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The Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group performs Moses(es). Photo by Peggy Woosley

The Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group performs Moses(es). Photo by Peggy Woosley

The theme of this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas is “transformation and tradition.” As is the case every year, the festival’s theme emerges as a thread that connects the works being presented and “captures a certain amount of cultural zeitgeist,” Cathy Edwards, the festival’s programming director, said, explaining that the theme is also “one of the ways we provide a point of entry” for audiences.

“We want to share overtly the idea that gave shape to the festival,” she said, explaining that “it’s also true that themes emerge from a collection of cornerstones that we commit to” during the planning and programming process.

Festival organizers look for a certain “flavor” during that process, and unquestionably, Edwards said, “there are narratives that emerge once the festival is underway.” And that has everything to do with the compelling programming being presented. Violinist Regina Carter will perform music from her most recent album, Southern Comfort, which Edwards said very specifically revisits southern music from an era gone by.

Mary Lou Aleskie, the festival’s executive director, said Carter is updating traditions while focusing on people’s views of the future. Language on Carter’s website tells us that “on her new album she explores the folk tunes her paternal grandfather, a coalminer, would have heard as he toiled in Alabama … Intent on making the past, present, Regina sought out distant relatives and books about the era in which her grandfather lived. From there, she went to the Library of Congress and the renowned collections of folklorists such as Alan Lomax and John Work III digging deep into their collected field recordings from Appalachia. On Southern Comfort, Regina interprets her own roots through a modern lens.”

Through that “personal journey,” Carter said by telephone from a tour stop in Seattle, “I’m able to see clearly how much we’re all connected. All of our families went through some kind of migration,” she pointed out.

Not surprisingly, during her research, Carter came across recordings from as early as 1893, and some of that material, she said, is “really ugly and racist.” And while it was “worth hearing,” none of that music is included on Southern Comfort, which features some of the beautiful music that came out of our ugly history. What Carter said she came out of the process with was an introduction to some incredible music that might otherwise not be widely heard. “It empowers me,” she said, “makes me want to leave some kind of positive legacy … music that has some depth to it.”

In conjunction with her performance, Carter will present a talk with Yale University professor of African American studies Crystal Feimster called “Down Home: The Musical Heritage of the American South.”

Aleskie said all of the artists who’ll be performing during this year’s festival are, in one way or another, asking, “Who are we, and who will we be? Art resonates when it’s connected to people,” she said.

Reggie Wilson, who’ll present his dance piece Moses(es) with his Fist and Heel Performance Group, said the work is about “who these (dancers) are,” and asks, “Who are you as a viewer watching this?”

Moses(es), which received its premiere in Philadelphia in September 2013, was inspired and informed by Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, and by a 2010 trip to Israel where Wilson worked on a pilot program for the Foundation for Jewish Culture, in Jerusalem. There, he met and talked at length with Avigdor Shinan, an associate professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who’s the uncle of Fist and Heel Performance Group dancer Anna Schon.

For Wilson, rereading Moses, Man of the Mountain prompted the question, “What is identity?” As performed by primarily black dancers from different places in the world who’ve had different life experiences and dance training, the “idea of identity is, I think, physically manifested” in Moses(es), Wilson said. “So it’s not some kind of abstract idea.”

Identity, of course, is tied to experience, that which brings us together if only to try to make sense of things. Playwright David Greig’s newest work, The Events, which had its premiere at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will receive its U.S. premiere at this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, explores the aftermath of tragedy. It was inspired – if that’s the right word – by the July 2011 massacre carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Olso and on the island of Utøya, in Norway.

“It’s resonant here,” Aleskie said, and “it’s resonant, sadly, worldwide.” One cornerstone program of this year’s festival that will no doubt resonate with local audiences is Arguendo, a play directed by Yale University graduate John Collins and performed by the New Yorkbased company Elevator Repair Service. The work’s text is taken entirely from the oral arguments made during a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court case called Barnes v. Glen Theatre, a First Amendment case involving strip clubs in Indiana.

The case, Collins said during a telephone interview, was an “attempt to distinguish between expression and conduct,” which “strikes at the heart of what live performance is.” Among the post-show conversations that will be held throughout the play’s run in New Haven will be a panel discussion with Yale Law School Dean Robert Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Yale Law School lecturer Linda Greenhouse, and Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate who Collins said “has worked with us from a pretty early point in the development” of the play.

The decision to use the oral arguments themselves as the text of the play, Collins said, was about “finding theater inside of existing language.” He also pointed out that listening to the oral arguments made before the highest court in the land is “a great intellectual sport” with entertainment value. And that’s something that’s important, in a broader sense, to Aleskie, Edwards, and their colleagues at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

Article by David Brensilver in the latest issue of The Arts Paper. Read more online here.