Virginia Arts Festival 21st Season

by | Mar 10, 2017

When Virginia Arts Festival director Rob Cross sat down with his staff to begin planning the 2017 season, he faced a daunting task. Last year, to mark the Festival’s 20th anniversary, he pulled out all the stops, with extra financial support from donors, sponsors and the cities of Coastal Virginia.

“We knew going into 2017 that we wouldn’t have the money to do all those extra events again,” he said during a recent interview in his office. “But we made a commitment to slow, steady growth, so we wanted to make sure this year’s festival was bigger than the one in 2015.”

Over the years, the Festival has not simply grown in size. Its artistic vision has matured, as Cross and company have continued to think deeply about a fundamental question: What are the purposes of art?

One purpose, certainly, is to bring beauty into people’s lives for a few hours and, ideally, leave them with a feeling of delight that lingers long after a performance is over. The Festival’s excellence in this regard has been evident since the very first season. It is all the more evident in the 2017 lineup, which includes one of the world’s greatest ballet companies, an original production of an opera, an up-and-coming vocal trio that was mentored by Prince before his death, and the world’s most famous living jazz musician.

The best art, however, does not simply entertain. It has the capacity to shed light on sociopolitical problems and give us insights into both the things that divide us and our common humanity.

Take the contemporary dance company Urban Bush Women, for example, which will stage the world premiere of a piece called Hair and Other Stories at Norfolk’s historic Attucks Theatre on April 22.

“From what I’ve seen it’s a very powerful piece,” Cross said. “It looks at economic inequality through the lenses of physical appearance, race and gender, with hair as a touchstone—hair being something of special significance to African-American women.”

Cross added that in addition to the performance, the company will be going into the community and having hair parties—gatherings that are designed to foster social analysis through dialogue. At one of the company’s events elsewhere, a participant observed that “when our parents were straightening their children's hair it was to make them acceptable and to avoid the abuse they themselves had endured.”

The chosen venue will add to the significance.

“They’re very excited to be performing at the Attucks,” Cross said, “because we explained its historical importance. For nearly a century it has been so valuable, not only to the African-American community but to so many African-American artists.”

Indeed, the Attucks will be the site of several events in the 2017 Festival.

“We’ve been committed to multicultural programming from the very beginning in an effort to make sure the artists we’re bringing in reflect the makeup of the community,” Cross said. “But in the last few years we’ve made a special effort to try to reduce the psychological distance between the Attucks and downtown Norfolk. It’s literally less than a mile from Chrysler Hall, but in some people’s minds it’s like a world away. We put (jazz musician) Wynton Marsalis there last year, for example. Here’s an artist who can easily sell out Chrysler Hall, and we had him in a 650-seat theater. I was so pleased when Wynton got up there that night and without any prompting from me talked about how proud he was to play in that building.”

The importance of Norfolk’s African-American community will also be reflected in a concert featuring world-renowned soprano Kathleen Battle with the Norfolk State University Choir, which has performed twice at the White House. The show, at Norfolk State’s Wilder Center, will combine traditional spirituals with works based on the writings of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

As usual, the Festival will also pay tribute to another important facet of our region—the strong military presence—with the Virginia International Tattoo. Each year it is the Festival’s most popular event, but this year will be extra special as the Norfolk Naval Station will turn 100.

The focus on our own community extends as well to a prominent role for the Virginia Symphony, which this season will perform the monumental Berlioz Requiem.

“The symphony has never played the piece before because of its size,” Cross noted.  “It will feature a double chorus and a kind of surround sound, with brass bands in one of the boxes on each side of Chrysler Hall and a third band in one of the balconies.”

As always, however, the Festival’s wide array of offerings will include a wide range of visiting musicians, dancers and actors from around the world. Several—such as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—will be making their Festival debut, while others, including Marsalis, pianist Andre-Michel Schub, and violinist Itzhak Perlman, are returning as Festival favorites.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we continue to be artistically adventurous while remaining fiscally conservative,” Cross said. “In the future, we want to continue to take risks but to do so in a responsible way that ensures the Festival’s survival. It’s hard to believe sometimes that we’re entering our third decade, but I’m confident that the Festival will continue to thrive.”

For more, visit our 2017 Must-See Virginia Arts Festival Events and 2017 Spring Performing Arts Events with SevenVenues.

Photo of Rob Cross by David Polston

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