The cacophony of sound and movement that typifies a Center for World Arts performance is perhaps the best metaphor for what the new artistic center at the University of Florida is working to achieve.
Center organizers hope that by having an opportunity to perform with and enjoy performers from many countries and many disciplines who are superstars in their native lands, students and the community will gain better appreciation for the diversity of art in the world.
The approach has been bolstered by the quality of artists the center has been able to attract, including Olodum, the Afro-Brazilian samba reggae group that has performed with such American artists as Paul Simon and Michael Jackson, and Urban Bush Women, an African-American company whose melding of dance, music and theatre has “the ring of powerful, luminous truth,” according to The New York Times.
The center is based in the College of Fine Arts, but its activities stretch far beyond the boundaries of that college. In fact, breaking down boundaries and fostering collaboration has been part of the center’s philosophy from the outset, according to its co-directors, music Professor Larry Crook and theatre and dance Professor Joan Frosch.
“The center’s mission is to promote diversity and interculturalism in the arts,” Crook says. “The way we do that is by using the artistic process in ways that combine the local and global communities.”
Crook calls the University of Florida an ideal place to establish the Center for World Arts because of the university’s emphasis on interdisciplinary studies.
Indeed, he says the presence of UF’s centers for African Studies and Latin American Studies has been essential to the success of the Center for World Arts.
“Our projects would not have been possible without the support of these centers, not just in a financial sense, but because of the structure they provide,” says Crook.
A case in point is the African Artist-in-Residence program, which each year brings a renowned artist from Africa for a three-month residency. Godwin Agbeli, a master drummer and dancer from Ghana who performs and teaches traditional African arts throughout Africa, Europe and the Americas, served as artist-in-residence for the first two years of the program. The Center for World Arts incorporated an artistic component into the program, enabling the Center for African Studies to access federal funding.
A performance by Los Pregones Latino Theatre from the Bronx, N.Y., at the Center for Latin American Studies’ 45th annual conference in February 1996 illustrated the impact of the artistic process on scholarly affairs. The conference, titled “Race, Culture, and National Identity in the Afro-American Diaspora,” was funded by the Center for Latin American Studies, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.
“The performance crystallized the conference in an absolutely tangible way. It also prompted lots of discussion,” Frosch says.
“This is precisely the goal of bringing these artists to the UF campus,” Crook adds. “Ultimately, the arts can make tangible those issues that academicians struggle to express in written form.”
Crook says the center is interested in “art as a catalyst for social change and examination,” and a sociopolitical dimension is apparent in the work of most of the artists invited to campus.
Probably the center’s most overtly political artistic presentation to date came from Urban Bush Women, a New York group whose provocative interweaving of dance, music and theater electrifies audiences.
Urban Bush Women was the featured group for the center’s first Diversity Artists Project. The project spotlights cutting-edge international artists who team up with area performers to produce works examining issues of race, gender and privilege.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women’s founder and director, traveled to Gainesville late last year to audition students and community members for the project. Zollar and several other company members returned in January 1997 for three intensive weekend sessions, during which she set the piece “Bitter Tongue” with the two dozen local women selected as members of the ensemble.
Finally, the entire cast of Urban Bush Women spent a week in Gainesville conducting workshops and demonstrations on campus and in the community. The week culminated in a collaborative performance at UF’s Center for the Performing Arts on February 12.
All of the local participants were treated to the performance experiences of a lifetime, and the students received course credit for their many hours of rehearsal.
Frosch says performing alongside visiting artists provides “rich opportunities for enhancing one’s daily experience,” adding that “students who interact with artists over an extended period come to understand the artist as well as the artist’s culture.”
The impact on students of programs the center has brought to campus is apparent in the students’ testimonials.
“My horizons have been expanded, and my interest in working in other countries and with more groups from different areas has increased,” says Rachel Harshbarger, a graduate student in music history with an emphasis in ethnomusicology. “My skills as a musician have been enhanced, and my experience in music has been greatly broadened. I have also gained a different concept of what music means to other cultures.”
Harshbarger’s involvement with UF’s African drum and dance ensemble Agbedidi and the Brazilian music ensemble Jacar‚ Brazil led to opportunities to collaborate with the visiting group Olodum, to work with Godwin Agbeli and to perform with Urban Bush Women.
In fact, her master’s thesis will focus on contemporary female musicians, reflecting powerful experiences with such groups as Urban Bush Women.
“I saw strong female artists enjoying what they did and entertaining their audience in a new light and stopped trying to remove myself from my gender,” she says.
Discussing her desire to teach, Harshbarger says: “I hope my students will benefit from my experiences, as well as go on to encounter their own with open minds.”
Mark Whittlesey, a junior majoring in anthropology with a concentration in ethnomusicology, says the opportunity to collaborate with artists such as Godwin Agbeli and Jacar‚ Brazil meant the difference between continuing his studies at UF and pursuing a degree at another university.
“I’m getting more exposure to ethnic music here, at a state university, than some people get at a private liberal arts college,” he says.
Whittlesey says the artist-teachers featured in the program give generously of their time and are full of encouragement for their student collaborators.
“Music is such a part of their lives that they take it to another level,” he says. “These artists shine a light on the path for you. They teach you a part of what they know, and that shows you where you can go, what the possibilities are.”
The Center for World Arts already is making an impact on UF’s curriculum. Music students can pursue a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology, in which close collaboration with visiting artists is encouraged. And a new bachelor’s of fine arts degree program in dance, being offered for the first time in 1997-98, will feature three specialties closely allied with performances by the center’s visiting artists – World Dance, Choreography in Performance and Dance in Medicine – as well as a fourth specialty, Theatre.
While three of the specialties in the new bachelor’s program have a relevance that is immediately apparent, the relevance of Dance in Medicine may be less obvious. It hinges, Frosch points out, on “the understanding across many cultures that music and dance can heal us and make us whole.”
A graduate degree in dance, jointly sponsored by UF and the New World School of the Arts in Miami, is being planned for the year 2000. Frosch says the center’s activities will help to distinguish the degree as a globally oriented, 21st-century program.
Frosch believes these new additions to the curriculum, coupled with the center’s ability to support an expanding spectrum of artistic performances, will help spotlight UF’s performing arts programs, enabling them to attract national and international attention. And she envisions a time when the center will become a national model for arts and education.
In addition to the on-campus education mission, Frosch and Crook say programs like the Diversity Artists Project promote community education.
Frosch calls this extension into the community a logical outcome, consistent with the center’s mission to break down barriers in the arts.
“We are interested in joining forces – not just to serve the community – but also for what we can learn from them,” she says.
Community involvement was probably at its peak for the performance of the south Indian dance company Menaka Thakkar. Due in large part to the efforts of Gainesville’s Indian Cultural and Educational Center, a key sponsor of earlier programs, the local Indian community gave this project tremendous support and assistance. Many audience members, although not frequent visitors to artistic events on campus, came to the performance because of the type of company involved. Crook believes this phenomenon is worth considering at a time when classical music audiences are dwindling.
“It seems there should be more of an effort to reflect the heritages of many Florida and U.S. citizens, heritages that haven’t been shown fully on the stage,” he says.
Finding an enthusiastic audience at UF was not a problem for Olodum, an Afro-Brazilian music and dance group. Again, although many in the capacity audience were not frequent visitors to the Center for the Performing Arts, they were eager for the opportunity to hear the most highly renowned group in this genre.
Performers and audiences on campus and throughout the region can look forward to working with Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble, the center’s selection for the 1997-98 Diversity Artists Project.
In future projects, the center’s directors would like to create opportunities for a new generation of students who will use the arts as tools for community building. As the center works to establish ongoing collaborative relationships with a wide range of performing artists, Frosch hopes it will attract students who have an understanding of the arts as a celebration of diversity.
Crook and Frosch are currently pursuing support for student fellowships involving work with underserved populations in the community. These fellowships would create a direct link between the arts curriculum and the social component of art-making.
As Crook says, “this would allow students to share their knowledge of art traditions not well represented in arts education, and it would allow the community to see its reflection in the university a bit better.”
Whatever new plans the future holds, the Center for World Arts will certainly maintain its connections with the vast network of groups in the university and elsewhere that make artist residencies a reality. The center’s projects, in turn, will continue to attract and inspire a wide audience by bringing a rich diversity of performing artists to campus. But Crook and Frosch are quick to point out that the center’s activities provide benefits far greater than the presentation of inspiring performances. Each project is constructed around a distinct cast of partners whose collaboration generates a sense of unity.
Frosch and Crook hope eventually to broaden the appeal of the arts and to show that art can serve many purposes – from highlighting multicultural experiences and furthering social understanding to enhancing or even serving as the cornerstone of academic ideas and rigorous debate.
Crook says he likes to think of art as “a three-dimensional sculpture. Whatever angle you look at it from, it becomes a different thing.”