Commentary: Getting a foothold in the arts

By LOU MARANO  |  Feb. 11, 2002 at 10:09 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Walt Disney and high culture? Isn't that association just a little bit Goofy?

As it turns out, no.

In fact, Disney intended "Fantasia" (1940) as the first in a series of projects bringing together animation and classical music.

Steven D. Lavine, president of the California Institute of the Arts, said that when Disney was making "Fantasia" in the late 1930s, he asked his animators if any of them knew anything about dance. None did, so Disney sent one -- Ward Kimball -- off for a year to sit backstage at the ballet.

"He thought there ought to be a form of arts training in which you mastered something while you were exposed to other arts in the process," Lavine said in a recent interview here.

"He was working on the movie 'Fantasia' around the same time he was conceiving Cal Arts," the university president said.

Today Disney's brainchild is a school where experimentation and interactivity are the norm, an R & D lab where the impractical becomes commercial in six disciplines: Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music and Theater.

The institute is to the arts what basic research is to applied science, said Michael S. McDowell, associate vice president for external affairs.

"Although Walt Disney was a conservative in his politics, he basically was an experimenter when it came to popular culture," said Lavine.

In 1961, Walt Disney and his brother Roy guided the merger of the Chouinard Institute -- a small professional arts school -- and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to form the California Institute of the Arts.

"Walt Disney proceeded to assemble from around the country this group of radically experimental artists," said Lavine. They in turn attracted students who were the most "culturally alert."

Disney died at age 65 in Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 1966.

McDowell said Disney conceived of an institute that housed all six schools under one roof where artists would constantly collide and stimulate each other.

Today Cal Arts has about 1,200 students and some 180 faculty, offering a 7:1 student-teacher ratio in courses of study leading to B.F.A and M.F.A degrees on its campus in Valencia, Calif., north of Los Angeles.

Lavine said at the heart of the school lies the individual mentorship model associated with Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. "You're trying to grow a mind in its independence," he said. "But American education on the whole hasn't taken that emphasis as its goal. It's passed along fields and asked you to be part of a preexisting territory."

Lavine said that instead of starting from craft, the Cal Arts curriculum starts from questions: "What do you believe? What are you interested in? What do you need to learn to give form to what you care about?"

"The average age of our undergraduates is 22," McDowell said, "which means they're going somewhere else first, and it's not working for them. They're pretty sure they have something to say, and they think they know how they want to say it by the time they come to us. They're very, very dedicated. It's really more of a mentoring process than classroom instruction, because you don't lecture to seven people."

Lavine used the history of painting as an example. Traditionally, he said, art students did still life studies, then drew the human figure, then learned about color, "and finally you had your shot at doing a painting and discovering whether you had anything original to say.

"In fact," Lavine continued, "most of the original voices - now called the impressionists -- fled that system. Impressionism started as an idea for which they had to invent the technique.

"In a way, arts education didn't learn that lesson. It went on in traditional form even though the progress - at least in the visual arts - had changed utterly.

"Cal Arts starts from that change - that there are no fixed rules anymore. You can't assume that what a young composer has in his ears is the classical tradition up till now. He may have Arabic music in his ears. He may be bringing to it a whole set of sonic resources that don't fit pre-existing categories," Lavine said.

Another example is Julie Taymor, director of the Broadway hit musical version of Disney's animated movie "The Lion King," which uses masks and puppets onstage combined with live acting to convey the African atmosphere. Lavine said Taymor had the idea as an entering Cal Arts student that she wanted to work puppetry into the theater. She started out in small theaters "pushing on the possibilities of her art form."

Lavine, whose academic background is in English literature, was asked if he subscribes to the idea that the traditional university and the symphony orchestra are 19th century institution whose time has past.

"Symphonies of the world have great things in their possession -- great bodies of work," he replied. "They can't be irrelevant. But if you say that's all there is, you miss what our own time may be able to offer." It's counterproductive to try to force what the modern world is trying to create into the symphonic form because that's where the institutions are, he said.

"This is why ... we created an experimental school of the arts, and from the very beginning we built into it Balinese music and dance, North Indian and South Indian music, and Ghanaian drumming."

Cal Arts has arguably the best animation program in the world, McDowell said. The hugely popular Disney/Pixar movie "Toy Story" (1995), which was the first full-length computer-animated film, and "Monsters Inc." (2001) were created by Cal Arts graduates who were experimenting with digitally created images 20 years ago.

In dance, Cal Arts students are required to master the techniques of "motion capture," by which cameras record signals from sensors attached to various parts of the body. "Basically, you can take a live thing and turn it into a drawing," Lavine said. This captures a style of motion that may be viewed, for example, on the Internet. "We have to prepare even dancers to live in the world that's emerging now."

Of course, not every novelty is an improvement. And much that is old is worth conserving.

Lavine said that in music, Cal Arts' tradition "starts with Schoenberg and goes forward."

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) developed an "expressionistic" 12-tone scale, but even he returned somewhat to the older style in his later compositions. The writer was happy to find a Baroque chamber music concert conducted by a Cal Arts faculty member on the school's calendar.

Cal Arts theater productions tend to be "expressionistic" and "language-based" rather than telling a story by means of a linear narrative, Lavine said. Settings are not naturalistic, but "kind of operatic extremes."

Surely this old fogy is not the only theatergoer left who still likes linear narratives in naturalistic settings.

"We're starting a professional production company as part of our theater school," Lavine said. Its first production, in June, is a version of "King Lear" set in a 20,000-square-foot former brewery. The stage sets are "total environment," Lavine said. "The audience moves from one environment to the next."

"In one case, the set moves the audience," McDowell added.

Lavine said this approach is one answer to the question of how theater can compete with film.

But bending over backwards to be avant-garde has always carried its own risk of formulaic rigidity.

This production of "King Lear," it turns out, has an all-female cast. Lavine explained the thinking of director Travis Preston.

In Shakespeare's time, the play had an all-male cast, and it's got a lot of female parts. But more important, "King Lear" is usually played by an actor in the later years of his career. The audience grants automatic sympathy to an older person playing this difficult part, and Preston wanted to avoid that inherent sentimentality.

So is this "Queen Lear"?

"No. She's a big, tall, 6-foot, strong woman."

I guess you've got to be there.

Cal Arts also is in the process of building a state-of-the-arts performance facility in the heart of Los Angeles, 40 miles from its Valencia campus. The playhouse -- known as REDCAT, for the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater -- is designed by visionary architect Frank Gehry. It is adjacent to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which Gehry also designed.

"We want to promote the careers of artists at an early stage, as they're rising and finding their way," Lavine said. "But it's not to show our own work, particularly. It is to sponsor the kinds of careers that we're actually training our graduates to enter. And I think that's an interesting expansion of what normally would be conceived of as the role of a college."

"It's not a vanity space for college productions," McDowell added. "It's professional space that will provide opportunities for young and mid-career artists."

McDowell said this parallels a program Cal Arts has had with the Herb Alpert Foundation. The musician, best remembered for his Tijuana Brass, recognizes through the $50,000 Alpert Awards outstanding artists who are basically unknown in the world at large but are the rising stars in their own field - music, dance, theater, etc.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks received a Cal Arts-Alpert Award as an unknown in 1996. Now she has won a coveted MacArthur grant and has been singled out by Time magazine as one of the world's top artistic innovators.

Lavine compared his school to a large medical center that goes beyond training people to be doctors and doing in-house research.

"I don't think anyone has tried this in the arts," he said. "In a way it's our response to the question, 'How do you get a purchase on a career in the arts in America when you're not setting yourself up to fill a pre-existing idea of what an artist ought to do?'

"Especially now without the NEA, how do people who are doing out-of-the-ordinary things get a foothold? A key ingredient for that for 20 years were these little NEA fellowships."

With a few exceptions, Congress withdrew National Endowment for the Arts funding for individuals in 1996. Now only nonprofit organizations are eligible for grants.

Through the institute he founded, Walt Disney's vision of art without boundaries -- from the popular to the esoteric -- seems certain to endure.

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