- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

When “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” became a major Kennedy Center project a few years ago, it appeared to be a look at a distant, exotic world.

After three years of planning, the center announced its three-week festival last spring. By then, the timeliness of its Arabic theme seemed downright prescient.

“Arabesque” opens Tuesday, looking more relevant than ever, bringing Washington an in-depth, multifaceted look at a part of the world vital to our own.

“I believe the arts provide a window onto understanding people,” says Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. To open that window, the festival not only is offering an unprecedented range of experiences through music, dance and theater, but also is revealing the Arabic world in less traditional ways — through a total immersion of food, fashion, film, literature and political life.

As theatergoers enter the Kennedy Center’s two great halls, they will be surrounded by a large exhibition of 40 wedding dresses from the 22 Arab countries, some exquisitely crafted from an earlier time and some modern.

Every night of the festival, diverse groups will present free performances on the Millennium Stage. Among them will be oud players from Bahrain and Tunisia; an orchestra playing Andalusian music and five Marrakech women performing traditional Berber songs, with both groups from Morocco; Palestine poetry reading; a Yemeni lute player; and a band from Algeria combining Western and North African rhythms.

The scope and depth of what the center is offering is prodigious, even by its standards. This festival has gathered a lot of financial support — thus the free performances and low ticket prices. (Many of the events cost $25.) The center also reports that one of the priciest offerings (visits with meals at three Arab embassies for $240) is selling briskly.

“It’s a very volatile region of the world, and I was always waiting for things to get better,” says Alicia Adams, the center’s vice president for international planning, “but Michael Kaiser really wanted to focus on the Arab region and set a date we would not waver from, no matter what was going on in the region.

“When I first began these talks it wasn’t a great time,” Miss Adams says. “The United States was very low on the totem pole around the world. We have a new administration, the Middle East is high on the agenda, there is hope on the horizon for change.”

Some of the festival groups have been international travelers, performing in London, Paris, New York, Chicago and Seattle. Others have never been in the United States before, so the festival promises to be a learning experience on both sides.

In this time of guarded optimism about the future, the festival may seem filled with exotic sights and sounds, but in its own not-so-small way, it may be one small step toward transforming our picture of the Arab world.

“This festival,” Mr. Kaiser says, “is really part of our overall plan to bring art to Washington and to the United States from countries that Americans don’t understand very well — to bring art so that Americans get a better sense of what other people are like. We started thinking about it five years ago. The more Alicia and I and others traveled in the region, [the more] we realized there was so much material, and the project grew.

“When you bring arts groups that are less familiar to our audiences, and particularly in this economic environment, you’re more likely to bring them to [American Ballet Theatre’s] ‘Swan Lake’ than to Karima Monsour from Egypt,” Mr. Kaiser says. “So we thought by having lower ticket prices we would encourage people to attend the festival. And it’s working, because things are selling out very fast.

“I’m almost too pleased,” he says. “I’m worrying that people want to come and won’t be able to. Of course, they can still see the exhibitions. … We’ve already sold over 50 percent more for the Caracalla [Dance Theatre] than we budgeted.”

Part of Mr. Kaiser’s strength is his way of finding symbolic resonance in the art he serves so well.

“When I went to Syria, to Damascus, I met a Catholic priest who started a children’s chorus 30 years ago. There are 120 children in the chorus. They start at age 5, and all 120 children are coming here. Because so much of what we’re trying to do is create understanding for the future and make peace for children, I thought this was a perfect way to open the festival.”

The major “Arabesques” theater offerings are “Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation,” Feb. 26 and 27, Terrace Theater; “Richard III: An Arab Tragedy,” March 6 and 7, Terrace Theater; “The Sounds of Desire,” Heather Raffo and Amir El Saffar, March 6, Family Theater; “Khamsoun,” March 14 and 15, Terrace Theater.

Among the dance highlights are “The Smala BB,” Cie2k_far Dance Company, Feb. 24, Terrace Theater; Ensemble Al-Kindi with Sheikh Habboush and the Whirling Dervishes of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 27, Eisenhower Theater; “Knights of the Moon,” Caracalla Dance Theatre, Feb. 28 through March 1, Opera House; “Allegoria Stanza,” Cie la Baraka, March 3, Terrace Theater; “Temporament,” Karima Mansour and MA’AT for Contemporary Dance, March 4, Family Theater; “D’Orient,” Compagnie Thor, Belgium, March 10 and 11, Terrace Theater; “Oman … O Man,” directed by Debbie Allen, March 12 through 15, Eisenhower Theater.

Music programs include “Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, conductor, Feb. 24, Opera House; Master Musicians of Jajouka, Feb. 25, Eisenhower Theater; Farida and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, March 2, Eisenhower Theater; “Aswat, Celebrating the Golden Age of Arab Music,” March 6, Eisenhower Theater. “Salute to Mahmoud Darwish,” March 7, Eisenhower Theater. “Sultany,” Fathy Salama and Orchestra, March 8, Terrace Theater.

For more information or tickets, call 202/467-4600 or visit www.kennedycenter.org.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide