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Choreographer, Musician Speak to Harvard Students about Art in ‘Our Moment’

Harvard's Office for the Arts hosted a virtual event with two leading artists Wednesday evening.
Harvard's Office for the Arts hosted a virtual event with two leading artists Wednesday evening. By Melanie Y. Fu
By Felicia He, Crimson Staff Writer

Two pioneering artists spoke on their work, the symbiosis of art and social justice, and creativity amid the coronavirus pandemic at a virtual event hosted by Harvard’s Office for the Arts Wednesday.

The event — titled “Creativity and Courage: Two Artists Speak to Our Moment” and moderated by Office of the Arts Associate Director for Programming Alicia Anstead — featured musician and music entrepreneur Aaron P. Dworkin and dancer and choreographer Claudia F. Schreier ’08, who described their journeys from childhood to career.

“I spent my whole life in some way, shape, or form working in and around racial equity, diversity, inclusion in the arts,” Dworkin said, recounting how he was adopted by a white family at an early age and reunited with his birth parents 31 years later. “As a Black, white, Jewish, Irish, Catholic Jehovah’s Witness – you know, a kid with a big Afro growing up playing the violin since the age of five – no big surprise my life has been diverse.”

A digital artist, filmmaker, and composer, Dworkin has built a career in arts leadership, serving as former President Barack Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts. At Wednesday’s event, he shared his experience founding The Sphinx Organization, a social justice initiative that promotes diversity in classical music.

Dworkin also shared a sample of one of his works titled “American Rhapsody,” a spoken-word and orchestral work that sets various speeches and writings of George Washington over Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s “Symphonic Variations on an African Air.”

“What I wanted to do was to capture the complexity of the human condition and to also show how different worlds and time periods can combine in a single artistic experience,” he said, reflecting on his artistic process.

Schreier, a world-renowned dance, opera and film choreographer who has worked on programs at the White House, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Juilliard Opera, spoke about art’s role in driving social change.

“It is no longer a question of how art can serve other areas of social justice,” she said. “It is all one large ecosystem.”

Schreier also detailed her experience of creating art during the pandemic, specifically describing her New York Times-acclaimed work “Places,” which was filmed in an empty theater. Scheier harnessed cinematography to bring her choreography — paired with an orchestral performance — to life.

“It’s to honor the theater and honor dancers and provide hope for when we can all gather together,” she said of the work, after sharing a short clip with the audience.

She added during the event’s Q&A section with undergraduate students that there are many ways in which aspiring artists can take advantage of a virtual world.

“Don’t discount the power of being able to fly halfway across the world with the click of a button and experience something that could really change your life,” she said.

Both artists concluded that art ultimately doesn’t come from a place of caring about what other people think.

“I value those opinions and I’m interested in them and I’m curious because they help make me a better person,” Dworkin said. “But if someone doesn’t approve of what I’m doing or doesn’t like what I’m doing, I don’t care.”

Schreier agreed.

“As long as you feel good about what you are making, you feel good about yourself, and you feel like you’re surrounded by people who love you, forget about the rest,” she said.

— Staff writer Felicia He can be reached at felicia.he@thecrimson.com.

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MusicHumanities DivisionDanceArts