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Kennedy Center Honors will stage almost a week of events celebrating Garth Brooks, Debbie Allen, Joan Baez and more

Garth Brooks says sitting next to fellow honorees is the real honor. (LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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This spring, the Kennedy Center Honors will salute five performing artists — singer Joan Baez, country musician Garth Brooks, dancer-choreographer Debbie Allen, violinist Midori and actor Dick Van Dyke — and break with tradition by staging six days of intimate performances instead of a one-night blockbuster event.

The 43rd Kennedy Center Honors will be held May 17-22 and broadcast in prime time on CBS on June 6. Because of coronavirus-related restrictions on large gatherings, the 2,360-seat Opera House won’t host the star-studded show, said Kennedy Center president and chief executive Deborah Rutter. Instead, tributes to honorees will be performed in multiple, smaller settings on the campus — including outdoors on the front plaza and inside the Grand Foyer and the Reach — and the producers will stitch them together for television.

“We will figure out a way to do this,” Rutter said about the celebration of lifetime achievement, which is still a work in progress despite being four months off. “I very much want these five individuals to feel as feted and supported and recognized as possible.”

Rutter declined to share additional details, saying she’s learned from this pandemic year that plans change. But she did say the arts center hopes to have donors attend a series of intimate events beginning on May 17, including a ceremony to present the rainbow-ribboned medallions, an event traditionally hosted at the State Department. Performances and speaking tributes will be presented through May 22, combining in-person and virtual audiences, she said. Much depends on the local restrictions in place, but the center could have 50 donors indoors and up to a few hundred outside, with testing and other protocols in place to assure artist and patron safety. Some tributes might be taped elsewhere, depending on conditions and the desires of the performers involved.

The goal, Rutter stressed, is to bring small audiences together for an Honors week instead of a weekend. “Shared live experiences are a big part of our world,” she said.

The honorees, interviewed by phone and Zoom on Tuesday, are mostly shrugging off the uncertainties. Four of the honorees said they would travel to Washington for the event, with Baez, who is 80, saying she’ll wait to see whether she is vaccinated and what the safety guidelines are in the spring. Traditionally, honorees must agree to attend.

“What I love about the Kennedy Center Honors is you go in as part of a class. That’s pretty cool. It’s not only sitting in that chair, but who is sitting next to you. That’s the honor,” Brooks said. “You’re sitting next to people who changed the culture, who defined the culture.”

Postponed from December to the spring, the celebration is an important fundraiser that brings about $6 million to the center. Rutter said she hopes the series of intimate, invitation-only events will attract donors, even if she doesn’t expect the final total to be as high.

“It’s so hard to break a tradition, but if you can’t do it, you find a new way,” she said about the new format. The 44th annual celebration is expected to return to a traditional format and take place in December, as scheduled.

Baez is recognized as a voice of her generation, an artist-activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and later protested the Vietnam War. Her music has been honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and the Library of Congress, and Amnesty International gave her its highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, for her decades of promoting social justice. Baez was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

The Kennedy Center Honors moved her to reflect on her era and the similarities it shares with current events, she said.

“It’s clear to me whatever serious trouble there was back then, this has far surpassed it,’ she said. “ ‘Back in the day’ there was a feeling of community. Young people today have never experienced anything like that collective movement.”

Today’s fractured society affects music, too, she said, making it difficult for one song to capture the moment. “I think lots of songs are being written, but it’s difficult to find a platform. They’re scattered,” she said. “It hasn’t reached a collective, hasn’t coalesced.”

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Despite being a regular at recent ceremonies, Brooks, 58, was surprised to learn it was his turn in the spotlight. He attended the 2019 ceremony with his wife, Trisha Yearwood, who performed for honoree Linda Ronstadt, and he paid tribute to James Taylor in 2016 (and Billy Joel and Loretta Lynn in 2013 and 2003, respectively).

“Linda Ronstadt sitting there makes all the sense in the world. James Taylor sitting there makes all the sense in the world,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as an influence.”

The Oklahoma native is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, a seven-time Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year and the only artist to record nine albums that each sold 10 million. He has been inducted into the International Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame. Last year, he received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Brooks was touring last year when the coronavirus forced venues to close, and he said he misses performing and attending concerts as a fan. “I enjoyed the Gershwin Prize because I got to sit there and be a fan. It was a big reminder to me of how important and essential music is,” he said, his voice catching with emotion.

A fine arts graduate of Howard University, Allen has directed and choreographed for an all-star lineup of artists, including Michael Jackson, James Earl Jones, her sister Phylicia Rashad, Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton. She starred as Lydia Grant in the TV series “Fame” in the 1980s, and now has a recurring role on “Grey’s Anatomy,” where she serves as executive producing director. She has directed episodes of “Scandal,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Empire” and “Insecure.”

Allen, 70, has deep ties to the Kennedy Center, where she has served as an artist-in-residence, participated in the 2019 opening festival of its expansion, the Reach, and performed in tribute to Lena Horne in 1984. She has been a member of the Artists Committee for Kennedy Center Honors, which offered her an inside peek into the event.

“I know there’s a huge list of worthy candidates for this honor, people who have contributed to the world and their communities through the arts,” she said. “The legacy is incredible.”

This year’s format will be different for several reasons, she said. “It’s actually the first year in the a few years that it’s getting a little more back on track. It’s been very difficult for the Kennedy Center to move forward, at a time when there was rift in Washington and a president who actually didn’t seem to want to come or participate,” she said, referring to President Trump, who skipped the three Honors held during his term.

“The arts are like the Olympics,” Allen added. “It’s time to lay down our differences and everyone’s agendas and really celebrate the arts for how we can uplift the world.”

Allen said she hopes to be in Washington in May for the ceremony, no matter what form it takes. “Different sometimes can be good,” she said. “Different is not maybe what you want, but you find a new recipe when you don’t have all the ingredients.”

Born in Osaka, Japan, Midori, 49, has performed with dozens of major orchestras and classical musicians in her 35-year career. At the age of 11, she played with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Zubin Mehta, and in the decades since has toured the world, appearing with the London, Chicago and San Francisco Symphony orchestras as well as the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

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In 1987, she performed with violinist Pinchas Zukerman in tribute to honoree Nathan Milstein. “It was very festive,” she recalled.

In addition to her recording and performance career, Midori works with youths in her Midori & Friends program in New York City, and Music Sharing, a foundation that focuses on classical and Japanese music traditions. She has spent the pandemic with her mother in New York City, where she is working on digital projects, both performance and educational.

Midori cheered the Kennedy Center for moving ahead with the annual celebration despite the delays and limitations imposed by the coronavirus. “What this means to the arts, in this particular time, it gives us a sense of motivation and energy, and how we can look to restart our lives,” she said.

“I think of it as an opportunity. Not to dismiss what was in the past, but it makes us appreciate the history even more,” she said.

Van Dyke answered his phone Tuesday morning singing the opening bars of “Put on a Happy Face,” and immediately gushed about the upcoming award and how hard it has been to keep it a secret.

“I’m so pleased. They told me months ago and I said ‘I’m 95, you guys just got in under the wire,’ ” he said. “I want to stay alive. I’m not leaving without it.”

Van Dyke’s career spans 70 years and includes starring roles on Broadway, in movies and on TV. He won a Tony Award for his work on Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and appeared in the movies “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dick Tracy” and in the “Night at the Museum” films. He won three Emmys for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a comedy series that debuted in 1961 and ran for six seasons. Its 158 episodes continue to air.

“Because of covid, children are stuck at home and I’ve developed a whole new fan club,” Van Dyke said. “It’s just fun to be recognized at the market by a 5-year-old.”

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