Vignette: Onward and Upward

Mahaney Center for the Arts finalIt is the day of the spring equinox. Maple sap is rising, and big fat flakes are falling on the copper roof of the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts. Inside, in one gallery of the art museum, there is an abundance of children—whether on the walls, as mostly winged cupids rendered in 19th-century France, or on the floor, as exceptionally attentive fourth- graders visiting from the Weybridge School and sitting before an 1851 seascape. The artist is Louis Gabriel Eugène Isabey, Parisian artist in the court of King Louis-Philippe.

Guided by the museum’s curator of education, Sandi Olivo, the children study and inventory the painting’s elements: numerous casks on a sandy beach; a pennant in a breeze; a blue jacket draped on a boat’s gunwale; clouds driving over land; and out at sea, a tiny sail tacking off a distant shore. Above the seascape, a Bourguereau oil with its Olympic bosoms and bottoms elicits a sideways glance or two.

Upstairs, another Weybridge School group studies a John Sloan crayon drawing, Dreaming, 1906. This gallery affords a balcony’s overhead view of the museum’s front entryway, an Assyrian panel, and, directly below one’s feet, the admissions desk, where an attendant greets newcomers and another scans a bank of security monitors.

“First,” says the fourth-grade teacher to the assembled children, “your job is to just look at the image.” The children regard John Sloan’s crayon lines, while an outsider squints down at the security monitors, stifling the urge to wave at oneself, an Observer observing an Observer, all the while being observed by another observer there at the admissions desk. Meanwhile, the teacher Socratically asks questions; hands shoot up, and she leads the children into discerning the difference between a painting and the Sloan crayon drawing.

Below, standing near the Assyrian alabaster relief, Winged Genie Pollinating the Date Palm, is security monitor Jonathan Blake; the stone relief is from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Kalhu, in present-day northern Iraq, and monitor Blake is from the Granite State of New Hampshire and an estimable photographer of art and news events.

The chatter of fourth-graders echoes around Blake, and he recalls his favorite children’s discussion of the art at Middlebury as a class studied the Assyrian genie’s graven image. “One kid announced with great authority that ‘It’s the Easter Fairy,’ whose job was to follow the Easter Bunny around and make sure the candy eggs are okay,” Jonathan Blake remarks. “Another kid noticed the genie’s ear ornament. To him, a fifth-grader who loved to play chess, it resembled an inverted bishop’s piece—‘He’s the inventor of chess!’ the kid explained. I love the way kids think!” Before its placement in the museum, the Assyrian relief hung for a half century in a cramped Munroe Hall entryway, where occasionally students would stub out their cigarettes on it as they hurried to their history or literature classes.

Fifteen lithe audience members, faculty and students, assemble in the Dance Theatre on a late Monday afternoon, all dressed either in big sweaters and scarves or in big, sagging tee-shirts, to hear a lecture by Katie Martin, improvisatory dancer, choreographer, and teacher at Hampshire College, who studied at Bennington, where she came under the influence of the renowned, innovative choreographer Trisha Brown.

Martin shares a series of slides from Bennington—candids of some of the greatest modern dancers when they were at the southern Vermont college. One sees the socializing Martha Graham and Ted Shawn and Doris Humphrey, and there is a selection from Trisha Brown’s earlier work in Water Motor. This elicits a delighted exclamation from Middlebury’s senior lecturer in dance, Penny Campbell, herself no stranger to the Bennington campus with the summer dance program she cofounded.

Water Motor!” Campbell exclaims. “That was my first composition piece!” As is often the case in this theater, the delight is infectious and everyone laughs. Martin, with her cascade of long, dark hair, will demonstrate her own work out on the floor, but before that, her talk touches on the teachings of choreographer William Forsythe and then segues into “improvisation metaphors” drawn from the natural world’s awe-inspiring “collective individualism”—a swarm of fireflies, a legion of army ants, and (the Observer’s favorite) flocking birds, such as starlings or pigeons or the hundreds of darting, wheeling, banking Arctic snow buntings observed aloft in the Lemon Fair river valley that very bright, cold morning.

On this day (possibly on all days), every person in the theater-tech class is attired entirely in navy blue in the noisy, high-ceilinged workshop overseen by the associate technical director, Jim Dougherty.

Pulleys and cables. Ductwork. Circular saws, band saws, radial arm saws, drill presses, pipe clamps, wire spools, the high whine of a transformer. A student runs a hacksaw across a small metal bar clamped in a vise, set up on the end of a cloth-draped worktable, upon which lies, face-down, a fully articulated human skeleton.

The class is preparing scenery and props for a production of Howard Barker’s The Castle, a bawdy drama of crusaders returning home after a seven-year campaign. Other artifacts, whether from this or past dramas, appear as one takes in the vast workspace; there’s a regulation-height basketball hoop, and 15 feet above the laboring students’ heads, one can see a plywood swan, a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, and a surfboard-sized Hostess Twinkie.

Next door, in the Seeler Studio Theatre, a student machine-stitches white muslin at a workstation on risers, where audience seating for The Castle is to be, while another uses a small portable steamer to smooth finished fabric hanging from a clothesline. It bobs gently as the student irons, causing sympathetic vibrations in a bright roll of razor wire—future stage scenery—looped above her head. Scores of dark stage lights hang overhead, poised to light some future drama.

Three pm on a Wednesday, in the 20th year of the Mahaney Center’s existence, the Observer is perching on a bench outside the Dance Theatre. The students, faculty, and staff striding past take on an ensemble quality: all the corridor’s a stage. A music senior bustles down a hall, making thoughtful conducting motions with one arm. Down the hall, piano ruminations trickle out of Classroom 125 and laughter from Seminar 126. On a wall, a framed poster commemorates the building’s opening celebration, held in 1992 from September 28–October 10, which featured the collaborative work of choreographers and composers, the Fred Haas Jazz Ensemble, and an alumni dance concert. It all culminated in a gala benefit for the Center for the Arts with Misha Dichter, the Emerson String Quartet, Claire Bloom, and the David Dorfman Dance Company.

At the opening, crowds in finery not often seen in Vermont strolled past the new music library, peered into but did not mark the floor of the Dance Theatre, noted the courtyard tables and chairs and the whimsical space of the café just outside the museum portals, and admired the soaring atrium heights overhead; two years ahead, in 1994, the Committee on Art in Public Places would install its first work of art way up in the very space above—Jonathan Borofsky’s acrylic and urethane installation, I dreamed I could fly at 3,876,225—the figure of an ecstatic young man, floating and transfixed.

Notes on Some Changes in Two Decades: (1) The music library has been reintegrated into the general stacks at the Davis Library, gaining instructional and assembling rooms and offices for the art history and architecture department; (2) the Borofsky flying man sculpture has been shifted from the atrium to a much smaller space above the east corridor exit; (3) the café closed, ending a lunchtime meeting tradition and gatherings: “Only in America,” mourns a drama faculty member, “do they replace a vibrant café where people meet and the ferment is guaranteed, with vending machines.” At the empty half-circle of the former serving counter sits a solitary brew-ready Keurig coffee machine, filter cups for which may be purchased in nearby offices.

In the museum study gallery, Kirsten Hoving’s environmental photography students deliver their presentations to the class, discussing works from the permanent collection; in Room 209 (MCA 209), Peter Hamlin’s digital-music students have created pieces performed entirely on tablets and phones.

Dana Yeaton conducts a playwriting workshop in MCA 209, and Eliza Garrison lectures on the evolution of Western art in MCA 125. In MCA 110, Penny Campbell and Michael Chorney, saxophonist and acoustic guitarist, lead a performance improvisation for musicians and dancers.

Later in MCA 110, Christal Brown introduces dance techniques, accompanied by multi-keyboardist Ron Rost; the Dance Theatre recently hosted the dance company INSPIRIT, with work based on the life of Muhammad Ali, under the direction of Brown in a suite of dances incorporating “elements of boxing, hip-hop, martial arts, and modern dance,” with music scored by Farai Malianga, late of Brooklyn but originally from Mutare, Zimbabwe.

In MCA 210, a multimedia arts lab, a student sounds a gong while his project is translated into digital sound on a laptop, as the door-muffled reverberations echo down a stairwell.

MCA 125 is in standing-room-only condition for a 4:30 lecture by Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi of the Italian department, on Italian stoneworkers in Vermont in the years 1880–1915. The talk is themed to coincide with the museum’s show of photographs taken by Edward Burtynsky in the marble quarries of Proctor and granite quarries of Barre, Vermont.

Brancoli traces the development of the quarries from the 1850s, when rail transportation made industrial distribution possible, into the 1880s and beyond, when Italians migrated in droves. Arriving in Vermont with skills handed down to them for a millennia in the pre-Alpine valleys of Piedmont and Lombardy, they worked in the cutting and shaping sheds rather than in the much more dangerous pits. Still, with rock dust endemic, the average lifespan of a stonecutter was 42 years, thanks to silio-tuberculosis.

The audience views slides of the cutting sheds and extraordinarily carved marble and granite, some of which decorated the graves of the workers, and of recreational picnics, parties, Italian instrumental bands, and the vigorous unionization efforts; when viewers see side-by-side comparisons of Piedmont and Lombardy mountains and valleys with those in Proctor and Barre, there is a murmur at how alike is the terrain.

“They must have felt so at home here!” someone whispers, to which another responds, “At least until the immigration curbs, the anti-union efforts, and the Red Scare of the 1920s.”

Although the talk extends past the closing time of the museum, Brancoli announces that in honor of Edward Burtynsky receiving an honorary degree at Middlebury’s Commencement, the show has been extended through June 2013.

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