
Andrew Clevenger is a reporter for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette.