For Smith Students, the Best of Both
By Eric Sean Weld
Jessica Bean '07 is a standout talent in ballet, who has been
studying dance since the age of 2. Now a Smith double major in dance
and psychology, she had once considered some of the nation's
top dance conservatories among her college choices.
But Bean, who was ranked fifth in her high school class, sought a strong academic
program, too -- one that would
support her liberal arts interests. For that, she looked into Brandeis University
and Skidmore College, neither of which offered the specialized ballet training
In the end, given her desire for balance between art and academics, her choice
was simple: Only Smith offered an outstanding liberal arts curriculum with
a solid program in dance, particularly in ballet.
"Smith had everything I was looking for," recalls Bean, who is from
nearby Southampton. "A very strong ballet program, great academics, lots
of opportunities to perform, and it's close to home."
Bean's decision to attend Smith was validated early in her first year
here, when she performed in four dance concerts -- an unusual opportunity
for a first-year performing arts student. "This college has met all of
my expectations and more," notes Bean. "I have encountered many
opportunities at Smith, both in my concentration in psychology and in ballet,
that I never imagined. This semester, I've been dancing every day, just
as much as I would at a conservatory. That's what I love about this area:
you can perform as much as you want to."
Jessica Bean's story echoes the experience of many students in the dance,
music and theatre departments, which compose Smith's performing arts
sector. A high school student, talented academically and artistically as a
musician, dancer or theater performer, seeks a college that can nourish her
varied strengths. She might consider conservatories or performance-oriented
colleges before settling on Smith as the school that can offer both: an academic
package among the best in the land and a strong and respected performing arts
That's a combination that sold Jenna Augenlicht '07, an actress
and musician, on Smith. "I wanted to come to Smith because of all the
options it allowed me," she explains. "My decision to come here
has already been very beneficial to my development as a person and therefore
as a performer. These years are so crucial to a person's development
that I didn't want to risk missing them in a professional training environment."
Maggie Hanson, a senior soprano vocalist who transferred to Smith after attending
the highly respected Ithaca College School of Music her first year, similarly
discovered at Smith the academic and artistic symbiosis she sought.
"I would recommend Smith to any serious musician who is also a serious
student of other disciplines," says Hanson, who is majoring in medieval
studies and English literature, "and who is trepid about sacrificing a
liberal arts education and the pursuit of other interests in favor of an isolated
program in music."
That sacrifice -- of a well-rounded liberal arts education -- to which
Hanson alludes is the impetus behind many performing arts students' decisions
to attend Smith. For many high school students who are serious about performing
arts careers, the appeal of attending a prestigious professional training institution -- a
Juilliard or a Tisch School of the Arts -- can be tempting. The intense
focus on performance at those schools can hone one's skills more quickly
to a professional level than most programs at liberal arts colleges.
But that intensity comes at the cost of a broad-based academic curriculum,
as well as the menu of extracurricular opportunities that come with a liberal
arts environment, such as sports, membership in clubs of all types, cultural
possibilities, and contact with people with varied interests. Performing arts
students at Smith, including Hanson, Bean and Augenlicht, recognize the value
in both a quality academic curriculum and a focus on their art.
"It's the difference between a vocational and a liberal arts education," explains
Rodger Blum, associate professor of dance and chair of the department, in comparing
conservatory training and a Smith education. "The primary thrust of a conservatory
is training toward performance. And while students at Smith do take technique
classes that train for performance, we put equal emphasis on the creative and
the theoretical aspects of the art form. You can go through a conservatory and
not have a sense of the history of your art form, for example. At Smith, scholarly
reflection and study into what makes dance work and function in society and culture
are high priorities for us."
In Hanson's conservatory experience, the intensity was too focused. "It
was kind of like tunnel vision," she says of her year at Ithaca. "The
music school was fantastic, no question, but other interests had to be put
on the shelf. That was my main motivation for transferring to Smith."
While many performing arts students find the top-notch academics at Smith compelling,
they find further enticement in the unusual strengths of the theater, dance
and music departments.
Modern dance is one of three areas of
concentration for Smith's dance majors. The college offers the
only master of fine arts dance degree in New England. Photo
by Jon Crispin.
Smith's dance students are members of the Five
College dance program, a collaborative department among the dance programs
at each consortium school. As a combined program, the Five College Dance
Department is one of the largest in the nation with a
collective faculty of some 20 instructors and nearly 100 dance majors. The
consortium-wide department is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Smith's Department of Dance, which was established at the same time as
the Five College program, has steadily earned a reputation as a high-quality
dance program, offering ample opportunities for performance, as well as education
in choreography, history, theory, technique and set design. Some 800 Smith
students come through the department each year as participants in its courses
Part of the 25th anniversary celebration for the Five College Dance Program
was a three-day series at Smith last November, titled "Dance Through
Fusion," which featured original works for ballet and modern dance, as
well as works that combined contemporary dance forms with other visual arts.
Bean was one of two Smith dancers featured in a restaging of renowned choreographer
George Balanchine's classic "Serenade."
Smith's program is especially strong in ballet, which is what attracted
Bean. Also, Smith offers the only master of fine arts dance degree in New England.
Professor Jane Bryden guides a student
in a voice lesson, with Clifton J. Noble accompanying on
piano. Photo by Jon Crispin.
Department of Music is one of the largest departments at Smith, with 18
full-time faculty members. Each year, as in dance, hundreds of students
come through the music department either in its courses or as participants
in one of its ensembles, says Jane Bryden, the Iva Dee Hiatt Professor
of Music. Of course, far more people in the community benefit as
audience members as well, attending the department's
70 concerts a year.
These numbers are significant, continues Bryden, in their reflection of the
belief among performing arts faculty that the arts are an essential and equal
component of the liberal arts curriculum and are also an important part of
life in general -- that the arts are for everyone.
really trying to do here is to help people have the arts be part of their
lives," says Bryden. "Smith is on the map as a college
that highly values the arts."
Smith, sometimes in conjunction with other area colleges, allows students to
participate in an unusually large number of musical groups, including orchestra,
a wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, several choral groups, a Gamelan ensemble,
the Early Music Collegium and numerous smaller combinations. Outside the department,
lovers of a cappella can join any number of student singing groups, such as
the Smithereens, the Notables and Smiffenpoofs. "There are more opportunities
for performance here than at most liberal arts colleges," reports Bryden. "Here,
it's possible to be a big fish in a small pond. And we have a very involved
and active faculty."
Mother Courage and Her Children chronicles
the life of a mother and her family as they travel through
a conflict-filled countryside. The theatre department's 2003
production of Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece of struggle and
survival was directed by Alyson Roux '04. Photo
by Jon Crispin.
The theatre department hosts 44 majors
(many double majors) and three graduate students, offering
some 35 courses in performance, playwriting, directing, design,
literature, history and dramatic theory. As in dance and music,
theatre majors at Smith gain an unusually thorough grounding in
all aspects of production, including creating a work, designing
sets, directing the lights and sound, and the fruition of performance.
"There's a tremendous amount of opportunity here to get practical,
hands-on training," says Paul Zimet, associate professor of theatre and
chair of the department. "The students are given the responsibility here.
We have a history, for example, of training great stage managers. They go out
in the world and get snatched up right away."
A further benefit for Smith's theatre majors is the contact with faculty
members who are involved with or have extensive experience in the professional
world. Zimet has garnered accolades for his work with Talking Band, a theatre
company he founded more than 30 years ago in New York City that often enlists
the assistance of Smith students and other faculty and staff members. The company
has collected numerous Off-Broadway Theater Awards (Obies) for its productions,
most recently taking 13 Obies for Painted Snake in a Painted Chair in 2003.
Edward Check, a lecturer on set design (see sidebar), is an award-winning set
designer for hit television shows.
Not to be discounted are Smith's well- regarded theatre facilities in
the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts, including the performance spaces,
the 460-seat Theatre 14, an attractive room with ample stage and back-stage
area, and the Hallie Flanagan Theatre, which regularly sells out its 200 seats.
Many performing arts majors at Smith say they will include their art in their
lives after Smith in some fashion -- as an avocation alongside an unrelated
career, for example, or in some cases as full-time performers. "Ballet
will always be a part of my life regardless of my career," says Jessica
Bean, reflecting the attitudes of others.
For students who are absolutely certain in high school -- as Maggie Hanson
was -- that a career as a performer is what they want to pursue, a school
dedicated to developing that objective may be the right choice. But "it's
like putting all your eggs in one basket," says Hanson of the limited
post-graduation options that a conservatory education yields.
Most of the performing arts students at Smith believe that a broad-based, diverse
education will help them become more effective artists. "My liberal arts
education at Smith has not only nourished my academic and social needs," explains
Hanson, "but has also molded me into a healthier and more well-rounded
person, which always makes for a better musician."
"At Smith, there's a real balance between academics and the arts," concludes
Zimet. "We offer top-notch performing arts programs, but with the realization
that we're a liberal arts school. I'm a believer that this more inclusive
education contributes to your abilities as an artist."