THE KENNEDY CEN­TER: A year of events hon­ors JFK’s 100th birth­day.

The Kennedy Cen­ter’s year-long cel­e­bra­tion of JFK’s 100th birth­day aims to en­hance the im­age of his living me­mo­rial

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PEGGY MCGLONE peggy.mcglone@wash­post.com

The Kennedy Cen­ter is syn­ony­mous with world-class per­for­mances, but many vis­i­tors don’t re­al­ize it also is the na­tional me­mo­rial to Amer­ica’s 35th pres­i­dent.

The arts cen­ter’s pres­i­dent, Deb­o­rah Rut­ter, wants to change that.

“Here’s this beloved pres­i­dent, and his me­mo­rial is a per­form­ing arts cen­ter, so what does that mean about the role of artists in our so­ci­ety?” Rut­ter said. “How do we au­then­ti­cally honor this man at this in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant time?”

These ques­tions launched the John F. Kennedy Cen­ten­nial, a year-long cel­e­bra­tion of Kennedy’s 100th birth­day that aims to raise the cen­ter’s vis­i­bil­ity as his living me­mo­rial by bring­ing his words — etched into its mar­ble fa­cade — to life on its stages.

Alvin Ai­ley Amer­i­can Dance Theater, the At­lanta Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and Cho­rus, and Ter­ence Blanchard are among the artists fea­tured in a 47-event sched­ule fo­cused on Kennedy’s core ideals of jus­tice, ser­vice, courage, free­dom and grat­i­tude. Rut­ter hopes the au­di­ences at­tend­ing the events will see be­yond the ath­letic dancers and beau­ti­ful mu­sic, and re­flect on the so­cial value of art.

Kennedy “talked a lot about the role of artists in so­ci­ety,” Rut­ter said. “Call me ide­al­is­tic, but this gives us a chance to talk about why the arts are im­por­tant.”

Cul­mi­nat­ing in a burst of events the week be­fore the May 29 birth­day cen­ten­nial, the ini­tia­tive is the first step in long-term ef­fort to re­shape the arts cen­ter’s im­age. “Even if it weren’t his cen­ten­nial, you’d see a ramp-up of this. It’s about who we are, and what sets us apart. This is an iden­tity is­sue,” Rut­ter said.

[Kennedy Cen­ter ex­pan­sion clears fi­nal de­sign hur­dle]

Some of the series’s per­for­mances con­nect eas­ily to Kennedy, such as last May’s evening of ama­teur “tiny plays” writ­ten about the pres­i­dent, and a re­cent Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra con­cert fea­tur­ing John Wil­liams’s mu­sic from the movies “JFK” and “Lin­coln.” Other events deal with so­cial themes, such as the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Opera pro­duc­tion of “Dead Man Walk­ing” and Deb­bie Allen’s “Freeze Fame,” and some spotlight artists such as Ur­ban Bush Women and Joshua Bell, both rec­og­nized for their com­mu­nity work.

“It might be that you come for a Josh Bell recital and you leave with a sense of poignancy about the legacy of JFK,” said Jenny Bil­field, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Wash­ing­ton Per­form­ing Arts, the recital’s pre­sen­ter. “It may be one of those in­ci­den­tal con­nec­tions that be­come more pro­found be­cause they’re not heavy-handed.”

The cen­ten­nial rep­re­sents about 10 per­cent of the arts cen­ter’s sea­son and in­cludes many works that were al­ready part of ex­ist­ing series. Per­for­mances by the NSO and WNO and “Shift: A Festival of Amer­i­can Orches­tras,” for ex­am­ple, have been re­cy­cled as Kennedy-cen­tric events. “Which shows you how au­then­tic this is, that we didn’t turn our­selves into a pret­zel to do this,” Rut­ter said. “A lot of this stuff we do nat­u­rally.”

Pa­trons at sev­eral win­ter per­for­mances weren’t aware of the cen­ten­nial. “We are staunch sup­port­ers of his ideals,” said Ar­ling­ton res­i­dent Leonard Baldyga, who at­tended the con­cert with his wife, Joyce. “We should all make an ef­fort to honor JFK. His pres­i­dency pro­moted the very prin­ci­ples this na­tion was founded on.”

Rut­ter isn’t wor­ried by au­di­ence re­ac­tion.

“I don’t care if they don’t get it. I don’t need to them to. I know it’s go­ing to soak in, and that’s why we’re do­ing it,” she said, adding that events of May 23 to 29 will get their at­ten­tion.

[New Kennedy Cen­ter pres­i­dent Deb­o­rah Rut­ter is a breath of fresh air from windy city]

The­matic and civic-minded series are not a new tool for per­form­ing arts pro­fes­sion­als. In 1999, the na­tional ad­vo­cacy group Amer­i­cans for the Arts launched An­i­mat­ing Democ­racy, a pro­gram that uses arts to nur­ture civic en­gage­ment. The Cre­ative Cam­pus ini­tia­tive was cre­ated in 2004 to en­gage col­lege com­mu­ni­ties with art, and sev­eral of its it­er­a­tions used themes — cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and class, for ex­am­ple — as or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples. And in­di­vid­ual groups such as Ur­ban Bush Women and Alvin Ai­ley have so­cial jus­tice in their DNA.

Lessons from ear­lier ef­forts are found in the Kennedy Cen­ter’s ini­tia­tive. The per­for­mances are bol­stered by dis­cus­sions, mas­ter classes and school events, which pro­vide dif­fer­ent points of en­try to the com­mu­nity.

“It’s a mus­cle you should have, (but) it’s a mus­cle you de­velop over time,” said An­i­mat­ing Democ­racy co-di­rec­tor Barbara Schaf­fer-Ba­con, who ap­plauded the Kennedy Cen­ter’s choice of artists. “They’re talk­ing about re­ally appreciating the artist for their abil­ity to tell the truth. They’ve cre­ated a greater con­text for the work.”

An­other strength is the pro­gram’s spotlight on artists, said Steven Tep­per, dean of the Her­berger In­sti­tute for De­sign and the Arts at Ari­zona State University and an ex­pert on au­di­ence en­gage­ment.

“There’s an as­cen­dancy of the artist in pub­lic life. Some of it is around in­creased po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, and artists prob­lem-solv­ing in a civic space,” he said. “It res­onates with the way artists want to work, and in­creas­ingly, with the need we have for them in so­ci­ety.”

Alvin Ai­ley Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Robert Bat­tle echoed this idea, say­ing he wel­comed the chance to tai­lor the com­pany’s annual ap­pear­ance at the Kennedy Cen­ter to JFK’s ideals, which are nat­u­rally aligned with their own.

“Alvin Ai­ley said art should be a mir­ror to our so­ci­ety,” Bat­tle said. “I love that au­di­ences can have an emo­tional re­sponse, but also be ed­u­cated, be in­formed, or some­how be more con­scious of the world around (them).”

Donors have re­sponded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, too. Although its pro­gram­ming bud­get was $650,000, the cen­ten­nial has at­tracted $4.6 mil­lion in dona­tions, in­clud­ing $1 mil­lion from Al­tria and $3.5 mil­lion from 100 donors to the Cen­ten­nial Cir­cle cam­paign, in­clud­ing Tom Hanks and Rita Wil­son, Jean Kennedy Smith, and Mel­lody Hob­son and Ge­orge Lu­cas.

BOB SCHUTZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In a photo from 1968, Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy and his sis­ter Jean Smith at­tend a top­pin­gout cer­e­mony for the un­der­con­struc­tion Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, which was built as a living me­mo­rial to their brother Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

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