100 Years of Performing Arts

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie

What do Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Graham, Roberta Peters and Dizzy Gillespie have in common?

They have all performed at Connecticut College.

In September, the College will celebrate 100 years of presenting performing arts for the greater New London community. It’s a milestone that recognizes the centrality of the arts to the College’s identity from its founding.

In 1917, just two years after the first students began studying at the College, music faculty decided to host a series of concerts. That evolved into an “artists series” that would bring some of the biggest names in classical music to New London.

But Connecticut College was new and did not yet have a performance hall, so the earliest concerts took place in venues in downtown New London like the Lyceum Theatre, the auditorium at the Bulkeley School and the Armory. 

“It was exciting for the students to go downtown to see these concerts,” said Assistant to the Director of Arts Programming William Hossack, who has been researching the history of performing arts at Conn. It’s a story, he says, about a campus and a community.

“From the beginning, the performance series has served not only the liberal arts on campus, but the cultural life of New London and the surrounding communities.”

During the depression, the series was scaled back and quality up-and-comers were brought in to perform in the College’s gymnasium. To ensure the community could continue to enjoy the arts, admission was free. 

In 1939, Palmer Auditorium opened and the series returned to its former glory. In 1948, the American Dance Festival was born at Connecticut College, nurturing the development of contemporary dance for the next three decades. Over time, theater performances were added to the mix.

Today, performing arts thrives with the Guest Artist Series old, which brings world-class music, dance, theater and visual art to campus several times a year. Director of Arts Programming Robert Richter ’82 has been producing the series since 1998.

Reminiscing about 18 seasons of onStage, Richter says he is hard pressed to pick a favorite performance. Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf during the 1999-2000 season stands out, he says, because of the reactions to the baritone’s solo performance of the Old English poem.

“It sold out. The audience was full of people who loved Beowulf and thought, ‘I can’t miss this,’ and people who read it and thought, ‘I have to see this,’ and students who thought, ‘Oh my god, I was assigned to see this,’” he said. “The students were slumped in their chairs when it started. By the end, they were leaning forward at the very edge of their seats.”

Richter also counts a Martha Graham Dance Company retrospective, a SITI Company rework of Trojan Women and a performance by the Pakistani rock band Khumariyaan among his favorites.

“There are so many stories of great performances here,” he says. 

In the fall, the College will pay homage to the series’ classical music roots with a Sept. 23 performance by “A Far Cry,” a Grammy-nominated self-conducting chamber orchestra, with soloist Simone Dinnerstein on piano.

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May 9, 2017