The 1960s were a time of openness to new ideas, of creativity and shared discoveries. With its "Happenings" and "Love-ins," its beads and flower children, the idealistic decade was also more than occasionally kooky.
Jenneth Webster, program director of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, had all this in mind when she chose "The Summer of Love" as the unifying theme for this summer's events, which run through the month of August. The festival, which Webster has directed since 1988, has, after all, become one of the most welcoming and adventurous of Lincoln Center's regular events.
Each year, the festival offers a cultural bonanza featuring many different kinds of dance, music, poetry, and more. It brings hundreds of visitors to Lincoln Center, exposing them to fresh art in the fresh air and celebrating the vibrant lives of New York City's multicultural communities — all for free.
The original "Summer of Love," a cultural phenomenon that drew people from around the world to San Francisco in the summer of 1967, similarly offered visitors a wealth of free amenities and encouraged experimentation. This summer marks its 40th anniversary.
Webster says the theme has special resonance for her. After visiting the Bob Dylan exhibition last year at the Morgan Library & Museum, she asked herself, "'Why not take parts of the 1960s — just the fun of the '60s, the anything-is-possible community feeling — and translate it into a festival?' So that's what we did." Then Webster thought, "Let's make it a 'Summer of Love.' It's all about how much I love the people who come to the festival, and the artists; how much they love Lincoln Center, and how much Lincoln Center loves them."
Webster was in her 20s when she arrived in New York City in the mid-1960s, just as American culture was exploding, releasing the pent-up energy of the earlier youth movement. She wore miniskirts, studied Buddhism, and blotted the tear gas from her eyes when she and her friends marched in Washington, D.C. Today she remains a flower child whose bloom has never faded. "Wherever there are people and parades, I'm usually there," Webster says. "I'm very interested in how people behave and what they see when they're together."
A non-profit theater worker 40 years ago, Webster also witnessed the thrilling expansion of the arts that came with new government funding. As a consultant traveling to America's cities for the Ford Foundation, she developed an appreciation for communities and grassroots arts organizations.
All these experiences prepared her for the moment when she went to work for Leonard de Paur, the late founder of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Webster, who inherited his job, keeps de Paur's photo on her wall and says her mission has been to expand upon his vision. "I always tried to preserve the spirit in which he had created the festival, and to remain true to his ideals," she says.
De Paur's goals were to present the arts of many diverse communities, "and to bring people to a happy experience outside," Webster says. "The idea was if you came for one show, right after it you would see a show that was totally different, so that you would be introduced to something new. I always thought of this festival — and so did Leonard — as a forum where people could bring their ideas and be able to see them expressed."
In addition to maintaining the established features at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Webster has introduced several novelties of her own over the years. These include Playday, a fun and interactive learning experience for kids; Heritage Sunday, honoring cultural legacies; and the inventive and bizarre Home-Made Instrument Day, showcasing musical and engineering feats. And as part of the annual Puppetry Residency, neighborhood children help to produce a giant-puppet parade around a storybook theme.
Another of Webster's innovations, La Casita, is a poetry and music festival with roots in the African diaspora in Latin America. "We've had Pulitzer Prize winners. We've had PEN Award winners. We've had major poets," Webster says of the project, which she conceived while attending Earth Day celebrations and a "Save Our Gardens" parade on the Lower East Side. This year, the poets and musicians will perform on August 25-26 in the South Plaza.
Webster also incorporated the practice of commissioning works for Lincoln Center Out of Doors, supporting creations by such distinguished artists as composers Pauline Oliveiros and Carman Moore, and by many contemporary choreographers. When the festival premiered Moore's "Mass for the 21st Century" in 1994, it attracted the largest audience in Lincoln Center's history. Both he and Oliveiros will return to the festival this year. Moore has designed a tribute to the late jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, which the Skymusic Ensemble will present on August 15 in the South Plaza. Oliveiros has composed a "Deep Listening Meditation" for the audience in the South Plaza on August 21. Describing this interactive electronic music concert, Webster says: "It is basically like a vocal 'Be-in' where people stand and hum together. We're going to beam in voices from other parts of the world as well."
Although this summer's festival in no way pretends to offer a comprehensive overview of the decade that it commemorates, some of the artists will be genuine '60s veterans. And many performances and events will reflect three key ingredients of that culture: multiculturalism, accessibility, and the development of new forms.
This year's Great Music in the Bandshell series opens August 2, with "The People United," a concert featuring '60s veterans Roy Brown Ramìrez and Arlo Guthrie. Brown recalls the crusading spirit of the Puerto Rican independence movement in a segment titled "Soul of La Lucha." Guthrie, the legendary folk-singer who satirized the draft in his 1967 "Alice's Restaurant," will present a whimsical look back at those times in his "Solo Reunion Tour — Together at Last."
The demands for social justice that led to civil unrest four decades back will also be heard on Heritage Sunday, August 12. Such artists as Abdoulaye Diabate and Super Manden (West Africa), Merita Halili and the Raif Hyseni Orchestra (Albania), and Viento de Agua (Puerto Rico) will share the stage on Josie Robertson Plaza, performing songs of struggle from all over the world.
On August 8 the "Great Music in the Bandshell" series will pay tribute to the Civil Rights Movement and to the important role that black churches played in ending segregation. That program, titled "The Soul of Gospel," will feature the McCoullough Sons of Thunder Brass Band; the Emmanuel Baptist Church Choir, Dee Dee Sharp of "Mashed Potato Time" fame, and Eddie Floyd. "What we'll be doing there is showing how Gospel forms were translated into soul music," Webster explains.
A powerful sense of social responsibility also motivates choreographer Lula Washington. Based in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and inspired by urban folk traditions, her Lula Washington Dance Theatre will share a "Great Dance in the Bandshell" program with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal [bjm_danse] on August 16.
Another product of Watts, legendary bassist and jazz composer Charles Mingus, will be the subject of a posthumous birthday tribute, August 26, in Damrosch Bandshell. The Mingus Big Band and Mingus Orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller, will perform the composer's works.
Some other major music events will include the Dave Brubeck Quartet, August 5, in Damrosch Park Bandshell; a jazzy doubleheader with bassist Jay Leonhart and trombone player Wycliffe Gordon, in South Plaza, August 14; and Mick Maloney and Friends and Les Yeux Noirs, on Josie Robertson Plaza, August 20.
As in past summers, Coleman Barkin has curated two magnificent days of folk, gospel, and blues concerts — "Roots of American Music," August 18 and 19 — a mini-festival within Lincoln Center Out of Doors. This year's "Roots" lineup will include protest singer Tom Paxton, the lively folk artist Chuck Brodsky, and Grammy Award-winning country crooner Ricky Skaggs.
Webster notes that the Bread and Puppet Theater, which appears on Josie Robertson Plaza, August 8, marched at the head of countless protests and marches for nuclear disarmament during the 1960s and long afterward. The director herself is a veteran of some of the theater's New York performances. The company's giant puppets, which famously include sharp political caricatures, never fail to impress onlookers.
Environmental awareness will be the theme of "Solar 1," a mini-festival of contemporary dances curated by Tamar Rogoff. Originally created for an arts space in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Cove Park, "Solar 1" is being transplanted to Josie Robertson Plaza on August 21.
Even the New York Baroque Dance Company is getting into a Summer of Love mood as it presents "dances of love," in authentic, Baroque period style, on Josie Robertson Plaza, August 22.
Extending the festival's multicultural theme will be the Drumsong African Ballet Theatre, August 9. Also on that date, Akim Funk Buddha's hip-hop group will appear with beatboxers — deejays without turntables. And acclaimed sitarist Kartik Seshadri, a disciple of the one and only Ravi Shankar, will be featured with his ensemble in Chamber Music of the World, in South Plaza, August 10.
The Absolute Ensemble, a jazz fusion group starring guest artist and Lebanese oud player Marcel Khalife, will perform "Arabian Nights" at the Damrosch Park Bandshell, near the end of the festival, on August 25.
On August 9, a frolicsome troupe of Hawaiian hula dancers, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, directed by Patrick Makuakane, returns to Lincoln Center Out of Doors with a program of traditional hulas and contemporary "hula mua," set to popular songs. The troupe was a runaway hit when it made its local debut here in 2004. "They have a unique piece about the Hari Krishnas," Webster says. "Hari Krishnas were very big during the '60s, so I asked Patrick if he would do that piece. I'm hoping he will."
Yet another transcendental event will be the "Celebration of Tea" presented by the Trance Music Ensemble, of Taiwan, in the bandshell, on August 24. "It has flowers. It has music. It has a Tang dynasty poet that I love, and it has calligraphy," Webster says. "And it has two servings of tea, one for the spring and one for the winter. It's one of the most extraordinary and delicate aesthetic experiences I have ever had. I wanted other people to have it as well."
The Paul Taylor Dance Company, always a festival favorite, returns to the "Great Dance in the Bandshell" series, on August 3. Taylor, who altered the face of American modern dance with his ground-breaking Aureole in 1962, made the genre more accessible when he incorporated pedestrian moves like walking and running into his audience-friendly compositions set to classical music.
Representing the rebellious spirit of the 1960s avant-garde will be the Trisha Brown Dance Company on August 14. Now an established figure who is revered for her cool abstractions and provocative head games, during the '60s Brown was a feisty upstart who helped found the experimental Judson Dance Theater.
This year, Webster has commissioned four choreographers as part of a program titled "60s Snapshots." Presented on Lincoln Center's South Plaza, the event will feature new works by veteran dance makers Gus Solomons Jr., Yoshiko Chuma, Merián Soto, and Elaine Summers, the multimedia pioneer.
While some of this year's tribute may prompt some soul-searching, as audiences reflect upon the changes that have taken place in 40 years, other events will be pure fun. At Playday, on August 4, kids can make up their own dances to vintage rock and roll; they can also learn more recent styles like the Hustle, Apache Line Dancing, and Uprocking, the latest craze to emerge from Brooklyn.
Following this Playday "Dance-In" will be a "Hippy Flash Fashion/Sideshow." Outfitted by designers, the performers in this dare-to-wear event may embarrass themselves or, conversely, they may generate a renewed craze for women in buckskin fringe and men in purple paisley trousers. Don't forget your granny glasses and sideburns. The same day's programming will include a showcase for subway musicians and "Bash the Trash," a program of music made with whatever lies within reach.
It wasn't until 1991 that composer Bill Millbrodt first decided to take apart his beat-up Honda Accord and turn it into an orchestra called the Car Music Project. But it's the sort of thing people wish they had invented in the 1960s. Millbrodt's group performs on August 5, and Webster promises: "It is the weirdest, funniest thing you'll ever see."
Another wild performer will be Mark Nizer, a juggling champion and comedian who appears August 7 in South Plaza, juggling everything from lasers, fans, and ping-pong balls, the latter of which he shoots out of his mouth.
On August 11, an uptown version of the Howl Festival, which has domesticated the counter-culture that formerly ran wild in Tompkins Square Park, will bring a parade of curious characters and street theater from the East Village to Lincoln Center.
As usual, everyone is welcome to attend these free concerts and events, and you can bet they will. Lincoln Center Out of Doors never fails to rope in the crowds, but Webster has a knack for making everyone feel at home. The openness of the festival creates a special atmosphere in which audience members can't help feeling young and free. Each year, a warmth and gentleness of spirit drifts across the plaza with the summer breeze.
Recalling the optimism and communal spirit of that long-ago decade, Webster says: "People felt anything was possible, and that they would all do it together."
Robert Johnson writes about dance for the Star-Ledger in Newark.