U. of Nebraska Brings Cutting-Edge Arts to the Heartland

Rhonda Garelick

By Alexander C. Kafka

Be sure to come to the University of Nebraska if you want to see the Huskers facing off against some powerhouse Division 1-A pigskin foe in Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium. Be sure to get to Lincoln, too, for the latest in avant-garde dance and lectures by body-modifying French performance artists.

Say what?

When Rhonda Garelick came to Nebraska in 2008 from academic stints in New York, Connecticut, Paris, and Colorado, she had “never been to a big state football school like this,” she says. “I love many things about it,” but she missed some of the East Coast culture-vulture opportunities too, and figured, “I bet if I brought here the things I loved, other people would love them too.”

While some homesick Easterners might have left that as a thought experiment, Garelick, who has a joint appointment in Nebraska’s English department and its Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, started the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium.

Last year, from $60,000 in seed money from the Hixson-Lied Endowment, she programmed a series of programs and lectures on the theme “Race, American History, and Performance.” It included a performance by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; a free public lecture and a week’s teaching by Robert O’Meally, founder and former director of Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies; a free solo tap performance, MONK, by the MIT theater-arts and dance professor Thomas F. DeFrantz; and appearances by the playwright Nilaja Sun, the dance critic Marcia Siegel, and David Dorfman Dance.

This year, Garelick has raised $130,000 for the IAS and programmed a busy schedule, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, around the theme “Technology, Prosthetics, and the Body in Performance.”

Tomorrow (Oct. 29), for instance, Heidi Latsky Dance’s GIMP company, which features dancers with prosthetic limbs, muscular dystrophy, and other challenges, will perform at the Lied Center following a public symposium today (Oct. 28) with Latsky and the New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella.

Last month an audience of 920 saw a performance by Time Lapse Dance, which melds experimental movement, circus acts, and fabric-and-light spectacles. And on November 2, the French performance and visual artist Orlan, whose work has included surgically modifying her own head, will discuss her exhibit at the university’s Sheldon Museum of Art, where Garelick’s husband, J. Daniel Veneciano, is director.

Most of the artists Garelick invites “are people I know through my own many years working and studying” on the East Coast, she says. She’s followed Latsky’s work since seeing her dance with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. “I saw her performance with GIMP and read about its success and just knew it was perfect” in its combining of social consciousness and revolutionary art, Garelick says. “She’s reconceiving dance.”

In case bringing performances, exhibits, and lectures to Lincoln weren’t enough of a challenge, Garelick is also working with the University of Nebraska Press on a book series affiliated with the IAS. The first volume, which Garelick and Veneciano co-edited, is on Orlan. A second book will be tied to this year’s theme of technology, prosthetics, and the body in performance, and will include sections on teaching art online; drama and the Internet; the erotics of Internet pornography; and the fertility industry. A third volume in the series will be a republication of a Garelick-edited Southwest Review double issue devoted to performance.

Garelick teaches a seminar related to IAS programming, this year exploring theory and literature—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Donna Harroway, Frankenstein, Krapp’s Last Tape—related to the body-transformation and performance themes.

As a girl in Brooklyn and into her years at Yale, where she earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in French and comparative literature, Garelick took ballet, modern, jazz, African, hip-hop, and tap dance classes. “I’m kind of a wannabe,” she says. A scholar and critic who has written for major newspapers, Garelick has also published scholarly work on performance, literature, fashion, and cultural politics. Her books include Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siècle (Princeton University Press, 1998), and Electric Salome: Loie Fuller’s Performance of Modernism (Princeton University Press, 2007), about the modern dancer and lighting designer. Garelick is currently at work on a cultural biography for Random House about how Coco Chanel’s fashion revolution related to the politics of interwar Europe. (Yes, there have been movies and TV series about Chanel lately, Garelick says, but “none of them has gotten to why I think she is important.”)

Garelick founded the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium, she says, because she had “grown frustrated over time with the chasm between scholarly work and the public experience of the arts and literature.” Moreover, in Lincoln, despite having a world-class performing arts center, she “didn’t get the feeling that the general public was at all integrated into what was going on in performance at the university.”

Plus, she says, “performance is often sort of a throw-away experience.” So she wanted to put together programming of “socially conscious themes beyond a single performance” that would integrate intellect and aesthetic experience.

But don’t worry. As successful as IAS has become, we hear Lincoln still has a little football going on too.

Read more about the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

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