Alan Cumming, Mikhail Baryshnikov at Lincoln Center Festival: Identifiable stars

Ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov attends the premiere of

Ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov attends the premiere of "Dancing Across Borders" at SVA Theater in Manhattan. (March 24, 2010) (Credit: Getty Images)

For 16 years, I've been starting the summer by resenting the Lincoln Center Festival. Just when cosmic forces align to allow everything and everyone to kick back and wiggle toes in the sand, along comes this massive plan for more theater, music, opera, ballet, dance and other creative adventures.

And then, every year at this time, I read the schedule, take a deep breath and start eagerly planning to see as much as I can of the invaluable offerings. This year's program, which runs from July 5 through Aug. 5, is no exception.

While some summers have focused on more esoteric projects and themes from far-off cultures, the 17th annual fest is more about mainstream institutions crisscrossing in unusual work and identifiable stars in unconventional star turns.

Some statistics: 72 performances, seven countries, seven venues in and around Lincoln Center. Some famous names: Alan Cumming, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Cate Blanchett. And, oddly enough, the late R&B legend Curtis Mayfield, who would have been 70 this year, is the subject of a one-night tribute, July 20, launching a foundation to help musically talented disadvantaged youth.

Nigel Redden, who has run the festival since 1998, traces its strength to not being bound "by a particular art form, so that this year, for example, we are able to bring to New York one of the world's greatest ballet companies performing a Baroque opera, and exquisite chamber opera by a major Chinese composer [Guo Wenjing], a modern dance company and puppet troupe from China and plays about what it means to be Irish by a writer [Tom Murphy] who deserves more recognition in America."

Here are some highlights:

THEATER

ALAN CUMMING IN A ONE-MAN 'MACBETH'

Right now, most people know Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, the manipulative and oddly lovable American campaign manager in TV's "The Good Wife." But New York theatergoers have treasured this unpredictable force from Scotland since his magnificently creepy, pansexual emcee in the 1998 revival of "Cabaret." He also has had his way here with Brecht and Coward and, at the 2008 festival, made an altogether memorable entrance -- hanging upside down in a kilt -- in a new version of "The Bacchae."

But he has gone back to the National Theatre of Scotland to collaborate with director John Tiffany ("Once") on a multimedia vision of all the characters in Shakespeare's tragedy of galloping ambition -- set in an insane asylum. Cumming says he has been "obsessed with the play all my life." He had considered gender-flipping the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but decided instead to flip around inside everybody.

Ten performances, July 5-14, Rose Hall, 60th Street and Broadway.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV 'IN PARIS'

This great and irrepressibly adventurous artist, whose defection from the Soviet Union in 1974 changed ballet, has been branching out into the theater in recent years. He did Kafka on Broadway and Beckett in a tiny theater, but neither demanded a lot of speaking and both were in English. This time, he makes his American theater debut in Russian (with English subtitles) in "In Paris," staged by Russian director and designer Dmitry Krymov. Based on a short story about exile by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, the work involves a former general (Baryshnikov) who meets a beautiful young Russian emigre while she waits tables in Paris. The production is said to be entirely in black and white, combining music, poetry and video.

Six performances, Aug. 1-5, John Jay College, 59th Street between 10th and 11th avenues.

CATE BLANCHETT IN 'UNCLE VANYA'

The daring and adventurous Australian movie star, who has already been admired onstage here in "Hedda Gabler" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" with the Sydney Theatre Company, stars in the group's wildly acclaimed production of Chekhov's masterwork. The production, directed by Tamás Ascher, had an enormous success in Washington last year, when it seemed unlikely we would get to see it. Here is reason enough for a festival.

Ten performances, July 19-28, New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.

DRUIDMURPHY, THE PLAYS OF TOM MURPHY

How is it possible that Ireland has a major playwright, who has created 26 works, many considered classics at home, yet he is virtually unknown in America? It was a question I asked myself when I went to Dublin in 2001 for an illuminating Tom Murphy Festival at the Abbey Theatre. And, no doubt, it is a question asked by playwrights -- including Martin McDonagh, Colin McPherson and Enda Walsh ("Once") -- who consider Murphy a major influence.

Garry Hynes' Druid Theatre will right some of that wrong with three Murphy plays, presented on separate nights or in all-day cycles. Although we will not see what I believe is his most haunting work, "Bailegangaire," the visit will bring "A Whistle in the Dark," Murphy's first full-length play, considered a major influence on Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming." At the 1961 premiere, critic Kenneth Tynan famously called it "the most uninhibited display of violence that the London stage has ever witnessed."

Also coming is "Famine," a drama about the potato failure of 1864, and "Conversations on a Homecoming," Murphy's 1985 drama about emigration and pals in a pub.

Twelve performances, July 5-12, John Jay College, 59th Street between 10th and 11th avenues.

BALLET AND OPERA

PARIS OPERA BALLET

The world's oldest ballet company, an outgrowth of the Royal Academy of Dance that Louis XIV established in 1661, returns to New York for the first time in 16 years with three programs. These include "Giselle," the romantic epitome that the company introduced to the world in 1841, and a mixed bill of 20th century French choreographers.

But all eyes and ears are likely to be on the U.S. premiere of "Orpheus and Eurydice," the dance opera by the boundary-pushing visionary Pina Bausch, created for her German company in 1975 and premiered by the Paris company in 2005. This version has dual roles for dancers and singers of Christoph Willibald Gluck's music.

Twelve performances, July 13-22, Koch Theater, Lincoln Center.

ÉMILIE

This 75-minute monodrama focuses on the last weeks in the young life of Émilie du Châtelet, the 18th century French mathematician, translator of Newton and lover of Voltaire. Written by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Lebanese librettist Amin Maalouf, the solo opera is expected to be a tour de force by soprano Elizabeth Futral.

Three performances, July 19-22, John Jay College, 10th Avenue between 58th and 59th streets.

FENG YI TING (The Phoenix Pavilion)

Chinese composer Guo Wenjing explores a popular Chinese tale about a woman so beautiful she can save an empire by causing rival warlords to fall in love with her. Unpredictable film director Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter") will stage the multimedia production, with costumes by Chinese fashion designer Han Feng.

Three performances, July 26-28, John Jay College, 10th Avenue between 58th and 59th streets.

And there's more, including modern dance and political puppetry from China, plus members of the Juilliard and London's Royal Academy Orchestra and a concert that includes the premiere of John Adams' "City Noir." For additional information on how to confuse your summer plans with Manhattan international adventure, phone 212-721-6500 or visit lincolncenterfestival.org.