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A Festival Grows in Brooklyn: Celebrate Brooklyn Turns 25

When Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn-based dance company, Evidence, takes the stage, the audience lets out a whoop. Soon, the house music-propelled performance sends children shimmying in the aisles and adults bouncing in their seats. As the company erupts into exuberant communal dancing that combines West African, modern, and club styles, people cheer every move. Sometimes the activity in the audience rivals the activity onstage.

This show, featured during the 199 season, epitomizes the spirit of Celebrate Brooklyn, the outdoor summer festival that features music, dance, film, and spoken word. Marking its 25th anniversary, Celebrate Brooklyn—which now attracts 200,000 spectators each year—kicks off with a gala on June 12. Over the course of 10 weeks, the festival at the Prospect Park Bandshell will present upward of 50 free performances, highlighting both new and established artists. As the longest running summer festival in the city, it has become something of an institution, not to mention a great place to take in a dance performance.

The Changing Face of a Festival

Prospect Park, however, wasn’t always the urban oasis it is today. In the 1970’s, after years of heavy use, inadequate resources and irresponsible management, the park became a symbol of decay—most of its buildings were decrepit and several statues were toppled. But this didn’t stop veteran theater director Burl Harsh who had always dreamed of doing theater in the park, When Hash received a federal arts grant requiring his company to offer free performances, this set things in motion. He invited other performers to join him in putting together a free performing arts festival in the park’s abandoned picnic house. City Officials charged with the grim task of revitalizing the area were impressed by Hash’s efforts and asked him to expand the festival and move it outdoors to the Bandshell. In 1979, with little more than a rented wood stage, a generator for the lights, and welcome support from the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President, Hash launched Celebrate Brooklyn and the “New Prospect Park.”

Contrary to city officials’ hopes that music and dance would lure people back to the park, the few Brooklynites using the park had their own ideas. During the first renovation, the proscenium stage was extended over the plaza and used by roller hockey enthusiasts. One morning the production crew arrived o find the hockey players had used a truck to dismantle the stage and drag it off the asphalt. “That got our attention,” says Hash, “We had no idea that were about to enter neighborhood turfs wars.” After some negotiations, the teams were persuaded to use Wollman Rink and the organizers were persuaded to think more about the complexities of working in a public space.

In its early years, the festival primarily showcased Brooklyn’s jazz greats like Max Roach and Steve Coleman as well as New York choreographers. Though the audience steadily grew in size, it was only when Hash spotted a bevy of old ladies enjoying themselves at a rock concert did he consider the festival to be a success. Despite its popularity, in the early 1990’s city funds dwindled, causing Celebrate Brooklyn to significantly decrease its performances. A new team of directors brought the festival financial stability through fundraising efforts with foundations and corporate sponsors.

Cutting Back on Dance, But Not on the Cutting Edge

While the mission of providing an eclectic mix of free entertainment remains the same, the festival offerings have changed. In recent years, Celebrate Brooklyn has focused more on presenting music and surprisingly less on dance. According to festival officials, dance shows are too difficult to raise money for and only draw small crowds—a rather odd fact given the borough’s large dance community. Instead of seven or eight companies performing, as in past years, the festival only presents three dance groups, though it provides commissions for the creation of new work to two choreographers.

Despite this dearth of dance, Celebrate Brooklyn makes a point of presenting cutting edge choreographers. In 2000, Celebrate Brooklyn featured performances by Sarah East Johnson/ LAVA whose explosive circus and dance pieces challenge ideas about gender, strength, and emotional vulnerability [see Rail’s web exclusive on LAVA, April 2003]. 2002 commission recipients David Neumann and Nicholas Leichter collaborated on a highly anticipated new work, but as many—one attending the performance knows—the piece was heavily rained out and sadly there was no alternate date.

This year DanceBrazil headlines the dance offerings with an evening – length work. Under the artistic direction Jelon Vieira, the company performs Afro-Brazilian dances that draw on both traditional and contemporary themes. This summer’s commissioned works by Jemal Gaines of Creative Outlet Dance Theater of Brooklyn and Keely Garfield/ Sinister Slapstick will be presented on a shared bill. Gaines’ Brooklyn–based company, known for its robust multi-disciplinary works, will premier Journey II Freedom. Gaines is also creating a solo piece for his wife, Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines, a principal with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Garfeild, whose dances sparkle with wit and whimsy, describes her new work The Scent of Mental Love as a fairy tale in which “the Bulgarian princesses who have been waiting around too long for their prince [sic] hike up their skirts and run for the hills.”

As Brooklyn As It Gets

Programming to a large degree also reflects the ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds of Brooklyn inhabitants. The festival’s emphasis on African, Latin, and Caribbean musical traditions has led to a series of mini-festivals within the larger festival. These events not only draw international artists like Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, and Hakim, but also have become annual highlights for the respective cultural communities. The Latin music festival has grown so much that it is now known as a premier series for salsa, Latin pop, and Latin alternative. With support from other cultural institutions, these signature events have become day-long celebrations that feature music, dance, food, and a marketplace.

While the festival has become more mainstream over the years, it still supports the avant-garde. Music upstarts like Mighty Mouse and the Flaming Lips share the calendar with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, which have been mainstays at the festival. A highlight of this summer’s festival is the Leonard Cohen Project, featuring the poet/songwriter along with contemporary interpretations from singer Rufus Wainwright and guitarist Marc Ribot among others.

Over the last decade, the festival has also introduced American roots music, a film series, and spoken word performance. To accommodate all these programs, the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President funded another reconstruction in 1998. Managed by the Prospect Park Alliance, Celebrate Brooklyn added a new stage roof that provides rigging, lighting, and projection for film and dance programs; a new sound system that directs the sound at the audience; and better sight-lines. All this has yielded one of the best outdoor performing venues in the city, but don’t let the glorious facilities deceive you—it’s still a place where you can holler back at your favorite artists and dance in the aisles.

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Shanti Crawford

SHANTI CRAWFORD is a choreographer and writer based in Greenpoint.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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