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For Smith Students, the Best of Both Worlds

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 she wanted.

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."

Sidebar: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Sidebar: Full Frame on the Performing Arts

Sidebar: Setting the Stage

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 department.

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."

More than Academics

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 and productions.

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.

The 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.

"What we're 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.

After Smith?

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."

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