Craven: Champlain Festival retrospective

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(HOST) The dust has settled following the recent Burlington International Waterfront Festival – and the event’s producer, commentator Jay Craven, is taking a moment to look back.

(CRAVEN) Hollywood hoofer Gene Kelly doesn’t have anything on Vermonters.  More than 1300 performers gave new meaning to the whole idea of singing (and dancing) in the rain for the recent Champlain 400 festival’s waterlogged parade down Burlington’s Main Street.  It was as if the storm clouds actually inspired performers whose imagination and high spirits lit up the dreary Saturday afternoon.  Indeed, after waiting around Memorial Auditorium for a break in the weather, the assembled parade groups let out a huge cheer when it was announced that the event would proceed – in spite of the drenching downpour.

Thousands of people in colored slickers holding umbrellas lined the parade route and their fervor matched the performers, creating an outpouring of empathy that fueled the celebration.  I found a vantage place sitting in a puddle, already so wet it didn’t matter.  A woman in still-soggy clothes stepped into the Flynn lobby for the post-parade performance of  "From the New World."  "I feel proud to be a Vermonter," she said.  

An Abenaki color guard led the rain-soaked parade – the first time in memory, people say, that all four Abenaki communities joined together.

Burlington’s Champlain festival ended with a performance of European new circus pioneer Victoria Chaplin’s creation, "Aurelia’s Oratorio," performed by her daughter, Aurelia Thierree.  This culminating moment was fitting – and not just because the show comes from France, one of Vermont’s historic partners.  Aurelia’s vivid theatrical dreamscape evoked thoughts of Samuel de Champlain’s own reputed use of his dreams as guideposts to his expeditions.  Besides, after thirteen days and nights of festival events, it seemed right to dream.

People ask what has been most memorable about this two-week event.  The answer is easy – the audiences – who ventured "inside" the festival to navigate its nooks and crannies – creating capacity crowds for the Native American play, "Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth," the Montreal puppet show, "Bizarrium Aquarium," Abby Paige’s "Piecework: When We Were French," and others.

This experience of the audience felt invigorating because it was rooted in a dynamic encounter with community – of people getting outside themselves and into a shared social space for stimulating engagements with film and the multiple performing arts.  The Champlain themes sparked all of this, creating an occasion to explore larger ideas and meanings rooted in our own place, history, and culture.  The City of Burlington’s generous commitment to many free and inexpensive events also created something rare – broad community participation to capture and share this moment.

I’m very grateful for the chance I’ve had to help shape this occasion – to explore the Champlain legacy and create partnerships with Quebec, France, and indigenous groups. People’s appreciation has been overwhelming. On the streets and in theater lobbies, the festival buzz took root.  That’s what we aimed for – working so hard to bring this vigorous community festival to life.

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