General director of Spoleto Festival USA since 1995 and, for two decades (1998-2017), the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden has an internationalist's point of view on the arts—expansive, curious, informed by the cultural wealth that the world has to offer.
He is the son of an American diplomat and grew up moving from place to place—Cyprus, Israel, Canada, Italy—until eventually setting of for Yale to study Art History. After visiting the Spoleto festival in Italy as a young man, and working there while he was still an undergraduate, he very quickly realized what he wanted to: direct festivals. And that's what he has done for most of the last quarter century.
How did you get drawn into the world of festivals?
I started at Spoleto in 1969, the summer after my freshman year. I had seen a certain number of the companies in other contexts, and I thought it was wonderful to see these performances in juxtaposition, and to see how, to some extent, they informed each other. In the final analysis, every performance is about a kind of human message. By the time I was 20, I knew I wanted to run a festival.
Where does your love of dance come from?
My own interest in dance began when I was in high school. I suppose I saw Nureyev and Fonteyn. My great-grandfather was part owner of Theatre Royal, in Australia. My mother had very vivid memories of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo coming to Australia; she had these wonderful stories of getting to know the dancers. It seemed natural to want to go.
Then, that first year at Spoleto I saw Merce Cunningham. I had read some of John Cage's work and was terrified of meeting him. I saw an "event," and it was totally mystifying. This was 1969. I didn't understand it at all. But then when I started working at BAM in 1973, there was a series of events at the Lepercq Space, and they were absolutely transformational. All of a sudden it made sense.
The wonderful thing about dance is that it's about seeing a body move in a way most of us can't and finding some way in which this means something to you. It's difficult to articulate with words, but you have this strong feeling that something has been revealed to you.
What is special about festivals—what do they provide that a regular season cannot?
I've found the pressure and intensity of a festival brings out the best in performers. A community of artists is being created. And they know the audience isn't just there because it was part of their subscription series. And also the best in audiences. The audiences come with the expectation that they're going to enjoy it. People are more open-minded. They're more prepared to see things they might not usually want to buy tickets for.
For a long time, you directed both Spoleto USA, based in Charleston, and the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. How did they fit together in your mind's eye?
I think they fit together by being different. The Spoleto festival takes over a small town, and the audience comes from all over. So what we have tried to do there is give a kind of wonderful banquet of the arts. In New York, the audience was more local and more aware of what was being performed throughout the year. So there, the idea was to extend the definition of Lincoln Center. I felt it was essential, in New York, to include classical traditions from other parts of the world: Kabuki, Noh, Pansori. And also, to include parts of the broader European tradition that aren't seen here.
What, to you, was the ultimate aim of the Lincoln Center Festival?
I think it was about discovery in the sense that one is discovering classicisms from around the world. The number of people who knew about Kunqu opera prior to our performances of the Peony Pavilion was mostly limited to people who came from that culture. A lot of people found out about it as a result of the Festival. The Japan Society does a great job bringing performing arts from Japan, but the audience tends to be less broad. When we brought over Kanze Noh Theatre last year, there was an intensity about that performance that was possible because Lincoln Center had the resources to build a Noh stage. When you're doing something at Lincoln Center you tend to do it right.
Where did the idea for last year's performances of Balanchine's Jewels by three companies—New York City Ballet, Paris Opéra and the Bolshoi—come from?
I'd been working on the idea for years and years. The idea was that Balanchine had worked in all three countries. Emeralds does seem to be inspired by French dance. And I think it's difficult to look at Diamonds and not think of imperial Russia.
It took a lot of cajoling. There are always logistical problems. The French dancers are usually off that time of year. So the dancers who danced here moved their vacations, which meant they weren't available to the company at the beginning of September. It all happened during the transition between Benjamin Millepied and Aurélie Dupont's directorship of the company. Benjamin had been quite enthusiastic, and fortunately Aurélie was too.
What is lost with the disappearance of a large, eclectic festival like Lincoln Center Festival?
I think inevitably there's going to be less programming at Lincoln Center. We were in discussion with several European companies as well as large Asian companies that now won't have a home in New York. I assume a home will emerge at some point. New York is too important a place for performers not to perform.
Is New York City in danger of slipping behind other cultural capitals?
I think it has already. The fact that there's only one opera company is a pity. But it still seems to be a place choreographers want to come to—there's still a kind of energy here. Even though the costs of studio space and living space are very high. When I first moved to New York I rented an apartment for $40 a month, which meant it really didn't matter how much money I earned, because the expenses were so low.
What is your advice to young festival directors?
I became director of the performing arts program at the Walker Arts Center when I was 25. We did a dance festival called New Dance America there, and the idea was to see if we could get an audience for Trisha Brown and David Gordon and Laura Dean and Lucinda Childs. So I feel that that is what a young festival director should do: find an audience for the people that person believes in.
Are there enough women running big festivals in the US?
I'm not sure there are enough women running things generally. After I left Spoleto my first boss was Ellen Stewart. She was amazing. But over time it became more and more clear that it was difficult for women to get these top leadership positions. I'm sure I've benefited from the fact that I'm male.
It's also an issue of people of a different color than mine. It's a big issue. I'm certainly aware of having white privilege. I didn't have those disadvantages of having to fight stereotypes. I still think they very much exist.
You speak a lot about classicism—what does that word mean to you?
I think it means work that has stood the test of time. That is, that somehow still has a resonance. Classicism has informed the world we live in; it's still a living tradition. On some level it's about a sense of history. I believe history is useful for us. We need to know where we came from. We didn't just invent ourselves. Life is richer if you have a more dynamic sense of the past.