Arts Desk

Does the “Street Arts” Festival Augur a More Youthful Kennedy Center?

After more than a year of promises about a new initiative geared toward younger audiences, the Kennedy Center has finally made good on its word. The institution just launched its latest multiday event, but unlike most KenCen festivals, “Look Both Ways: Street Arts Across America” isn’t happening inside the walls of the big Kleenex box on the Potomac. True to its name, the event is occurring all week in parks and streets across the city.

“Street arts” is, of course, a pretty broad term. Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center's vice president of community engagement and the brains behind the festival, admits it’s one of those know-it-when-you-see-it type things. “All I can say is that it’s work created to be presented in public space,” he says. “It takes common space and turns it into something uncommon.”

But plenty of circus-y forms have grown in visibility and popularity across the county over the past decade or more, so the festival’s programming feels familiar and intuitive. There’s juggling, clowning, parades, stiltwalkers, puppetry, aerial dance, marching bands, and a singing saw.

High points during the week include master juggler Paolo Garbanzo; Midnight Circus, a mixed troupe of movers, musicians, and contortionists; and Project Bandaloop, a San Francisco-based dance group that will perform an aerial number on the Old Post Office tower on Friday night.

Saturday afternoon looks particularly promising; the lovely Yards Park in Southeast will be packed with performers and activities. Veteran radical puppet company Bread and Puppet will be there, and local group Lesole Dance Projects will perform wearing “soundsuits” created by artist Nick Cave. Ross says the entire festival was designed with audience interactivity in mind, but Saturday seems particularly participatory, with classes in African dance, zumba, samba, capoeira and yoga occurring throughout the day.

“Bringing [performances] out into the city was a way to make us as an institution more accessible,” says Ross, adding that the interdisciplinary programming also allows the center to present work that might otherwise never wind up on one of the venue's main stages.

It’s a cool ambition, and the Kennedy Center’s programmers deserve kudos for stepping way out of their comfort zone on this. I’m curious, though, what they’ll do if the festival turns out to be a big success—particularly with that coveted younger demographic. Is this a one-off effort, or are they prepared to continue to design events for audiences that expect interactivity and accessibility from their arts experiences?

“Look Both Ways: Street Arts Across America” began Sunday and continues through Saturday. During the week, performances are scheduled for various public spaces during lunchtime and on the Millennium Stage in the evening. A street fair will take place on Friday night by the Old Post Office Pavilion, and performances will occur on Saturday afternoon in Yards Park. Photo by Daniel Bedell.

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