By Jeff Maisey
On April 24, 1997, the Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival made its debut as an 18-day event that included performances by Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the Mark Morris Dance Group, contemporary musician Steve Reich, and jazz legends Ramsey Lewis and Billy Taylor.
Executive Director Rob Cross was quoted at the time saying, “We have planned a spectacular 18-day celebration that will rival any other performing arts festival in the nation. Response to our all-star artist line-up has been astounding. We’re confident the festival will raise the profile of the Virginia Waterfront as a rising cultural center.”
Call Rob Cross a visionary. Twenty years later he has certainly accomplished his bold prediction as he continues to program and oversee what has become the world-class Virginia Arts Festival.
The atmosphere with the hallways of Norfolk’s city hall was as ambitious as it is today.
“Norfolk was looking for ways to increase tourism in the shoulder season,” recalled Cross in ba recent telephone interview with Veer Magazine. “That really was the intention that got the ball rolling. They had almost two years of research on what the opportunities were to grow as a tourism destination. After a lot of feasibility studies and surveys, what came out of it was Norfolk had a lot of cultural assets, whether it was the Opera, Symphony, Stage Company, Chrysler Museum. Was there an opportunity to use the arts to increase tourism in a slow period for tourism in Hampton Roads? Their thinking at the time was Virginia Beach has water, Williamsburg has history, and what Norfolk has is arts assets. Can we use that to put Norfolk on the map as a destination?”
Rob Cross was hired and given the directive from Norfolk officials to make the festival a regional event. Today, the approach is much the same with performances scattered across Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Newport News and Williamsburg. But it wasn’t easy starting out.
“It was really hard in the beginning because the cities worked a lot less cooperatively back then,” said Cross. “We really met a lot of resistance and lack of interest in the early stages.”
The Hampton Roads region has taken the issue of regionalism more seriously today.
“I think the Festival is partly responsible for the increase in collaboration and working together regionall,” said Cross. “I hear us credited with what the area can accomplish when we work together. I am proud of that.”
Cross credits the Virginia Arts Festival with planting the seed for an improved quality of life in the region.
“If you look at the landscape of Hampton Roads artistically over the last 20 years it’s a totally different region, not just because of the Festival, but since we can into existence you’ve got the Sandler Center, Ferguson Center; the Roper’s been renovated; the Attucks has been renovated; the NorVa is new; Portsmouth Pavilion is new. It is really amazing what has happened. It’s a much more vibrant area for the performing arts.”
An important part of the Arts Festival’s success has been the Virginia International Tattoo, led by Scott Jackson. Both Jackson and Cross have sought insights from the famed Edinburgh Festival, Fringe Festival and Tattoo to improve the Virginia Arts Festival.
“I’ve been introduced to a lot of the great performers that have come to the Festival by seeing them in Edinburgh, but I’ve also learned how a city can work during a festival, in terms of transportation, advertising, collaboration with the hotels and restaurants,” Cross said. “They are at the top of the world in terms of destination festivals.”
In recent years, the Virginia Arts Festival had dabbled conservatively with the idea of a Fringe Fest, but in a limited way. This season they are all-in with performance by The National Theatre of Scotland, Hot Sardines, Selected Shorts, PUBIQuartet, Kishi Bashi and Grace Kelly.
“This year is our first true Fringe Festival where it’s multi-venue, multi-performance per day,” said Cross. “I feel it has that same potential because of what’s happening in the Arts District.”
The core programming of this year’s Virginia Arts Festival will include an eclectic array of performances by Yo-Yo Ma accompanied by Emmanuel Ax, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Texas Tenors, Boyz II Men, and The Chieftains. The Virginia Stage Company and Symphony will collaborate on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in homage to the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s passing. An international display of dance talent will pay its respects to the Virginia Arts Festival during a Dance Gala featuring performers from Birmingham Royal Ballet, Tokyo Ballet, Mark Morris Dance Group, American Ballet Theatre, Richard Alston Dance Company, Lula Washington Dance Theatre and Richmond Ballet.
A change of date and venue has been revealed for the Williamsburg portion of the Festival. None other than Grammy Award winning Bruce Hornsby has gotten onboard and programmed what’s being dubbed Funhouse Fest. In addition to Hornsby, performers will include Ricky Scaggs, Taj Mahal Trio, Railroad Earth and others.
“Festival Williamsburg needed a shot of adrenaline,” explained Cross regarding this year’s change-up. “I approached Bruce (Hornsby) almost a year ago and asked if he’d do a concert for our 20th season celebration. He said he was interested but couldn’t commit until the Grateful Dead tour was over because he didn’t know how long that tour was going to be extended. As the conversation evolved what I didn’t know was that Bruce had been toying around with the idea that he’d curate down in Asheville, North Carolina. It just so happened that he hadn’t started yet, so he said, ‘Let’s do it here.’ We got really lucky the timing was right.”