At the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap, Linda Goss called everyone to her storytelling session with an exuberant shout firmly rooted in her Afro-American background. "The idea of storytelling is to bring everybody together," she explained with a new breath as families gathered around for an ancient, African animal-tale that ended with a moral carried across the ocean and refracted in a hundred blues songs: "You don't miss your water until your well runs dry."
The hand-clap accompaniments from the audience to Goss' African chants were fast and rhythmically compelling. For the brightly garbed folk dancers in the Kalipayan Dance Company from the Philippines, the claps were sensually languid during the "habanera botolena," a wedding dance reflecting that nation's Spanish heritage. Mostly, the clapping at Wolf Trap came as approval and appreciation at the end of hundreds of songs, plays, dances, stories and whatever other art forms coexisted at the five stages of the 12th annual International Children's Festival, which ends today.
On a weather-perfect Saturday, puppets and clowns vied for the attentions of small people who moved among the old-timey escapades of the Double Decker String Band, the acrobatic agility of the Greg Reynolds Dance Quintet, the mystic machinations of the Play Around Shakespeare troupe, the surface mystery of the Gary Young Mime Theatre. The children took in the colorful plumage of the native costumes of Laos and Mexico, Cambodia and the Mideast, Bavaria and the Wild West, even as their ears grew accustomed to new rhythms, accents and songs in new languages.
Even with a surfeit of distractions, the younger children gravitated to the stream winding between the Wolf Trap Meadow and the woods, shed their shoes and waded in. Looking upstream in mid-afternoon, it seemed as if a lot of short people were prospecting for gold in the Virginia waters.
A dozen or so younger children participated in a bit of spontaneous drama when they tried to revive a near-dead snake under the direction of 13-year-old Sean Dorn of Wheaton, a carrot-topped, Tom Sawyer type. A number of 5-year-olds were very impressed, but even doses of water and reluctant crayfish couldn't do the trick.
The opening-day highlight was undoubtedly the Children's Folk Sports presentation by 30 grade-school students from Taiwan. Within an hour-long program that included signal-flag exercises, a graceful ribbon dance and a lively kung-fu demonstration, there were two stunning segments. The first was a shuttlecock-kicking exhibition in which young boys unveiled uncommon dexterity in keeping weighted feathers aloft through a variety of kicks and lifts, done individually and in teams. The game, an offshoot of Chinese soccer, dates to 2500 B.C. and was originally used to increase foot soldiers' waist-feet-knees coordination.
Even more impressive was a rope-skipping recital in which more than a dozen girls displayed dynamic and lightning-quick maneuvers; the tour de force came in some acutely synchronized ensemble work in which teams created layers and crosscurrents of ropes, sometimes harmonious but more often in physical counterpoint; and just as it seemed they couldn't top themselves, they did, time after time. The Taiwanese perform again today, at noon in the Meadow Center, and by themselves are worth the low price of admission ($5 for adults, $3.50 for children aged 4 to 12 and senior citizens; under 4 admitted free).
Along with the many fine performers, there are some very mediocre ones, a situation perhaps excused by the sheer numbers involved (48 acts on Saturday alone, 1,500 performers in all).
As always, there's something for everybody (including workshops), and something new each day (today's special performances include the Tapiola Choir from Finland, the Icelandic Male Choir, one-man band Bob Devlin, the D.C. Percussion Society, the shadow mysteries of the Clarion Puppet Theatre and Christian, the Magician). There's much to participate in, and one of the redeeming aspects of such a festival is that while kids are a lot less cautious than their parents in volunteering their services, many parents seem perfectly willing to do things with kids (their own and others) that they wouldn't be caught dead doing with their peers -- call it having fun.
The International Children's Festival runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.