Columbia Festival of the Arts aims to please

The Chalk-It-Up Contest is a popular attraction at LakeFest. Coco Tang, left, of Ellicott City, works on a chalk interpretation of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's "Girl With Pearl Earring" during the 2011 contest.
The Chalk-It-Up Contest is a popular attraction at LakeFest. Coco Tang, left, of Ellicott City, works on a chalk interpretation of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's "Girl With Pearl Earring" during the 2011 contest.(File photo by Steve Ruark, Patuxent Publishing)

The 26th annual Columbia Festival of the Arts once again brings an impressive roster of performers to Howard County from June 14 to 29.

Some of these performers are returning favorites, while others are first-timers. Some will take a bow on their own, while others will collaborate with homegrown talent. All of them are booked by the festival in order to provide memorable artistic experiences for local audiences.


"We have 16 days to present things you might not see anywhere else in the region," says Columbia Festival of the Arts executive director Nichole Hickey.

She spends the year tracking performers in order to see who is available and, yes, affordable for a festival that has faced its share of financial pressure. Sometimes there's competition from other presenting organizations in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.; and sometimes it's really just a matter of when the schedules and the, er, stars are in alignment.


Although the star performers booked for the ticketed events obviously quality as marquee attractions, thousands of veteran festival-goers also know that there's an abundance of talent at the free LakeFest Celebration running June 14-16. This year's LakeFest includes Squonk Opera GO Roadshow, a craft show, a Chalk-It-Up contest, a fine art exhibit and sidewalk sale at the Artists' Gallery in the lakefront-adjacent American City Building, a workshop in how to make a silk scarf out of basic materials, Afro-Cuban and Latin music played by Son Tropical of the United States Army Field Band, and other arts and crafts activities.

Among ticketed events, there has been a high volume of advance ticket sales for Pilobolus, appearing June 28 at 8 p.m., at the Rouse Theatre. Hickey says this contemporary dance group last performed at the festival in 1997. She's been trying to get it back ever since, because Pilobolus represents "a paradigm shift where they set a new bar for contemporary dance and the athleticism of dance. The body is a sculpture, really, and they explore the physicality of it."

Where physicality is concerned, Hickey adds that Pilobolus has partial nudity in its performances. Its upcoming Columbia Festival appearance is a retrospective-oriented program surveying dance pieces created between 1978 and 2012.

Another hot ticket based on early sales is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band June 29 at 8 p.m. at Rouse Theatre. Hickey says this musical treasure from New Orleans will be making its fourth festival appearance.

Also likely to fill the seats is a festival first-timer, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which appears June 22 at 8 p.m. at Rouse Theatre. This group first made a name for itself by doing vastly reduced versions of all 37 Shakespeare plays in the same evening.

In that same comic spirit, this fast-talking, three-man group comes to the Columbia Festival with a different show, "All the Great Books (abridged)."

Hickey says "it literally is everything you can imagine from 'Anna Karenina' to Harry Potter and everything in between. It's a roller coaster ride with 90 or so books in 90 minutes."

Equally spirited will be Rhythmic Circus, performing June 21 at 8 p.m. at Rouse Theatre. Its show, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now!" features tap and other percussive dancing, a seven-piece band, vocalists and beat-boxing.

"We look for what's new and fresh and energetic and up and coming and this year certainly Rhythmic Circus goes to the top," says Hickey, her own voice rising. "They have broad appeal with tap dance and high-energy rock and roll and rap. They're emerging artists."

Expect just as much voltage from Audiobody, performing June 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Rouse Theatre. Its juggling, music and comedy incorporate some high-tech touches.

National and local talent

Other programs in the festival juggle national and local talent. As Hickey explains: "I try to find opportunities to pair our local talent with touring artists."


She cites Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet as an example.

Co-presented by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society June 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Howard Community College's Monteabaro Hall, this program titled "The Sound and Fury of New Orleans" is being done here after its recent world premiere at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Patricia Smith will recite poems about Hurricane Katrina accompanied by the Sage String Quartet playing Wynton Marsalis' composition "At the Octoroon Balls."

Also on the literary front, the Howard County-based Little Patuxent Review has just released a music-themed summer issue, which in turn has inspired a program of readings and songs June 22, 2-4 p.m., at Oliver's Carriage House.

Local people quite literally speak out when the Stoop Storytelling series presents "The Twilight Zone: True Tales of the Bizarre and Unexpected" June 18 at 7:30 p.m. at HCC's Studio Theatre. Ordinary people tell extraordinary stories in this locally cast show.

Besides the various performing arts programs, visual arts offerings include a wearable art show shared by two venues. "Wear Art" at the Columbia Art Center has its reception June 19, 5-7 p.m.; and HCC's Rouse Company Foundation Gallery, which hosts the other half of the exhibit, has its reception June 26, 6-7:30 p.m.; also, wig-wearing HCC students and alumni do an improv show at 7:30 p.m. in HCC's Studio Theatre.

Based in Ellicott City, the Howard County Arts Council's two current exhibits, "Resident Visual Artists Exhibit 2013" and "Beyond the Surface," have a reception June 20 from 6 to 8 p.m.; this includes open studios and also an All County Improv performance at 6:30 p.m.

The Meeting House Gallery in the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center has a reception for its four-artist exhibit "Abstractions" June 16, 1:30- 3:30 p.m.

For a literally hair-raising experience, check out "ManneqART," a hair sculpture and special effects makeup competition June 23 from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Historic Savage Mill.

And, there are a couple of film-related events in this year's festival.

"Sundance Art House Shorts" presents 10 short films shown at the Sundance Film Festival (which include adult themes and explicit language). These shorts will be screened June 17 at 7:30 p.m. at HCC's Monteabaro.

The second film event is a screening of the documentary "Water Flowing Together," about dancer Jock Soto, June 24 at 7:30 p.m., at Monteabaro; producer-director Gwendolen Cates appears at a post-film Q&A.

All of these events come at a price, namely, a budget of $645,000 for the 2013 Columbia Festival of the Arts. Although this is less than the 2012 budget of $675,000, Hickey says that the amount and quality of programming remain the same. Making staff cuts helped her live within this year's reduced budget.

"We continue to struggle with the budget issue," Hickey says. "It's not easy at all since the recession hit. It has impacted our sponsorships, because companies are giving more to educational and social issues (and less to cultural organizations). For the first time, we also see our individual donors falling off."

Recent festival budgets have been tight, but something that keeps the festival going from year to year are its approximately 200 volunteers. You may recognize some of your friends and neighbors among them.


The Columbia Festival of the Arts runs June 14-29 at various sites in Columbia and elsewhere in Howard County. Call 410-715-3044 or go to http://www.columbiafestival.com.

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