River Festival Draws Crowd to Make and Celebrate Art

River Festival Draws Crowd to Make and Celebrate Art

By Karen Klinger

As good weather prevailed, the 31st Cambridge River Festival went off smoothly June 5, attracting an anticipated crowd of 200,000 to the riverfront along Memorial Drive with a kickoff processional tribute to legendary storyteller Brother Blue, followed by a potpourri of musical acts, performances by actors and poets, much dancing, interactive demonstrations by local visual artists, public art installations and a vast array of ethnic foods and artisans' booths selling everything from jewelry and clothing to brightly decorated latter-day versions of hula hoops.

The Cambridge Arts Council (CAC), which sponsors the festival, also brought in something new this year in the form of an innovative participatory arts project called FIGMENT, a free-form event by a group that has created large-scale, interactive art exhibits during the summer on New York City's Governors Island and will do so again this year. Before they kick off their New York activities on June 11, though, the FIGMENT folks brought their act to Cambridge, enlisting a wide range of exhibitors from circus acrobats to people riding unusually-configured bikes and other vehicles to funky bands and odd-looking sculptures (for more information, go to: http://figmentproject.org/2010/events/figment-boston-2010).

FIGMENT's addition meant that the festival's usual mile-long length was nearly doubled, stretching out from both sides of J.F.K. Street. As festival goers strolled along, they could pick up information at tables set up by civic groups and the city itself (as well as CCTV), create a poem or pithy phrase by arranging letters on a magnetic board, catch the work of roving performers such as "living statues" Candy Vishniac and Amy Suiguitan and, if you were a kid, get your face painted.

On the Weeks Memorial Foot Bridge, the storytelling group "massmouth" sponsored an event called "A Bridge to Haiti," which featured participants recounting folk tales from Haiti, while local Haitian visual artists interpreted them. There was also a benefit sale of artwork, with a portion of the proceeds going to the earthquake relief activities of Partners in Health and the Eritaj Foundation.

Massmouth also operated a storytelling tent in which visitors were invited to share a life story. The group said stories that were recorded would be archived in a collection called "StoryStream Cambridge." In addition, Cambridge's current Poet Populist Jean-Dany Joachim hosted a venue for poetry reading and related activities.

This year's festival additionally featured five different musical, dance and theater stages, with performers ranging from actors from Cambridge's American Repertory Theater and Central Square Theater, to jazz and blues groups and singers such as Danielle Miraglia on the "folks and roots" stage. Miraglia, who grew up in Revere and graduated from Emerson College, performed her set with gusto in what critics have called a "powerful, whiskey-tinged voice."

Among the jazz and blues singers was Shelley Neill, a veteran of the area's musical circuit, who performed songs from her latest CD, "Irish Eyes Gypsy Soul," which she has said reflects her eclectic musical history, seeing and hearing the world with "my Irish eyes, my Gypsy soul." Over on the "family and children" stage, the many crowd-pleasing performances included one by Inkas Wasi Peru, with music and dancing drawn from the traditions of the people of the Andes.

For sheer fun, it was hard to beat the "interactive dance stage," where festival goers could watch various groups perform in a range of dancing styles, from hip-hop to salsa, meringue and samba, as well as folk dances from Africa and the Balkans, and then take part in the dancing themselves. One especially high-spirited dance group was comprised of teenagers and young adults who are part of the Waltham-based Mladost Folk Ensemble ("mladost" means "youth" in several Slavic languages), which also performed at the 2009 and 2008 river festivals.

Cambridge Open Studios artists also gave visitors a chance to get into the day's spirit with demonstrations and instructions in various kinds of art-making. As an added attraction, North Cambridge artist and NeighborMedia correspondent Siobhan Bredin and the Vintage Mystery Theatre performed in a 1940s-style "mystery play" called "The Perplexing Public Paintings Puzzle," complete with experimental sound effects.

Over on the FIGMENT side of the festival, aspiring aerial acrobats could try their hand at moving through the air with the help of members of the Boston-area circus community at a structure called the "AutoSub Dome" by the Flying Squirrel Consortium. Nearby attractions included something that looked like a giant yellow hammock stretched between two trees and a 4.5-foot-long kaleidoscope called a "Collectivescope" with a door at one end in which visitors were invited to add small items.

To a steady beat of music reverberating up and down that part of Memorial Drive, some people were dancing and many, both adults and kids, were "hooping." For a couple of little girls, one hoop wasn't enough. They were gyrating with two and even three hoops at a time and flashing broad smiles for the many picture takers. A short distance away, other kids were relishing another experience--dashing through a rather ethereal-looking forest of strips of white cloth fluttering from trees that some of them called the "spooky place."

The lingering crowd seemed to be having such a good time that at 6:30 p.m., a half-hour after the event was scheduled to end, organizers had to use loudspeakers to tell visitors it was finally time to go home--and maybe time to start anticipating next year's edition of what has become one of Cambridge's signature events.

For more information on the Cambridge Arts Council, go to: www.cambridgeartscouncil.org. In addition to sponsoring the Cambridge River Festival, the CAC issues permits to street performers, gives grants for artistic projects and operates the CAC gallery in the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, with ongoing exhibits and artists' receptions.


Great article and gorgeous photos, Karen!