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Audiences rave about UCR performing arts

by: Dan Bennett   (June 2004)

Enthusiastic arts patrons frequenting University of California, Riverside performances and exhibitions this year enjoy wide-ranging opportunities.

Audiences passionate for UCR theater, for instance, were treated to both the words of Moliere and the timelessness of “MacBeth.” Spring performances include “Red Rhythms: Contemporary Methodologies in American Indian Dance” and the UCR Choral Society’s concert version of Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas.”

Not only that, folks who frequented these performances and others can next spend warm summer days gazing at photographs of funny-looking monkeys in an internationally acclaimed, state-of-the-art museum. Now that’s variety.

Dare we say it, fans of UCR arts are going bananas concerning their opportunities, buoyed by the fact that the university has become a formidable presence in the Southern California arts scene.

The arts programs and performances at UCR are thriving, driven by an academic culture dedicated to arts education and a supportive surrounding community. Old-fashioned talent, meanwhile, runs rampant.

Richard Hornby, chair of the UCR theatre department, says the number of theatre majors has tripled in the past decade, adding to the talent pool and quantity of performances.

“More important than numbers is the high level of talent - in acting, directing, and design,” Hornby said. “We are attracting more and better students for a variety of reasons. At UCR we provide more opportunities for undergraduates than at any other UC Theatre Department. For example, few theatre departments in the system - or anywhere else - provide opportunities for undergrads to direct. Since, unlike many UC departments, we do not have graduate acting programs, undergraduate actors can play major roles here.” 

From the fine arts and classics to modern art and performances on the cutting edge, tradition and modernity are sharing equal billing in these endeavors. Traditional theater accompanies more experimental works, such as the recent Cali (ie) Hip Hop Theater Festival.

“I do believe that the arts are thriving on UCR’s campus, and I think much of it has to do with the increased activity of the student body,” says Hip Hop Theater Festival founder and theatre professor Rickerby Hinds. “I am consistently and pleasantly surprised while attending events featuring UCR students. From dance groups to spoken-word artists to singers, I am more often than not, moved, entertained and educated by the work.”

Hinds says students in the theatre department are highly skilled.

“The quality and creativity of faculty directors is outstanding,” Hinds said. “The level of acting as well as the behind-the-scenes activities of UCR theatre students, I believe, would rank as good and in many cases, better than most comparable universities in the country.”

In dance, modern and tap dance performances by UCR students are regularly scheduled in the community. In music, audiences become more culturally informed through performances by the UCR Javanese Gamelan Ensemble, and performances in jazz, classical music and Japanese drumming, among many other forms. Creative writing is also in on the action, with regular events involving student and faculty writers, as well as novelists and authors of international renown.

Each year, students from throughout the Inland area converge on UCR for a day of arts performance and education on Sweeney Arts Day, while UCR student performers frequently travel the country showcasing talent at university arts conferences.

And don’t forget those monkeys. The California Museum of Photography in Riverside presents the exhibit “Monkey On Your Back” through November, featuring inkjet reproductions of amiable photographs depicting the humorous and poignant relationships between primates and humans.

Meanwhile, venues such as the now three-year-old and frequently booked Arts Center are hopping, as are other campus facilities, such as the Sweeney Arts Gallery. Riverside also awaits with anticipation the opening of the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts, a major arts venue downtown that is an ambitious partnership between local arts patron Anthony Culver and the university.

Box-office results showed that nearly 7,000 people attended campus performances produced by the music, dance and theatre departments in March, with season-finale May performances expected to easily surpass that number.

Community support has been vital, particularly through such entities as the Riverside Cultural Trust, part of an ongoing effort to make Riverside the center of arts and culture in the Inland Empire by 2005. The Gluck Fellows Program for the Arts has enabled university performers and educators to perform and teach in area schools and nursing homes.

“We are sending out about 515 different projects in the current year, compared to about 250 a few years ago,” said Sarah Fritsche, Gluck program coordinator. “This opportunity has been a very rare and very fortunate thing for the university. It exposes people to a variety of programming, everything from ballet folklorico to traditional renaissance performance to baroque to free-improvisation dance.”

Byron Adams, chair of the music department, says excellent faculty has helped create the current atmosphere.

“We have a faculty of national, indeed, international distinction that loves teaching,” Adams said. “In other words, at UCR we have first-rate scholars, performers and composers who are also dedicated and effective teachers. We have managed to thrive in the face of consistent budget cuts over the past four years. We are worried that this new round of budget cuts will have a serious negative impact upon the music department, and the arts in general.”

Quality and quantity of performances has increased, Adams says. 

“This increase in quality - and in the number of performances and events that we present to the campus and to the local community - has been consistent over the years,” Adams said. “In other words, given the financial and other support from the administration, we will continue to improve our community service, our educational mission, and the already high level of our performance offerings.”

The UCR arts indeed thrive despite obstacles.

“Obviously we are in the middle of an era of horrible budget cuts,” said Jonathan Green, director of the California Museum of Photography, working in tandem with the university on exhibits, staffing and funding. “But we truly believe we are an essential component of not only Riverside and the university, but the national dialogue concerning photography exhibition. We have received overwhelming support from people on campus and around the world.”

The museum has earned respect for its exhibits, including last year’s ONE GROUND in which four Palestinian and four Israeli filmmakers were invited to show their work.

“There was a good deal of negotiation and compromise in that exhibit, simply convincing these people to work together, then it came together very nicely,” Green said. “We want to constantly push the envelope in terms of relevance.”

As an example, an upcoming show will highlight photos of the revolutionary Che Guevarra, assessing how his image has evolved into a high-fashion statement, of sorts, worlds away from his original image as an overthrower of governments.

Meanwhile the museum has amassed one of the most formidable collections of online photographs in the world, making its online exhibits immensely popular, giving its Web sidte some 350,000 to 400,000 hits a day.

Essential, Fritsche says, is introducing the arts to potential students.

"The key is helpng them realize that the arts are something they can actually study as a major," she said. "It's exciting for some of these students to realize they can major in music, or whatever their interest is."

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