Combining an international flavor with homegrown talents, this year's Columbia Festival of the Arts will feature world-renowned dance troupes, American acts and local artists during a two-week extravaganza that begins June 15.
Katherine Knowles, the festival's executive director, promises many surprises for festivalgoers this year
"We have a mission to create a moment in time in Columbia for many people when things happen that never happen," Knowles said. "It has to be something special, something that doesn't usually happen or that sparks something for the future."
One noticeable change in this year's festival program will be "Lighting up the Lakefront," a June 15 opening ceremony. During the free event, which will also celebrate Columbia's 34th birthday, lanterns and low-level fireworks will light the lake.
This year's festival will bring artists from around the globe to perform in Columbia. Knowles said she gets ideas for potential performers through her travels.
"Things that I see as I go around that really affect me I get to give to the [Columbia] community," Knowles said.
One experience affected Knowles so profoundly that she will try to re-create it for festivalgoers. While participating in a cultural exchange in Cuba last year, Knowles saw performances by Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, a dance troupe she calls "the next Riverdance," and Cuban pop group Traje Nuevo.
Next month, the two groups will make their first trip to the United States to perform in Columbia.
Knowles expects the Cuban artists to be popular attractions at the festival. "It's going to sell out," she said.
Another high-profile act is Olodum, a Brazilian music group that has performed at Rio de Janeiro's Carnival and on Paul Simon's 1990 "Rhythm of the Saints" album.
The Haifa Festival Orchestra, whose conductor and artistic director is a former Columbia resident, will make its first appearance in the United States. The Israeli group will feature the concertmaster and first cello of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Prominent North American performers will also participate in the festival, including choreographer Twyla Tharp, Grammy Award-winning singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and Les Deux Mondes, a Canadian theater company.
"Truly, the world's coming to Columbia. It's in your back yard," Knowles said.
Closer to home, regional acts will join the festival's lineup. FreeFall Dance, a new professional dance company based in Maryland, young musicians from Baltimore's Peabody Institute and the Washington Ballet will perform.
"I think ... the festival really has become a major arts festival," Knowles said. "I think it's the spirit of the 21st century. It's a celebration of not only our global culture but our local culture."
Not everyone agrees that Columbia should be focusing so much attention on international acts when there are talented artists available locally.
Maurice Feldman, president of the Columbia Concert Band, said he was concerned because this year's festival program did not include as many local acts at first. Since voicing his concern, however, he said the festival's organizers have added local artists, including his Dixieland jazz group.
"If you're going to call it a Columbia Festival, you ought to include some local groups, and they've done that," Feldman said. "I think they responded to the needs that were expressed. They did come through with a number of local groups, but it's still an international festival at this point."
Among the local artists participating in the festival are Glenelg High School Jazz Band, Columbia Orchestra and Young Columbians. Howard County authors Jerdine Nolan and Mary Downing Hahn will entertain young audiences with readings from their books at Barnes & Noble Booksellers.
"We would love to see all of our artists here for a number of days, but that's very expensive," said Knowles, adding that the festival has spent $175,000 in the past three years to bring in local artists.
The festival this year is bolstered by a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, part of which, Knowles said, will be used to fund workshops with Septime Webre, artistic director for the Washington Ballet. Webre will showcase his work-in-progress at the festival and hold feedback sessions for audience members to respond to the work, which addresses community relationships.
Throughout the festival, audiences will have the chance to interact with artists in workshops and discussions. Knowles said the workshops will offer "an unusual opportunity for community to be involved in the creative process."
Kini Collins, the festival's volunteer coordinator, spends her days creating a master schedule for the more than 250 volunteers needed to staff events.