Art of Change: 7 memorable moments from the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival
Don’t let anybody tell you that the Aspen Ideas Festival is just an orgy of bloviating from D.C. wonks and media elites. The arts programming at the annual confab has grown more and more robust in recent years, and the 2017 rendition — the first Ideas Fest of the Trump era — has so far offered vital cultural offerings in its “Art of Change” track. It’s brought luminaries like Norman Lear and John Ridley to town and hosted a fiery slam featuring young poets from across the U.S. — the festival’s performances and artist conversations have focused squarely on how dance, books, theater, film, art, architecture and music can shape civil society and instigate positive change.
The Ideas arts events also have provided some levity during an intense week (like a certain “Saturday Night Live” castmember talking trash about Aspen’s iconic gondola and music tent).
These are just a handful of the high points from the festival’s first five days:
* Aspen has gotten to know Memphis dancer and jookin’ pioneer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley well over his many years visiting Ideas Fest. But his new collaborations with Jon Boogz this year show the 29-year-old is reaching for a new level in both artistry and activism. The dancers did a live performance of “Color of Reality,” artist Rebecca Meade’s powerful “live painting” — in which the dancers are literally painted to match an impressionistic background — responding to the epidemic of police shootings of young black men.
Riley and Boogz have founded Movement Art Is (MAI), an organization using dance to confront social justice issues. Riley and Boogz also performed a piece about immigration and showed the film “Am I a Man?” which unflinchingly confronts mass incarceration.
On a panel Wednesday morning, Boogz explained that MAI has a dual mission of social justice and expanding dance literacy.
“We’re touching on issues that we want to talk about and introducing people to the culture, as well,” he said.
* A nearly full house at Paepcke Auditorium experienced Robert Schenkkan’s powerhouse dystopian play “Building the Wall” Tuesday evening in a one-night revival by Denver’s Curious Theatre Co.
“This is a very intense space,” actress Brynn Tucker said afterward. “I could hear people breathing and gasping — outrage, even. I felt connected with everybody. It was an exchange with everybody.”
Schenkkan, the Pultizer- and Tony-winning playwright, penned the chilling two-hander in a single week as Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric ramped up before the election last year. He’s licensed the play to theaters large and small across the U.S. in recent months, because he wants to inspire a more productive national dialogue.
“People are eager to talk and engage with this because people are anxious about our country,” he said. “This is when theater should stand up.”
* Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” is likely to reshape how Americans think and talk about the bloody conflict and, maybe, help heal a still-divided nation. With testimony from more than 100 witnesses — both American and Vietnamese — along with rarely seen footage and rarely heard White House tapes, it’s a hugely ambitious undertaking on par with Burns’ iconic “The Civil War.”
At Ideas Fest, Novick showed clips from the watershed film, which will broadcast in September, and discussed its mission.
“It’s this profoundly traumatic event that our country went through, and I’m not just talking about soldiers who experienced combat trauma,” she said Tuesday. “It was traumatic for our country and it’s a festering wound that we’ve never dealt with. We avoid talking about it, except for shouting in the most reductive way. In order to move forward at all as a country, we have to understand what happened.”
* “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller, in his Thursday morning talk, shared the story of how his cast came to give its controversial statement to Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended the acclaimed Broadway show in November.
“It was a soul-crushing day at ‘Hamilton’ the day after the election,” Seller said, recalling the outrage and fear among cast and crew members after Donald Trump’s election.
A few weeks later, Seller recalled, he was heading to a movie when he got a phone call from his COO saying that Pence had called requesting tickets to see the show. They sold him the tickets, but Seller struggled with how to deal with the presence of Pence, who has championed anti-gay policies and allied himself with Trump’s intolerant campaign rhetoric.
“I said, ‘F—,’ I just didn’t want to deal with it,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What am I going to say to my actors? How are we going to go and perform for this man?’ Because we know what he embodies.”
So, in the lobby of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, he wrote a statement for Pence on his iPhone. He worked it over and edited it in calls with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — who was in London — and director Thomas Kail.
Read to Pence by actor Javier Munoz after the cast’s bows, it became the biggest news story in the country the following day, and drew the ire of President-elect Trump. But, Seller said, it was the right thing to do.
“It wasn’t about getting the story,” he explained. “It was about us using the opportunity to say, ‘Look at us. We are here.’ It was a form of active communication, maybe resistance. And I want to tell you: I’m proud of it.”
* The Institute’s 2017 artist-in-residence Jeff Koons got his start in the art world by selling memberships at the Museum of Modern Art, he told Michael Eisner in a Monday afternoon panel. Unsurprisingly, this genius of conceptual art and master of marketing was very good at hawking to members.
“I doubled the membership,” Koons told the Ideas audience.
And he parlayed that skill into a more lucrative career of selling mutual funds. It was his income from that very white collar gig that allowed Koons to bankroll his early art work, which he revealed he sold at a loss.
“When I made work, I sold at a loss. … I always felt I had to take care of myself, but I wanted to participate,” he said.
* “Hardball” host Chris Matthews opened his Wednesday afternoon session with “Weekend Update” co-anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost by making some bad jokes and asking bonkers questions (he asked Jost whether he’d rather be Colin Powell or Colin Firth, for example, and sang a few bars from “Kiss Me, Kate” for some reason).
In a classic only-in-Aspen moment, one prominent audience member let Matthews know he was bombing: “Barbara Streisand is looking at me like I’m crazy,” he blurted.
Che confirmed Babs’ displeasure to the crowd at the Benedict Music Tent, saying, “You guys can’t see her face, but she is really unhappy. She’s visually upset.”
Matthews never quite got the chat back on the rails. But Che offered some hot takes on the Silver Queen Gondola and Harry Teague’s music tent.
On riding the gondola: “I hated the gondola. I thought it would be a nice, casual boat-ride upstream. It’s the opposite. It’s being dangled from the heavens. … It’s swinging and the wind is blowing, it’s whispering ‘You shouldn’t be up here.’”
And on Aspen’s iconic open-air concert tent: “Did this used to be a sailboat? Whose idea was this?”
* And one note to Aspenites: mark your calendars for the Aug. 13 Aspen Institute New Views screening of the new documentary “Dolores,” about Dolores Huerta, the civil rights activist, co-founder of United Farm Workers and National Medal of Freedom recipient who coined the phrase “Si se puede.”
The 87-year-old icon fired up a young crowd, offered a preview of the new film and discussed the continuing struggle for civil and workers’ rights at a Monday morning Ideas Fest with Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas.
Huerta urged anyone concerned about the direction of the country to join a school board and get involved: “We have to start fighting at a local level and this is something that each one of us can do.”
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The Virtual Aspen Music Festival’s Sunday concerts have been going from strength to strength in a year without audiences in the seats.