WASHINGTON (AP) -- For the next month, the Kennedy Center will glow each night with blue light and shimmers of green, depicting the northern lights and signaling what has taken over its theaters and galleries inside.
The cultural center has become an international museum and showplace for Northern European cultures with "Nordic Cool," a festival that runs through March 17. It features music, theater and dance, as well as exhibitions, film, literature and cuisine.
Light designer Jesper Kongshaug of Denmark created the "Northern Lights" installation on the building's exterior, evoking the aurora borealis for the center's white marble walls.
The Nordic countries include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Aland Islands. Kennedy Center officials said this is a part of the world that Americans know surprisingly little about.
Nordic cultures share a common heritage in the Vikings and waterways that fueled trade and discovery, said Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's vice president for international programming. Yet the elements of "what is Nordic" have been difficult to define.
"They've been very insular in some ways," Adams said. "They haven't reached, I don't think, beyond their borders in ways that other countries in Europe have."
Adams spent four years researching Nordic arts and culture to plan the $8 million festival.
Outside the center, four wooden elk sculptures greet visitors. They were created by an artist in the sparsely populated Aland Islands. Inside, visitors find a towering boat made of 1,200 mostly blue and white shirts by one of Finland's leading artists, Kaarina Kaikkonen. The boat, she said, is a "symbol of life" and represents Finland's waters and its blue and white flag.
The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the official orchestra for the Nobel Prize ceremonies, opened the festival Tuesday night with compositions from across the region. A gala followed with an increasingly popular Nordic export -- its food.
Norwegian chef Morten Sohlberg, who now runs his Smorgas Chef restaurant group from New York, cooked for the crowd of 600 diplomats and VIPs with an entree of "lamb three ways," created from 22 lambs. New Nordic cuisine is based on the farm-to-fork concept, foraging for food and using all parts of an animal, Sohlberg said.
With the popularity of Danish restaurant Noma, ranked for three consecutive years now as the world's best by Restaurant magazine, interest in Nordic food culture has soared.
"We have always done food this way," Sohlberg said. "But it's only recently when it's become sort of a worldwide phenomenon that you should go back to your roots; you should look at how food is produced."
For the festival, Swedish chef Malin Soderstrom helped create menus for the Kennedy Center's restaurants. Dishes will include Slow Smoked Arctic Char, Leek Ash Roasted Venison Loin and Lingonberry Mousse.
Free exhibits fill the center's galleries and walkways, offering a sense of Nordic fashion, the history of the Nobel Prize and as well as art and architecture.
Icelandic artist Ruri brought an installation featuring 52 images of waterfalls paired with recordings of each waterfall's sound. Each has its own voice, she said. Ruri began photographing the waterfalls in 2001, but already half have disappeared because of hydroelectric dams and changes in river flows. The problem, she said, will only get worse with climate change.
"It's a local example of a global situation," she said.
Nordic Cool follows major festivals in the past decade that have focused on India, China, Japan and 22 Arab nations.
The Nordic theater, dance and music schedule includes both traditional and cutting edge performers from leading theaters in the region. It also includes a jazz club, which will feature Norwegian musician Tereje Insungset who carves instruments from ice.
Nordic Cool 2013: http://www.kennedy-center.org/nordiccool
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