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.