New York’s River to River festival: Bridges, ports, parks and alleyways give way to theatrics

Past performances at the River to River festival include Laurie Anderson (above), Rufus Wainwright and Chrisette Michele. (Photos: GODLIS)Past performances at the River to River festival include Laurie Anderson (above), Rufus Wainwright and Chrisette Michele. (Photos: GODLIS)
Past performances at the River to River festival include Laurie Anderson (above), Rufus Wainwright and Chrisette Michele. (Photos: GODLIS)

Past performances at the River to River festival include Laurie Anderson (above), Rufus Wainwright and Chrisette Michele. (Photos: GODLIS)


One year ago, this column started with a guide to getting almost-free food in Manhattan. That was hardly good enough. So may I apologize by modestly presenting a month of absolutely free music, dance, painting, poetry and theatre amid the most beautiful (and unknown) sites in New York.

Specifically, this is the Tenth River to River Festival (RRF), an al-fresco, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week happening across Lower Manhattan island from the Hudson to the East, and a day/night international celebration.

If you haven’t heard of RRF, put it down to bad bureaucratic planning. After the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001, lower Manhattan was polluted chemically (the short term) and psychologically (the long term). Nobody wanted to shop, invest, visit or even think about this, the original Manhattan, where Dutch and British patriarchs had built their houses, some of which still survive.

Luring people downtown for a festival of sorts was a wet balloon until two years ago.

Then, bureaucrats put it in the hands of a group with the unpromising moniker of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The results so far have exceeded the title for one reason. Not a single one of the events can be compared with any other shows in all New York.

The South Sea Seaport will have dances, paintings, lectures, walking tours.

Rufus Wainwright at the 2011 River to River festival. (GODLIS)

Rufus Wainwright at the 2011 River to River festival. (GODLIS)

This is also the start of the Montreal Connection, with choreographer Sylvain Émard presenting his Grand Continental, with 200 dancers weaving from there through New York streets.

Rockefeller Park has spectacles, including Philip Glass and a 12-hour marathon for music from the great Bang On a Can Ensemble.

Across on Governors Island, a famed dance company will use the great outdoors to rehearse for a show later in the year. And in an alley, an Irish troupe will present a play by Samuel Beckett.

General George Washington would have felt at home in Fraunces Tavern and Trinity Church, both with their shows.

The result is non-stop artistry. From June 15 to July 17, more than 150 performers will dance, play, speak, sing and play dramas in the most out-of-the-way venues.

Last year, soloists like Patti Smith were giving concerts. This year, the innovation is more international, with guests from Columbia, Ireland, Africa and the Philippines represented, along with a half-dozen American composers.

“We have 92 events doing 145 performances, seminars, exhibitions, walking tours going non-stop over three square miles … three or four different offerings each day,” says Andy Horowitz, who leads the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Chrisette Michele in 2011. (GODLIS)

Chrisette Michele in 2011. (GODLIS)

“I have no idea how many performers, we’ll have but that’s in the range of a thousand or more.

“The funny thing is that we don’t have or need a theme. Right after last year’s River to River, we would get together and see who was available, who would bring diversity. Yes, we wanted to celebrate Philip’s birthday, and his youth orchestra.

“But you say you represent The Senior Times? Well, we have a staged reading of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, with nobody under the age of 65.

“We discovered a harp-player from Colombia, and we have a very avant-garde choral group from the Philippines.

“Oh, and if you like John Cage, why not Samuel Beckett? We have a reading in an alley. And next door, a Shakespeare company is doing Twelfth Night.”

Along with this is a walking tour of Brooklyn Bridge, with poems by Whitman and Hart Crane, as well as other walking tours of the city.

The budget for the event is minuscule, by New York standards, at $2 million.

“For that,” Horowitz says, “we have corporate sponsors. No profit motive, but instead, yet another way to make Lower Manhattan rebound. The restaurants will, of course make a profit.

“We have a seminar on the glories of local food. Local New York food.”

Lower Manhattan still has a long way to go.

The reconstruction of the World Trade Centre has gone through financial manipulations and corporate arguments that belie the community spirit.

Occupy Wall Street had its origins in a park in the middle of Lower Manhattan. The movement has moved on, but the park is a landmark. River to River has a July exhibition of Occupy photos and documents.

My own feeling, after looking at the 100-odd events, is that because of its lack of any particular theme (no jazz or chamber music festival or art exhibition), it shows diversity and imagination.

The area, 11 years ago, was devoted to outrage. These events are, in many cases, outrageous.

Whatever else you might say about New York, this is the city at its most resplendent.

Photo by GODLIS

Photo by GODLIS

Suite charity and other River to River events

June 21: Tiniest Extravaganza: 64 Baby Grand toy pianos, arranged in yin-yang formation with 64 players playing I-ching-inspired music for four straight hours outside while the sun is setting on the seaport. Whew!

June 24: Most Creative Garbage: Kids from Children’s Museum make paintings using recycled bottles, milk cartons and objects found on the streets, along with on-the-spot animation.

June 26-29: Theatrical Alley: Sam Beckett lived abroad most of his life, but he was Irish to the core. Here, in Theatrical Alley, his Act Without Words II is enacted by an all-Irish troupe.

June 27-29: Finest Confinement: Call it Suite Charity, the opposite of outdoor venues. This play takes place in a real hotel room in a real hotel, with the actor wondering what goes on outside the hotel. Not for travelers who hate hotels.

July 2: Got The World On A String: Renowned Mexican visual artist Erika Harrsch and composer Julian Watchner have put together a “kite installation” with music to match, apparently imitating butterflies in migratory flight, the musical equivalent of a visual kaleidoscope. Worth going for one line of description: “Each kite is released into the air, accompanied by a single melodic thread of music which increases in complexity and density as the other kites join.”

July 6-7: Perapatetic Port Pedestrians: The port section of Montreal is fascinating, but New York’s port district was truly where America began. The buildings in this tourist spot originally were part of the American maritime history. This walking tour includes the Fulton Fish Market, once the largest in the world.

July 13: Top of the Taps: Imagine a chorus of 300 tapping feet (presumably 150 tapping people) tap-dancing choreography. The mind boggles.

July 15: John Cage Unleashed: This is an extravaganza of theatre, music, singing, dancing, miming and lighting. Innocently titled Song Book, you won’t be seeing any little Schubert recitals here. Complete surrealism, tremendous fun, unpredictable, and (if the recent San Francisco Orchestra performance was any indication), magically beautiful.

All events and details are online at Festival runs June 17-July 15.

The most epic line dance ever imagined

The city of Montreal is accustomed to Sylvain Emard’s choreography breakthroughs.

He has changed styles every few years since his debut in Montreal in 1989. His dances have been sometimes formal, sometimes using actors, at times dealing with portraits, at times exploring memory or other philosophical concepts.

In 2009, he created Le Grand Continental in Montreal. He chooses 200 amateur dancers and, like a good chef in a foreign kitchen, finds whatever local ingredients are at hand to create a dish that has never been seen.

“After 20 years in the business dancing can become just a job to you, This project brought the joy of dance back into my life,” he told La Presse.

In New York, his dancers perform June 22, 23 and 24.

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