One my biggest annual work projects is producing the Astor Alive performing arts festivals, a celebration of the rich cultural arts scene of Astor Place and the East Village. This years festival took place on September 23, I wrote the blog below which describes a very special day, both personally and professionally.
“Turn on, tune in, drop out”, was the phrase that came to symbolize the counterculture movement of musicians, actors, and activists which emerged during the 1967 “Summer of Love”. That same year, the iconic “Alamo” sculpture, “the Cube”, arrived at Astor Place, the revolutionary Public Theater opened, and St. Mark’s Place became New York’s epicenter of counterculture. Sensing the ripening mood, a February 1967 Daily News headline screamed “East Village Theme Is Now Love and Let Love”, and the East Village was born!
Fifty years later at the second Astor Alive festival, the cultural powerhouses of Astor Place and the East Village came together around the "Cube", to celebrate it's fiftieth birthday, counterculture, and the rich vibrant arts scene of the spinning neighborhood we love and call home. Reminiscing the summer of ’67, thousands flocked to Astor on a blazing late summer afternoon to once again “Turn on, tune in, drop out”.
Spanning two stages across the recently expanded Astor Place plazas, the Astor Alive festival presented ten electrifying hours of the finest East Village theater, dance, music, and poetry, featuring over 125 performers from 12 performing arts partners.
Astor Place is home to some of country’s leading educational institutions, whose students opened Astor Alive! The Hetrick-Martin Institute and Cooper Union orchestra animated the festival’s North and South stages respectively, with rousing performances of music and dance, followed by the powerful voices of the St. John’s University Mixed Chorus on the South Plaza stage. The Cooper Nova Dance Team then produced an energetic display of dance while the Cooper Union Steel Bridge team swiftly demonstrated how to build a huge steel bridge in less than eight minutes!
Astor Place has long been a nexus of motion and movement in our community, a theme celebrated through spellbinding dance. Acclaimed choreographer, Ori Flomin created two masterful sets for Astor Alive; titled “Together Together”. Using the expanse of the North Plaza and twelve dancers, he created a symphony of sweeping, flowing movements, each piece examining the various elements that create community, and the dependence of people on one another.
The Peridance Contemporary Dance Company returned to Astor Alive with two performances of spellbinding beauty and charged emotion, casting a surreal serenity across Astor Place. "YOUnite" by choreographer Marlena Wolfe, explored the intersection points of masculinity and femininity, set to electrifying music by Middle Eastern-French songwriters Bachar Mar-Khalifé and Armand Amar. Their second breathtaking performance featured excerpts from Artistic Director Igal Perry’s most recent full-length work, "Dia-Mono-Logues", exploring the ways people subconsciously project their prejudices and preconceived notions onto others.
A mid-afternoon silence then fell upon the South Plaza as eyes turned towards the “Cube” and the American Mime Theater, performing at Astor Alive for the first time with two silent mime plays. “Music Box” told the story of a piquant romance of two figures atop a mechanical toy, while “Hurly-Burly” featured three friends atop a stool trying to protect their privacy in direct conflict with their need to relate to each other.
La MaMa E.T.C returned to Astor Alive with a stellar line up of artists performing highlights from their 56th season, which reflects the urgency of reaffirming human interconnectedness. Downtown legend Nicky Parasio, curator of the Club at La MaMa, emceed a rousing showcase of music, dance, and theater on the South Plaza stage, featuring The Anna/Kate Band, Ombro de Oro, Ephrat Asherie, Shane O’Neill, and Kaila Mullady.
Astor Alive had something for all the family, those old enough to remember the summer of ’67, and those for whom the “Cube” is a recent discovery. Three interactive arts workshops kept visitors of all ages entertained. The Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company led puppet making workshops, while the Village Alliance presented it’s hugely popular “Creativity Cubed” workshops where industrious fingers crafted and collaged mini-spinning cubes with images of famous East Village “Faces, Places & Traces” from the last fifty years. In the background, sounds of beats and drums filled the air as festivalgoers discovered the sheer power and dynamism of their own voices at Beatbox workshops, with Baba Israel and Yako 440, presented by La MaMa E.T.C.
Joe’s Pub, the legendary nighttime haunt of the Public Theater, presented the hugely talented Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes, who was recently described by the New York Times as “an intensely thoughtful young pianist and composer”. Leading a sparkling array of musicians from the Joe’s Pub family, Pinderhughes performed excerpts from his recently released “Transformations Suite”, an acclaimed project combining stirring music, theatre, and poetry examining the radical history of resistance within the communities of the African Diaspora.
Poetry also flowed with mighty potency from the 2017 Bowery Slam Team on the North Stage, presented by Bowery Poetry. Their powerful soaring voices carried ninety minutes of poignant, electrifying poetry examining the social and political issues of our times, reminding us why they are one of the nation’s top Slam Teams.
The Strangers Project affirmed the power and importance of words and stories, creating their largest ever pop-up at Astor Alive, displaying many of the 30,000 personal handwritten stories they have collected. Visitors paused to read the very personal and strikingly candid stories of others, also taking the time to handwrite and add their own story to this compelling compendium of life.
An afternoon of pulsating music, theater, dance and poetry reached a rousing finale with the world famous Blue Man Groupwho call Astor Place home, and chose Astor Alive as the venue for the grand final of the first ever Blue Man Group New York Drum-off! After months of competition, three finalists drummed their hearts out one final time for the prestigious title of "Blue Man Group New York Drum-off Champion", with Kwesi Robinson taking the crown!
The appearance of the iconic Blue Men on stage firing off huge streamers over the crowd concluded a spectacular afternoon, as paper and confetti rained across the South Plaza.
The second Astor Alive festival emphasized the power of arts and culture to bring people together, bind communities and create human interconnectedness. Many things have changed since the 1967 “Summer of Love”. Our neighborhood looks different, feels different, but it remains a radiant beacon of creativity for New York City and the world.
Astor Alive highlighted the creative power of the diverse and talented people who work tirelessly each day to keep the vibrant beating heart of our neighborhood alive. At Astor Alive, they reminded us to embrace the unique arts scene, culture, and diversity of the East Village, to take a moment each day to love our city, its people, and to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”!