Commission Mission

UT's Performing Arts Center Spawns New Art

Hidden somewhere in our city is a great benefactor of the arts, one whose contributions in the past five years have had an impact not only locally but internationally. This deep-pocketed patron has quietly become a major force in the creation of new work, commissioning pieces from some of the world's premier composers, musicians, and dance/theatre artists. Can you find this figure?

Nope, he's not in Westlake Hills. Sorry, not along High-Tech Row, either.

Would you believe Longhorn-land?

That's right. Our grand patron resides on the 40 Acres, in Burnt Orange Eden, in that blocky brown complex just north of Royal-Memorial Stadium. In fact, it is that blocky brown complex. The University of Texas Performing Arts Center, aka the PAC, is the shadowy supporter. Under the guidance of director Pebbles Wadsworth, who came to UT from the UCLA Center for the Arts in 1992, the PAC has begun regularly commissioning new works. In less than five years, it has already been responsible for a half-dozen commissions, from the likes of Bill T. Jones, Joshua Bell, and the Cleveland String Quartet.

Wadsworth is decidedly matter of fact in explaining the philosophy behind the PAC's entry into the world of arts commissions. "I happen to think that art needs patrons," she says. "Art has always had patrons, and the patrons of the present and the future -- at least in my lifetime -- are going to be your major public institutions. A university, by its very nature, educates and teaches people the joy of learning, so I feel that it's the responsibility of a university to be a patron of the arts. I feel very strongly about it." The words come out softly, almost in a whisper, but the conviction behind Wadsworth's statement comes through loud and clear.

When Wadsworth came to Austin, the PAC was still purely a presenting house. And that struck her as odd: "Of any university campus I'd been on, the University of Texas had the best facilities to produce, and nothing had ever been produced here. No professional production. The only works UT had created -- and I don't mean `only' in a pejorative sense -- had been the student productions." But in the early Nineties, two key players at the university were ready to change that. Bill Cunningham, then UT President, and Jon Whitmore, then Dean of the College of Fine Arts, realized, says Wadsworth, "that their facilities were built to create works. They understood what we had worked hard at UCLA to build, and they understood the value of commissioning, and I believe that's one of the reasons I was hired.

"Since I've come, we've done a lot of commissioning: dance companies, American composers. We've done it somewhat quietly, but we're building up to producing our own work. Pina was an integral step of this."

Pina is Pina Bausch, the German artist whose Tanztheater Wuppertal dazzled audiences at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles and who has been called "the most influential choreographer working in Europe today." The PAC joined forces with three other arts and educational institutions in the western United States to commission a new work from Bausch, her first ever to be created outside Europe. It was not an easy commission. Wadsworth suggests that these American institutions spent the better part of a decade wooing the choreographer and convincing her of the validity of the project. Nor was it an inexpensive commission. The total cost for the piece was $1.2 million, much more than any one institution -- or even any three institutions -- could afford. "I don't believe that Pina would have happened if UT had not gotten into this program," observes Wadsworth, "because it needed those four partners, and there wasn't a fourth partner without UT."

With UT, the project went forward, and Bausch came to the U.S. to create Nur Du, translated from the German, "Only You." The title comes from an American song -- the Platters' 1955 pop single --and indeed the work is Bausch's riff on America, or at least Los Angeles, the city in which most of the piece was developed. Earlier this year, the artist and her company spent time in L.A., absorbing as much of the city as they could and regurgitating some sense of what they experienced into the piece. The finished product -- all 170 scenes of it, give or take a few -- includes a baseball player, a cheerleader, Hollywood one-liners, boxing and karate moves, a miniature paper house set on fire, a man in a fox loincloth giving makeovers to a line of seated women, a grove of giant redwood trees, a life-size whale suspended in the air, and much, much more, three hours' worth. So far, the work has played at each of the other three participating institutions. Next Tuesday, Nur Du comes to Austin for one performance, the final one in this country.

Discovering how institutions coordinate a major project like Nur Du was one of the most significant aspects to the Bausch commission. According to Wadsworth, "The experiment with Pina was not just the challenge of having Pina, who had never done anything like this, do something like this. It was to get institutions who may be rivals in football to join together in the arts. The whole experiment of commissioning Pina together, fundraising together, marketing together, has been real challenging. We've done a lot of it right, we've made some mistakes, and we've learned from it. In terms of a mistake, we all said we'd fundraise separately and put it all in a pot. Well, that meant nobody really was in charge of it, and other things on each campus got more attention. In retrospect, I wish we or one of the other institutions had said, `Okay, I will be in charge of fundraising.'" But Wadsworth says she'll know that next time. And she is certain there will be a next time. "I think that the real future for commissions is partnerships, be it with another educational institution or other entity. I think partnerships are necessary." Certainly, in coming up with a million dollars they are.

Making the leap from making no commissions to taking part in the historic Bausch commission in less than five years seems an extraordinary leap. Wadsworth won't take the credit for it, though. "I was real lucky," she claims. "I always, always was supported. Again, the administration really understood. It was harder to explain to the bureaucrats of the system what a commission was because they didn't understand what you're buying. And they also didn't understand giving money before you get a service. "You mean you're gonna pay for something that doesn't even exist?" So that took a lot of education.

"I think the biggest challenge was having artists want to be commissioned by someone they'd never heard of. This facility was a very well-kept secret." Fortunately, Wadsworth had made friends of many of the artists who had come to UCLA during her time there, and on that basis she was able to persuade some of them to visit Austin. She says, "I'd be saying, `Would you just come down and look, and meet the faculty and meet the students? You'll be blown away.' And they were, and then they'd want to come do something. The second somebody sets foot on this campus and sees these facilities, I don't have to open the map again. When [Mikhail] Baryshnikov and Twyla [Tharp] toured, they only came to four or five cities, and Austin was one of them. Well, that was sort of due to friendships. Now, Twyla is doing another limited tour next year, and having danced here, she's saying, `Hey, honey, I want to go to that theatre!' It just took a few of those, and now we're on the map and people are seeking us out."

The PAC's first commission was to choreographer Bill T. Jones. Unfortunately, the PAC was unable to present the piece it had commissioned because of a scheduling conflict with the facility and Jones' tour. That was followed by a commission to another choreographer, Susan Marshall, which resulted in what Wadsworth calls "our first major piece." Marshall came to Austin for a month's residency, during which she developed the piece, Spectators at an Event. The work involved students and dancers from the community and was presented at the PAC in September 1994, after which it was presented in New York. From this point, the PAC was on its way as a commissioning force, soliciting work from Joshua Bell, the Cleveland String Quartet, Paco De Lucia, and, of course, Pina Bausch.

From the beginning, an integral aspect of the PAC commissions was the participation of UT students and members of the Austin community in the development process. Wadsworth slips back into her soft but passionate voice: "I feel that at any university that teaches the arts, especially of this magnitude, students need -- need, need, need, even more than need -- to learn their art form by watching the process of art being made by the best professional artists. So when we commission, it is absolutely necessary that those artists work with the community, both in and outside the university. Pina never had before, and that was a real stumbling block with her. Pina doesn't have any open rehearsals. But our students were let in."

And, Wadsworth notes proudly, it was the right thing that they were. "Last week, we had the Dean's Advisory Council, which is this sort of donor group," she recounts, "and one of the students from Art and Art History spoke. He was documenting the process, and he stood up and said, `The most important part of my education will have been experiencing the process of watching Pina Bausch work. I now not only see the world differently, but I approach my own life differently.' And I went, `Bingo! That's it!' If the students are only watching their own processes, it's a very peculiar educational system.

"When I got here, maybe five percent of our artists worked with our students. The Performing Arts Center was an entity to itself. Our job was to make it a hub, a resource to the college. Now, over 92% of our artists who come to the Performing Arts Center work with our students and work with people in the community. There's an occasional artist who's just flying in and flying out real quickly, but the bulk of our artists do workshops and master classes with all our students. And they do work with kids in the community, because I feel that the first time you expose a child to the arts it should be the best art that you can expose them to. So we send them out into the schools or bring the kids here, and we send them to hospitals and places where people can't get to the arts and music.

"And when they go, most of the artists say, `Thank you.' Because a workshop, a master class, a residency, is a two-way thing: the students are learning and the artists are learning. It's a wonderful thing. Most of the artists will say that was the most fun part of their visit. When Mr. [Itzhak] Perlman came, he played with the UT Symphony, which he doesn't do. He does not play with school symphonies. I had sent him a tape and said, `All you have to do is promise me you'll listen to it.' He listened to it and said, `It is not a school orchestra. It's an orchestra, and I would be honored to play with them.' When we brought him to the first rehearsal, he said, `I'm just going to stay through my part of the rehearsal.' But he stayed through the entire thing. And you could see at the performance -- he is not known for his jolly demeanor -- it revitalized him. Totally.

"So, yes, we do have stipulations. We are here, first and foremost, to teach. Otherwise, the university should not have a performing arts center. Let somebody else run it and have it be a commercial house. If they're going to have it, they should be teaching and using the best at every level. And making commissions."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Robert Faires
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Lessons and surprises from a career that shouldn’t have been

Sept. 24, 2021

"Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams" Tells the Story of an Artist
The first-ever museum exhibition of Daniel Johnston's work digs deep into the man, the myths

Sept. 17, 2021

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle