For nearly 30 years, Great Performances at Vanderbilt has been an important ingredient in the cultural life of our city. In addition to bringing touring musical and theater artists to town, the series has also played a key role in offering Nashvillians the chance to experience modern dance companies at their best. With the demise a few years back of Tennessee Dance Theatre, Music City has been devoid of any indigenous presence on the modern dance scene. So until some Nashvillian with passion and commitment fills this gaping hole in the cultural landscape, Great Performances continues to loom large for Nashville dance aficionados, even as the series also functions as a general source of rarefied, excellent entertainment.
The newly announced 2003-2004 Great Performances schedule yet again offers a fine mix of programming, beginning on Sept. 26 with The Guys, Anne Nelson’s resonant play revolving around the events of 9/11, performed by actor-director Tim Robbins’ progressive Los Angeles theater company The Actor’s Gang.
Great Performances has a storied history, serving up to 14,000 annual single-ticket purchasers a year. Now the task of maintaining and expanding upon its legacy has fallen to Bridgette Kohnhorst, a former Nashvillian who recently relocated to the city where she was raised. Besides firsthand experience as a former dance artist, Kohnhorst brings to her position as arts programmer in Vandy’s Division of Student Life the benefits of having worked as an administrator with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and, more recently, as an arts programmer for the award-winning Mississippi Summer Arts Institute at Delta State University’s Bologna Performing Arts Center.
“Great Performances offers an enormous programmatic and curatorial platform,” Kohnhorst says. “The recently retired James Sandlin was instrumental in starting up the entire series, as well as the Vanderbilt dance program for students. Since many students wanted an outlet to perform, he had the insight to realize the potential in bringing in live national companies of excellence, whose presence would enhance the students’ experience. Now we’re trying to move toward a model of how more realistically the industry of presenting art operates.”
The “presenting field,” as Kohnhorst calls it, is still relatively young, having only been around since the late 1960s with the advent of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “It all started with minstrel shows, vaudeville, then radio and TV, and after that municipal auditoriums and convention centers,” she explains. “But Lincoln Center made the presenting field viewed in a different way. It’s become a bigger business, one related to learning and pedagogyeducating new citizens through the performing arts.”
With six dance events, three music concerts and one theater piece, this season’s Great Performances schedule may look on the surface like any previous year’s. Yet Kohnhorst has worked hard to avoid duplicate programming from seasons past. “My predecessor, Michele Douglas, did a phenomenal job in sustaining the expectation for artistic excellence, but there is so much else out there, and university students come from so many different backgrounds. Here we have an opportunity to present other fresh, emerging artists.” There will also be a few changes in venue this season, with four of the 10 events taking place in the beautiful Ingram Center for the Performing Arts at Vandy’s Blair School of Music. The others, as usual, will be presented on campus in the spacious Langford Auditorium.
This broader, “omnicultural” approach exhibits itself very obviously in the dance lineup, beginning on Oct. 16, when the Madrid-based Noche Flamenca offers an evening of Spanish-flavored dance, song and music. Lingo Dance Theater follows on Nov. 1, the six-member company serving up an unusual, precision-movement meditation on language and communication called Speak to Me. Dance legend Merce Cunningham performs on Feb. 3 as part of his company’s 50th anniversary celebration. And soon thereafter, on Feb. 14, the Joe Goode Performance Group entertains with Folk, a dance work that examines the lives in a small town. On Feb, 27, Jane Comfort and Company present the critically acclaimed dance-opera Asphalt, which fuses jazz, classical and ambient music with an urban sensibility. Finally, on April 18, the Brian Brooks Moving Company offers Dance-O-Matic, featuring whimsical movement beribboned with satin and performed in shades of hot pink.
Musical events include the maestro-less chamber ensemble Orpheus (Oct. 9); the contemporary sextet Eighth Blackbird (Nov. 12); and cutting-edge jazz clarinetist/arranger Don Byron (April 1).
One of Kohnhorst’s primary goals as arts programmer at Vanderbilt is to find opportunities for interaction and collaboration with arts groups on campus and in the city. In particular, she’s excited about the Performance on the Move program, in which four of this year’s visiting dance companies will offer preview peeks of their work at various art galleriesruby green, Zeitgeist, the Frist Center, Fugitive Art Centerprior to their campus performances. “One thing I noticed when I returned to Nashville was what a vibrant visual arts scene we have. Some people are doing tremendous work at the grassroots level. Great Performances has an opportunity to function as a multidisciplinary link to the visual arts.”
With any luck, Kohnhorst’s unbridled enthusiasm for arts wholism will not only result in increased general attendance of students and the Nashville community at large, but will also engage younger segments of the populationa group she’d dearly like to expose to new and different modes of performance. “Vandy is in a unique situation,” she says. “The students have enormous access to this programit’s funded through student activity feesplus it affords an incredible opportunity to rub shoulders with national artists. But also, we want to court all high school and university students in the area. We’d love to see Fisk, TSU, Watkins, Lipscomb and Belmont and high school students take advantage of this alternative to other events.” Vanderbilt helps make this possible by allowing all non-Vandy students with valid ID to buy a ticket to any Great Performances program for $10.
This is just one of several ways that Vanderbilt’s long-running performance series can deepen its impact on the community. Kohnhorst, still in her freshman year as arts programmer at Vandy, has plenty of other ideas. “One of the things Great Performances can do is make the arts more accessible by promoting emerging artists in a non-elitist forum,” she observes. “We want to plant seeds for future residency work. Nashville has a symphony, and we have a ballet. With this program, we want to allow a place for edgier, riskier events.”
For more information on Great Performances, phone Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Student Center at 322-2471.
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