Ordway CEO thrilled about upcoming International Children's Festival

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While the end of May means a Memorial Day weekend break for many people, it's nose-to-the-grindstone time for Ordway Center for the Performing Arts CEO Patricia Mitchell.

Mitchell (pictured, above) doesn't mind the extra work though, since it's all for the staging of one her favorite events of the year with the Flint Hills 2013 International Children's Festival. A six-day event set in and around the Ordway, the Children's Festival annually draws more than 50,000 people to downtown St. Paul to take part in children's and family activities, as well as watch artists and performers from all corners of the globe.

The festival, which began 13 years ago, is split into two segments: School Days, from May 28-31; and Family Weekend, featuring indoor and outdoor events, June 1-2. School Days consists of four days designed solely for school-age children who are bused in from school districts throughout the state and beyond; while Family Weekend is a two-day event for families and kids of all ages.

Mitchell says for those interested in attending the events of Family Weekend, don't let the word "Children" in Children's Festival fool you. The events definitely appeal to all kids, from toddlers to teens.

"Cirque Ziva (pictured above, top right) --where the Chinese acrobats perform in the music theater in the Ordway, that's for people of all ages," Mitchell says. "There are so many brilliant acrobats in it like Cirque du Soleil. What they do is astounding to watch. You certainly don't have to be of single-digit age to enjoy it."

Another indoor event with broad appeal, Mitchell says, is RumbaTap -- where dancer Max Pollak introduces audiences to his original dance concept that melds Afro-Cuban music and dance, American jazz, body percussion and tap dance.

Australia's Sway Poles "Swoon!" performance (pictured above, bottom right) is among the outdoor events that has thrilled audiences of all ages, Mitchell says.

"It's a company from Australia whose members dance on top of these 15-foot swaying anchored poles," Mitchell enthused. "It has to be seen to be believed."

The World Stage in Rice Park, which features local and regional artists, to bands and hip-hop artists, is also for everybody, she says.

While there are many things that will engage teens at the festival, that's not to say there aren't programs designed to capture the imaginations of the youngest of children.

"We have a wonderful little puppet theater company from Quebec that puts on a show called 'The Star Keeper,'" Mitchell says. "That works very well for younger children because it's in Weyerhaeuser Auditorium in the Landmark Center, so it's a smaller venue."

See a preview of the Flint Hills Children's Festival in the video below.

Mitchell loves many things about the festival, but especially the way it celebrates cultural diversity.

"During our education programs for kids throughout the year, and through School Days and the Family Weekend during the Children's Festival, there are so many different cultures here -- whether they're in adoptive families or immigrant families," Mitchell says. "We have artists and art forms that are very responsive to the full breadth of the community, culturally and ethnically. It's interesting for a Chinese person to see the Chinese artists, but also if you're not a Chinese person to see the Chinese artists. It goes both ways."

The best part about the Children's Festival, Mitchell says, is the price.

"The stuff outside, from the art-making activities to the performances, are all free, and you can come in by Metro Transit for free," Mitchell says. "As for the performances indoors by all these wonderful international artists, is only $5."

While Mitchell enjoys the work in helping put the Children's Festival together, she's not alone. It's an event that everyone looks forward to company-wide.

"It's so all-encompassing for us to do as an institution. It's a tremendous logistical enterprise, and what I love about it is that everybody on staff helps," Mitchell says. "While some companies spend gazillions of dollars on bonding and team-building exercises -- doing things like bungee-jumping in the Grand Canyon -- we put on the festival. As a unifier for the staff it's just amazing because everybody loves it."

The great thing is, it's a unifying exercise that in many ways, goes on all year long. While the 2013 festival is only a couple days away, work is very much underway for next year already.

"The festival in 2014 is very nearly planned," Mitchell says. "You have to work really far ahead, especially with international artists because their touring schedules are complicated."

While Mitchell says it a challenge to juggle her Ordway CEO duties and Children's Festival duties at the same, she lets her colleague -- Dayna Martinez -- share in the fun.

"Dayna is the artistic director for the Ordway's World Music and Dance Series as well as the International Children's Festival. Dayna is the one who puts it together. I worry about it and she puts it together," Mitchell says with a laugh.

Next week: Dayna Martinez talks about her work on the Children's Festival, and Joe Spencer, St. Paul's director of Arts & Culture, talks about the impact the festival has on the city.

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