“A young maiden went for a walk. She would have taken the T, but it was closed due to inclement weather conditions,” quipped Professor Diana Eck as she delivered a modern take on Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake,” to laughter from hundreds of audience members on the Science Center Plaza on Saturday.
Eck, Harvard’s Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society and a professor at the Divinity School, also joked about Snapchat and global warming. The comedic “Swan Lake” was part of the Arts First festival, a weekend showcase of the University’s creative and artistic endeavors.
The festival is not simply a collection of individual works, but rather a collaborative effort tying Harvard groups to the broader community. A free and open event, the arts festival brought together performers in drag from Hasty Pudding Theatricals, musicians from the River Charles Ensemble, dancers from the Harvard Ballet Company, and faculty guest stars like Eck, College Dean Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Freshmen Tom Dingman, and Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology.
“We survey students to see who they want onstage,” explained Selena Kim ’15, a student producer for the festival. Arts groups submit applications in the fall, after which the organizing committee matches the acts to the spots on campus that best align with their style. Faculty members such as Eck and Khurana, Kim added, are generally receptive to being included in the performances.
After “Swan Lake” ended, the audience members spread out onto the plaza to investigate other artistic happenings or to grab a bite at a food truck. Students mingled with faculty and community members who were drawn, in part, by outreach and advertising efforts of the Office for the Arts.
Visitor Leo Ye and Jen Huang, who attends the Extension School, had come across the events calendar online and decided to spend the afternoon at Arts First. Some in the audience simply found themselves walking through Harvard Yard and decided to listen to the Harvard University Band or Mariachi Veritas de Harvard.
Regardless of how they arrived, they found themselves welcomed, even encouraged to participate. Coordinators sported “Make Art” shirts, as if to focus attention not on specific performances or pieces but on the general creative environment. White tents on the plaza featured stations such as “Living Sculpture” and “Scan, Touch, Play” that put casual viewers in the role of artists. At “Wheel Throwing,” younger kids tried their hands at clay pottery. “It’s hard, it takes practice,” said a reassuring instructor as parents looked at their children’s work with fascination.
Just a few paces away, members of the Hyperion Shakespeare Company practiced lines from “Hamlet.” They were preparing to summon passersby into the action, casting them on the spot and beckoning them into the Shakespearian world. “We are waiting for the scripts” — not for the performers, but for the participants, said Alice Berenson ’16.
“It’s a personification of how arts and performing should be accessible,” said Mikhaila Fogel ’16, another Hyperion member. Fogel hoped Arts First would augment Shakespeare as “an active part of the campus life.”
With Eck’s jokes, overlaid on student ballet dancers and laughing children spinning pottery, her wish for connection among artworks, the College campus, and the community seemed to be coming true.
Colton Valentine ’16 is a literature concentrator.