Juilliard toasts 100 years as bastion of arts
By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Felix Ivanov, a Russian d’Artagnan
with unkempt graying hair who teaches stage combat classes to
aspiring actors, compares sword-fighting to wielding a fishing
rod, a paint brush or chop sticks.
In his bare studio classroom at New York’s famed Juilliard
School, 21 drama students spar, perhaps imagining themselves as
Shakespeare’s Mercutio or Tybalt, as they jab, block and swipe
with long black padded sticks.
“Stop, stop,” cries Ivanov, unimpressed by some overly
theatrical swings. “I’m so happy we don’t have real swords.”
“It’s all about aura,” he tells the young students, an
international bunch of men and women dressed as if for yoga.
Ivanov is trying to teach them to make wide circles with
the sword to avoid bringing the tip anywhere near a partner’s
eyes. “You’re working with the partner’s aura, not the body.”
The stage combat class is part of a busy curriculum for the
drama students at Juilliard, the performing arts school which
boasts such illustrious alumni as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actors
Kevin Spacey, Laura Linney and Robin Williams.
Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan studied there,
playing the clarinet before he turned from music to economics.
As Juilliard celebrates its 100th anniversary this year,
the school’s President Joseph Polisi says much has changed
since it was founded in 1905 as the Institute of Musical Art.
The disciplines of dance and drama were added in 1951 and
1968 respectively, and Juilliard moved in 1969 to the city’s
premier arts complex, the Lincoln Center, where its neighbors
include the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.
BEETHOVEN VS THE BOSS
But the biggest change for Polisi is a gradual erosion of
America’s perception of the value of the fine arts in society.
He says the arts are being ignored and underfunded by
politicians in Washington and dropped from school curricula
to the detriment of a whole generation.
At the same time commercialism and youth culture are
blurring the lines of what is and is not art, Polisi said.
“There really is a fear of being branded as an elitist,” he
said in a recent interview.
“If we get away from that word and think about what is of
value to us and what we believe in and what has depth and
profound meaning and longevity, then I don’t think you have to
be too sheepish about it,” Polisi said.
“But there’s no question that any politician or individual
will shy away from saying that Beethoven is in fact better than
Bruce Springsteen,” he said.
“If you use the standard of ‘American Idol’ as the standard
for a singer I think you might be going down a very dangerous
road,” Polisi said, referring to the television talent show
that has been a huge hit for the Fox television network.
With the future of art at stake, Polisi says Juilliard’s
mission is no longer just to teach talented young people to
sing, act, play instruments or dance.
“In my view they’re responsible for more than getting the
notes right or the words right or the steps right. They have to
be missionaries for the arts,” Polisi said.
In pursuit of that goal, Juilliard has an active outreach
program through which students visit schools in underprivileged
areas. And Polisi organizes events aimed at bolstering
discourse on the arts, such as a recent panel featuring
historian David McCullough, Supreme Court Justice Antonin
Scalia, soprano Renee Fleming and composer Stephen Sondheim.
“When the founders spoke of the pursuit of happiness they
didn’t mean longer vacations or more stuff,” McCullough said,
lamenting what he saw as the fading role of arts in education
and society at large. “This is what they meant.”
Polisi, who played the bassoon before turning to arts
management, was appointed president of Juilliard in 1983. Since
then he has raised the school’s endowment from $100 million to
$610 million, mostly from private donations, in a sign that
Americans, in New York at least, do value the arts.
Juilliard is in the midst of a fund-raising drive for a
$175 million project to upgrade its facilities with work due to
start in 2007. While Polisi said Juilliard had few problem
attracting donations from wealthy philanthropists, he and the
others on the panel lamented that ordinary high schools where
arts are taught at the grass-roots level are struggling.
“I can’t find a significant national politician who really
will take a major stand for the arts because there’s not much
political capital in it and in fact there may be some
downside,” Polisi said.
McCullough, one of America’s best known historians whose
latest book “1776″ has been on The New York Times bestseller
list for the past 17 weeks, warned that politicians ignored the
arts at their peril.
“Think how many statues of old time politicians and
generals stand forgotten, ignored, perches for pigeons,” he
said. “And then think of the thousands of people who turn out
and see re-runs of great plays, movies or symphonies.”