UCI's Creative Engine

Image: A dance student performs in "A Difficult Conversation" choreographed for "Dance Visions 2022" by Charlotte Griffin and Ariyan Johnson. (Photo: Rose Eichenbaum)

Through art, dance, music and drama, UCI artists push boundaries and fuel innovation

By Christine Byrd

This winter, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts will treat audiences to riveting performances and thought-provoking exhibitions, all of which are the result of a thriving creative engine that thrums day in and day out, fueled by creativity, innovations and the boundary-pushing energy of its students and faculty.

“As an arts school within a research university, CTSA creates and presents new ways to explore the human experience through dance, music, drama and fine art,” says Dean Tiffany Ana López. “The Claire Trevor School of the Arts is UCI’s creative engine, and our goal is for our students to have total confidence in their vision and voice – to make the work they want to make, and tell stories they need to tell.”

From selecting the perfect fabric for a costume to finding the right light to illuminate a sculpture, each creative choice CTSA artists make on any given day is a piece of a larger puzzle – the results of which will be on display for the community to enjoy.

Here’s a look at a few of the boundary-pushing projects CTSA’s artists are creating.

“Party Boat!”

The drama department is preparing to take audiences on a joyride down the Colorado River in February, with the production of Men on Boats. Billed as a true(ish) story, the play by Jaclyn Backhaus depicts the antics of 10 explorers – none of whom are played by men – as they make a Survivor-style journey to the Grand Canyon in 1869.

“Party boat!” shouts one of the characters, making clear this is not exactly a reenactment.

Arts gives us a platform to connect with one another.

“We’re not trying to hide that it’s not men on stage or that it’s not actually boats,” explains D Larsson, an M.F.A. student in costume design. Larsson’s wardrobe uses silhouettes inspired by historical menswear, but with modern touches such as neoprene fabric and painted denim. These aim to amplify the pretend nature of the show, and the potential inaccuracies of explorer John Wesley Powell’s journal, on which the play is based.

Image: Costume sketches for Men on Boats by designer D Larsson, M.F.A. student in the Department of Drama's design program.

“The casting choices of this play being all non-men really gestures back to the voices we don’t often see and the history – Black people, indigenous people, women,” says Larsson.

Associate professor Juliette Carrillo, the play’s director, says the performance invites guests to both engage with the characters and to question them.

“We have the perspective of a contemporary audience looking back on these events, seeing these white dudes who have this illusion they are discovering and naming various monuments for the first time, when of course they’re not,” Carrillo says.

The dueling perspectives are part of what drew Carrillo to select this play, a means for exploring her own artistic interests while also providing a rich learning experience for the drama students like Larsson, for whom this production is a master’s thesis project.

“It’s not history with a capital H,” explains Larsson. “It’s history as a story, an acknowledgement – a journey together – and this journey has been really fun to take with my peers because it is so unconventional.”

Voices in Harmony

While many of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ programs are primarily driven by arts students, the choral program provides a musical education and a creative outlet for those from any major, even alumni and community members. The program’s three choirs bring together 150 diverse voices, from novice singers to those preparing to launch professional music careers.

“It’s been incredible to watch the choral program flourish over the past few years,” said Irene Messoloras, assistant professor of music and director of the choral program since 2019. “The energy, focus and passion the students bring is indescribable.”

The choral program offers vocalists opportunities to learn and perform a variety of masterworks, from Baroque composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach to contemporary Shawn Kirchner, who works extensively with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. In addition to their busy local performance schedule, the 40-member Chamber Singers, which selects members through an extensive audition process, will travel to Derry, Northern Ireland, in June to perform in The Festival of Song along with church concerts, in recital halls and with other universities.

“I absolutely see the choral program as a creative engine for campus,” says Abigail Mesel, a fourth-year student double majoring in music and chemistry. “Our ensembles are full of so many passionate and dedicated musicians because for many of them, our rehearsals are the only opportunities they have to make music with others.”

Messoloras encourages choir members to explore and share how social issues affect their lives, through song. For their fall concert, Letters to My Future Self, students wrote letters reflecting on gun violence, racism, refugees, and various forms of oppression. That music will be included among the classical pieces they will perform abroad this summer.

“We’re using art as a catalyst for change. By offering students an opportunity to present challenging topics through choral music, they are encouraged to advocate for the change they hope to see for themselves, their families, and the global community they are part of,” Messoloras says. “Arts gives us a platform to connect with one another. I truly believe music can be part of this creative engine and can promote beauty in the world along with social justice.”

Image: The 2022-23 UCI concert choirs stand in front of the entrance to the Claire Trevor School of the Arts campus. (Photo: Jeanine Hill Photography)

Dance Visions

For the first time since 2019, the dance department’s annual showcase of students performing faculty choreography will be presented to a live theater audience. Dance Visions 2023 will feature 60 students showcasing the department’s diversity of artistic styles, from ballet to contemporary dance and hip hop to modern.

Co-artistic director and associate professor Tong Wang will present a portion of Paquita, a cornerstone work for many ballet companies that displays the rigor of their dancers’ training and technique, he says, and will help student dancers challenge themselves to reach higher technical levels.

Co-artistic director and assistant professor Cyrian Reed will present a hip-hop piece fusing house, funk and jazz styles.

“As dancers, we are getting a glimpse into the styles of our professors that we work with on a daily basis,” says Anisa Johnson, a second-year dance major who is cast in Reed’s piece. “As a performer, I find Dance Visions unique because the individual dances can be longer and often involve the faculty’s research, which gives us the opportunity to become part of this research and delve into real-world experiences.”

The school really creates a community for us, with diverse perspectives and a culture in which we can work cross departmentally.

UCI students will also be performing a work choreographed by assistant professor Ariyan Johnson, based on dances in the Black church, aligned with her ongoing artistic research project funded by UCI’s Hellman Fellowship. Vitor Luiz, assistant professor of dance, will present a ballet with a contemporary twist, “Luna E’motions,” to music by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. And world-renowned choreographer Lar Lubovitch, a distinguished professor of dance, will premiere a colorful and upbeat piece, “Cryptoglyph,” set to “Double Fiesta” by American composer Meredith Monk.

This annual collaboration between the students and masters fuels faculty members’ artistic process, Wang says. UCI dance students are so eager and open-minded that he’s inspired to constantly want to learn more to pass on to them. And that creative energy helps emerging dancers discover their own artistic voice through dance as well.

“The dance department provides me a safe space for my inner desires, allowing my creativity to flow through my movement,” says Anisa Johnson, who aspires to a professional career in a dance company. “I find myself absorbing constant encouragement to release a raw version of my inner world and show my individuality.”

Pushing Boundaries

This winter, the art department’s second-year M.F.A. students will work collaboratively on an exhibition showcasing their work in the University Art Gallery and Room Gallery. An annual tradition before students move on to their individual thesis projects, the exhibition allows them to work together to manage every aspect of a gallery show, from installing the art to developing the publicity materials.

“This is a really important aspect of our careers,” says second-year M.F.A. student Devin Wilson. “Whatever path we take, we may be putting on our own shows, working at museums or curating.”

...we're given the opportunities and resources to be innovative with no fear of failure.

For over a year, Wilson has been working on their installation, which explores the intersection of queerness and technology, critiquing capitalist technology businesses like Apple, Google and Meta. Wilson’s contribution to the second-year’s exhibition is a large-scale installation that includes a giant fiberglass sculpture, oversized cordstechnological devices, and 3-D printed fairies, a piece they describe as “queer industrial satire with a cyber punk fantasy aesthetic.”

Image: Second-year M.F.A. student Devin Wilson in their Contemporary Arts Center graduate studio at CTSA. (Photo: Emily Zheng)

Part of what attracted Wilson to UCI was the art department’s commitment to cross-departmental collaborations. Already, they have learned from art faculty including Amanda Ross-Ho,

Daniel Martinez, Jesse Colin Jackson, and Monica Majoli – drawing inspiration from wide-ranging expertise in sculpture, electronic media and design, and critical theory.

“The school really creates a community for us, with diverse perspectives and a culture in which we can work cross departmentally, and even beyond UCI to create culturally significant projects,” Wilson says.

Wilson’s artistic collaborations extend beyond CTSA as well. For their thesis, they plan to continue collaborating with graduate students from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences on a project titled NIVA, which stands for Nonhuman Intelligent Virtual Assistant. Wilson describes this project as “a software program that attempts to defy capitalist notions of gender and speciesism by disrupting default settings in artificial intelligence.”

“CTSA is one of the most forward-thinking arts programs currently running,” Wilson says.  “There’s the forward momentum and idea that we strive to create things that push societal boundaries – not only thematically but conceptually, theoretically.”

“I think about UCI as an educational incubator – a startup where we’re given the opportunities and resources to be innovative with no fear of failure,” Wilson adds. “It’s a collaborative effort to create something entirely new and innovative.”

To learn more about these and other shows at UCI this winter, visit arts.uci.edu.

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CONNECT - Winter 2023

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