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At 20, the upstate arts haven keeps blazing a new path

At 20, the upstate arts haven keeps blazing a new path

One recent Saturday night, a group of young men gathered in this rustic village in the Hudson Valley, to build a bonfire of sorts. There were no matches or flames, but there were lanterns, crickets chirping, mist-filled fir trees, and at one point, there was a zombie attack.

An artificial campfire was on stage, at the recent evening performance of “Illinois,” a stage dance piece based on Suvjan Stevens’ beloved 2005 indie-pop concept album. The performance, directed by star choreographer Justin Beck, drew a huge crowd from weekends Arts-minded and curious Stevens fans week to connect inside the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.

Since its opening 20 years ago, Frank Gehry’s Building at the Center has emerged as a home for the creation of relentless, multidisciplinary, and sometimes hard to describe hits.

Here Daniel Fish re-imagined “Oklahoma!” Crystallized before its unexpected launch to Broadway (and a Tony Award for Best Musical Revival), here choreographer Pam Tanovitz’s “Four Quartets” (hailed by The New York Times as “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century”) makes for a random breakfast conversation.

Given the personnel involved, “Illinois”, which will move to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre In January, she seems to have the makings of a popular success. But for Gideon Lester, artistic director and CEO of the Fisher Center, it furthers the same exploratory mission as everything else the center does.

“All of these projects are research, and that’s why they belong to the college,” he said. “What these artists do is investigate something, experiment, and create something in a new way.”

These are trying times for the performing arts, including in the Hudson Valley, where many independent institutions have scaled back programming or closed entirely. But the Fisher Center, housed in a college long known as the bastion of the humanities, has big plans.

In October, it will start at $42 million studio building Designed by Maya Lin. She just received a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to support her work Tania El Khoury Artist-in-Residence and Principal of a newly founded school Center for Human Rights and the Arts.

The Gehry Building, with its blast of stainless-steel pottery, is a symbol of the Center’s discipline programming. Each year, the center is home to large-scale productions of rarely staged operas (such as Saint-Saëns “Henry VIII,” which opens July 21) and theatrical world premieres (such as Elevator Repair Service’s “Ulysses” coming in September).

The center has also hosted a live art biennale and developmental workshops for Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s “Just Octave Apart,” and while shutting down the pandemic, a serial production of “Chapter and Verse” Musical performance by Michelle Ndegeocello based on James Baldwin.

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As for “Illinois,” which was introduced as part of the annual SummerScape Festival, even those closest to it are hard-pressed to rate it. Aaron Mattox, chief operating officer of the Fisher Center, called him a “hazy type.”

For Beck, who came to the center with the idea about two years ago, “It’s a spaceship that all the dancing astronauts take off on.”

“I was looking for a place to go that felt kind of calm but also exciting, and a place that felt like taking a risk with something like that,” Beck said.

The Fisher Center opened in 2003 as a multi-functional performing arts center that will be home to the college’s teaching programs as well as the Bard Music Festival, allowing it to stage large-scale operas.

The center always performs theater and dance too. But with the arrival of Leicester in 2012, she has expanded her commission of contemporary-minded original work.

“What Gideon has done is give it great originality and an eye and ear for the things it needs to do, and then inspire the artists to do it,” said Leon Botstein, President of the Bard.

Jenny Gersten, producer and interim artistic director at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, credited the Fisher Center with its “distinctive downtown-on-the-Hudson” fare.

She said, “Many theaters outside of New York City can develop business, but Bard is one of the few who choose to experiment with form and bold artistic audacity.”

Lester, 50, grew up in London, back in the days when director Sam Mendes and his theater company were involved colluded were showing. (He also admits to memorizing all the lyrics to “The Phantom of the Opera”.)

But his short directing career had a shaky start. At Oxford, he and another student persuaded the playwright Peter Shaffer to let them stage a production of Shaffer’s play “Jonadab”, which has not been staged since. Disastrous review 1985 Premiere at the National Theatre.

About 15 minutes after Oxford opened, the power generally went out, and the play was halted. But the assembled London critics reviewed it anyway, noting, Leicester recalled, that the play “didn’t get much better”.

“I was completely blown away and I thought, ‘This is too much pressure, I don’t think I can steer,'” he said.

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Instead, he enrolled in the drama program at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, even if – Like many in the theatre —was a little hazy as to exactly what the dramaturgy was.

He said, “Basically, I just learned what drama is by sitting in the room with the directors, by making mistakes and giving feedback and asking for silence.”

Lister became the theater actor-in-residence under Robert Brustein and later under Robert WoodruffCo-Artistic Director. When asked about the highlights, he referred to working with artists such as Dutch-Syrian director Ola Meflani (“Wings of Desire”) and Polish director Christian Luba, who Come closer After watching his 11 hour production of ‘Sleepwalkers’ at the Edinburgh Festival.

Luba’s “Three Sisters” at ART were “amazing,” if not “particularly likable,” Lester recalled with a wry laugh. “But I got to be in rehearsal with him and see how he did.”

In Bard, Lester has curated an impressive series of crowd pleasers. But when talking about him—and Caleb Hammons, director of art planning and production—the collaborators use words like “artist-centric” and “artist-forward.”

“They’re extraordinarily good at adapting to what different artists need,” said Daniel Fish, who also grew up on the Bard.

Tanovitz, a choreographer, first met Lester in 2015, when he invited her to do a repertory show. Then, over breakfast, he asked for the title of one dance, which featured a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s “Quartet of Four.”

They talked about the poem for a while and then I went to the bathroom. When she returned he asked her, “Why not? Do the dance “Quartet Four”? “

“This is classic Gideon,” Tanovitz said. “He thinks big. He has chutzpah. Part of it was daring, so I said yes, thinking in my head, ‘This is never going to happen.'”

He introduced it to collaborators including actress Kathleen Chalfant, who narrated the piece; painter Bryce Marden, whose paintings inspired the scenic design; and composer Kaija Saariaho. (The Fisher Center also took over the Tanowitz Company.)

For all of Lester’s skills as a conductor, Tanovitz said, he mostly “dares to be yourself”.

El Khoury, who is Lebanese, met Lester for the first time in 2017, at the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theatre, where he invited her to breakfast. “In classic Gideon fashion, he suggested all of these things,” she recalls.

She wasn’t sure how seriously to take any of it. But then it reappeared a few months later, at CounterCurrent Festival in Houston.

She came to Bard in 2019, as a guest curator of the third Biennale of the Fisher Center. During a long drive to New Hampshire, she and Lester have a barbed conversation that one year later leads to the creation of the Center for Human Rights and the Arts, part of Open Society University Network.

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El Khoury said, “It is a great responsibility to bring an artist from a completely different environment and give her a lot of space, funding and confidence.”

Consider the latest Land and Food Policy Biennale. It culminated in May with a four-day festival that included the Khoury “memory of birds” An interactive sound installation that invited visitors to lie in cocoon-like structures at the base of a row of maple trees.

“I love that the last piece we ordered is the Tanya piece, which seven people can sample at once,” Lister said. “And now we’re doing ‘Illinois’ for almost 900.”

Peck, the New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, said he had been thinking for nearly a decade about creating something based on an album by Stevens, which he fell in love with as a teenager.

“It’s a real moment, going into this album for a generation,” he said.

“Illinois”, which came to the Fisher Center with commercial producers attached, is the most expensive non-operatic production she has done, with a budget of about $1.2 million. (“Oklahoma!”, Lester said, cost about $450,000).

The show, developed by Beck and playwright Jackie Ciples Drury (“Fairview” his narrative story), has no dialogue, only lyrics orchestrated and performed by Timo Andress and sung by a 13-piece band.

Among the 12 dancers are some that Beck worked with in the 2018 Broadway revival of “Carousel” and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

He said, “I wanted to create a way for today’s generation of dance artists who work in theater and in storytelling, to tell a story using their language, which is their movement.”

The critics weren’t invited—they’d be at the Chicago show—but at the final evening’s performance, the audience booed and clapped after most of the songs. After the tap-filled “Jacksonville,” which also features fists from Jennifer Florentino, Lester and Drury.

Lester said the show is “full of joy”. And part of that feeling for him is the uncertainty that comes with every project.

“The fun of it,” he said, “is not knowing if something is going to work.”