Arts and Ideas Festival Extends Reach Across Borders

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
The New York Times

By Jan Ellen Spiegel

BRINGING Yo-Yo Ma to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which begins its annual two-week run here next weekend, has been one of Mary Lou Aleskie’s goals since she became the festival’s executive director in 2005.

“Every year I would call and say, ‘Gee, is there any chance blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?’ “ she recalled. “So this year I didn’t call — and they called us!”

The timing was not only right for Mr. Ma and a dozen members of his Silk Road Project — a cross-cultural melding of musicians, contemporary compositions, musical traditions and instruments — it was also perfect for the festival’s opening night.

But Ms. Aleskie took it one more step. She persuaded the festival board to raise the extra $300,000 needed to move the performance to the New Haven Green and present it at no charge.

Mr. Ma’s reaction? “Very cool,” he said recently from Chicago, where he had just landed for work with the Chicago Youth in Music Festival. “I think there’s tremendous value to have things be free or at such low cost you’re not preventing people from coming. That would be my favorite way to make music.”

Equally important, he added, was being able to dovetail Silk Road’s mission — using music to unite disparate cultures, build community and provide education that is “entertaining but not preachy” — with the festival’s similar cornerstone.

“It speaks to our ideals,” he said. “It challenges our performance chops, and it’s something we all believe in.”

With Mr. Ma as the headliner, the festival, now in its 16th year, has emerged as a “must stop” for far-flung artists, performers and thinkers who embrace its mission to make global arts and ideas accessible in a format that is far more than a string of dozens of performances. The events — some free, some ticketed — include music, dance and theater performances; bike and food tours; and exhibitions and panel discussions, all united, however loosely, under this year’s theme, “Across Borders, Beyond Time.”

“We try to let the most interesting opportunities and projects take the lead,” said Cathy Edwards, the festival’s director of performance programs, who, along with Ms. Aleskie, literally scours the planet for participants. “There’s always a thematic zeitgeist that unites those works. It’s not too hard to find.”

The Silk Road Ensemble will be appearing with musicians from the United States, India, Japan, Israel, Iran, Spain, Switzerland and Canada. One piece on the program combines music of Spain and Japan using a gaita (Galician bagpipes) and shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). Another blends Arab music with American jazz. Mr. Ma will also speak at a forum on the cultural importance and connections of the real Silk Road, the ancient trade route.

Nearly a dozen forums will be presented at the festival, including one exploring warfare, which will complement a rock opera on the subject and a series of films on the Iraq war. Panels on African-American experiences will be coordinated with black heritage walking and biking tours and art exhibitions in a project called Freedom’s Journey. That project will also link Freedom Trail sites throughout the state — reinvigorated to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War — to a poetry project coordinated by Elizabeth Alexander, the poet featured at President Obama’s inauguration.

“It’s a big, huge bouquet every year,” said Ms. Alexander, who is chairwoman of the African-American studies department at Yale University and a longtime festival fan and participant. She especially noted that organizers had taken care to incorporate homegrown arts and ideas as more than warm-up acts for the big international names. “In a smallish city, to have a festival in which you couldn’t possibly do everything and that just gives that kind of abbondanza feeling is exciting.”

During the 2009 and 2010 festivals, Ms. Alexander conducted public conversations with artists — last year with the acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones, founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Mr. Jones will be returning, this time with his company and two pieces: “Serenade/The Proposition,” which melds past and present in the writings and speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and “Body Against Body,” three works that he and his partner, Mr. Zane, performed in the 1970s. Mr. Jones revised the duets for the festival, though they still reflect their original theme of identity politics — then largely unexplored, but even now potentially too provocative for some audiences.

He said he congratulated the festival “for having the will and the courage to be right in the eye of the discourse.” But, mindful of the festival’s egalitarian audience goals, he added: “I hope they get an education and a thrill. That’s how we get them back again.”

The festival will be the final stop for the current tour of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” a dark comedy about a boy growing up in Ireland under difficult circumstances that will be integrated with the two festival forums on Irish arts. The play’s director, Garry Hynes of the Druid and Atlantic Theater in Galway, said she was thrilled to be part of the festival, noting its synergy between arts and the community.

“Theater doesn’t exist just in isolation,” she said recently from Ireland. “It’s a social process. It creates a sense of community between the audience and a company of actors, and when that’s good, there’s nothing better.”

This year’s wealth of boldface names, and arguably the strongest international presence ever, comes as the festival attempts to recapture momentum after two difficult years. In 2009, rain washed out a number of events, leaving organizers with a $400,000 deficit in their $3 million budget. Last year, the budget was reduced to $2.5 million, which forced the elimination of the free opening night concert.

But with ticket sales accounting for only 10 percent of the budget, and foreign governments and arts ministries footing much of the bill to showcase their cultural offerings, the festival has not wavered from its goal of presenting the unusual and in some cases the downright odd, like a three-hour performance of Chekov’s “Ivanov” staged two years ago — in Hungarian.

“I mean, c’mon. Right? How many people really would be willing to do that?” Ms. Aleskie asked. “That’s our charter. That’s what we do.”

This out-of-the-mainstream mentality is exactly why Jack Hitt, a New Haven-based writer turned storytelling performer, is having the premiere of his one-man show, “Making Up the Truth,” a memoir of outrageous, but true, tales.

Growing up in Charleston, S.C., home of the Spoleto Festival, Mr. Hitt said he knew the standard operating fare of most festivals. “New Haven has smartly chosen to stay outside the kind of routine festival selection,” he said. “They do a nice job of pulling talent from the A list and then the X list.”

The trick, Ms. Aleskie said, is finding a way to balance the sheer entertainment of the performances with the serious ideas behind them. “Our philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be either/or,” she said. “It’s very much about the ampersand. It’s arts and ideas.”

The International Festival of Arts and Ideas, free and ticketed events at locations throughout New Haven, June 11 through 25. For full schedule: 1-888-ART-IDEA (1-888-278-4332), (203) 498-1212 or