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"The Day" // Photo: Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow

The Day Tackles Life, Death And All In Between At The Kennedy Center

The expiry of life is a shared experience. Yet, though our existence is riddled with these life-ending and life-altering moments, we tend to struggle with the acceptance or articulation of this obligatory unknowingly path-dependent terminus.

Fortunate for us, world-renowned cellist Maya Beiser has initiated a two-part collaborative effort, where audience members visiting the Kennedy Center December 6-7 will embark on a partially guided journey named The Day. Here, onlookers will grapple with their acceptance of life, death and everything in between, depending on your religious or ideological beliefs. 

The conception of World to Come, the sequel of The Day, began forming during September 11, 2001, while American composer David Lang and Beiser were commissioned by Carnegie Hall to produce an evening performance.

The two were living in New York during the attack on the World Trade Center, and inspiration sprung from the unfathomable event, wherein the title of their work even emulates the acronym, WTC.

“The piece just became informed by that event,” Beiser says. “In particular, by this incomprehensible idea that there were thousands of people who woke up that morning, took the train or car and went to work, and a few hours later they were all gone weeks afterward. People in Union Square were just walking around sort of dazed with signs of their loved ones they were still looking for. People were looking for those who just kind of disappeared…that became the subject of this piece.”

The Day, was imagined after its sister title World To Come.

“We wanted to create this piece that is really about life; it’s really about the sanctity of memory,” Beiser says. “For this particular case, there were two compositions that were relating to death and September 11, something personal but also universal. I think super personal things are also the things that resonate with all of us on some level. We all, of course, have this predicament. We are all born and we are all going to die someday.”

The Day will feature three significant artistic expressions: Music, composed by Lang and performed by Beiser; dance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs; and performed by Wendy Whelan. Finally, there will be poetic texts crowdsourced online to reinforce the importance of memory.

“Three-hundred different people are answering the question, ‘If I remember the day?’ and it’s all these different memories from things that we think are super profound or super mundane, but they are all being told in this matter of fact and without any judgment [space]”, Beiser explains.

The text illuminated onstage is without a narrative, yet, naturally conveys, “what’s important and not important to us, and what it is that makes our lives and our human experience a community.” 

Beiser will tell you firsthand that she is a visual musician, “You know, I’m a musician but I always see music, I don’t just hear it. Music has a very large sonic visual palette for me. When I play and when I perform, the visuals are always important to me.”

“As I was recording [The Day], I kept imagining a women dancer who danced with and who would communicate with me.”

In true Beiser fashion, she elicits the prowess of former New York City Ballet Company ballerina turned artistic director,  Wendy Whelan, whom she came to admire since their meeting in 2010. “I thought she would be the absolute perfect person for this idea.”

Whelan joined the illustrious team without hesitation,.

“We just clicked personality-wise”, Whelan reminiscing over her early encounters with Beiser.  

Whelan’s international dance career spans more than 30 years, so we wondered, how does her experience impact her movements concerning the illustration of life and death? 

“It’s been interesting,” she says. “Since I left the New York City Ballet [as a principle dancer] five years ago, I’ve lost maybe five very very close friends. They’ve died very young, and I have to say, these experiences in dealing with this kind of lost have very much affected how I look at this work and what I bring to the work.”

“There’s sort of simplicity to [The Day]. I don’t overthink, I just dive into the work and almost relax into it. Because of my experiences and my age, I let go in life. I’ve let go of the ballet. I’ve let go of friends. The power in letting go is everything. We all want to control and we want to push through and hang on. The realization is that this sort of letting go of different chapters in our life or different people, it gets you to the next place. It helps us evolve and land with new wisdom. I’ve sort of learned the beauty and power in that, and I try to let that experience come through in my being.”

The Day is showing at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, December 6-7 at 8 p.m. on both days. Tickets are $25-$69 and can be purchased online here.

The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Jason Moran (left) and The Bandwagon // Photo: courtesy of Jason Moran

Between the Riffs: Catching Up With Jazz Musician Jason Moran

The DC music scene is known for being the home of the go-go, however, it’s also more diverse and alive than ever. This includes its burgeoning jazz. To add to this, in May 2014, the Kennedy Center recognized Jason Moran, an accomplished jazz musician, for his talent and appointed him as the Artistic Director for Jazz. With his help, the Kennedy Center has expanded their jazz programs here in DC. On November 9, Jason Moran and The Bandwagon will celebrate their 20th anniversary, and along with Ingrid Laubrock, they will perform music from Moran’s album, Black Stars at the Kennedy Center. We got the chance to ask Moran a few questions and learn more about him and his thoughts on DC’s jazz atmosphere before his big performance.

On Tap: In 2016, you said you’re still trying to play like Teddy Wilson. Taking a moment to reflect on your musical journey, have you managed to play like him yet?
Jason Moran: If I referred to Teddy Wilson, it was that my teacher Jaki Byard had a father that loved Teddy Wilson. Jaki’s father said to him, “if you’re going to play piano, can you play like Teddy Wilson.” Wilson is a marker for not only technique but also in terms of being one of the “firsts.” To be the African-American musician that symbolized the breaking down of racial codes in the same way Jackie Robinson did for [Major League Baseball]. To answer your question, no, I won’t ever be able to crystallize quite like Teddy Wilson, but I am happy to be on the journey of musical excellence combined with civilian bravery.  

OT: What did it mean for you to be appointed as the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center?
JM: The Kennedy Center continues to define its role as an arts leader and to know that how we cultivate the history of jazz under our roof is very exciting and challenging. I take the role very seriously, and only after a few years have I begun to understand the magnitude of such a position. The creator of the role, Dr. Billy Taylor, was an advocate for the music. His foresight brought much of what I hope to continue to preserve within the Kennedy Center. He continued to nurture the music in each state: past, present and future.  

OT: What has it been like to work with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits for the 20th anniversary? What are some of your fondest memories from when you first formed The Bandwagon?
JM: Tarus and Nasheet are my big brothers. I depend on them to push and pull The Bandwagon to new territories. One of my fondest memories for us is around how we were actually fired as a band. We were the rhythm section for a few bands around the turn of the century (funny phrase). The bandleaders did not like us all together, so they usually fired one of us and kept two. Eventually, we figured out that we were a unit that was better left free to roam. Despite the criticism from the beginning, we remained a unit because we were forming a language as a band that would help define our era. We ruffled the edges, folded them in, then burned them and smeared the ashes along the wall. We tagged the music.  

OT: You performed with Sam Rivers on the sax for Black Stars. What was it like working with him?
JM: Sam Rivers was a revolutionary. He was free thinking in his playing and composing. He was also the band mate of two of my teachers, Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill. So, to create Black Stars with him was thrilling because it was as if he was my uncle. He took The Bandwagon on a ride that we are forever thankful, because it was the first sign that we were looking for history to tell us the future.  

OT: You believe in cross-genre collaboration. In Facing Left, you covered Björk’s electro-pop/avant-garde song “Joga” and paired your music with comedy. Is combining genres a personal preference, or does it serve a bigger purpose for your sound?
JM: I believe my compositions sound better when set against another composer. Björk is one, Albert King [is] another, Rachmaninoff, etc. Also, I think I look for themes in the music to find meaning. Sometimes the next best thing to playing a song you wrote is to play a song you love.  

OT: You reshaped and refocused the Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead professional development program. You helped create a curriculum to work with other DC art organizations. Can you share the results of collaboration?
JM: You would have to ask the students because the students continue to tell us about the value of Betty Carter’s program. Many of the students have gone on to create quite a stir. In recent years, Jazzmeia Horn has set quite an example as a student of Jazz Ahead and then striking out on world tours. I think awakening the students’ sensibilities toward the arts is important to keeping the music healthy.  

OT: What do you think of the jazz scene in DC? Do you think your work with the Kennedy Center has helped jazz connect with a younger audience? What more could be done?
JM: The DC jazz scene is profound. Watching musicians lead sessions nearly every night of the week, open new venues, create new jazz festivals, document the music with different online resources, historians abound and at all of the clubs listening. [Plus] DJs on the radio with all the history one would ever need, institutions preserving and continuing to employ the musicians, the universities pushing out great musicians. The scene in DC has always been vast, and at the Kennedy Center, we continue to promote the music, and the (hopefully young) audiences know they have space here to live and grow with the music. 

OT: What can jazz fans and people who frequent the Kennedy Center for events expect from the November 9th show?
JM: Openness!!!  

Moran is set to hit the Kennedy Center stage on November 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance are $29-$49. For more information about the show or Moran’s work at the Kennedy Center, visit here.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Manganiyar Seduction, courtesy of the Artist

World Stages Brings The Manganiyar Seduction To Kennedy Center

I have never been to India. Other than watching a handful of Bollywood movies, I know virtually nothing about Indian culture. This is not due to a lack of interest; I like learning about different customs and traditions outside of my own. I just get caught up in my own way of life and forget to appreciate how captivating and diverse the world at large can be.

Luckily, living in a cultural hub like DC means there are plenty of opportunities to learn about and experience different cultures – especially through the arts.   

The Kennedy Center’s World Stages series brings extraordinary talent from around the world to the nation’s capital. The latest musical group to take the Eisenhower Theatre stage was The Manganiyar Seduction, more than 40 singers and instrumentalists from the Rajasthani deserts of India performing traditional Manganiyar music. 

Back for the second time at the venue, the Manganiyar musicians sat behind a four-story wall divided into 32 pods. The sold-out crowd sat in darkness and anticipation as one of the 32 red curtains opened. Bright bulbs of light outlined the pod as a man began to strum low notes on a string instrument that I didn’t recognize.  

As the lights flared around another pod, the curtain opened to reveal a different man who began to sing in perfect harmony with the strings. As more lights came to life, more curtains opened and the music swelled with the additional vocalists, drummers and string instruments. In addition to being visually stimulating to the audience, the component of  illumination illustrated who was playing and when they were playing. It made the large group seem much smaller and the concert more intimate. 

However, the light was not the only guide for the musicians as the performance featured a very enthusiastic conductor. 

Conductor Deu Khan was a stark contrast from any I had ever seen before. In bare feet, he danced in front of the wall of musicians leading them with head nods, arm movements and a clicking instrument. It almost seemed like he was communicating in a silent language the audience wasn’t privy to. As opposed to a baton, the clicking instrument lead the musicians while also adding to the sound. 

At one point, he turned his attention to the audience. He created a pattern of clicks that the audience repeated in a series of claps. Ranging in levels of difficulty, the audience participated in the performance, as the band played softy behind him. 

In the big finale, the entire band played as the lights rode across the wall in horizontal and vertical designs. However, this didn’t mark the end of the show. Khan brought out the creator and director, Roysten Abel, who introduced the musicians and spoke to the audience.

“Love is the message of the night,” Abel said.    

Abel then asked if the audience wanted to hear an encore. If the standing ovation wasn’t enough, the thunderous applause indicated their desire to hear more. 

In contrast to the more jovial, traditional music that had been played throughout the night, the encore was a soft ballad about “seeing love in all things.” As the tune began to fade, all 32 red curtains closed. 

The Manganiyar Seduction is now off to bring their culture and music to New York City. Undoubtedly, the enthusiasm with which they were welcomed to DC is a likely indication they will return. 

The beautiful music and joyous energy they brought to the stage was unparalleled to any performance I’ve seen. And while it was for only 80 minutes, I feel lucky to have heard a piece of Manganiyar culture.     

For more information about the The Kennedy Center’s World Stages series, visit here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day in the Life with Simone Eccleston, the Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music

When you think of hip-hop venues in DC, it’s probably fair to say that the Kennedy Center isn’t the first that comes to mind – but perhaps this sentiment is beginning to shift. In recent years, the nationally renowned institution has made exceptionally large steps toward taking hip-hop more seriously as a conduit for culture, including several festivals and concerts featuring performances by legendary stalwart Nas and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar. In 2016, A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip became the Kennedy Center’s first artistic director for hip hop culture, and less than a year later, the center announced the appointment of Simone Eccleston as its first-ever director of hip hop culture and contemporary music.

Since then, Eccleston has worked with Q-Tip and other members of the center’s hip hop culture council, which includes an impressive amount of star power and influence such as Questlove, LL Cool J, Big Boi, Common, MC Lyte and a score of others. Though Eccleston’s name may not evoke the same kind of awe from hip-hop heads as Q-Tip or Common, this doesn’t diminish her impact. Since taking on the mantle of director in this brand-new initiative, there’s undoubtedly been an uptick in programming investigating the cultural impacts of hip-hop, from workshops to film screenings and other intersectional events in-between. To learn more about her inaugural position at the helm of hip-hop culture, we spoke to Eccleston about her affinity for hip-hop, her ongoing mission and what she’s learned in the role.

On Tap: What are your earliest memories of hip-hop?
Simone Eccleston: The first song that I remember knowing word for word was LL cool J’s “Around The Way Girl.” I was age 10 at that point. There was something about the energy of the song and the video. It was fun and had an unapologetic New York vibe. I loved the way that it celebrated independent women and reminded me of women in my neighborhood. At 12, I heard Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s T.R.O.Y. and my whole world changed. It was so honest, vulnerable and familiar. I connected with it immediately. It’s still one of my favorite songs.

OT: Are there other artists who stuck out to you in your formative years?
SE: The artists that really helped me fall in love with hip-hop and see myself reflected early on were MC Lyte and Queen Latifah. They were both strong women with powerful lyrics. Their self-possession was inspiring. I remember seeing them and aspiring to be a woman of strength.


Five Things Simone Can’t Live Without
Prayer
Family
Purpose
Live music
A great DJ


OT: If you could’ve told that 10-year-old girl in the Bronx listening to LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte that in the future you’d be on the phone with these people, what would she have said?
SE: My 10-year-old self would bust out with The Running Man [Laughs]. I will say this: not necessarily when I was 10, but when I was 16 [to] 25 through now, there was a part of me that always knew I would be working in service of the culture. I knew my life’s work and purpose would be tied to celebrating the genius of people of color.

OT: Did you ever think you’d be in a role like this, focusing on the culture of hip-hop?
SE: I remember when [the Kennedy Center] announced their commitment to hip-hop culture as a program in 2016, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I want to be there.”  Who would have thought I would be the inaugural director, working with Q-Tip and our incredible council? They’re an incredible community that is so committed to being of service to the culture. They reflect the very best of who we are.

OT: Is it ever surreal for you to be working with some of the people you credit with your love of the genre?
SE: Yes, it can be surreal. But more than surreal, it’s incredibly humbling and gratifying. Being able to partner and collaborate with them to do this work is a gift and a blessing, and I don’t take it for granted. To be able to partner with someone like Q-Tip, who has deeply inspired my love of hip-hop and [A] Tribe [Called Quest] as a group – he’s such a visionary. He’s someone who’s so committed to ensuring that it’s never about him. It’s about the culture. You’ll never really see him trying to insert himself in particular ways. Instead, he’s like, “Use me so that way we can create space for others.”

OT: Why has hip-hop resonated with you in such a profound way, to the point that you’d dedicate at least this part of your career to it?
SE: There isn’t a place where hip-hop isn’t. Part of [the Kennedy Center’s] charge as an institution is not only to celebrate the tenets of the culture, but its intersections. You think about how hip-hop has informed fashion and film – it’s in practically all media content. Our role as an institution is to be able to create a space for all of that to be seen. Even if you think you don’t have a connection, you’re connected. Hip-hop not only shapes culture, it creates culture.


Five Work Must-Haves
Our incredible Hip Hop Council
A White board + time to ideate
My pod
A great soundtrack
Music + culture podcasts


OT: Why do you think it was so important for the Kennedy Center to make such a large commitment to hip-hop?
SE: When you think about America’s art forms and when you think about hip-hop as a culture – not just about the music – I think that adds nuance, complexity and dynamism. It’s one mode of our ability to tell our stories and make ourselves visible. I think it was a platform for us to resist, even if the resistance was just us saying, “Hey, I’m here.” Historically, when you think about how we’ve been marginalized and the dismantling of our communities, hip-hop was a form of resistance. It was an opportunity to declare our presence amidst a society that was trying to erase us.

OT: That being said, how have you approached the integration of hip-hop into the Kennedy Center’s programming?
SE: Part of the impetus for us here is a celebration of hip-hop culture. For us, it’s about celebrating the genius of the culture and the genius of the communities that created it. This is about a centering of community and in ensuring that in this space, known as the nation’s performing arts center, we are truly reflective of the nation. You think about jazz being one of our greatest ambassadors, but hip-hop is equal if not greater when you think about the way it provides space on a national, [even] global level. You can see it when you go to different communities across the globe. People are using it as an opportunity to provide voice and visibility for themselves, but also to resist.

OT: How have things grown at the Kennedy Center over the past two years?
SE: At every show, there’s always a handful of people that come up and say, “Thank you.” [They’re] people who had never come to the Kennedy Center that now do. The institutional commitment to hip-hop culture as an anchor program came in 2016, but that wasn’t without years of groundwork being laid. What I’m seeing is clearly a growth in programming, but [also] a presence across the institution. You’ll have intersections with our special events. You’ll have intersections with our education department. You’ll see all of these different ways in which hip-hop is continuing to undergird, imprint and transform the work of the institution.

OT: What are some things you’ve learned that you didn’t expect?
SE: Just the lesson that transformation takes time. None of us will truly know the real results of our work until 10 or 20 years after it’s done. It’s about being patient and understanding the work isn’t about us. It’s about the people we’re trying to serve and the change we’re trying to make. We’re here and we have an ambitious goal of being a 21st-century performing arts organization. It’s teaching us the ways we need to evolve our work and our processes in accordance with that. It’s a formidable challenge, but I think we’re up to the task.

For more about the Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music programming, visit www.kenney-center.org/calendar/series/HHC.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Darian Volkova, courtesy of State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

Review: Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita at the Kennedy Center

A young girl and her father are sitting across from me on the shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center. She’s wearing colorful dinosaur tights. I look down at my own tights – black with a small tear threatening to become a hole. The other people on the shuttle are dressed in crisp suits and elegant dresses. We’re all on our way to see the Mariinsky Ballet perform Paquita

I worry that once I step inside the building, I’ll feel even more out of place. The stereotype of the stuffy ballet attendee doesn’t coincide with my thrift store dress or the fast food I ate for dinner. Am I couth enough to see a ballet? Am I couth enough to use the word couth?

I’m not sure how ballet took on this reputation, but Paquita was far from stuffy; it was whimsical, exciting and heartfelt. A storybook narrative that came to life with every twirl of a cape or swish of a skirt. The picturesque painted sets and hanging props served as a beautiful backdrop for the romantic tale of Paquita and Andres.

As a ballet beginner, the playbill proved a great companion. The clear synopsis quelled my fears of confusion. While normally spoilers are unwanted, they were helpful in knowing what’s happening while still being able to focus on the dancers. It also provided history about the production and the Mariinsky Ballet. You don’t have to know the difference between a pirouette and a plie to understand the storyline or appreciate the talent involved. 

Maria Khoreva was stunning as the spirited, strong-willed Paquita. Stolen from nobility at birth, Paquita now lives as a street dancer with a traveling group. She has many adoring suitors, but it is Andres who she asks to prove his love. Andres joins the travelers but finds troubles when the group is accused of theft. The third and final act ends in a grand pas wedding that features lead performers and soloists.   

I found myself being caught off guard by the moments of humor. I genuinely didn’t know that ballet could be so funny. One scene featured two men dancing, perfectly in sync, beneath a horse costume. A third man proceeded to try and ride said horse. The audience was audibly amused. Several times throughout the performance awes and exclamations could be heard throughout the arena. It felt like we were all watching a sporting event together and our team was doing really well. 

Outside of the opera house is a glass case featuring the costumes worn in the show. Every handsewn bead is a reminder of the work put into the show. Every tutu was perfectly fluffed. Every note of the orchestra, lead by Gavriel Heine, was at the exact right moment. The amount of syncretization that goes into the production is unfathomable to me – I can’t even get all of my friends to show up for lunch at the same time. Yuri Smekalov managed to create a nearly three-hour dance routine that never became dull or tedious.   

You can wear an expensive suit or dinosaur tights and it doesn’t matter because ballet is a form of escapism. Who doesn’t want to enter a world where all conflict is fought through dance and everything ends with a big wedding? There is a reason why the Mariinsky Ballet has been putting on performances since the 18th century, and it has nothing to do with the disposition of the audience. It’s the combination of beauty, passion and skill that makes going to the ballet a timeless event. 

The Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita is being performed at the Kennedy Center through October 13. For information on tickets and showtimes, visit here.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org 

Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St.NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf // Photos: Rich Kessler

Inside the Living, Breathing World of the Washington National Opera’s Costume Design

“They think of the costumes as living, breathing things. They develop intense relationships with the costumes themselves as they’re literally forming them with their hands.”

Timothy O’Leary is describing the love story between the Washington National Opera (WNO)’s costume team and the works of art they fit to singers not like a glove, but like a second layer of skin, an extension of their very being. And it’s an easy romance to get swept up in.

As WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf walks me through her vast costume shop in Takoma, my little performing arts geek heart begins to pitter patter. There’s a wig-making studio and a fabric-dying room and walls lined with every brightly colored shoe imaginable, not to mention never-ending rows of textures organized by production and drawers upon drawers of tiaras and pearls and other costumed jewels.

I’m sent over the edge when she pulls out a cape from the 1981 opera The Magic Flute, made particularly notable by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak’s iconic design aesthetic. The ticking along the fabric looks remarkably like Sendak’s costume sketches and illustrations from his classic children’s book, and though not totally sure, she’s pretty convinced we’re touching fabric hand illustrated by Sendak himself.

“I’m just in awe of a costume shop like hers,” O’Leary says of LeBoeuf and her team’s 20,000-square-foot space. “The people who work there feel so strongly about doing everything exactly right.”

This devotion not only to precision but to the craft itself is evident in my hour spent with LeBoeuf, as she shares insight into the meticulous level of detail and care her staff must treat each individual costume with – and her own lifelong love affair with opera.

The 64-year-old costume director has been with the WNO, an artistic affiliate of the Kennedy Center, for 31 years, describing herself as “one of the lucky ones” for being able to spend her career doing what she went to school for. She started out as a freelance costume designer after receiving two theatre degrees, playing the role of designer, patternmaker, stitcher, painter, dyer and more before landing her a job with the District’s opera company in 1998.

Not only does she oversee costuming needs for all WNO productions, LeBoeuf and her team support other Kennedy Center programs as needed like its Theater for Young Audiences and Broadway Center Stage, including last fall’s Little Shop of Horrors. She describes the WNO costume studio, which has housed her staff’s robust operations since 2001, as a building shop.

When the WNO embarks on a new production or needs to create new costumes, her team works with designers to acquire the right fabrics for whatever they’re making. And though many of the operas brought to the Kennedy Center are touring productions with existing costumes, she notes that they still have to be customized to the WNO singers’ bodies.

“That’s our job, no matter if you’re the title character of if you are just in a crowd scene,” LeBoeuf says. “Every single costume on our stage is custom-fit to whoever gets to wear it.”

There’s much, much more that goes into each customization than the average audience member might realize, as opera singers have very specific needs onstage.

“Singers have a different kind of movement that they have to do,” she continues. “They have to be able to breathe. They have to be able to hear. We answer a lot of those types of questions in the fitting. It’s fun. I have so much respect for the way a singer prepares for a role, and it’s always been my secret delight to have something to do with that. We’re here to support.”

The scope and breadth of how the proverbial sausage is made is overwhelming: custom colorization of flesh-colored inserts to perfectly match singers’ flesh tones; crafting accurate, realistic hairlines for every single wig; and the stealthy insertion of cooling gel packs into wool uniforms for singers to avoid sweating profusely onstage, to name a few. But of paramount importance is giving singers as much flexibility and range of motion for their vocal cords as possible – often requested by male vocalists in particular is extra breathing room in fabric covering their throats.

“I like to think of costumes as a bit of armor that our performers put on to face what they call ‘the mouth of the wolf,’” LeBoeuf says. “That means you’re saying, ‘Good luck,’ because when the curtain opens and you face the audience, they are the wolf and you’re facing the mouth of the wolf. Those Italians, they’re so passionate and illustrative. I like to think of the costume as a bit of armor to help with that process.”

She describes each singer’s relationship with their costume as deeply personal, noting the often transformative and vulnerable moments that occur during the first fitting.

“Just about the most rewarding part of this job – aside from seeing those designs become three-dimensional costumes, that presents its own joy – is when you get to go in the fitting room and introduce a singer to a costume. You see them start to adapt those clothes as part of their character. That’s a huge moment for me. To get to see that brought to bear onstage is what keeps me here. It’s so much fun.”

LeBoeuf and her team act as translators of sorts, walking singers through the intricacies of their costumes while also honoring the conception of each individual production as envisioned by the stage director and designers.

“Within the context of the inevitable conversations we have when we are in a fitting situation, which is very personal as you would imagine, it is our job to answer any questions and give any information that we can to help that performer understand why they’re being asked to wear this particular costume this particular way.”

O’Leary has great respect for LeBoeuf and what he describes as her very high-pressure job to meet the costuming needs of performers who are doing something incredibly physically intense with their bodies onstage.

“People like Marsha and all the people who work within the costume shop are magician problem solvers because of the enormity of the task of putting an entire cast, chorus and dancers into all of the costumes that have to be fitted exactly to them. There’s an absolute deadline: opening night curtain. Everything’s got to be ready.”

The WNO’s general director reiterates how much the costumes matter to the singers, allowing them to truly inhabit their characters. He waxes poetic about how opera is a completely vibrant art form in the 21st century, and an enormously expressive medium.

“It’s not worth telling a story in opera if there’s no reason for the characters to express their feelings through this kind of singing,” he says. “Some stories make more sense as a play or a movie, but some stories make sense as an opera because they deal with the deepest emotions that we have.”

The kind of singing he’s referring to is what LeBoeuf describes as “different from anything else that’s amplified.”

“The amplification is natural,” she says. “The loudness you hear from those instruments comes from the instruments themselves. The voices you hear in your seat in the second tier are not coming to you through speakers. They’re coming to you from those singers’ vocal apparatuses.”

Both WNO leaders rave about the upcoming season, with Otello opening on October 26 and the aforementioned The Magic Flute opening on November 2. O’Leary describes Otello as a blood-and-guts Italian opera that lives up to the traditional definition of opera with every fiber, and playfully refers to The Magic Flute as a “gateway opera,” a great introduction to the genre for Sendak fans and opera newbies alike.

Magic Flute is adorable,” LeBoeuf says. “If heavy drama isn’t your bag, come to Magic Flute. It’s uplifting like crazy, and colorful. It was created originally by Maurice Sendak and it has been loved for many years. The original scenery was lost in Hurricane Katrina and has been lovingly recreated. Some of the original costumes did survive and they are from his creative source. They’re very Sendakian looking.”

She and O’Leary mention the highly anticipated opera Blue, coming to the Kennedy Center next March, about a family’s tragic experience losing their teenage son to a police shooting. LeBoeuf embraces the unique challenges of getting the costumes just right for a 21st-century production.

“This is a contemporary tragic tale ripped right off the headlines, so people are going to know what they’re looking at. If you’re putting a New York cop onstage, it’s got to look like a New York cop. If you’re putting his troubled teenager onstage, you’ve got to know who that is. You don’t come out of those performances screaming about the costumes. They don’t take an overt presence in your mind. But the characters get under your skin, so you’ve got to get that right.”

O’Leary views this new opera as a modern version of works that came before it, a window into the breadth of the art form.

“Opera is so weighted down with stereotype that the broader public often doesn’t realize that a piece like Blue is just part of a continuum,” he says.

When I ask LeBoeuf why she thinks opera remains relevant, she tells me that every time she’s subconsciously put the genre in a box, her eyes have been opened.

“People who are not in my generation – and not just 30-somethings, I’m talking about teenagers – I will encounter them and realize they have discovered this performing art form, and really think it’s great and want to be exposed to more of it. This amazing combination of orchestra music, theatre and some incredibly beautiful singing can just take you to a different place emotionally.

I really think that sitting quietly and letting opera happen to you is a very rewarding experience if you will take the time to let it happen.”

Otello runs from October 26 to November 16 with tickets starting at $45, and The Magic Flute runs from November 2-23 with tickets starting at $25. Learn more about the WNO’s upcoming season at www.kennedy-center.org/wno.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org/wno

Welcome Pavilion from South with Sedum Swoop // Photo: Richard Barnes

The Art + Architecture of The REACH

The Kennedy Center’s original building may be a box-like structure in its physical form, but it has truly grown into a space that cannot be boxed in. A monument, performing arts space, educational center and must-see stop on a list of tourist travel plans: these are all roles the space has held since opening in 1971. 

Naturally, as the Center’s roles have shifted, so have the needs of the community it serves. That’s where The REACH comes in. An expansion of the Center, its sprawling, subterranean layout and public art installations are just as integral to the vision of this new endeavor as the programming that will take place in it. 

The care and attention to detail invoked by those involved in designing the building and placing the art within provides another layer to the deep commitment of the Center – not only to the legacy of its namesake who cherished the arts so dearly, but for the community it will serve in the years to come. 

THE ARCHITECTURE

Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects, says the selection of their firm to design The REACH was a once-in-a-lifetime commission – the kind of project that makes up an architect’s dream. 

With its serene, subterranean layout, exterior slopes made up of glistening white titanium concrete and lush greenery surrounding the grounds, McVoy says The REACH represents more than a stunning arts campus or extension of the institution the Center established with its original building.

“We had a chance to transform a 1970s notion of what a national performing arts center [is] into a 21st century vision,” he says. “It’s an expansion of an existing building that hasn’t really been touched since 1971.”

McVoy notes how the performing arts and the spaces that house them have changed since the Center opened, both in the District and nationally.

“This was a chance to take that 1971 model and completely transform it and open it up. In the original building, [the arts] are really now held within a box – a very large box. This was a chance to break that open, turn it inside out and open it up to the city.”

Although the building is made of the aforementioned white titanium concrete, another material is an essential part of the building: natural light. McVoy says that Holl will always say natural light is his favorite material when asked what he prefers to work with.

That affinity followed Holl, McVoy and their team to The REACH in an especially effective way. The sweeping windows, skylights and frosted glass blur the lines between the natural and the manmade. When walking through The REACH, it’s easy to forget you’re in an urban space as you’re enveloped by sunshine and greenery throughout.

“[Natural light] is essential to your psychological sense of well-being,” McVoy continues. “You feel good when you have a connection to the outdoors. You know what the weather is like outside, you know what time of day it is, you know what season it is. When you put that in a rehearsal space or performance space, it gives the artists or the audience a critical connection to the outdoors. It’s inspiring. Often when you’re rehearsing, you’re there eight hours a day. To have this feeling of relief in the light gives a whole inspiration to the process of making art.”

McVoy and senior associate Garrick Ambrose felt inspired during the process of constructing The REACH, pioneering an internal design element with their team just for the space. Called crinkle concrete, it adorns the walls of the Justice Forum and other rehearsal spaces. And although the Justice Forum is the only room in the space without windows, the fluidity created by the design also emulates the same natural serenity as the rest of the building. Its crisp acoustics are also novel, as concrete is not necessarily known for creating purity of sound.

McVoy notes that his team had the idea to imprint the concrete with a texture that does the acoustical work of diffusing the sound.

“We did many studies of what kind of texture we could put into the form work of the concrete to create this diffusion. [Ambrose] was doing experiments and found this idea of a crinkle concrete, where by taking a sheet of aluminum and bending it and banging it up and then using that as the liner that the concrete is cast against, [it] creates the ideal acoustical texture to mitigate flutter echo and diffuse the sound in the space.”

Once perfected, the team took their creation to the rest of the rehearsal spaces. While they met their goal acoustically, the accomplishment is twofold. The fluidity provided by the crinkle concrete is not only aesthetically appealing but provides a metaphorical distinction of the fluidity in the arts that The REACH itself represents.

“When you see this texture, especially in the Justice Forum, it’s immaterial,” McVoy explains. “On the one hand, it [appears] carved out of solid rock. And then on the other hand, it seems as light as folded paper. And then, especially in the Justice Forum where we’re lighting it right along the surface – we’re just raking it with light – the textures [are] particularly pronounced and immaterial. In fact, it’s a concrete structural wall but it feels like a folded texture of light.”

Though the Center’s original space will always stand as the iconic monument to its namesake’s legacy and commitment to the arts, the fluid and flexible notions brought forth in The REACH – both in structure and ideology – surely show the creative future Kennedy advocated for as the catalyst of change in our modern times. 

THE ART

Longtime DC residents will be greeted by a familiar figure when entering the grounds of The REACH: Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes, on loan from The Hirshhorn. The 1996 sculpture is just one of three outdoor sculptures that, along with many other pieces of art indoors, were selected with the help of Dr. Elizabeth Broun.

“I’ve been a longtime admirer of the Kennedy Center and the role they play – not just in Washington but across the country – to encourage the performing arts,” says Broun, The REACH’s visual arts advisor. “It’s an organization with a deep sense of mission and a real commitment to the idea that the arts can really express American life.”

Broun, who served for many years as the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and retired in 2016, says her involvement in The REACH is a perfect way for her to stay engaged with the arts and work with one of the most prestigious, fabulous arts organizations in America.

She took Kennedy’s legacy as a powerful arts advocate to heart while working with artists, museums and donors to adorn the space. She notes that while a connection to the Kennedy administration was not a necessary requirement for inclusion, there are some beautiful connections to his life that make an appearance at The REACH – namely in the case of painter Sam Gilliam and sculptor Joel Shapiro.

Gilliam’s work, which Broun describes as “lyrical and musical,” drapes across the interior space. Shapiro’s sculpture almost appears to “pirouette” across the lawn, and she envisions it becoming something of an iconic symbol of The REACH due to its visibility from the river, the highway and within the landscape of the building.

“[Gilliam] is really the internationally acclaimed dean of Washington’s artists. He’s long been affiliated with Washington. He came to the city in 1962 during the Kennedy administration, so we liked that reference. We liked that Joel Shapiro was actually in the third cohort of Peace Corps volunteers in India. The Kennedy legacy really does live on and is a very active component in the arts.”

In working to bring this incredible array of American art to The REACH, Broun’s hopes lie in the idea that patrons will see the multidimensional impacts of the arts that harken back to the Kennedy legacy it so gracefully pays tribute to.

“People mostly don’t think of the Kennedy Center as being about art, except for maybe that great big bronze head of Kennedy that’s in the foyer. I hope it makes them sort of reflect a little bit that yes, this is a great center for all of the arts in America. It’s encouraging the arts of every type. It’s comprehensive in the same way that President Kennedy’s vision for the arts was to be a beacon and related to our democracy. It’s about public spaces and public art. I hope they respond to all of that.”

For more on the work of Chris McVoy and Steven Holl Architects, go to www.stevenholl.com. Visit www.reach.kennedy-center.org for continuing announcements about upcoming programming at The REACH. 

Alysia Lee and Ty Defoe // Photo: Tony Powell

The REACH’s Opening Festival

The inside spaces of the Kennedy Center’s The REACH are spacious and cavernous, like an underground college building with rooms ripe for seminars, classes, performances, films and whatever other kind of programming the Center offers, which is to say almost anything. The outside buildings are equally stunning, standing tall not in an intimidation, but a reassurance.

The facility had yet to open when we walked through the grounds in mid-July, but it was easy to close your eyes and imagine a swath of people congregating in one of the spacious fields for a concert or a movie projected directly on the side of their sloping creations. Soon, there won’t be much left to the imagination as the Center is set to unleash every kind of installation you can think of – big name to small name, hip-hop to opera, dance to painting, sculpture to DJs.

“We’ll achieve a vision in people’s minds,” says Robert van Leer, the Kennedy Center’s senior vice president of artistic planning. “And I mean everyone: artists, staff, visitors, civic leaders. When you open a new building, there’s a process that comes up with that vision, but it’s important to start with what it can be.”

From Saturday, September 7 through Sunday, September 22, the Kennedy Center’s The REACH Opening Festival will feature close to 500 free events inviting people to explore the space, participate in workshops, and see headlining acts such as Robert Glasper, Bootsy Collins, The Second City, Thievery Corporation and so much more.

“It’s a great way to illustrate what The REACH can do,” van Leer continues. “It’s a combination of all of those things and a chance to learn with the artists to see what the future opportunities can be.”

Artists Ty Defoe and Alysia Lee are perfect examples of the diverse range of creative talent participating in the festivities. Both will travel from different East Coast cities – Baltimore and NYC, respectively – to support The REACH and take part in the public’s first invitation to the campus.

“I like the word festival,” Defoe says. “I like the word joy and I like the word connection. I feel like among those words, it reminds me that we’re at a time right now where the arts are a place of healing, celebration and activation. The arts not only change people’s minds, but people’s hearts. I feel like we’re in a time where that is very necessary right now.”

Defoe is an interdisciplinary artist from New York slated to participate in two events: a panel titled “The New Contemporary in Native American Art” and an interactive participatory hoop dance. The latter is only allotted 15 minutes, but despite this expedited runtime, the movement has several different layers all geared toward a unique experience.

“I’ve been working on this since I was 7 years old,” Defoe says. “It gets at a lot of intersections that I like to operate in, which is contemporary indigenous culture, community, spectacle, and utilizing spaces [both] indoors and outdoors. Also, [knowing] this festival will have all these amazing people of culture coming together in that circle, there was no other thing in my mind that came up besides this.”

The dance starts off with a story about finding a way through fighting and warring as a community, but it’s not all spoken. For some, the narrative is better understood through a series of physical steps, hence the hoop dance.

“I’ll weave myself in and out of these hoops to make different shapes – things you’d see in nature like trees, plants, flowers and animals – to pay honor to the equity of all living things,” Defoe continues. “The interactive part breaks down the multigenerational part because as adults, we are sometimes living in our heads and not able to feel. No matter who you are – shape, size, color – you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with your friend or relative.”

While Defoe’s interactive performance welcomes all people in attendance to gather around and dance, Lee’s workshop about protest songs will focus on inspiring middle school children to express themselves in tune. As a Kennedy Center 2019-2020 Citizen Arts Fellow and multifaceted vocalist, Lee is an obvious choice to lead an educational workshop for the opening festival.

“I really want to have something where kids walk away with something they created,” Lee says. “I want collaboration and sharing, and something where there will be high incentive and high reward to move quickly together.”

Lee came up with the activity upon learning that a majority of 60s protest songs were parodies of oldies from the 40s and 50s. The format took form when she thought of using modern pop music to help kids write their own pieces.

“What do we care about and how can we use music as a way to voice our opinions? The accessibility of these protest songs is super cool because you can get kids to take their favorite hits and use them for social change.”

Lee feels confident that the children participating will be up for protesting, whether it be concerns about global warming or requests for more snack machines.

“Kids nowadays are so in tune because of social media,” she says. “They’re so in touch with the world in a way that I wasn’t. Kids really feel very strongly and passionately about things that are beyond them. They feel more connected to the global society.”

The REACH is also slated to feature a number of DC-based artists as part of the festival’s lineup. GIRLAAA Collective Founder Dominique Wells has coordinated a full slate of curation on opening day with a panel of female DJs – including Mane Squeeze, Ayes Cold and Niara Sterling – followed by a performance.

“We want to discuss women in the music industry and how they’re doing more than just following contemporary trends – they’re breaking barriers,” Wells says. “I feel like what they’re doing is important and monumental and necessary.”

The DC native sees The REACH as an opportunity for the Kennedy Center to better serve the underprivileged in the community by introducing them to art by way of free workshops and performances, much like the programming for the festival.

“It’s about what’s happening beyond their main space,” Wells says. “I think The REACH is going to offer a lot of people who otherwise might not come there an opportunity to experience something inclusive and diverse. They have a great team of people who are working really hard, and they’re listening to people.”

From local to national, big to small, contemporary to classical, the Kennedy Center’s The REACH Opening Festival is a multi-dimensional playground for patrons of the arts from any background. Van Leer says there are no plans to make this an annual tentpole event, so you will definitely want to revel in it while you can.

“You see all the cross-pollination that’s occurring,” Lee says of the festival programming. “It’s really inspiring and makes me think about the through-line of creativity and how things can speak. I love that the festival is a place for that. It’s hard to even fathom missing one day of it.”

To peruse the comprehensive list of events at The REACH’s Opening Festival, visit https://cms.kennedy-center.org/festivals/reach. For announcements about upcoming programming at The REACH, go to www.reach.kennedy-center.org.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph// Photo: Tony Powell)

The Vision of The REACH

“Listen man, Q-Tip is one of my heroes.”

I’m going to venture an educated guess that the first image that comes to mind when someone mentions the Kennedy Center isn’t a Haitian-American playwright and spoken-word poet choking back tears as he describes what 90s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest means to him. And yet, here we are.

I’m sitting next to Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Kennedy Center’s vice president and artistic director of social impact, in a state-of-the-art, subterranean studio space having a deeply personal conversation about how hip-hop shaped his formative years and how he now gets to work alongside one of his idols for one of the world’s most renowned arts organizations. It is at this exact moment that the driving force behind the Center’s highly anticipated expansion of its campus – The REACH – clicks into place for me.

The three sloping structures opening to the public this month were built upon the pillars of inclusivity, accessibility and interactivity as spaces to facilitate shared artistic experiences for the community. And while the Center’s leadership has invested years of strategic planning and creative thinking behind how to make the spaces as innovative as possible, they ultimately exist as a platform for artists and the community to connect on their own terms.

“We’re inaugurating a way of being in public space,” Joseph says. “People make place. While there’s been an incredible investment in the built capital of these three interconnected pavilions, there has to continue to be investment in the social capital and the social possibility that is made through the creative enterprise.”

Though the Center’s chairman of the board of trustees, David Rubenstein, had a vision for launching The REACH in 2017 to celebrate John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter says she believes the space is opening now because it is the right time to unveil it and share it with the world.

“It’s a time in our society where people crave authentic experiences they can share with others,” she says. “There is a thirst for a sense of community and inclusivity, and The REACH gives us a place for those kinds of experiences.”

Rutter likens The REACH to her own analog version of the Internet.

“I don’t believe that the only way to learn about art is through YouTube or a Google search – no matter how extensive – but rather by experiencing it firsthand. There is no question that the desire to have a shared performance experience is really high, and whatever we can do to promote that is really important.”

The spaces have garnered most of their buzz thus far surrounding The REACH’s opening festival from September 7-22 with nearly 500 events, but Rutter assures that the project will only gain forward momentum with nonstop programming from day one. The REACH will operate as both an education center and public incubator, while offering rehearsal and studio spaces where artists can practice, create, collaborate and perform.

Rutter notes she’s quite proud of the artistic programming behind projects like Studio K’s (the other two studios are Studio J and Studio F, a clever acronym for the space’s namesake) transformation into a cross-genre club and destination for locals to hang out and hear jazz or pop music or spoken word. She also credits the education team for planning curriculum for “maker space” Moonshot Studio (named for “Kennedy’s call for America to think big and travel to the moon”) that’s universally relevant and ties back to programming taking place in the Center’s main hall.

The artistic and education teams behind The REACH are integral to driving its mission forward through immersive programming, and Joseph in particular is invaluable to both sides of the house as he’s uniquely equipped to ride the fine line between artist and administrator.

“To have an artist on staff is so reassuring,” Rutter says. “It’s really helpful because it helps our administrators think about their work through that lens as well. Each of our administrators works with artists in a variety of different ways but to have one as a peer, [and as] somebody who is so enormously articulate to provide the connective tissue between ideas and programming, is invaluable.”

The Center’s president gives a great example in Dear Evan Hansen.While the marketing team is interested in sharing the date and time of the next performance with the public, Joseph is focusing his attention on how the Center can communicate that this work debates and explores difficult emotional ideas of what’s happening with young people today. Both are critical pieces of information, but with very different messaging.

“That piece for me is why it’s so important for the Kennedy Center to do this work around mission, which is to hold a mirror up to our society, to talk about the good, bad and ugly in our everyday lives, and to use art to have greater understanding of who we are,” Rutter continues. “And Marc is the kind of guy who has the capacity to do that on a huge range of topics. He [joins] a team who is so proud and excited to have somebody who can help them take great work to the next level.”

Joseph remains humble during our conversation, saying he doesn’t see a delineation between the two roles – they blur together in everything he does.

“I make culture,” he says. “Some of us, we make dances. Some of us, we make plays. Some of us, we make spreadsheets. But I work with others to make culture. I don’t segment or even bifurcate this notion of administrator and artist. Artists are entrepreneurs and administrators. There isn’t so much of a fixed economy for us.”

He notes that he’s a first-generation American who comes from struggle, and “that never leaves.” In many ways, it’s shaped his professional and creative ideology.

“In terms of my artistic practice and in terms of my administrative practice, there’s a commitment to a kind of equity – a kind of inspired, inclusive and expansive community – that I have to adhere to. What makes sense for me is culture: an inspired, collaborative, expansive, inclusive, loving culture. Anything I can do to make that happen, whether it’s making poems or making programs, I’m gonna do.”

Joseph speaks of a culture of invitation being born through The REACH, where he and his colleagues continue to shine light on culture makers of all stripes. He’s aiming to achieve this in the short-term through the Culture Caucus, a group of 35 artist organizations and individuals handpicked by the Center’s leadership because of their contributions to DC’s broad cultural landscape. He describes them as “community-facing artists-in-residence at work and at play” within The REACH’s walls.

Within the next six months, Joseph and his peers will initiate an impact band of programming to include discussion groups where instead of trying to get people to engage culture on the Center’s terms, they’ll be trying to resource artists whose work amplifies what’s happening in the local community.

“I think that the level of access to culture is different than the level of access to the Kennedy Center and I think that the Kennedy Center – and quite frankly, most arts institutions – have to see themselves as organic citizens within the body politic in a different kind of way,” he says. “It’s a reorientation of the institutional psychology. This is not something that’s just going to happen, but certainly something I’m committed to is recognizing the broad ecosystem of culture makers where they are, resourcing programs where they happen and thinking about the same thing on a national scale.”

He breaks it down for me in simpler terms. Joseph isn’t who you go to for discounted tickets to productions at the Kennedy Center. He’s who you tap when you want to amplify the artistic work being done around the city.

“Resource that and attach commitments of documentation or education or pedagogical support like this. We [as an organization] are a node, but we recognize that there are many, many spokes and many, many stars in this constellation.”

Thinking in broader terms across the nation, Joseph says the next iteration of engagement for arts organizations should be thinking about empowerment, the creative imagination and inspiration as a democratic ideal.

“I’ve been brought in [to The REACH] to infuse the institutional psychology and institutional DNA with a different way of thinking about what is sublime in the arts.”

The sense of openness at the Center lends itself to Joseph’s vision for the future, and Rutter has much to do with it. In the past five years, she’s placed giving DC a seat at the table among more traditional arts & culture hubs like New York and L.A. at the top of her list. Rutter has watched the city experience tangible changes on this front, and although she won’t give herself the credit she most certainly deserves, she along with the leaders of other influential arts institutions has helped break the stereotype of DC as a straight-laced government town. Together, DC’s arts leadership is offering a wave of cultural experiences that are both approachable and accessible to our city’s diverse community.

“I really believe that the DNA of the city has changed in a lot of different ways and that which was already of interest to the people of the city has now been able to be fully embraced,” she says. “If we can demonstrate that really exciting, interesting stuff is happening in Washington, DC and that we are bringing the country together through the arts, then we can change how people think about the importance of arts in our day-to-day life. That’s why it’s really important that as the national cultural center, we invite everybody to be here – from our elected officials to the people who can’t afford to buy tickets to the people who are avid arts lovers.”

While Rutter and Joseph agree that change is gradual, they’re both committed to the baby steps we as a city need to take. In the short-term, they’re both looking forward to this month’s opening festival and the reverberations of the its creative energy. Joseph says the hip-hop block party with headliners De La Soul on September 14 will be “off the chain” but he’s equally amped up about former Wailer (of Bob Marley and The Wailers) Junior Marvin’s DC Lovers Rock on September 22.

“I’m excited about that because love is a thing. Love is not a four-letter word. I want to center love in what it is that we do and how it is that we identify and so doing a reggae-driven ode to love at the close of summer on the river – the romantic in me just loves that.”

Rutter, on the other hand, chooses not to pinpoint just one or two events. Instead, she says she’s most excited about the juxtaposition of different kinds of activities happening simultaneously – a jazz opera going on at the same time as a dance program or taking in a Lichtenstein sculpture and then wandering over to the river pavilion and playing on the brand-new Sing for Hope Piano.

At the end of the day, her goal both for the festival and The REACH as a whole is to invite all of the other cultural organizations in our community and from around the world to share and experience the art being created and explored at the Center’s many spaces. She’s especially looking forward to seeing artists collaborate in-studio and appreciate each other’s work through The REACH’s open spaces.

“I really believe that art and artists hold a mirror up to who we are as a society and if we [act as a] facilitator, we can see into the process and understand why and how that story is being told. That’s the magic that we can do through places like this. We can’t force those new relationships, but we’re excited about creating a space where that can happen.”

Learn more about everything Deborah Rutter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the rest of their creative, committed colleagues have in store at The REACH by visiting www.reach.kennedy-center.org.

The REACH at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.reach.kennedy-center.org