correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Direct Current Festival as District Current in one reference. It also misstated, in one reference, the title of the festival performance “Falling Out” as “Falling Down.” This version has been updated.
Direct Current is the Kennedy Center’s bid for the cutting edge. Last spring, the center held the two-week interdisciplinary festival for the first time — and nearly every show sold out. That’s according to Jamie Broumas, the center’s director of classical and new music programs, who programs the festival and is preparing for its second iteration.
“We now know there’s an appetite for this in Washington,” Broumas says.
So what is “this?” Whatever it is, this year’s Direct Current, which starts Sunday, is offering more of it — more names, more performances. It includes Bill T. Jones’s “Analogy Trilogy,” three works exploring marginalized populations; performances by jazz pioneers Tyshawn Sorey, Henry Threadgill and Vijay Iyer; and an evening spotlighting Iranian female composers. It includes the staged premiere of “Triptych,” the first theatrical work authorized to use the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, conceived and composed by Bryce Dessner. It includes a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, expressed through butoh dance and large-scale puppets by the Phantom Limb company, called “Falling Out.”
The festival showcases a kind of fare Washington hasn’t always gotten before: the multidisciplinary experimental piece from the international festival circuit. In the United States, there aren’t many big interdisciplinary festivals of the kind so popular in Europe — Edinburgh, Salzburg, the Festival d’Automne in Paris. Here, the Spoleto U.S.A. festival in Charleston, S.C., and the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — also focusing exclusively on new work — are among the few exemplars, and with Direct Current, the Kennedy Center is effectively trying to join them.
At the very least, it’s adding a key dimension to the center, which aspires to present a cross-section of what’s happening in the arts in America. “It gives me an opportunity,” Broumas says, “to help create a creative scene in D.C. that I want to live in.”
A common thread at Direct Current this year is political statement. The Kennedy Center, being a partly government-funded institution, has had an ambivalent relationship to explicit protest art, but many of the works featured this year are at the very least tackling current events head-on.
Take the video oratorio “Where we lost our shadows,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun — now also known as the woman who wore the pompom dress to the Grammys — and the Palestinian filmmaker Khaled Jarrar. It incorporates film Jarrar shot when accompanying a Syrian refugee family on a journey from Athens to Germany; Jarrar forged refugee documents to travel with them. With texts by the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, the piece is also based on Pakistani raga, tracing its development — its own migration, if you will — from the 13th century to the present day. Du Yun has used these elements as a way to examine the larger issue of migration as a constant throughout human history, as well as drawing attention to a current crisis.
“Artists have ideas sometimes and you think, ‘Do people care?’ ” she said by phone this month, musing over the positive response to the work’s world premiere in London in January. “People also ask, why spend the money doing what you’re doing when you can use the money actually to help people get what they need?”
For Du Yun, the answer lies partly in making issues more present to the audience, and partly in using her platform — particularly now that she’s won the Pulitzer Prize — as a way to amplify her statements. Her pompom dress at the Grammys, for instance, was made by an artist with Down syndrome, part of a collective in California. “It’s sort of like a performance-art thing,” she says, “and I’m always saying this is how women and people of color should do it. If I can grab the mic, I just grab the mic.”
Gabriel Kahane, the singer-songwriter-composer, wrote “The Book of Travelers” two years ago after a train journey across America in the wake of the presidential election. The work offers snapshots of the country in songs about the people he encountered along the way.
In his songs, Kahane wrestles with the issues that have continued to divide the country in the years since his trip — trying to identify our shared values while not wanting to blithely whitewash over differences, which can, he says, “have life or death consequences.” “Where do you draw the line,” he asks, “as far as that pursuit of radical empathy, in the face of what often feels like evil?” Toward the end of a song cycle that’s largely about people whom, he says, he would never have encountered “in my cloistered Brooklyn existence,” he meets a well-off African American woman who “throws down the gantlet” in a song called “What If I Told You,” explaining that she is riding the train because her grown sons fear for her safety if she were to drive through the Deep South and that her sympathy for the plight of the white working man is limited.
“Every time I talk about the album, I feel like I’m in a minefield,” Kahane says. “The music that I made is more articulate than I can be.”
Originally, the piece (released as a recording in 2018) was conceived to be performed with video accompaniment, but Kahane has dialed back the presentation to make the experience more like a club show. With the video, he says, “everything was so incredibly scripted, and I feel like the essence of these songs has so much to do with forging connections across constructed boundaries.”
There are many inherent risks to political art. One is that if an artist manages to create a well-crafted piece out of a thorny subject, it can leave audiences with the misleading impression that everything is going to be okay (in the way that Richard Nixon becomes almost a sympathetic and certainly a safe figure in the opera “Nixon in China”). There’s a fundamental contradiction when artists document horror by creating work that transcends it. “I can’t emphasize enough how gorgeous this production is,” Broumas says of “Falling Out,” the piece about the Fukushima disaster, which may have caused upward of 1,500 deaths. She’s not insensitive: Art also illuminates the ambiguity of the way that beauty and horror, sympathy and repugnance, can exist side by side.
The point of Direct Current though, is simply to create a space where art can thrash out these issues. The question that remains, and that only this and future iterations of the festival can answer, is whether new work is better served by being given a special focus, or by being a vital part of the Kennedy Center’s year-round program.
Direct Current March 24-April 7 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.