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Emerging from a long pause, the return of the Kennedy Center Honors is a breath of fresh air

From left: Kennedy Center Honors recipients Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Dick Van Dyke, Garth Brooks and Midori pose during a ceremony Friday at the Kennedy Center. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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In the six months since it was postponed because of the pandemic, the 43rd annual Kennedy Center Honors evolved from wishful thinking into a beacon of hope for the country and its decimated arts sector.

Singer Joan Baez, country musician Garth Brooks, dancer-choreographer-actor Debbie Allen, violinist Midori and actor Dick Van Dyke are in Washington this week for a reimagined celebration of the annual award for lifetime achievement in the arts. The Honors is being taped in segments over five days, including three presented before small and socially distant audiences. A stitched-together version will be broadcast June 6 on CBS.

The five stars at the center of the week-long party expressed their delight Friday night, saying the event signals a return to normal.

“This is a blessing, but this is also encouragement, and a motivation for me to be able to continue to connect with others, and to collaborate and to anticipate a new world and a new normal,” Midori said, summing up the group’s optimism. “I’m greatly, greatly honored.”

“We’re coming out of a dark tunnel, and there’s the possibility again for arts and culture,” Baez added.

President Biden welcomed the five artists to the White House on Thursday morning (a long-standing tradition that President Donald Trump did not observe). In the Oval Office, Baez sang a piece of her song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” reprising it for the media on Friday on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage.

“It was wonderful. President Biden was so engaging, so open. We spent a lot of time with him,” Allen said.

Reinventing the Kennedy Center Honors

A 75-minute tribute concert was held Thursday night in the Concert Hall for a crowd of about 250 that included the honorees. A second live performance for a similarly intimate group is set for Saturday night under a tent on the plaza.

Although the Kennedy Center tries to keep the artists who are performing tributes a secret, James Taylor posted a photo on social media showing the 2016 honoree rehearsing his performance to honor his friend Brooks. Baez said she was thrilled that singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson performed in her honor.

Friday night’s presentation of the medallions was moved from the State Department to the Opera House Stage, where 128 guests — including top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, who accompanied Baez — were seated at small and distanced tables. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not attend, but Gloria Estefan, a 2017 honoree, served as host. Yo-Yo Ma, a 2011 honoree, performed at the start.

Although the event features a series of ceremonial toasts and acceptance speeches, safety protocols prohibited the serving of food or drink inside. The drinking happened afterward, during an outdoor reception on the terrace overlooking the Potomac River.

Brooks’s wife, Trisha Yearwood, and Van Dyke’s “Bye Bye Birdie” co-star, Chita Rivera, took the stage to salute them, while pretaped toasts from Ava DuVernay, Emmylou Harris and Zubin Mehta — honoring Allen, Baez and Midori — were shown on video monitors. Allen offered a typical acceptance speech, thanking a long list of colleagues and supporters, including Bill Cosby and Shonda Rhimes. Brooks’s remarks were intensely personal, recalling his late sister and her love of Baez, while Midori acknowledged the artists who have struggled this year and thanked the country’s first responders and essential workers.

“Maybe we will keep it this way,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein about the medallion ceremony’s new format. Rubenstein also thanked the honorees for their patience and flexibility, acknowledging the difficulty of the production.

“We honestly didn’t know if we could pull this off,” Rubenstein said. “We had to keep calling you to say it might be virtual, it might not be virtual.”

The astonishing ubiquity of Debbie Allen

Although it was able to host three in-person events, the Kennedy Center relied on technology to produce several elements of the show. It created a special link on its website that allowed donors to participate virtually. It live-streamed the Thursday and Friday segments (and plans to do the same for the final one Saturday) and it hosted several social events, including the traditional chairman’s lunch, online. The website also featured personal and musical tributes from the honorees’ friends and colleagues and behind-the-scenes video from past celebrations.

The Honors program is the largest fundraiser for the arts center and it brings in about $6.5 million in a typical year, according to officials. This year it surpassed a more modest $3 million goal, they said. The Kennedy Center plans to return to a traditional celebration in December, when the 44th annual Honors are scheduled.

The unusual format did not seem to bother the honorees. Brooks has attended several past events, performing in tribute to Taylor in 2016; Billy Joel in 2013; and Loretta Lynn in 2003. He acknowledged missing the Opera House crowd and its energy, but he said the smaller version offered blessings, too.

“We got to move at our own pace,” he said during Friday’s press event. “I leave here as a fan of these people more than a fellow honoree. We got to know the people we’re with and that’s the fun part.”

Later, in his acceptance speech, Brooks continued the thought, saying he was inspired by the courage, truth and joy of the 2020 class.

“I was looking at [this award] as the finish line,” he said, gesturing to Midori. “Because of you, it’s a beginning.”

Garth Brooks just wants everybody to get along

Midori’s career started with a fleeting moment. It’s evolved into a lasting legacy

Joan Baez hears perfection in an ‘unsurpassable’ voice

Dick Van Dyke is still the consummate showman. And he’s desperate to get back onstage.