Amherst’s faculty held the Art Faculty Performance on April 19, showcasing the talents and professors in the Departments of Music, Film and Media Studies and Theater and Dance. Oftentimes students forget that professors too are creators so the performance was a welcome reminder that that once faculty members were students, working on their theses, projects, compositions, and today they continue to create new work. I found the faculty performances interesting, but I felt so out of my depth that I enjoyed them without knowing exactly what I was enjoying.
The first act featured five gold-lit figures on a dark blue stage; the only thing missing from this jazz band was a cityscape in the background. This act showcased the talents of Jason Robinson, assistant professor of music. The smaller quintet format of the nine-piece Janus Ensemble played two pieces, “Facing East” and “Circuitry Unbound.” Both works seemed like an experiment in dissonance, with the two main voices, played by Jason Robinson and Marty Ehrlich, arguing at first, then reconciling and constructively playing together to a funky accompaniment by Liberty Ellman, Drew Gress and George Schuller. The second act had all members of the band jamming to the esoteric tune, and after each of their solos, the audience erupted in applause. The performers were having so much fun that it was hard not to enjoy it.
Adam Levine, assistant professor of art and film and media Studies, showed his work “You Got Eyes” next. The program described it as “an experiment in movement and single-frame video.” And so it was — it featured two dancers, Aretha Aoki and the Amherst College’s own Sara Smith, dancing in a warehouse-esque space. The strange thing about this piece was that their movements were fragmented and discontinuous — the single-frame camera captured them once every half second or so, in such a way that they looked like they were images flashing from one to the other without any sort of continuity. This was one of the odder pieces — it felt hypnotic, with the non-diegetic voiceover talking about America and how we should burn it to the ground, confidence, personal reflections, reaching into unexplained static, the beat of a heart, the sound of cars waiting and driving off at an intersection. The dancers, meanwhile, moved through the warehouse space, and I found myself questioning how we perceive three-dimensional space without constant motion. The sound, utterly three-dimensional in its reach, added into this strange mix. I’m not sure what it made me feel, but it definitely made me think. Judging from the confused blinking and soft murmurs in the audience afterwards, it seems that everyone had this feeling.
The third act showed scenes four and five from “The Scarlet Professor,” a new opera from Eric Sawyer, professor of music. The story was taken from a 1960s case in which a Smith College professor and his closeted colleagues were arrested for possessing pornography by the postmaster general. The audience saw two scenes in which Professor Arvin (Daniel Kamalic) was sitting in a mental hospital and facing his supportive colleagues (Sarah Pelletier) and flashbacks of people who led to his predicament (Paul LaRosa). The subject of the opera might sound strange, but as Sawyer stated in his introduction, “That’s all you need to know, but you might want to know more about what happens afterwards.” Unsurprisingly, I was left yearning for the rest of the story.
To be fair, I’ll admit that this was the first time I had ever seen an opera. I was expecting loud booming voices, garbled beauty instead of words, and some sort of classical music. The lonely piano, played by Sawyer, accompanied the opera singers. The most jarring realization I had while watching was that I understood the words and I understood them well. I could follow the story! The context-heavy jokes relating to the Five College area and its peculiarities added a nice touch.
The last act was a dance called “Slow Slip Down” choreographed by Paul Matteson, assistant professor of dance, in collaboration with seven dancers. The seven dancers were accompanied by music semi-improvised by Ian Stahl ’14 and Ben Muller ’14. There was a quote at the bottom of the program for this act: “Where others go on ahead, I stay in one place” (Ludwig Wittgenstein). The dancing definitely displayed this idea. The dancers explored the stage from the front to the back curtain first in unison, then branching off and creating their own paths and movements. The music provided a good backdrop — it focused attention on the sheer power and control of the performers. It felt hypnotic and mesmerizing. I wanted to focus my eyes on one place, yet couldn’t — the performers had once again split into groups of two or three and pedaled, jumped and dragged each other down. While it did not take effort to appreciate the majesty of the performers’ movements, I always had to pay attention because there was no telling where the unpredictable motion would go forth next. When the motion suddenly stopped, the patience and attentiveness that was necessary to watch this act dissipated and left a strange feeling.
There was definitely something that I missed. I am not anywhere near the proficiency of these professors — obviously I cannot understand their art as well as they do. Here they are, experimenting in different media at the top of their game, yet most of the intricacies of their work just flew right over my head. I felt out of my depth, and not in the “I’m learning and that’s OK” way.
At the same time, I was very glad I came. This faculty performance served as a reminder that the students of the fine arts are not the only ones creating new work and pushing the boundaries of art. These new works might be beyond the classroom or an average student’s understanding, but the message was felt all the same. There is a certain legacy these professors are trying to pass on — creative ingenuity, courage and curiosity. And each of them seems to be creating something wholly unprecedented.