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The toasts are mimed, but the Kennedy Center Honors return
Debbie Allen instructs a dance class via Instagram, photographed in New York, March 23, 2020. This year’s Kennedy Center honorees include Allen, the singer-songwriter and activist Joan Baez; the country music star Garth Brooks; the actor Dick Van Dyke and the violinist Midori. Amy Lombard/The New York Times.

by Emily Cochrane

WASHINGTON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A handful of dignitaries made toasts without glasses in front of thousands of empty plush red seats, before a masked stagehand in white gloves quickly wiped down the microphone and lectern. Actual drinks had to wait for the safety of an outdoor terrace and a distanced reception.

A brief photo line was moved from the Kennedy Center’s grand entrance hallway to a wing offstage, where a half-dozen photographers stood in front of mementos from previous productions. In an opera house designed to hold more than 2,000 people, roughly 120 masked attendees had their temperatures checked with wrist scans before slipping through a nondescript backstage door to witness a short, scaled-back fragment of the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors.

The ceremony was delayed, and transformed, but the show went on. Instead of receiving their ribboned medals at the usual ornate dinner at the State Department, this year’s honorees — violinist Midori, actor Dick Van Dyke, country singer Garth Brooks, singer and activist Joan Baez, and actress, producer and choreographer Debbie Allen — were given them onstage in the center itself.

The ceremony, usually held and televised in December, was moved to May, and split over several days. Then the organizers and producers began stitching together a mixture of recorded at-home tributes and in-person performances across the center to be broadcast on CBS at 8 p.m. on Sunday.

If the Kennedy Center Honors had to be stripped of much of its glamour this month to accommodate rapidly changing coronavirus health guidelines, the subdued ceremony offered a chance for the honorees to help usher in the reopening of the nation’s cultural institutions after a grueling year for the arts.

“Coming out of this very dark time of the pandemic, being able to see the arts coming back into our lives again, live, in person,” made the ceremony particularly special, Midori said at a news conference before the ceremony. “This is also encouragement for me, as well as a motivation to be able to continue to connect with others, to collaborate, to create.”

And even a reduced capacity, socially-distant honor was still cause for celebration.

“I can’t be more thrilled,” Van Dyke, 95, proclaimed to reporters. “How I got here, I don’t know, and I’m not going to ask.”

The arts industry remains among the most devastated by the pandemic, with the restrictions that kept theaters closed for more than a year to stem the spread of the virus just now beginning to lift in New York, Washington and other artistic centers. For the Kennedy Center, the Honors ceremony serves as the biggest fundraiser of the year, usually attracting a conglomerate of lawmakers, federal officials, donors and artistic elite for a week of festivities.

Compared with the average haul of $6 million to $6.5 million in donations, this year’s ceremony is brought in about $3.5 million, according to organizers. The Kennedy Center faced a partisan backlash in 2020 after receiving $25 million in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law, but still cutting pay for some staff members, including National Symphony Orchestra musicians.

Like many awards ceremonies of the pandemic era, the center relied on technology to help accommodate virtual viewers, including a website for donors that streamed some of the segments and tributes, as well as backstage clips from previous ceremonies.

But the decision to allow a small group of donors, guests and reporters attend the medallion ceremony and a few in-person, outdoor tributes was a tentative return to normalcy at the Kennedy Center campus after officials canceled all performances last year.

The center was dotted with remnants of a 2020 season that never was: an art exhibition still on display celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020, and there was a display of costumes for operas that were never held.

“There was never actually much serious conversation about not doing it — for us, literally for the last 14 months, we’ve really been taking it one day at a time,” Deborah Rutter, the center’s president, said in an interview. “This is about artists creating something out of limitations.”

But organizers were determined to barrel forward with a small ceremony, however delayed and however limited, to preserve the tradition of honoring a handful of artists for lifetime achievements. Plans repeatedly changed with shifting federal guidance and health guidelines, and top officials, in offering opening remarks, joked about the number of times they conferred with the honorees about how to make the ceremony feasible.

Yet the five artists — some of whom had participated in previous ceremonies as part of tributes — appeared moved by not only the recognition of their life’s work, but a far more intimate celebration that allowed them to spend time with each other and their loved ones, instead of being shuttled separately between events.

“We’ve been hanging out,” Allen said, calling it a “cohesive, lovely part” of being part of the group. Brooks added that “we got to move at our own pace,” something that allowed him to “leave here as a fan of these people more than a fellow honoree.” (At one point, as Brooks helped him down a staircase, Van Dyke cheerfully hummed the “Bridal Chorus.”)

If the pandemic made this a most unusual year for the awards, in at least one area things seemed to return to normal: President Joe Biden held the traditional reception for the honorees at the White House, something former President Donald Trump did not do during his four years in office.

Baez said she sang a verse of the civil-rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” in the Oval Office, and she repeated it for reporters, her unmistakable soprano echoing in the empty opera house.

“It feels like we’re coming out of a dark tunnel, and there’s the possibility again for arts and culture,” she said. (Baez arrived to the medallion ceremony on the arm of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom she invited after the pair struck up a friendship earlier this year.)

The event also offered the small audience a chance to see the skeleton of the medallion ceremony, hosted by Gloria Estefan, a previous honoree.

The crackle of stage directions over a headset momentarily pierced a few bars of pizzicato, as Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist and 2011 honoree, offered a solo performance as the lone in-person tribute for the ceremony.

Recorded tributes also meant that the five artists could be surprised along with a televised audience when the show is broadcast. The filmed salutes were slated to include performances from students Midori and Allen have mentored, songs from “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” for Van Dyke, and renditions of “We Shall Overcome” and “Friends in Low Places” for Baez and Brooks respectively.

The honorees emphasized the need to continue investing in the arts as the country begins to move beyond the pandemic, with Allen promising to “keep my hands on the plow with our young people.”

Brooks, visibly emotional as he spoke about the medal around his neck, said he had been “looking at it as a finish line” until Midori had reflected on the award as a motivation to continue creating and collaborating with others.

“Because of you, it’s a beginning,” he said.

Now the Kennedy Center will try to make up for lost time: it aims to produce its 44th ceremony in December for another slate of honorees. That one, officials hope, will be staged before a full-capacity audience.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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