February 4, 2010

In Defense of the Performing Arts at Cornell

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As many of you know, the Department of Theater, Film, and Dance is being asked by Arts College Dean Peter LePage to cut about two million dollars over the next two years, which is about a third of what the College of Arts and Sciences is trying to cut overall. Many universities have distributed the budget cuts more proportionately, asking departments to cut a certain percentage of their budget, such that smaller departments receiving less funding from the College to begin with are cutting a smaller sum than larger departments.

The foisting off of a third of the College’s debt on Theater Film and Dance is not —necessarily— indicative of a hatred of or distaste for the arts but rather of an ignorance of the facts and realities which are obscured by embodying the numerical statistics on which financial their decisions are based. We must understand that cuts must be made, and the college may have come up with a rubric of qualities by which the departments are being judged. The questions then arise: Is this rubric adequate? Does it produce a fair and logical outcome?

Out of the six members of the Dance faculty, there is only one professor. The other five, some of whom have been here since the late 70s, are all senior lecturers. The “newest” faculty member has been here for about 18 years. Almost all of the production staff and teachers are also lecturers. Because the tenure and tenure-track positions are protected, it is the lecturer and staff positions whose jobs will be eliminated. That amounts to more than 30 jobs within the Schwartz Center. The responsibility of lecturers, according to Cornell’s Faculty Handbook, is predominately teaching. But our lecturers also direct, choreograph, design and produce nine main productions a year, on top of advising many smaller projects and theses.

The responsibility of the University is not only to produce well-rounded and responsible members of the country and world, but also to train them specifically in the field of their choice. Need I remind you of our University’s motto? The wide range of expertise and foci of the many departments at Cornell allow for ‘dabbling’ but also improvement within the main major. One mark against the dance department is that there are no students who are majoring solely in dance. I am a senior double majoring in linguistics and dance. I didn’t know at the time I entered Cornell which of my two majors would become my career, but the fact that I would be able to major in dance was one deciding factor, if not the deciding factor, that brought me to Cornell. I knew that I wanted to continue dancing, not only to improve my technical dance and composition skills but to expand my worldview and understanding of dance and art and their social and historical implications, and for this I knew I needed a rigorous academic setting and not a conservatory.

My work in the linguistics department has trained me to gather data and posit analyses for this data; the history and theory classes in the Africana Studies, Music and Dance Departments have given me the aesthetic and cultural context and analytical tools to write an honors thesis in dance and prepare me to be an active and productive member of the scholarly dance community

I will be gone next year, but what if I had not had these opportunities to begin with? Because of the inspiring program here, I am now in the midst of preparing to pursue applying to pursue a Ph.D in dance or performance studies starting in the fall. The Cornell faculty is well-known and well-regarded both in terms of creative and scholarly work, and they have produced many successful alumni. My education in the department here gives me an unbelievable advantage, and has shown me that both practical and theoretical components of performing arts are valid and important, but that they cannot and should not exist without the other. In the fields of performance, theater, film, and dance studies, the current focus is on “embodied scholarship,” which puts importance on the practitioner’s knowledge of the form as giving particular insight to its theoretical and historical importance.

This is too field-internal to be motivating to outsiders.

Under the proposed budget cuts, the historical and theoretical courses of theater and film may be preserved. With a possible faculty of one, it is difficult to say the same for dance. However, the practical aspects would be missing for all three areas. Without lecturers or staff there would be virtually no one to teach or demonstrate set, costume, sound, or lighting design, production, or operation; stage management or crew; no one to teach anyone dance or choreography, and many fewer people to teach acting, directing and screenplay writing, for film or stage. There would also be little to no opportunity to put any of this knowledge to work, as there will be few or no productions of any kind. No dance shows, no plays, no presentations of student films at Willard Straight. Just an empty, soulless Schwartz Center guarding the southern entrance to a university that used to command respect.

But tremendous creativity has been born of great struggle. Even if the setting is minimal, if the script is beautiful, the actors well-trained, you can see the scene unfurl as the words fall out of their lips. I and the other students I dance with could perform on a bare stage in our street clothes if we had to — and, because we studied here, it would take your breath away. At least, because we have studied here, we know how. And the next generation of Cornell students? What will they be able to do?

When this financial crisis is over, how will we rebuild the University if the foundations have been taken away? How much more expensive will it be to open new faculty lines, re-purchase equipment, re-purpose space that has been taken away? How long will it take to build up an audience base again, once we have alienated the students and community members who come from all over the Finger Lakes region to attend performances at the Schwartz? How will we make up the time that was lost?

Yes, the University could continue to exist without a Department of Theater, Film and Dance. But should it?

Original Author: Alex Harlig