Marking the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter has introduced her first season of programming with a year-long festival that honors the president’s legacy of courage, freedom and social justice.
The Kennedy Centennial is the centerpiece of the center’s 2016-2017 season, a schedule of some 2,000 performances and events announced Tuesday that includes a focus on hip-hop for the first time in the center’s history.
Now 18 months into her tenure at the head of the nation’s busiest arts center, Rutter provides a glimpse of her artistic vision with this season lineup, the first completely under her control. It features 25 commissions across multiple genres and a continued focus on the role of the artist — emphasized by the appointment of Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming and Q-Tip as artistic advisers and Terence Blanchard and violinist Joshua Bell as artists-in-residence.
“An important aspect of our identity here at the center is the fact that we are a living memorial,” Rutter said. “You can’t really, as a performing arts center, recognize [Kennedy’s] achievements, but you can extrapolate the ideals that we associate with him and bring these ideals to life through performing arts activities.”
The centennial begins with events from this season — including pieces of the Ireland 100 Festival and next month’s Kennedy Center Arts Summit — and continues with tributes to activist artists Pete Seeger, Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln. Also included in the festival’s 35 events are the Washington National Opera productions of Blanchard’s “Champion,” about boxer Emile Griffith, and Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.”
The hip-hop programs are part of the JFK centennial. The arts center has presented hip-hop events for 15 years, but not in a cohesive way. Next season’s events will be curated by rapper and record producer Q-Tip, the center’s first artistic director of hip-hop culture. They include the world premiere of the B-Fly commission “All the Way Live!” and the Brave New Voices Youth Summit.
Q-Tip did not attend the season announcement, but he said in a video message that he welcomes the arts center’s commitment. “It couldn’t come at a better time. As a nation, we’re dealing with issues of race, issues of racism, issues of misogyny,” he said. People turn to art at times like these, and “hip-hop is no exception.”
The hip-hop performances expand the center’s genre-blurring events that Rutter launched this season. Returning under the heading “Mashups” will be five performances of “KC Jukebox,” a contemporary series from composer-in-residence Mason Bates, as well as the “Jason +” series with artistic director for jazz Jason Moran and “Demo,” curated by Damian Woetzel.
Rutter expects Ma and Fleming to foster an artist-centered atmosphere, an approach she used successfully in Chicago, where she worked before coming to Washington. Ma and Bates, who is the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, had formal relationships with Rutter there.
The 2016-2017 season marks the National Symphony Orchestra’s final year under music director Christoph Eschenbach. In addition to a residency with Joshua Bell and three co-commissions from composers Mason Bates, Christopher Rouse and Wynton Marsalis, the schedule features performances by violinist Hilary Hahn and pianists Emanuel Ax, Lang Lang and Jeremy Denk. Two programs will be conducted by music director designate Gianandrea Noseda, and a series of concerts celebrating former music director Mstislav Rostropovich, including three concerts in Russia under Eschenbach next March.
It is an important milestone for the orchestra, Rutter said. “It’s a reflection of an institution, how you say goodbye,” she said. “We really want to bid him a generous and grateful farewell.”
The five-production lineup from the Washington National Opera includes “Madame Butterfly,” “The Daughter of the Regiment” and “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Highlighting an expanding theater lineup are “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” a three-play series from Richard Nelson, and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” December brings the Fiasco Theater’s acclaimed production of “Into the Woods” and the return of “Wicked.” The Kennedy Center will host multi-week runs of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “The Sound of Music,” “Cabaret” and “The King and I” in the summer of 2017.
Among the ballet and contemporary dance offerings are performances by the Danish Dance Theatre, the San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet as well as STREB Extreme Action and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The Cincinnati Ballet brings its “Nutcracker” for a pre-holiday run, and choreographer Justin Peck and ballerina Misty Copeland curate two programs for “Ballet Across America,” a series last seen in 2013.
Rutter said the theater and dance programs reflect an attempt to balance artistic risks with audience favorites. “I’m thrilled that ‘The King and I’ is coming because it’s a beautiful work that our audiences deserve to see,” she said. “We should be taking risks and growing audiences. For me, success is a very carefully crafted blend of, did people attend and did it have artistic merit?”