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The Allen Committee: Defining a Vision for the Creative and Performing Arts

In the spring of 2005, I asked a committee, chaired by Dean Stan Allen of the School of Architecture, to evaluate the state of the creative and performing arts at Princeton. I asked the committee to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of our academic programs in the arts; to articulate goals that might guide us in the future; and to identify various ways in which Princeton might pursue those goals. The Allen Committee comprised a stellar group of Princeton faculty and administrators dedicated to the arts, and I am grateful to them for their diligence and insights.

Two key philosophical insights emerged from the deliberations of the Allen Committee. One is that Princeton’s small size and integrated academic community provide the opportunity for a unique form of education in the creative and performing arts. The creative arts programs at Princeton have not been, and should not become, isolated intellectual enclaves within the University community; they have always been, and should remain, in dynamic partnership with other University departments and faculties, traditionally the humanities departments, but increasingly with interested scholars in engineering and the natural and social sciences. The committee emphasized its hope that Princeton’s creative arts initiative would allow the arts to become an even more integral part of the intellectual life of the community and that it would be designed to reinforce the complementarities that we aim to achieve between the creative arts and a broader liberal arts agenda.

The second insight is that Princeton ought not to follow the lead of those institutions that have chosen to offer conservatory-style, professional-school education in the fine arts to a cadre of students focused on vocational goals. The Allen Committee was both unanimous and emphatic in its rejection of the professional school model, and I fully agree with its judgment. While we should of course celebrate our students who become professional artists and performers, our program in the creative and performing arts should be neither exclusive to such students nor even focused principally on them. Its range should be broader. Princeton’s programs in the creative and performing arts should aim to engage the artistic talents, and excite the passions, of students in all the University’s departments, not just those with a special focus on the arts, and they should offer arts training to this broad range of students in the context of a first-rate liberal arts education.

Together, these insights yield a vision of a program in the creative and performing arts that is collaborative, synergistic, and deeply embedded in the life of the University as an educational and intellectual community. That vision is, of course, entirely consistent with the notable achievements of the creative and performing arts at Princeton today. At their most inspiring, these programs promote interactions across disciplinary and intellectual boundaries that would be hard to achieve at most other universities. A quintessential example of such synergy was on display last spring with the production of Sergei Prokofiev’s “lost” ballet, Le Pas d’Acier. This saga began with Professor of Music Simon Morrison *97, whose scholarly work took him to St. Petersburg to study Russian ballet music. There he uncovered the original choreography as well as costume and set designs for the ballet and brought them back to Princeton, where he joined forces with colleagues in the Program in Theater and Dance and the Department of Music. Three years later, with Princeton undergraduates as the dancers and musicians, this extraordinary piece of theater was performed for the first time as Prokofiev intended.

To fully realize this exciting and distinctive vision of the creative and performing arts at Princeton, we must keep uppermost three fundamental aspirations. The first is to grow Princeton’s programs in a way that nurtures and sustains connections between faculty in those programs and other faculty throughout the University. The second is to provide a curriculum that is responsive to the needs of all students with special artistic interests and talents, and not only to those who concentrate in departments that bear an obvious relationship to the arts. The third is to pursue an environment in which every Princeton undergraduate has an opportunity for meaningful and significant experience with the arts during his or her time at this University.

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Scholars from Princeton and other institutions painstakingly re-created the choreography, costumes and elaborate mechanical set of "Le Pas d'Acier" ("The Steel Step"), one of the great lost ballets of the 20th century. The production was a cooperative venture of students, faculty and staff from the Department of Music, Humanities Council and Program in Theater and Dance. Photo Credit: Denise Applewhite

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