Metro Weekly

Editor’s Pick: The RiverRun Festival at the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center's extraordinary RiverRun Festival presents a total of 50 programs, including immersive experiences, art installations, performances, and film screenings.

Moipei Sisters -- Photo: Margot Schulman
Moipei Sisters — Photo: Margot Schulman

There’s a reason why most major cities the world over and from time immemorial are situated next to rivers, which have been called the arteries of civilization.

Access to fresh water is not only critical for human consumption, but it’s also enabled early innovations in agriculture, travel, trade, and technology.

Right now, the Kennedy Center is paying tribute to the importance and influence of the world’s greatest waterways, and their connections to art and culture, through its expansive month-long, all-genre RiverRun Festival.

The festival, which started on World Water Day (March 22) and will end on Earth Day (April 22), presents a total of 50 programs, including immersive experiences, art installations, performances, and film screenings.

“We have a long history of doing these international festivals, and they’ve always been more geographic in focus, highlighting a specific country, region, or continent,” says Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter in the official description.

“As we have come through the pandemic, this festival felt like a way to really draw partners from all across the world, and engage together in some form of cultural diplomacy. What is more important across the world than climate change? These artists have an ability to communicate ideas and concepts in a way that is perhaps even more powerful than facts alone.”

RiverRun is the first in an upcoming annual series at the Kennedy Center devoted to climate change-related environmental issues as explored or captured in art.

After this year’s overall theme of water, the next three odd-numbered years offer broad themes of “space” in 2025, “movement and energy” in 2027, and “Making Peace with Nature” in 2029.

Each festival will be capped off in the subsequent even-numbered year with an Arts Biennial-styled presentation of visual artists from around the world responding to the broad theme of the previous year.

Terje Isungset — Photo: Emile Holba

RiverRun specifically presents several programs honoring the watershed that runs right alongside the institution and serves as the southwestern border of the District.

This Potomac River-focused lineup includes Ferry Tales, a theatrical production featuring stories and short tales about Potomac life performed at site-specific locations by actors Colie Aziza, Vanessa Gilbert, and Serena Rasoul and created and directed by Caitlin Nasema Cassidy (4/7-8, The REACH; 4/13, Georgetown Canal Boat; 4/14, various on-site locations; 4/15, The REACH).

The Potomac will also factor into paintings created by guest artists Yasmine Iskander, Daniela Godoy, and Raiz Campos on site at Kennedy Center grounds during various times this weekend and next as part of “Potomac River Plein Air Outdoor Painting” (4/8-4/9, 4/15-16, various on-site locations).

Scott Silven -- Photo:  Alice Boreas
Scott Silven — Photo: Alice Boreas

Other notable, date-specific programming at RiverRun include:

A Moonlit Night on the Spring River, a unique concert, curated and led by composer/conductor Huang Ruo, celebrating the enchanting and diverse landscapes and rivers of China and featuring ancient and new music, including pieces for piano, violin, cello, pipa, and voice (4/12, Terrace Theater).

Hanging by a Thread: Life on the Nile, a presentation by Ahdaf Soueif, part of the “Talking Rivers, Talking Water” series, about the Nile River’s role in the lives of everyday Egyptians and how that relationship has changed over the past 7,000 years (4/13, Justice Forum).

Terje Isungset Ice Quartet, a concert by the percussionist-led Norwegian quartet, internationally known as the pioneer of ice music, using musical instruments all made out of blocks of natural ice harvested from lakes and rivers in Norway — from a harp to a horn to a drum set (4/14-15, Terrace).

Debbie Allen’s Red Birds in “What About Us?”, the legendary dancer leads her company of young dancers, ages 8 to 18 and trained in classical ballet, jazz, hip-hop, aerial arts, and acting, for a special presentation of movement, spoken word, and song (4/15, Millennium Stage/Grand Foyer).

Ecuador and the Amazon Basin: Ancient Tales and Modern Stories, a presentation by Ecuadorian Ambassador Ivonne A-Baki, who is an artist and painter as well as politician and diplomat, that offers a glimpse into the cultures and civilizations thriving along the Ecuadorian rivers of the Amazon basin, from pre-Columbian times to today, part of the “Talking Rivers, Talking Water” series (4/15, Justice Forum).

Roberto Fabelo: Survivors -- Photo: Margot Schulman
Roberto Fabelo: Survivors — Photo: Margot Schulman

LEONARDISSIMO!—Leonardo da Vinci’s World and Its Waters, a stunning multimedia presentation, part of the “FLOW” Literary Series curated by Marie Arana of the Library of Congress, that delves into the great master’s obsession with water, from the rivers coursing through his paintings to his well-documented scientific experiments with the Rio Arno. The program, hosted by da Vinci biographer Walter Isaacson, includes footage from a forthcoming documentary by Ken Burns and commentary from astrophysicist Mario Livio, da Vinci specialist Carmen Bambach, and University of Virginia art history professor Francesca Fiorani, the unveiling of a special portrait of da Vinci by Cuban sculptor/painter Roberto Fabelo, and a performance of passages from da Vinci’s iconic notebooks by D.C. actor Christopher Bloch as sketches of the artist’s visionary works are projected overhead, all accompanied by flutist Yana Nikol and guitarist Cristian Perez playing Renaissance music (4/14, Eisenhower Theater).

Afropop Worldwide: The African Rivers Project, an evening of music focused on two great African rivers, the Niger and the Congo, hosted by Georges Collinet and Banning Eyre of public radio’s Afropop Worldwide, curated by Sean Barlow and Eyre, and featuring the Niger River Ensemble and the Kinshasa All Stars, who will perform as visual imagery of the two spectacular rivers are projected (4/15, Eisenhower).

The festival includes a number of dynamic installations set up throughout the Kennedy Center grounds and on display for free throughout the run of the festival (unless otherwise noted). These include:

River Island | Isla de Ríos, an immersive environment created by author and illustrator Edwin Fontánez allowing visitors to enter the lush landscapes of Puerto Rico and the more than 220 rivers on the island, with a bilingual play space for children and a fanciful recreation of a traditional dwelling.

Portraits of Wisdom, Brazilian artist Raiz Campos’s vibrantly colored, mixed-technique series of graffiti portraits depicting the Amazon River’s flora and fauna as well as its native peoples.

Survivors (Sobrevivientes), Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo’s herd of life-sized, 350-pound fiberglass rhinoceroses, set up on the grass near the REACH’s reflecting pool, that visitors can touch and take selfies with, offering a degree of intimacy intended to provoke reflections about the problems of poaching and habitat loss affecting the critically endangered species.

Celia Ledon: The Shape of Water -- Photo: Margot Schulman
Celia Ledon: The Shape of Water — Photo: Margot Schulman

The Shape of Water, an installation created from plastic waste by another Cuban artist, Celia Ledón (Cuba), drawing inspiration from the female figure to personify mythological deities associated with water.

Mississippi Colors, a series of photographs from French artist Nicolas Floc’h documenting the environmental impacts of people on the Mississippi River and its water cycle.

Steamboats: The Heartbeat of a Growing Nation, a display of three detailed boat models selected by historian Taylor Abbott capturing the eternal romance of steamboats, once a critical vessel for both cargo and culture in America’s heartland.

River Walk, a floor installation by Cuban artist Raupa intertwining the names of more than 400 rivers into a single-flowing stream.

River Basin Map, a colorful contemporary artwork featuring scientifically accurate visualizations of the world’s waterways by the Hungarian Robert Szucs, a digital cartographer-turned-artist.

RiverRun Festival runs until April 22. Various locations. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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