“A life invested in creative inquiry cannot be matched,” Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, told those attending the annual Hopkins Center for the Arts annual Arts at Dartmouth Awards ceremony on Wednesday evening.
Awards for creative excellence (PDF) went to more than 90 undergraduate and graduate students, including two musical ensembles, at the May 31 ceremony in Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center. Recipients were recognized for innovation and achievement in music, theater, film and media, studio art, dance, and arts administration.
“Each of us has come to this celebratory moment through a different route, creating a different media from a vast range of impulses,” said Johnson, the guest speaker. “May art make you thrive.”
Johnson’s own path into the arts, as a young, ambitious Black ballerina in the 1950s, was far from smooth.
“Even though I had studied ballet with love and passion from the age of three, my teacher had advised me to move on to modern dance because no ballet company would hire a Black dancer,” she recalled. “But Arthur Mitchell, the founding director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, changed the world with his vision and he changed the direction of my life. I observed the way he used dance as a tool for social change, and that was my introduction to what is possible through art.”
Under Mitchell’s mentorship, Johnson embarked on a 30-year career as principal ballerina, becoming artistic director in 2010.
For the past three summers, at the invitation of Mary Lou Aleskie, the Howard Gilman ’44 Executive Director of the Hopkins Center, Dance Theatre of Harlem has been in residency at Dartmouth, working with Associate Professor of Theater Monica Ndounou and John Heginbotham, director of the Dartmouth College Dance Ensemble and Dance Heginbotham.
“The intellectual rigor, openness, and curiosity of our Dartmouth classmates was disarming for the company dancers,” Johnson said. “We found new perspective and a reinforcement of validity in the imperative of using the arts to affect social change. That is the thing about art, isn’t it? While art forms bring order to the pursuit of authentic expression, art—the impulse to make sense, to create—is the engine that builds futures.”
The Hopkins Center is literally building its own future with a major renovation and expansion now underway. Aleskie thanked students, faculty, and staff for rising to the challenge of making new kinds of art in a variety of venues on and off campus.
“This academic year gave us an opportunity to stretch our imaginations and collaborate more closely,” Aleskie said. “Construction began this January with swing spaces and alternate performance locations being prepared for our work. Since then, we’ve been in 13 new locations that support teaching, learning, and creative practices and reach across the campus, the region, and all the way to Mexico City.”
Aleskie also commended President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 and his wife, Gail Gentes, for their loyal attendance at Hop events throughout Hanlon’s 10-year tenure.
“As he’s traveled, advancing Dartmouth and the arts as key college priorities over these years, he somehow managed to be in our ‘super user’ category of Hop attendees that rank among the top 10% of people who come to the Hop each year,” Aleskie said.
When President Hanlon steps down after Commencement, as President-elect Sian Beilock takes office, Aleskie said, “We will miss having you and Gail among us, but we really look forward to a future when we get to celebrate these new spaces and your continued patronage of the arts.”
Count on it, said Hanlon.
“Indeed, while this may be my last arts awards ceremony as president, Gail and I are already looking forward to taking in even more outstanding performances and student artistic works once we return from my post-presidency sabbatical. And I am determined to go from the ‘super user’ category to the ‘galactic user’ category, or whatever comes next,” he quipped.
“The arts are an essential part of the Dartmouth experience. And I want every Dartmouth student, regardless of major or future career plans, to have the opportunity to create and to see the Arts District as a place where they can take risks, build confidence, broaden their world views, and work in concert toward a common goal,” Hanlon said.
While most of the awards were known to the winners beforehand, one, the Sudler Prize in the Arts, is always a surprise. Concluding the ceremony, Hanlon made the presentation of the prize, which recognizes outstanding excellence in the creative or performing arts, to Breanna Boland ’23.
Boland, a vocalist who has performed at Carnegie Hall and is president of the Dartmouth College Glee Club as well as a Hop fellow, gave an audible gasp as she walked to the stage to receive her certificate.
“I was astonished,” she said at the reception afterwards. “The element of surprise is always great. Growing up, I’ve always been in performance in either choirs or solos, so being able to shine while at Dartmouth has been such a great opportunity. And then to have people actually enjoy that performance—it just means a lot.”
Boland also took home two other awards, the Charles S. Fleet 1953 Prize, for the senior who makes the most significant contribution to the Glee Club, and the Marcus Heiman-Martin R. Rosenthal ’56 Achievement Award in the Creative Arts for ensembles.
Graduating with a major in computer science modified with African and African American Studies and a minor in music, she’s not sure of her future career plans, but says whatever she does, she’s sure to keep singing.
A list of recipients is in the awards ceremony program (PDF).