Two years short of its 20th anniversary, at an age which many festivals of its size and scope never reach, International Festival of Arts & Ideas is still standing proud. And doing handstands. And dancing. And firing people out of cannons. And reading. And talking. And finding new ways to appreciate classical themes. And creating entirely new things. And just grooving in June.
Eighteen years ago, the festival began as an extension of the good feelings and community cultural mobilizations brought about by the city's hosting of the International Special Olympics.
It was a different world back then. Many major American cities had big arts festivals, many of which had no trouble receiving serious support — state or national funding, not to mention big-deal corporate sponsorships and widespread community foundation support.
Now those festivals are fewer and farther between, arts funding has deteriorated, and the use of cultural events to boost tourism is not as popular.
Yet Arts & Ideas is as much needed in New Haven as ever. There are signs that it has only grown in popularity in recent years. So here it is again — not because we take it for granted, but because we sorely need it.
Mary Lou Aleskie is the longest serving of the four or five (depending on how you count) executive directors the festival has had since it was brainstormed by a trio of local cultural crusaders, Anne Calabresi, Jean Handley and Roslyn Meyer back in 1996. Under Aleskie's leadership, Arts & Ideas has become known not just as a major presenter of international concert, theater and dance events, but as an in-depth collaborator with other arts festivals, production companies, and foreign countries, tapping the best upcoming and emerging talents.
Simply put, Arts & Ideas doesn't just produce events. It helps create them. The festival doesn't follow trends. It helps set them. It doesn't just book acts. It forms long-term relationships with the artists, and with the countries those acts hail from.
Despite the numerous ways those methods have changed over the past two decades, the festival — especially in the progressive and forward-thinking regime of Aleskie (whose eighth A&I festival this is) and Director of Programming Cathy Edwards (who's doing her seventh A&I) — maintains its core values of attracting "the greatest artists and thinkers from around the world." What's made such a mission more difficult? Dwindling government support. New policies for getting visas for international visitors following 9/11 and with all the terrorism scares since. The shrinking of a national festival "circuit" that could share costs and provide additional performance opportunities for artists making a big trip from overseas.
Aleskie was happy to discuss such travails last week, despite being in the thick of the countless immediate technical and logistical details required with putting up the 2013 International Festival of Arts & Ideas, which begins Sat. June 15 and ends June 29.
"The government support has been eroding, sure, but the audience keeps developing," Aleskie proclaims. Regarding funding, "It's death by a thousand lashes — every year, there's reductions and recisions. At the same time, our audience last year increased 28 percent [over the previous year]. And 15 percent of them came from out of state." That's the kind of ammunition you can bring to state and local agencies who see the arts as providing an essential economic stimulus to cities.
At the same times, arts councils from other countries, Ireland and the Netherlands among them, which have traditionally been helpful in striking international relationships that help send their artists overseas to festivals such as Arts & Ideas, can change their methods over the years. Some years it's easier to bring over fresh talent than others.
For those of us who deal with the festival strictly as audience members, however, and do not have to maneuver its fraught exercises in state politics, international relations and budget management, it's like "Cool! Clowns! Music! Dancing! Juggling! Tours of local landmarks! Etc. etc.!" The festival has been wonderfully consistent in how it scratches our summer itches for grand theater, circus and music events while also living up to New Haven's hard-won reputation as a city of cultural, intellectual and artistic innovation.
This year, the festival boasts a few events that are a strong draw for culture lovers nationwide, and the envy of other arts festivals. They are not flukes, but come from years-long relationships that have formed with various artists, arts groups and production companies. While waiting for the right time for some artists to visit New Haven, those artists may have had international hit shows. By the time they come here, they're greeted as major sensations. That's the case with the Handspring Puppet Company's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the company's first show since its Tony-winning Broadway smash War Horse. It's also true of the Canadian circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, who provided the magical effects for Diane Paulus' current hit Broadway revival of Pippin, and who will be performing Sequence 8 at the festival.
Every year, Arts & Ideas finds a way to include dozens of local talents — in the weekday Noon to Night concert series, in many of the "Ideas" talks, in the walking and biking tours of neighborhoods. This year, some folks who live in the city year-round have ascended to the highest plateaus of the festival's programming. Aaron Jafferis, New Haven-born and -raised, has worked with several small theater companies in town over the years, forming his own style of hip-hop-inflected and socio-politically provocative drama. Jafferis wrote the libretto for a new opera, Stuck Elevator, which has a score by Byron Au Yong. Arts & Ideas audiences saw a workshop of the show three summers ago when it was presented through the fest's association with the Yale Institute for Music Theatre. Greatly revised, Stuck Elevator had a major production this past spring at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The musical has been further revised for a national tour, and will receive its East Coast premiere at Arts & Ideas June 20-29.
Three longtime Yale faculty members — poet J.D. McClatchy of the university's English Department, Martin Bresnick of the Yale School of Music and David Chambers of the Yale School of Drama — have created a chamber opera, My Friend's Story, based on a Chekhov short story, "Terror." McClatchy, Bresnick and Chambers are major talents in their respective fields. This show could easily attract major producers in much larger cities, but it's getting its special preview production in New Haven, June 19 and 20 at Yale's Iseman Theater, thanks to A&I.
Arts & Ideas is the kind of festival where the big concert on New Haven Green one night can be Aaron Neville, with an all-star jazz combo led by Jimmy Greene also on the bill (June 15), while the following week it can be the neoclassical icons Kronos Quartet performing with pipa player Wu Man (June 22).
The festival has always found room for modern dance; this year it welcomes the acrobatic French/Brazilian hip-hop movement ensemble Compagnie Kafig to the Shubert, June 21 and 22. There are also several varieties of circus theater.
"We look for things that don't fit cleanly within one definition," Aleskie stipulates. "We've taken what would be challenges in other places and made them opportunities. When the Beinecke Library came to us and said, 'Will you help us celebrate our 50th anniversary?,' we got Quiet Volume"—a theater piece staged in library reading rooms for audiences of two at a time. "People look to us: 'Can you make this happen?'"
Well, they've made it all happen again, June 15-29. Glory in it.
18 Highlights of the 18th Arts & Ideas Festival
1. Theater: A Midsummer Night's Dream. The U. S. premiere of a fantastical new version of Shakespeare' s bucolic comedy, from the puppeteers behind the Broadway hit War Horse. June 15-23 at the Yale University Theatre.
2. Music: Kronos Quartet, with special guest Wu Man, for free 7 pm June 22 on New Haven Green. One of the most influential and avant-garde classical ensembles out there.
3. Film: Historical Verite: The Documentaries of Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. Four of 'em — 4 Little Girls, If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise, Slavery by Another Name and the new Michael Jackson doc Bad 25. All at Whitney Humanities Center, June 14-16, free.
4. Music: Jimmy Greene. The jazz saxophonist is doing his first live performance since his daughter was killed at Sandy Hook last December. Greene is joined by pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Louis Nash and bassist John Patitucci for the first big A&I concert on the green for 2013, 6:30 pm June 15.
5. Following Jimmy Greene' s set (see above): Aaron Neville! The night also features the bestowing of Governor's Arts Awards on major musicians, artists and writers who live in Connecticut.
6. Theater: The Quiet Volume. A truly intimate show, each performance limited to an audience of two, staged in the reading room of the Beinecke Library, June 18-28.
7. Music: Calexico and Susana Baca. An inspired double bill of the Tex-Mex indie country rock band from Tucson and the austere Afro-Peruvian songstress, June 16 on New Haven Green. Baca performs at 7 p.m., Calexico at 8 p.m.
8. Music Theater: Stuck Elevator. New Haven-based political playwright Aaron Jafferis and Seattle-based modern composer Byron Au Yong's maverick musical about a Chinese take-out deliveryman trapped in more ways than one. June 20-29 at the Long Wharf Theatre. $35-$55.
9. Music Theater: My Friend's Story. A new chamber opera with an awesome pedigree. It is based on the Chekhov short story "Terror," with a libretto by poet J.D. McClatchy, a score by composer Martin Bresnick and direction by David Chambers. June 19 & 20 at Yale's Iseman Theater. $35-$45.
10. Music: Funkadesi: Arts & Ideas audiences crave party bands on New Haven Green, the more multicultural the better. This one hails from Chicago and blends various strains of Indian music with Afro-Caribbean, funk and reggae rhythms. 7 p.m. June 23 on New Haven Green, free.
11. Panel Discussion: "Preparing for 2050: The Changing Face of Race in America". 1 p.m. June 16 at Yale University Art Gallery. One of numerous forward-thinking discussions in the "Ideas" part of Arts & Ideas, this one (moderated by Rev. Streets of Dixwell Congregational Church and formerly of Yale's Battell Chapel) deals with the increasingly diverse demographics of America, as we mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
12. Lecture: "If Mayors Ruled the World." Benjamin Barber gives New Haven a taste of his forthcoming book on "a new paradigm of global governance" — just as the city is in the midst of its most exciting mayoral race in decades.
13. Music: String Theorie. The Connecticut-based world/jazz fusion trio is representative of the eclectic local acts to be found in Arts & Ideas' "Noon to Night" weekday concert series, at noon and 6 p.m. weekdays during the run of the festival. String Theorie's on June 26 at 6 p.m.
14. Walking Tours. Off the beaten path of the Green, Arts & Ideas extends into New Haven neighborhoods for guided strolls around themes such as "Tighten Up on New Haven's Corset History," "Rediscovering Chatham Square" and "Orchard Street Shul at 100 Years." The dozens of tours also include theaters, restaurants and monuments. Some involve bikes. Some involve forks and spoons.
15. Family Fun: Box City. So simple, yet so engrossing that it's become a welcome annual tradition among the many family-friendly activities at Arts & Ideas. You're given a cardboard box. You decorate it so that it looks like a building — could be a home, could be a business, could be a hospital, could be a secret government bunker. Then the "city" part kicks in. You need an urban planner to sign off with a building permit before you can go place your structure amid all the other edifices of Box City. June 15 & 16 under a tent on New Haven Green.
16. Circus Theater: Sequence 8 by Les 7 Doigts de la Main. This is the Montreal acrobatics troupe which is now internationally known for staging the stunts in the current hit Broadway revival of Pippin. They're at the Shubert June 27-29. This is not the only circus event at A&I. A circus tent will bloom on New Haven Green June 15-29, with 20 performances of David Dimitri's one-man circus spectacle L'homme Cirque ($35). And the two-man Red Trouser Show will juggle and cavort on the Green for free June 15 & 16.
17. Theater: Freewheelers. A Broken Umbrella Theatre, the site-specific local-history theater ensemble, has devised a new show about bicycles in New Haven, and they've even renovated the back end of the Horowitz Brothers department store building at 760 Chapel Street to perform it in. June 15-29. $35.
18. That amazing thing you've heard about that you're surprised we haven't listed here. A list like this only scratches the surface of a multi-disciplinary, multi-location, 14-day sky's-the-limit festival such as Arts & Ideas. That's the whole freakin' point. A complete schedule, listing hundreds of separate performances of dozens of events occurring under Arts & Ideas' auspice June 15-29, is at http://www.artidea.org. There's also an information booth on the Green with brochures and other assistance.
MORE 2013 SUMMER FESTIVALS