Call it New York’s annual booster shot of world performance. With the Lincoln Center Festival opening this week, artists from 14 countries are converging on a single plaza to give 93 theater, dance, and music performances over a 20-day period. The Voice sat down with festival director Nigel Redden to talk about the event’s niche—and how he puts it all together.
Why was the festival founded in 1996? What do you think it means to hold an international arts festival in the middle of New York City? The idea was to animate the campus in summer. Most of Lincoln Center’s companies have roots in 19th-century Western European forms: opera, ballet, symphonic music. This place has an obligation to classicism. But if you look around the world, other classical forms exist in the same way: from Kunshu opera to Kabuki theater, Vietnamese water puppets, and Ta’ziyeh—Middle Eastern religious epic theater. This is a great period of migration and cross-cultural communication. For a place like Lincoln Center to turn its back would be completely wrong. At the same time, we’ve definitely dealt with new work. And we have an opportunity to present things of a certain scale.
Does that also create a kind of corrective onus for you—to complement the rest of the year or show work that would never normally be seen in New York on this scale? I wouldn’t say there’s a total obligation. To some extent, programming has its own internal dynamic. For instance, this summer we’re doing a major Ring cycle with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. So it does make sense, in a wonderful way, also to present Secret History of the Mongols -with Mongolian performers who are close to a primordial tradition in some ways. They are nomads. They live in yurts, for the most part. The epic they recite was written two generations after the death of Genghis Khan, and evokes a life close to Richard Wagner characters like Siegmund and Hunding. Another example: Heisei Nakamura-za, the Kabuki company that was here in 2004, are back. Given that Heisei Nakamura-za was founded in the beginning of the 17th century, it was attractive to match them with Robert Wilson’s Fables of La Fontaine from the Comédie-Française. That theater company was also founded in the 17th century, and there’s something marvelous about seeing them do something they’re not trained to do, but with tremendous style, wit, and grace.
So you’re saying this will be unlike the Robert Wilson stuff we see at BAM every year? It’s unlike the Robert Wilson that we’ve shown in the past.
Some people lament that there’s no difference between international festivals. You can go to one city and see Shen-Wei Dance Arts, the Chinese choreographer’s company, or go to another city and see them—that’s just what’s on the circuit that year. Ultimately, a festival is a marriage between a place and an event—and if it isn’t, it falls flat. I obviously feel that there is a difference, or I wouldn’t still be doing this. Edinburgh is informed as much by the hullabaloo of the Fringe as it is by the main festival. At Aix, it’s the particulars of performance in that place. Or Salzburg, where the Felsenreitschule is not like any other theater, anywhere. The vast majority of our audience comes from the metropolitan area. It’s not the traditional way of going to a festival, in some kind of isolated retreat where you can just contemplate art. It’s definitely in the hurly-burly of a large city. And to some extent, this festival responds to that context.
Jonathan Mills is running his first Edinburgh Festival this year—he’s focusing many presentations on the theme of the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Themed festivals can be enormously fascinating. However, audiences have a horrible habit of not doing what the programmer wants them to. Audiences will see what they see, and to some extent will create their own festival by picking and choosing among the events. Most festivals can’t produce all that much work—you can produce two or three things. To some extent, we are forced to also import and present. Whether you can find wonderful examples of whatever theme you are trying to espouse or expound upon—and whether they will all be ready at the same—is a neat trick if you can do it.
A common criticism today is that a lot of performance projects are created just for touring, and lose any kind of local connection or meaning in favor of a “festival aesthetic.”
I think that’s fair about certain work. Basically, a number of festival directors get together and commission something that sometimes seems to be the latest flavor of the month. I think that’s particularly true in Europe, where there are more festivals and somewhat more money than here. And there’s a dearth of things that can be toured. It’s a capitalist system, and things are created to accommodate markets. We have, over the years, tried to bring works here that are absolutely bizarre and particularly difficult to present: Peter Greenaway’s opera Writing to Vermeer—pouring all that water on the stage of the New York State Theater was totally mad. We did an overnight John Tavener concert in Avery Fisher Hall, which was, in a way, bizarre. Deborah Warner’s site-specific Angel Project was enormously difficult to do. And certainly bringing the Iranian Ta’ziyeh performers after 9/11. I mean, I can tell you, the pressure not to bring Muslims who are lamenting the Battle of Karbala—it’s so wrong, so wrong. We haven’t got a clue in this country what Karbala means. Our elected officials who are fighting this godforsaken war, they don’t know what the difference is between Shiism and Sunnism, and they don’t want to let us find out. And somehow, the Ta’ziyeh stories reveal the difference in a way that’s enormously poetic, profound, moving, and absolutely eye-opening. Doing that after 9/11 was not easy.
Is there work with a special connection to New York this year? The theater work that’s being done by young people in New York now seems to be wildly nonlinear, so Gemelos, by Chile’s Compañia Teatro Cinema, and Monstruos Prodigios, by Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, may have special interest for them. I’m particularly eager to see Divinas Palabras, performed by Spain’s Centro Drámatico Nacional. It’s a sprawling, epic work by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, dealing with the grittiness of life with humor and a feeling of redemption at the end. But it is the life that the majority of people on the planet live. One thing about New York: Our audience is not as homogenous as it might be other places. When we did the Ramakien, an opera based on an episode from the Thai Ramayana, we had many Thais as well as Upper West Siders. We’ve done a fair amount of Brazilian music, with wonderful, electric Brazilian audiences. For guitarist Goran Bregovic and his 40-piece Wedding and Funeral Orchestra last year, we had this extraordinary Serb audience—who knew there were all these Serbs in town? People were just swept up in a communal feeling, which is what live theater is about. It’s certainly the kind of experience you don’t get when you just go to the movies.