Modfest 2014 gets underway at Vassar

Voici ma montre et ma bague (Here is My Watch and My Ring), 1964, gelatin silver print (Malick Sidibé/Gwinzegal/diChroma Photography)

Voici ma montre et ma bague (Here is My Watch and My Ring), 1964, gelatin silver print (Malick Sidibé/Gwinzegal/diChroma Photography)

Each year, Vassar College makes it possible for mid-Hudsonites to take a brief dip back into those warm amniotic waters of the higher learning experience. Since 2003, the Poughkeepsie institution has been organizing a winter arts festival, dense with performances, talks and exhibitions reflecting myriad aspects of the academic experience, all free and open to the general public. This veritable meteor shower of entertaining and enlightening events – including visual arts, dancing, spoken word, drama, film and concerts – commences on the Vassar campus on January 23, this Thursday, and doesn’t let up until Friday, February 7.

It’s called Modfest because the focus is ostensibly on the culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. This is no summer Shakespeare festival, but you might well develop a new layer of understanding of some classic work as interpreted through a modern filter. For instance, a concert this Saturday evening, January 25, titled “Poetic Realizations,” includes two works by composer Susan Botti that are based on works by contemporary poet Linda Gregerson that in turn are based on episodes from Virgil’s Aeneid. Also on the same program are settings by Vassar professor of Music and Modfest co-founder Richard Wilson of works by Polish New Wave poet Adam Zagajewski.

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Much of what’s on offer at Modfest consists of works by Vassar students, alumni and faculty, but area youth are also involved. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and photography by middle and high schoolers in the Mill Street Loft’s Art Institute program will be on view in the “Teen Visions ‘14” exhibition at the Palmer Gallery. And students from the Mill Street Loft’s LitClub, an outreach program for girls in the Poughkeepsie Middle School, the Vivace ensemble of the Stringendo Orchestra School of the Hudson Valley and dancers from the New York Academy of Ballet will all perform at the College Center’s Villard Room on Modfest’s opening night.

The breadth of offerings is extraordinarily eclectic: You can take a master class with a successful videogame theme-music composer; listen to language students translate works in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian and Spanish after first reading the original text; catch a dramatic reading of a play about soldiers’ lives after war that was co-written by a Vassar freshman who’s a veteran of the Marines; attend a dance recital, a poetry reading, a chamber music concert or an evening of cabaret from the Great American Songbook.

But Modfest also gives campus visitors a chance to experience the cross-disciplinary approach of a contemporary liberal arts education. The pop-culture scene in the West African nation of Mali in the late 20th century is a common thread running through several Modfest events, for example. Anyone who has listened more than once or twice to the long-running NPR show Afropop Worldwide will instantly think of Mali, and especially its capital city of Bamako, as a fertile incubator of outstanding music, progressive but grounded in local folkloric tradition. But it wasn’t always so. Prior to Mali’s independence from France in 1960, the country was considered culturally conservative. Then the youth culture of music, dancing and fashion exploded, and photographer Malick Sidibé was on hand to catch the transition on film. Photographed in nightclubs and at parties in Bamako from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, Sidibé’s portraits and candid photographs bear witness to Mali’s profound social, cultural and political transformation.

“Malick Sidibé: Chemises,” an exhibition of Sidibé’s output opening this Friday at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, anchors a constellation of related Modfest programs. The opening reception will feature a lecture on Sidibé’s work by Michelle Lamunière, a Vassar alumna and an expert in West African portrait photography who was formerly assistant curator of photography at the Fogg Museum/Harvard Art Museums and now works for Boston-based art auction/appraisal house Skinner. Then on Sunday, Dolce Vita Africana, a 2008 documentary on Sidibé’s life and work, will be screened in Taylor Hall, followed by “Mali Disco Night” at the Lehman Loeb.

That’s just a drop in the bucket from Modfest 2014’s overflowing program. “No matter what you might be interested in, it’s here: music, fine art, photography, dance, drama, spoken word,” says the festival’s co-founder and director, Vassar alumna Adene Wilson. “This is a perfect opportunity for Hudson Valley residents to visit Vassar and experience the arts.”

Organizers of the festival include the College’s Departments of Music, Art, Chinese and Japanese, Dance, Drama, English, Film, French and Francophone Studies, German Studies, Hispanic Studies, Russian Studies and the programs in Africana Studies, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and the College Bookstore. Modfest events are held at the Lehman Loeb, Kenyon Hall, the Main Building, the James W. Palmer III Gallery, the Skinner Hall of Music and the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film.

For a full Modfest schedule, visit https://arts.vassar.edu. No reservations are necessary, but all seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, and arriving too close to showtime can mean a long walk from your nearest available parking space on the sprawling campus. Contact the Office of Campus Activities at least 48 hours in advance of an event if you require assistance with handicapped access. For additional information, call (845) 437-5370.

Modfest 2014, Thursday, January 23-Friday, February 7, free, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5370, https://arts.vassar.

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