Panel moderator Anna Deavere Smith began the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) APAP|NYC 2016’s opening plenary session “Making the Arts Matter” at the Hilton Hotel’s Grand Ballroom Friday by reciting the end of President Barack Obama’s “State of the Union” speech: “That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future.”
“Doesn’t that sound like a call-out to the arts?” asked Smith. “Have we ever heard a president of our country talk about unconditional love? Google it! I’d like to know.”
Smith then asked mezzo-soprano and El Camino Project founder Carla Dirlikov to discuss the concept of duende as applied to the arts.
The daughter of a Mexican mother and Bulgarian father, Dirlikov, who grew up in Michigan, first came to APAP as an intern at 17 and saw her presence on the panel as “real affirmation that dreams can come true on a personal level.” Admitting to a background of “cultural confusion,” she favored Federico García Lorca’s use of the term, which derives from an elf or goblin-like magic creature in Spanish mythology.
“He defines it as a mysterious power we all feel, but no philosopher can explain,” said Dirlikov. “It’s akin to artistic experience—not about technique or performance, but [something] primal, visceral—the bitter root of human existence. The word in English that come to mind is soul.”
Dirlikov said that she considers herself to be on a search for duende—“that intimacy and that truth. García Lorca says it’s having the courage to face your fears, and death—which we all have in common—and looking at what’s important. I continue that on my own search as an opera singer.”
As to whether those who make the arts are a community, Dirlikov returned to her multicultural background.
“I still can’t make sense of it,” she said, but suggested that rater than continuing a conversation about “the others,” start a conversation about “the all.”
Smith asked panelist Paula Kerger, president/CEO of PBS, about “the word ‘public’” in the words that the acronyum stands for–Public Broadcasting Service: “Are we a public?”
Kerger said it was in fact “the most important word” in the name, helping to “capture the fact that we exist for the communities we serve—and by ‘communities’ I mean physical communities in place, but also communities of common interest. We want to support and do whatever we can to bring artistic communities together in common purpose.”
Dancer/choreographer and New York Live Arts executive artistic director Bill T. Jones, however, noted “how difficult it is to get people of different color in the room”—let alone, his own nieces and nephews together to watch the evening news.
“Building community is hard as hell,” he stated, adding that you have to “lead with your heart” to achieve community.” Added Dirlikov, “It’s about listening and creating trust.”
Smith, then, asked if the arts matter, especially in moving “beyond fear.”
“I believe to my very soul that arts matter now more than ever, because they bring people together,” said Kerger. She related that she had studied pre-med, and “wrestled through a painful period of the loss of someone–and I can’t even speak about it.”
But she said that she had attended a music performance, “and something felt different inside of me.”
“I can’t elegantly describe it but it was a powerful experience, something that was almost primal, and something came back inside of me in that performance space,” she said. “I think back on it, and it could have happened at home listening to music, but there was something about being in a space where other people all experience it at the same time, and the power of it was so profound that even to this day I tingle a bit. I think that’s when art really touches us: There’s an intellectual side and emotional side, and something deeper that you can’t even imagine–and that’s the mystery.”
Here Kerger echoed Dirlikov’s reference to García Lorca and Albert Einstein using the word “mysterious” in reference to art experiences. The panel had begun with just such an experience in Jones’ solo dance performance, which dealt with, he explained as he danced, numerous interrelated topics including a nephew who had AIDS, the Paris terrorist attack and Syrian refugees.
“The arts are what make us human,” Kerger had said in her opening remarks. “They feed our soul, inspire us, break down barriers between people and cultures and give us a chance to see the world from many different perspectives. In this day people are so intent on isolating ourselves from each other. I can think of nothing more important than building bridges and helping all recognize our common humanity.”