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Celebrating the Arts Circle at Northwestern

Dancers perform on rooftops, cellos resound and leading artists talk about the arts

  • Arts Circle celebration drew an estimated crowd of more than 1,000
  • Northwestern focuses on the Arts Circle as a concept as well as a place
  • ‘This is an institution that’s never going to forget the arts and humanities’
  • ‘We are making a conscious effort to show how all the arts connect at Northwestern’


EVANSTON, Ill. --- Performers danced on rooftops, the music of cellists dominated the day and teaching artists shared wisdom about the essence and interconnection of art during a special daylong celebration of Northwestern University’s Arts Circle on Saturday.

From various vantage points on the ground, spectators gazed up at members of the renowned Trisha Brown Dance Company, each a solitary artist, all dressed in red, at times moving in unison and gesturing majestically to one another from atop Arts Circle buildings.

The day also featured an inflatable sculpture by avant-garde artist Otto Piene -- related to the work of performance artist Charlotte Moorman, now on exhibit at Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. And a provocative installation designed by Northwestern alumnus and artist Aaron Hughes had the intended effect of provoking discussion and critical thinking about the war on terror and detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite an overcast sky and occasional showers, the day of festivities on Northwestern’s Evanston campus drew an estimated crowd of more than 1,000.

Northwestern is focusing on the Arts Circle as a concept, as well as a place, to demonstrate how the arts connect with one another at the University and, in the broader world of artistic expression, to teach students, engage the public and enlighten people with their beauty and ideas.  

“We are making a conscious effort to show how all the arts connect at Northwestern in a way that we had not done previously -- by showing the interactions, the common ways the arts explore ideas and issues and speak to each other, and to us, in ways that enable us to think about the world in a more comprehensive way,” Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer said.  “That enriches all of our lives.”

In the keynote event, performance studies faculty scholar and artist E. Patrick Johnson filled the Ethel M. Barber Theater with his beautiful voice, singing “Home” from the musical “Wiz” right before a panel of Northwestern faculty and alumna luminaries discussed “Why the Arts Matter.”

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro introduced the panel and weighed in with his own personal and scholarly takes on why the arts matter.

“There are a lot of schools that are justifiably proud of the investment they make in business and in law and in medicine and engineering,” President Schapiro said. “We are, too, at Northwestern. But this is an institution that’s never going to forget that the arts and humanities are the most basic components of liberal learning.

“The Northwesterns of the world,” he stressed, “have a moral obligation to invest in the arts and the humanities.”

Moderated by Alison Cuddy of the Chicago Humanities Festival, the lively panel discussion focused on the importance and interplay of the arts with diverse and sometimes provocative perspectives from the panelists: playwright Thomas Bradshaw, poet and fiction writer Stuart Dybek, jazz great Victor Goines and art historian and curator Martha Tedeschi.

Immediately afterward, Goines, director and professor of jazz studies at Northwestern’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, performed on the saxophone with Julius Tucker on piano in the Barber Theater lobby. Earlier, Tucker, a Bienen senior jazz piano major who also is pursuing a degree in civil engineering through Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, had accompanied Johnson on the piano. Afterward President Schapiro suggested that Tucker represents what Northwestern is all about -- students who excel in diverse areas and create their own distinct directions in life.  

The sounds of cellos -- melodic, haunting, playful and often experimental -- were central to the day’s festivities. All the cello performances were directed by Bienen School cello professor Hans Jørgen Jensen, the recipient of numerous honors and awards in his native Denmark and internationally.

The pièce de résistance paid homage to Moorman’s avant-garde cello playing. Jensen conducted 160 cellists from Bienen and more than 50 other participating schools, from elementary to graduate levels, in two performances of works by Camille Saint-Saëns and John Cage and a world premiere by Bienen School faculty member Jay Alan Yim, associate professor of composition and music technology.

The fun the cello ensemble had in performing Yim’s world premiere, “Das Lila der Bienen” (“The Purple of Bees”), was reflected in the members’ faces as they interacted with Jensen’s lighthearted and sometimes frenetic conducting. And the faces of the audience, too, reflected the contagious joy of the cellists, whose ages ranged from 8 to 55 years old.  

Because of the weather, the group’s planned performance on the green was moved inside the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts’ Josephine Louis Theater, and, due to an overflow crowd, an extra performance was added.

Earlier cello performances, also influenced by Moorman’s performance art, took place in the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts’ Opera Theater next to German artist Piene’s “Grand Rapids Carousel,” a 40-foot-long inflatable sculpture with multiple, lifelike heads, arms and legs. Inflated in the morning in front of Ryan’s glass wall, the sculpture looked out to Lake Michigan and the moody day.

Piene’s 1979 sculpture was featured in Moorman’s 15th Annual Avant Garde Festival. The festivals are reflected among the assortment of artworks, film clips, music scores, audio recordings, documentary photographs, snapshots, performance props and costumes, ephemera and correspondence that make up the extraordinarily popular “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s,” on exhibit through July 17 at the Block Museum.

Excerpts follow from the panel discussion “Why the Arts Matter” follow:

Thomas Bradshaw, associate professor of radio/television/film at the School of Communication, was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 Prince Charitable Trust Prize awardee and a featured playwright in Time Out New York’s 10 playwrights to watch.   

“Art allows us to discuss things that can be very difficult to discuss in our own personal lives

-- with our family members, with our colleagues, with our friends -- it creates a space for us to engage with these very important issues,” Bradshaw said, referring to “Carlyle,” his recent controversial play that was performed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

“Wuthering Heights,” he said, is the reason he writes. “I read this novel, written around 1836, and expected it to be the most boring thing in the world, but Emily Brontë made me think if this is what writing can do, then I want to be a writer.”

“It captured the breadth and depth of human emotion in a way that was almost illogical but was completely logical to me. I deeply relate to the character of Heathcliff. I don’t know what that says about me,” Bradshaw joked. Then he spoke of Heathcliff’s devotion to the woman he loved.

“His most fervent wish for when he dies is that they have two coffins next to each other, and they knock out the sides so their bones can intermingle and blend with each other -- that’s true love! Often in art, we set up strict parameters for human emotion and human behavior, and Emily Brontë just broke out of all of that,” he said.

Victor Goines, a world-renowned clarinetist, saxophonist, educator and gifted composer, has been a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Wynton Marsalis Septet since 1993. He has toured worldwide and performed on more than 20 recording releases.

"I think the value of art is that it makes us all better people,” Goines said. "For me, the complexity of things should always come out of the simplicity of things.”

He observed, for example, that he was baffled by the work of abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock and thought, “Well, if he can paint, I can paint.” So the renowned musician went out, bought art supplies and started doing some of his own paintings -- though he never showed them to anyone.

Still, he observed, “I think it made me a better person along the way.” In a similar vein, he added, “I often in my travels say that everyone should get a musical instrument and play.

“For those of you who have not done it yet, there are two types of jazz musicians: those who are playing and those who are going to play. So if you haven’t done it yet, pick up your instrument or paintbrush or your pencil or curate -- and become one of those people who are contributing to the arts in any and every way possible."

Stuart Dybek, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a recipient, among his many honors, of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, was cited recently in The New York Times as “not only our most relevant writer, but maybe our best.”

Dybek opened his remarks by saying, “the integration of the arts is central to Northwestern and one of the things I love about Northwestern.”

Music is the first art that opened up doors for him to writing, he said. “I had taken years and years of music lessons and worked at this great jazz record store, and, to this day, I hardly ever sit down and write when I’m not writing to music. A lot of times I don’t know what I’m going to write until I put a piece of music on.”

His book “I Sailed with Magellan” is named after a song that he and his brother made up as children. “The reason the book has the title of song is that the entire book is a homage to music and its influence,” he said.

“Tosca,” obviously referring to opera, is the first story in Dybek’s 2014 book “Paper Lantern: Love Stories,” and, he said, every story in the book integrates another art form, whether visual art, literature or film. “Each story in that book is how art shapes our notion of life and how the counterpoint about how you actually live and how art can make you want to live. That space in between interests me.”

Martha Tedeschi, a Northwestern alumna, will soon leave her position as the deputy director for art and research at the Art Institute of Chicago to join Harvard University, where she was recently appointed the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums, starting in July.

“One can see what the creative history of a culture has been [through museums],” Tedeschi said, "but one can also see what that culture has amassed and what that culture has valued over time.”

Her goal as director of the Harvard Art Museums is to involve all the arts in one framework discussion. “That’s what university art museums are trying to do -- find a way to use themselves as a platform to bring in the great minds and the pedagogical opportunities that exist on campus,” she said.

Referring to the panel discussion, Provost Linzer said, “What the arts do at a university is help us to see in ways that we might not otherwise be able to do.”

“Just as there are different tools that can see very small things, like a microscope, or very distant things, like a telescope,” he said, “the arts give us a set of tools to see the world and amplify that in ways that we can make sense of and integrate with all the other areas of the University.”

President Schapiro also stressed the essential role the arts play in making life richer. Drawing on his economics expertise, he also pointed out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, arts and humanities majors on average prosper financially over the long run. But most important, President Schapiro stressed, a life well lived would be unimaginable without the arts.

"I like to remind people that if they get it right in medicine and they get it right in science and engineering, we stay alive longer and we’re healthier," he said. "If they get it right in my field, economics and related fields in applied social sciences, you know what happens? We’re wealthier. And if we really get it right, our societies are more just. But you always have to ask yourself the question: Who wants to live long and who wants material well being without all the joys and exhilarations and stimulation that come from great literature, great music, great art, great cinema, great dance, and on and on?

"At Northwestern University we celebrate those blessed subjects not just one day a year, but every single day of the year."

- Storer Rowley, director, and Judy Moore, fine and performing arts editor, in media relations, contributed to this article.

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