'Ritual of Breath' at Lincoln Center's Summer for the City Festival

Hop-produced contemporary opera by Dartmouth faculty and alumni debuts in New York on 10th anniversary of Eric Garner's killing.

This summer, Dartmouth creation and Hop original The Ritual of Breath Is the Rite to Resist comes to New York City as part of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' third annual Summer for the City festival. The interdisciplinary opera, created by a team of Dartmouth faculty members and alumni, employs vibrant music, uplifting dance and a community choir to respond to the ongoing loss of Black life at the hands of police on the 10th anniversary of Eric Garner's killing. 

Commissioned and produced by the Hop, and co-commissioned by Stanford Live, Ritual of Breath was created by Enrico Riley '95, Dartmouth alumnus and professor of Studio Arts, whose captivating paintings and drawings of Black life provide the backdrop for the opera; Jonathan Berger, professor of Music at Stanford, who composed the evocative score; and Vievee Francis, a poet and Dartmouth professor of English and Creative Writing, who crafted the powerful libretto. 

"It is so meaningful that Ritual of Breath has a chance to connect with a wider audience this summer at Lincoln Center in the Park," says Riley. "The project started as an idea between two people eight years ago and has grown to possess a family of amazing collaborators. Ritual of Breath would not have been realized without the coming together of so many incredible individuals and institutions." 

Joining Riley, Berger and Francis, pioneering theater artist and Dartmouth alumnus Niegel Smith '02 directs the work, and The Flea—where Smith serves as Executive Artistic Director—is anchoring the New York City performance as associate producer. The creative team also includes Kamna Gupta as conductor; Neema Bickersteth as the lead soprano and co-choreographer; Trebien Pollard as dancer and co-choreographer; and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar as consulting choreographer; Peter Nigrini '93 as scenic and projection designer; and Camilla Tassi GR '18 as projection associate.

"We must use the beauty of art and the clarity of our vision to inspire our communities and push toward a society in which our Black lives are honored," says Smith. "I am thrilled that Ritual of Breath will be joining the community of New York activists and organizers this summer to stir our souls toward healing, justice, and a more expressive life." 

In a new adaptation, the Lincoln Center presentation of Ritual of Breath will take place in Damrosch Park and will feature a 75-person chorus of singers from Sing Harlem and Dartmouth College Gospel Choir—both directed by Knoelle Higginson—and members of several other choirs across the city. 

The theatrical piece leverages the power of music, text, dance and visual art to weave a vibrant, deeply moving tapestry of sight and sound that immerses audiences fully in the powerful narrative as it unfolds.
"For over 400 years the power of opera has earned its reputation in its stagecraft and compelling storytelling generating empathy and understanding for the human condition," says Mary Lou Aleskie,  Executive Director of the Hop. "Ritual of Breath uniquely attempts to expand its reach, not only through its use of technology and visual art, but by connecting its story and healing to communities of resistance and healing well beyond the stage experience itself. It engages communities of color in communal healing and the continued struggle against state-sanctioned violence. 

As a cornerstone of presenting Ritual of Breath at Lincoln Center, the production will catalyze a series of civic partnerships, community activations, and healing rituals in June and July. Activity will be anchored in Staten Island, where Eric Garner lived and died, as well as across the five boroughs of New York City. These activations will speak to the root causes of systemic injustice that impacted the lives of Eric Garner and his daughter Erica, and offer Black and non-Black communities alike spaces to center collective wellness, ancestral healing, and an ongoing commitment to the value and sanctity of Black lives. 

Through more than a dozen community events in partnership with local civic and arts organizations, practitioners will offer arts and wellness activities that merge music, poetry, dance, yoga, community listening circles, conversations, and panel discussions, and more. The civic engagement and community activation strategy is led by Dartmouth alumnus Bryan Joseph Lee '07, founder of the creative studio CNTR ARTS, with Jahtiek Long and Sidney Erik Wright serving as Associate Community Producers.

"Community is at the heart of Ritual of Breath, and that extends to the interconnected network of artist-activists lending their power and voices to this moment," says Lee. "We hope these activations will visibilize the Black communities that call Staten Island home, and encourage everyone to witness this memorial anniversary as an opportunity to orient their souls towards justice."

The civic engagement and community activation work in New York City builds upon both the original rituals developed at Dartmouth College and the powerful inclusion of a group of mothers who lost their children to police violence. 

The community rituals were originally developed by Co-Social Impact Directors Dr. Shamell Bell and Ms. Gwen Carr, and are now expanding through partnerships with New York City civic organizations, including the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor, Staten Island Arts, the Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC), New York Live Arts, ISSUE Project Room, and Sing Harlem, with more to be announced. 

The Ritual of Breath Is the Rite to Resist was originally commissioned and produced by the Hopkins Center for the Arts and co-commissioned by Stanford Live. The work premiered at the Hopkins Center in September 2022, and then traveled to Stanford Live, where it was staged the following month. The Hopkins Center premiere, the Stanford Live tour, and the 2024 presentation at Lincoln Center have been creatively produced by Kim Whitener/KiWi Productions, and associate produced by The Flea, with additional support from the Hopkins Center for the Arts and Dartmouth College. 

Design credits include scenic & projection by Dartmouth alumnus Peter Nigrini, lights by Reza Behjat, and costumes by Gabriel Berry. The complete biographies for the creators, performers and collaborators for The Ritual of Breath Is the Rite to Resist are available at www.ritualofbreath.org.