Each summer, Columbia pulses with energy as it prepares for the Columbia Festival of Arts, one of the largest summer festivals in Maryland. Despite the rainy introduction to June, organizers are forging ahead to celebrate culture and art.
Entering its 16th consecutive year, the two-week summer festival presents a diverse program of music, dance, theater and comedy. While last year's festival sought to bring the community together after 9 / 11, this year's festival seeks to celebrate life and innovation. Event organizers combine classic and original performances to convey this message.
"We were looking for talent that was different from past festivals as a way to broaden the horizon of the community," said Ron Schimel, president of the festival's board of directors.
New and different, with a base in the "tried and true," has been a consistent festival theme since its inception in 1988. According to Schimel, an act has never appeared at the festival more than two years in a row, although popular performers may appear once they have skipped a season.
As a result, the festival has grown from a grass-roots effort featuring only local artists to one that includes international acts. This year, performers are from New York, Ohio, Canada and London, spanning various genres including bluegrass, classical music, hip-hop, contemporary dance and comedic theater. Each act brings its own cultural influences, such as Cuban, African, Celtic and American traditions.
The festival, which begins tomorrow and ends June 29, invites artists who draw crowds with their high marquee value. Past festivals have presented soul-sister Aretha Franklin, country muse Emmylou Harris and vocal-improviser Bobby McFerrin. And this year is no different.
Oscar-nominated musician Philip Glass, rock 'n' roll legend Bo Diddley and Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis are the big musical acts. Headliner Mikhail Baryshnikov will close the festival with two performances of Solos with Piano -- An Evening of Music and Dance With Mikhail Baryshnikov. The organizers have scheduled a Saturday evening and Sunday matinee performance.
In most cases, however, artists have only one show. Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School and Smith Theatre at Howard Community College are the only two performance venues in use this year. They seat about 750 and 400, respectively.
Stewart Seal, executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, is proud of the intimacy created between spectators and performers throughout the festival.
"You can see the performers sweat on stage," he said.
That intimacy is both a plus and a minus. The down side is the challenge to meet public demand for popular performances, especially as the festival strives to become regional, attracting visitors from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Marsalis' performance at the Rouse Theatre sold out the first week of June; organizers were unable to add another performance.
"Infrastructure is our biggest obstacle. We need larger venues and more of them," Schimel said.
The organizers, though, were able to add a second performance of Second City on Tour when the first show sold out. Second City is an improvisational comedy troupe whose alumni include former Saturday Night Live cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Mike Myers.
The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company first appeared at the festival three years ago and returns this year with an interpretative dance performance to mark the 100th anniversary of flight. The company's flight-themed ballet was inspired by Dayton natives Orville and Wilbur Wright, who successfully completed their first flight in 1903.
The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company will perform four works, collectively titled "Flight Project," during their two-hour performance at the Rouse Theatre on June 27 at 8 p.m.
The flight-inspired dances were created by renowned choreographers Bebe Miller, Bill T. Jones, Warren Spears and Kevin Ward.
"These portray flight from a spiritual and emotional context," said Helen Ross, marketing director for the company. "As audiences watch the interaction between the dancers, they will see it. It's a spiritual journey." Ross said.
The festival will also feature "Facing Mekka," the contemporary works of Rennie Harris, a Philadelphia-based choreographer known for his athletic and urban-style dance. Harris' work combines many genres, including b-boying, (which became popular as breakdancing), house and hip-hop.
"Facing Mekka" combines movement, rhythm, sound and image and some critics say the dance acts as a vehicle for uniting cultures and people.
But Harris says this is not necessarily what he intended when he choreographed his movements.