WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center is planning an extended celebration of its 50th anniversary in its 2021-2022 season, featuring new commissions by Philip Glass and Esperanza Spalding, year-long artist residencies by the Roots and Robert Glasper, interactive exhibitions commemorating its first five decades and a new outdoor bronze statue of JFK. The festivities will end with a restaging of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical “Mass,” which opened the center on Sept. 8, 1971.
“We’re never going to be 50 any other time,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said over Zoom Monday. “Whenever you think about these milestones, you think, ‘Should we reflect back, or should we look forward?’ You can see that there are some things that are very much about looking forward ... in particular the way we designed commissions of new works and the folks we have invited to lead our journey.”
The schedule includes the Washington National Opera’s “Written in Stone,” a collection of four commissions that “celebrate the diversity and acknowledge the struggles” of America, according to the arts center. Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, Artistic Director of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph, composer Huang Ruo, playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang and composer and instrumentalist Kamala Sankaram are among the artists involved in the project. The four pieces will premiere together during a six-performance run March 5-25, 2022.
“I am really proud of who is commissioned and what they are writing about,” Rutter said, adding composer-in-residence Carlos Simon and education artist-in-residence Jacqueline Woodson to the list of artists she is excited to present. “These are not just names grabbed off the shelf. These are really long-term relationships that have grown to a higher level. Each has grown organically within the institution.”
The 50th anniversary celebration is part of 1,110 dance, theater, jazz, comedy and musical concerts and events in the 2021-2022 season. The total represents a 25 percent cut from pre-pandemic averages, Rutter said, and many of the special performances have been scheduled for 2022 as a hedge that vaccines would by then be widely available.
The arts center has planned a sparse schedule between now and September. A week-long celebration of the Kennedy Center Honors spotlighting Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, Midori and Dick Van Dyke will be filmed from May 17-22 and broadcast on CBS June 6. In addition, a few dozen live events are planned, including some on an outdoor stage on the Reach plaza. Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced Monday that performing arts venues can increase capacity to 25 percent, up to 500 people, starting May 1. That news will impact the Honors and the summer schedule, Rutter said.
“We have needed to make sure we could undertake the work. It’s been a little bit of a wait and see how safe it is,” she said to explain why those events have not yet been announced.
The anniversary season will begin in September with two weekends of free activities Sept. 11-12 and 18-19, including outdoor yoga, a public art installation from author-illustrator Mo Willems and National Dance Day events. On Sept. 10, the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Gianandrea Noseda, will present a “Concert of Remembrance” to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the toll of COVID-19.
“It’s really important for us as the national cultural center to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a solemn moment of remembrance ... to reflect on the pandemic, all the lives lost, all the lives upended,” Rutter said. “We wanted to start in a somber way, then have a pause and be able to celebrate a little more robustly. It felt right to take the two weekends as bookends.”