Maximum india festival

The Kennedy Center's Alicia Adams brings the world to D.C. stages

ARTISTIC WORLDVIEW: Alicia B. Adams's new international festival for the Kennedy Center is Maximum India, which will bring 500 Indian artists to Washington over the next three weeks.
ARTISTIC WORLDVIEW: Alicia B. Adams's new international festival for the Kennedy Center is Maximum India, which will bring 500 Indian artists to Washington over the next three weeks. (Katherine Frey)
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Alicia B. Adams, the largely unseen face behind the Kennedy Center's ambitious international arts festivals, is ready to talk.

That means several things: For starters, she has a notepad squarely in front of her and another staff member on hand. She doesn't fidget; she barely moves. In a tiny conference room crowded with trinkets and tributes from around the globe, Adams sits directly across the table, as if in negotiation, keeping steady eye contact. Speaking in cogent, sweeping paragraphs, she explains how she assembles and curates the cultures of the world to present to Americans under the Kennedy Center's roof.

The encounter is steeped in patience and protocol, which is perhaps what comes of, say, bargaining with official Chinese delegations and being outnumbered 10 to 1.

"I learned that I had to get 10 people," Adams laughs. That usually wasn't feasible during the 15 trans-Pacific trips required to pull off the month-long China festival in 2005.

Her current project is Maximum India, a characteristically eclectic blend of music, dance, theater, film, conversation, exhibitions and food involving 500 Indian artists. It will dominate the Kennedy Center for the first three weeks of March.

Officially, Adams is vice president of international programming and dance. She's the person responsible for bringing in Cate Blanchett in the Sydney Theatre Company's "A Streetcar Named Desire" last season, the return of Ireland's Druid company in Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan" this month, and the quirky performance and installation collection that was "On the Fringe: Eye on Edinburgh" last fall.

It's the international festivals, though, that are Adams's grand canvases. African Odyssey was a steady presence in the building for several seasons (1997-2000), while 2009's Arabesque festival found Adams curating works from 22 countries.

"It's really soup to nuts that she worries about with these festivals," says Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. Figuring out what to include in such region-representing bills has been a boots-on-the-ground proposition from the beginning, with Adams doing heavy cultural scouting. "The less familiar the art is to our eyes," Kaiser notes, "the more scouting is required."

Growing up with the arts

Such a globe-trotting mission isn't bad for a kid who grew up "very middle class" in Washington, in what now sounds like a practically tropical public arts climate. In the 1960s, D.C. schools were ranked fifth in country, Adams says, "so we all grew up playing musical instruments, singing in the glee club, playing sports - it was part of it." Adams picked up cello in the fourth grade, taught herself enough flute to march with the band and played in the D.C. Youth Orchestra. She studied dance with the aunt of opera star Harolyn Blackwell; Adams's music teacher at McKinley High School was Harry Belafonte's sister-in-law.

"It was a small world," Adams says.

Adams left Washington for New York University, then Columbia, finding her niche after school in arts administration. She quickly realized she wasn't driven enough to make it playing music or dancing, though she did lead what she calls "the gypsy life" for a lone year after college, dancing with a group called Sounds in Motion. She eventually served as administrative manager of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, company manager at City Center Theater, executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts and manager of Harry Belafonte's office.

"I did probably every job there was to do," Adams says, including editing and writing for a black dance magazine covering companies that the mainstream white press wasn't coming uptown to see. "This very young-looking kid out of Washington that had never done this in her life, that I would have the nerve to approach all of these artists and say, 'I want to write about you - ' " Adams smiles at the cheek of it. "It was successful for the time," she concludes, the time being the 1970s.

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