At 20, an upstate arts haven keeps breaking new ground
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Sunday, July 14, 2024

At 20, an upstate arts haven keeps breaking new ground
Gideon Lester, the Fisher Center’s artistic director and chief executive, on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. on June 20, 2023. Since opening 20 years ago, the Fisher Center has emerged as a hothouse for the creation of cross-disciplinary work. (Erik Tanner/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY.- On a recent Saturday night, a group of young people were gathered in this bucolic hamlet in the Hudson Valley, building a campfire of sorts. There were no matches or flames, but there were lanterns, chirping crickets, fir trees swirled with haze and, at one point, a zombie attack.

The ersatz campfire was onstage, at the final evening performance of “Illinois,” a dance-theater piece based on Sufjan Stevens’ beloved 2005 indie-pop concept album. Directed by star choreographer Justin Peck, the show drew a sold-out crowd of arts-minded weekenders and curious Stevens fans to commune inside the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.

Since opening 20 years ago, the center’s Frank Gehry building has emerged as a hothouse for the creation of uncompromising, cross-disciplinary and sometimes hard-to-describe hits.

It’s here that Daniel Fish’s radically re-imagined “Oklahoma!” took shape before its unlikely run to Broadway (and a Tony Award for best musical revival), and here that choreographer Pam Tanowitz’s “Four Quartets” (praised in The New York Times as “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century”) was sparked by a random breakfast conversation.

Given the personnel involved, “Illinois,” which will move to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in January, would seem to have the makings of a popular hit. But for Gideon Lester, the Fisher Center’s artistic director and chief executive, it furthers the same exploratory mission as everything else the center does.

“All of these projects are research, which is why they belong in a college,” he said. “What these artists are doing is investigating something, experimenting, creating something in a new way.”

These are tenuous times for the performing arts, including in the Hudson Valley, where several independent institutions have curtailed programming or shuttered entirely. But the Fisher Center, nestled in a college long known as a bastion of the humanities, is making big plans.

In October, it will break ground on a $42 million studio building designed by Maya Lin. And it just received a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to support the work of Tania El Khoury, an artist-in-residence and director of the school’s recently founded Center for Human Rights and the Arts.

Gehry’s building, with its explosion of stainless steel whorls, is something of a symbol of the center’s discipline-scrambling programming. Each year, the center is home to full-scale productions of rarely performed operas (like Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Henry VIII,” which opens July 21) and theatrical world premieres (like Elevator Repair Service’s “Ulysses,” coming in September).

The center has also hosted a live-art biennial, development workshops for Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s “Only an Octave Apart,” and, during the pandemic shutdown, a streaming serial production of “Chapter & Verse,” Meshell Ndegeocello’s musical performance inspired by James Baldwin.

As for “Illinois,” presented as part of the annual SummerScape festival, even those closest to it are hard pressed to categorize it. Aaron Mattocks, the Fisher Center’s chief operating officer, called it a “genre blur.”

For Peck, who came to the center with the idea about two years ago, it’s “a spaceship for all these dance astronauts to blast off in.”

“I was looking for a place to go that felt somewhat quiet but also exciting, and a place that had felt willing to take risks on something like this,” Peck said.

The Fisher Center opened in 2003 as a multifunctional performing arts center that would be home to the college’s teaching programs as well as the Bard Music Festival, allowing it to mount full-scale operas.

The center has always presented theater and dance, too. But with Lester’s arrival in 2012, it has expanded its commissioning of original, contemporary-minded work.

“What Gideon has done is brought to it a fantastic originality and an eye and ear for things that need doing, and then inspiring artists to do it,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president, said.

Jenny Gersten, a producer and the interim artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, credited the Fisher Center with fare that is “distinctively downtown-on-the-Hudson.”

“Lots of theaters outside of New York City can develop work," she said, “but Bard is one of the few who chooses to dig into experimentation of form and bold artistic dares.”

Lester, 50, grew up in London, in the period when director Sam Mendes and the theater company Complicité were emerging. (He also admits to memorizing all the lyrics of “The Phantom of the Opera.”)

But his own brief directorial career had a shaky start. At Oxford, he and another student persuaded playwright Peter Shaffer to let them mount a production of Shaffer’s “Yonadab,” which hadn’t been performed since its disastrously reviewed 1985 premiere at the National Theater.

About 15 minutes into the Oxford opening, there was a general power cut, and the play stopped. But the assembled London critics reviewed it anyway, noting, Lester recalled, that the play “hadn’t improved much.”

“I was completely freaked out and thought, ‘This is too much pressure. I don’t think I can direct,’” he said.

Instead, he enrolled in the dramaturgy program at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, even if — like many in theater — he was a bit hazy on what exactly dramaturgy was.

“Basically, I just learned what dramaturgy was by sitting in the room with directors,” he said, by “making mistakes and giving notes and being told to shut up.”

Lester became the theater’s resident dramaturge under Robert Brustein and later, under Robert Woodruff, its associate artistic director. Asked about highlights, he mentioned working with artists like Dutch-Syrian director Ola Mafaalani (“Wings of Desire”) and Polish director Krystian Lupa, whom he approached after seeing his 11-hour production of “Sleepwalkers” at the Edinburgh Festival.

Lupa’s “Three Sisters” at the American Repertory Theater was “amazing,” if not “particularly liked,” Lester recalled with a wry laugh. “But I got to be in rehearsal with him and see how he worked.”

At Bard, Lester has shepherded an impressive series of audience pleasers. But when talking about him — and Caleb Hammons, the director of artistic planning and producing — collaborators use words like “artist centered” and “artist forward.”

“They’re unusually good at being adaptive to what different artists need,” said Daniel Fish, whose “Most Happy in Concert” also originated at Bard.

Tanowitz, the choreographer, first met Lester in 2015, when he invited her to do a repertory show. Afterward, over breakfast, he asked about the title of one dance, which included a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”

They talked about the poem for a while, and then she went to the bathroom. When she got back, he asked, “Why don’t you make a dance of ‘Four Quartets’?”

“That’s classic Gideon,” Tanowitz said. “He thinks big. He has chutzpah. Part of it was a dare, so I said yes, thinking in my mind, ‘This will never happen.’”

He introduced her to collaborators, including actor Kathleen Chalfant, who narrated the piece; painter Brice Marden, whose paintings inspired the scenic design; and composer Kaija Saariaho. (The Fisher Center has also taken over the administration of Tanowitz’s company.)

But for all Lester’s skills as a connector, Tanowitz said, mostly he “dares you to be yourself.”

El Khoury, who is Lebanese, first met Lester in 2017, at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, where he invited her to breakfast.

“In classic Gideon fashion, he proposed all these things,” she recalled.

She wasn’t sure how seriously to take any of them. But then he popped up again a few months later, at the CounterCurrent festival in Houston.

She came to Bard in 2019, as guest curator of the third Fisher Center biennial. During a long drive to New Hampshire, she and Lester had a rambling conversation that led to the creation a year later of the Center for Human Rights and the Arts, which is part of the Open Society University Network.

“It’s a huge responsibility to bring in an artist from a totally different environment and give her a lot of space and funding and trust,” El Khoury said.

The most recent biennial addressed the politics of land and food. It culminated in May with a four-day festival that included El Khoury’s “Memory of Birds,” an interactive sound installation that invited visitors to lie in cocoonlike structures at the base of a row of maple trees.

“I love it that the last piece we commissioned was Tania’s, which could be experienced by seven people at a time,” Lester said. “And now we’re doing ‘Illinois’ for almost 900.”

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

“It’s a real full-circle moment, getting to engage with this album of a generation,” he said.

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

The show, whose narrative was developed by Peck and playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”), has no dialogue, just the lyrics of the songs, which are orchestrated by Timo Andres and performed and sung by a 13-piece band.

The 12 dancers include some who Peck worked with on the 2018 Broadway revival of “Carousel” and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

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

Critics were not invited — they will be at the show’s Chicago run — but at the final evening performance, the audience whooped and applauded after most songs. After the tap-inflected “Jacksonville,” featuring a rapturously received turn by Jennifer Florentino, Lester and Drury fist-bumped.

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

“The joy of it,” he said, “is not knowing whether something’s going to work.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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