Arts & Ideas Festival — the Connections Make It Unique

Posted by
Photo: ©2011 Julieta Cervantes
Photo: ©2011 Julieta Cervantes

By  Karen Isaacs

Thinkers, musicians, writers, dancers, theater artists, clowns, film makers, scientists, philosophers, journalists.  How do you combine all of these? How does Sinatra, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Carmen de Lavallade all fit together?

The answer:  The International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

In 1995,  three New Haven area women developed the idea of an arts and ideas festival drawing on the eclectic intellectual resources of the area.  The first festival was just 5 days, but soon the International Festival of Arts and Ideas grew. In its first years it featured Gilbert and Sullivan performed by the D’Oyly Carte company, the American premier of the prize winning play Copenhagen , the Metropolitan Opera on the New Haven Green and more.

The 20th Festival which runs June 12 to 27 has grown to 16 days, venues all over the city and some surrounding towns and offers activities and events that are mostly free for people of all ages and interests.

It has become, according to Mary Lou Aleskie, the Festival’s executive director, exactly what it originators wanted:  a destination event that brings people from New Haven, Connecticut and around the world to our area. Each year up to 15 percent of those attending festival events travel from out-of-state to attend.  In addition, with the 120,000 attendees and the more than 600 artists participating annually in the Festival, there is a direct economic impact of money spent in the area of between $10-$12 million, Aleskie said.

With approximately 80 percent of the events free of charge, the largest demographic of people attending are families earning between $40 and $60 thousand per year.

Support for the Festival comes mainly from the state of Connecticut,  local corporations, national sponsors and foundations. The ministers of cultures in many countries support their artists traveling to the Festival.

Pistolera.  Photo by M. Sharkey
Pistolera. Photo by M. Sharkey

The festival is unique because it does not focus on just one art form or one subject area.  “It has always been equal parts of arts, ideas, community,” Aleskie said.  “It is the bringing together — the ampersand — the intersections that makes it unique.”

Each year the festival plans its programming around one or more themes that use “extraordinary talents to connect to issues and the community,” Aleskie added.

This year the International Festival of Arts & Ideas is combining several themes. One is the environment but another is celebrating and connecting to the Festival’s history.

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the gulf coast. It led this year’s Festival organizers to think about waterways and the environment or “what is means to lose connection to land,” Aleskie said. Two New Orleans based performance companies — Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions will present Cry You One at Maltby Lakes on Route 34 in West Haven, June 13-21.  It is billed as a “processional performance with music, dances and stories from the heart of south Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands.”

Tying into this look at waterways and the environment are the canoe and kayak tours of Lighthouse Point and the Mill River, the walking tours of the Water Treatment Plant, and some of the bike tours.  Working with WNPR, there will be a conversation on “Waterways and Our Changing Environment” which will be broadcast as an episode of the show “Where We Live”.  Scientists, environmental activists and journalists will join Connecticut State Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Jr.

Several years before the Festival began (1992 to be specific), the nation was riveted by the Rodney King case in Los Angeles.  A bystander videotaped King, a cab driver, being beaten by four Los Angeles police officers, all of whom were acquitted.  Riots followed the jury’s verdict.  This year the Festival is presenting in association with Long Wharf Theatre, Rodney King, written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith.  According to the press materials, Smith considers King one of the “first reality TV stars” and he fuses “facts and friction, motion and emotion.” A conversation moderated by NY Times Washington correspondent Charles Savage will focus on “Surveillance and Civil Liberties in the US.”  David Medine, chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and Laura Donahue, professor of Law at Georgetown will discuss the on-going issues of national surveillance and privacy.

Each year, the Festival has several headline acts — it has ranged from performances (often on the New Haven Green) by the Metropolitan Opera to Yo Yo Ma.  This year, the headliners include Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love (June 13), world famous performance artist Taylor Mac and the world premier of The 1990s, commissioned by the Festival (June 12 and 13), Grammy nominated jazz vocalist Kurt Elling performing with the New Haven Symphony his concert of songs of love (June 20), and Lucinda Williams,  who infuses rock and folk with delta overtone (June 26).

Carmen de Lavallade, a legendary dancer who taught at Yale Drama School and performed at the Yale Rep — her Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest was magical — will be honored with a conversation as well an original performance piece (As I Remember It) that traces her illustrious career.

Sinatra — who has frequented the pizzerias on Wooster Street — was born in 1915.  In collaboration with the Grammy Museum, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Sinatra family, the Festival is hosting a number of events  including an exhibition of photographs from the family’s personal archives and a panel discussion(June 21) that includes Tina Sinatra and his granddaughter as well as performer Kurt Elling.

The Mark Morris Dance Group will reference the Festival’s early commitment to opera with Acis and Galatea, (June 18-19), a staging of the Handel opera.  Fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes. The work features both dance, vocal soloists and choral artists.

Family Fun Day on the Green (June 14) will include a variety of performances and activities ending with a dance party.

In the last few years, the Festival has become a platform for  innovative circus  performers including Les 7 Doights de la Main (7 Fingers) which appeared the last years. This year is no exception:  Machine de Cirque, an ensemble of young acrobats from Quebec will perform (June 23-27) .

In addition to the official Festival events,  there are a number of unofficial events held during this period.  These range from the Yale Institute for Music Theater readings of new works to the Connecticut Critics Circle awards presentation for outstanding professional theater on June  22.

For a full schedule of events with descriptions, locations, dates and times, visit

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and

Mark Morris "Acid and Galatea".
Mark Morris “Acid and Galatea”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s