Sidewalk Festival takes artistic endeavor to the street

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

Saturday the annual Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts will fill Brightmoor’s Detroit Artist Village with nearly 100 of the city’s finest artists and dance, music and theater performers.

“I started Sidewalk Festival as a means to showcase artists who are doing site-responsive work, and independent and alternative performance, art that doesn’t take place on a traditional stage,” says Ryan Myers-Johnson, the festival’s founder and curator.

Myers-Johnsongrew up in Brightmoor, studied at the University of Michigan and has worked in dance all over the world. She says when she returned to Detroit in 2009, she found a thriving arts community that was oddly cut off from the general public.

“You had to be in the know to know where these really amazing theater performances and works of dance and music were,” she says. “So there’s a lot of gate keeping, whether it’s intentional or not, as to who has access to art. I really wanted to create a platform where I could let the artists do the work, and bring the average Detroiter into this experimental art world.”

Myers-Johnson says the festival’s main goal is to bring art to street-level, so unique performances ranging from hands-on painting workshops to live jazz performances will take place in alleys, storefronts, community gardens, and the street itself.

“We’re trying to create a really magical environment that totally transforms people in terms of how they experience art in the city,” she says. “It’s neighborhood-arts festival meets Mardi-Gras, minus the booze and debauchery.”

Notable new additions this year include a hip hop showcase, a youth film festival, and Joshua Kent’s endurance performance piece “The History of the World in 6 Hours.”

Lisa LaMarre, whose dance company LaMarre and Dancers performed at the previous two Sidewalk Festivals, says the event is a rich melting pot of talent and community unparalleled in the Detroit arts scene.

“It’s such a unique environment, where there are so many different genres of performing arts happening,” she says. “It’s young people and old people. It’s a very colorful experience. It’s full of sound and full of life, and I’ve been so delighted to not only perform but also to be exposed to so many other Detroit artists. That’s turned into collaboration and making really wonderful friends.”

LaMarre’s troupe will perform a piece called “mechanical response” in the Large Courtyard at 7:30 p.m. The semi-improvised piece, which is being released as a dance film later this year, features live musicians responding to the dancers’ movements. LaMarre says the intimate nature of the festival also allows the audience to become a part of the performance.

“The community is sometimes two feet or even two inches from you, so we can play and interact,” she says. “As a performer we take all that energy that we get from the audience and draw that into our own work at the time of the performance.”

Another highlight this weekend is Kresge Artist Fellow Kisma Jordan’s “Beyond Classical,” which takes place in the Art Alley at 7 p.m. Jordan is a classically trained opera singer, and her latest piece fuses classical music with modern pop. Keeping in theme with the Sidewalk Fest’s mission, Jordan aims to make highbrow art more accessible to the masses.

“The vision of the project is to ground classical music for audiences who may have at one point found it to be unapproachable,” Jordan says. “It’s an acquired taste already, so some people just won’t like it, but if I can win some people and persuade them by how I present it then I think it can create more diversified audiences.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts

3-10 p.m. Saturday

Artist Village, Detroit

Grand River and Lahser