Always Inspirational, Forever Valiant: A Bicentennial Appreciation for the Performing Arts at Michigan

The University of Michigan Bicentennial marks 200 years of extraordinary research, education, and public service. According to U-M’s official history, the institution was founded as one “that stresses both the life of the mind and the life of practical achievement; that is both broadly accessible and devoted to educating the leaders of the future.”

While this description aptly applies to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the performing arts were not part of the founders’ original vision. However, along with the visual arts, they came to hold a central place early on, as creativity was adopted as a core endeavor across all disciplines. Today, the arts, culture, and creativity are recognized as a deeply embedded part of our heritage and tradition.

SMTD now holds a unique place in the academic world as an outstanding performing arts school that thrives within a great research university. This ideal alignment offers our students limitless opportunities for exploration and collaboration, both academic and creative. We support the highest level of scholarship and research in musicology, music theory, and music education, and provide exceptional performance training in all of the traditional conservatory programs of music, theatre, and dance, as well as dynamic programs in musical theatre, jazz, performing arts technology, and interarts performance.

It is this breadth of possibilities and opportunities, the very foundation of a Michigan performing arts education that we so often extol. What we do less often, however, is celebrate the unique and abundant contributions that our students, faculty, and staff make to the University and the community. So as U-M’s Bicentennial is about to begin, with SMTD set to play a vital role in the festivities, as it so often has throughout the University’s history, we offer a brief look at the School’s contributions to life at Michigan.

A History Of Impact

Music did not become an official part of U-M’s curriculum until 1880, followed by dance in 1909, and theatre in 1915. Yet these three components of the performing arts have long thrived at the University, initially through student organizations. The Men’s Glee Club, founded in 1859, is one of the oldest collegiate choruses in the country; the Michigan Marching Band-originally a student-run ensemble-was established in 1896, and by the fall of 1898 had become an indispensable part of the Michigan football tradition. Today, the two organizations are among the University’s most visible and well-regarded ambassadors, and leaders in generating and promoting school spirit and pride.

With the establishment of degree programs in the performing arts, the contributions of music, theatre, and dance to the culture of the campus, and the quality of life in Ann Arbor, grew exponentially. Choir was the official starting point for music studies at U-M, with the 1879 founding of the Choral Union by classics professor Henry Simmons Frieze, who became its first director. In 1880, he formed the University Musical Society, and, as acting president of the University, hired Calvin Cady to teach two music courses in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and to form the Ann Arbor School of Music, independent of the University. The following year, the School of Music was taken over by UMS, and in 1892 was renamed the University School of Music. The future SMTD was born.

But even before the School’s founding, student musicians were performing at important ceremonies. In 1845, a student choir’s performance at commencement was hailed as “excellent” in the Michigan State Gazette. Since then, music has been key at nearly all major University events. From commencements, receptions for honored visitors, and special celebrations to the U-M memorial services for presidents William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; in recent years, concerts honoring the victims of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Orlando nightclub shootings, music has played a central role.

Our orchestras, bands, choirs, chamber and jazz ensembles, and soloists of all disciplines continue to be called upon to enhance events large and small, providing eloquent expressions of artistry to fit the occasion. Annual events like Collage and Band-o-Rama, as well as concerts related to the U-M Gershwin Initiative, have become central to the University’s identity as a home for unsurpassed excellence in performance, pedagogy, and research.

While music has had the widest presence at University events, dance and theatre have added equally to the rich cultural environment of the campus and the city. In1896, the Barbour Gymnasium for Women opened, first offering courses in physical training and, in 1909, in aesthetic dance (based on ballet but without pointe work) for women students, who began being admitted to the University in 1870. From then on, dance became a part of campus life, with women especially drawn to it as a distinct way to initiate and participate in campus celebrations. In 1910, dance became part of Michigan tradition with Lantern Night, an elaborate procession and choreographed spectacle involving Japanese lanterns, the dancing of the Maypole, and dance pageants.

Over the ensuing years, and especially with the founding of the Department of Dance in 1974, countless presentations of new and historic modern dance choreography have provided audiences with performance opportunities generally only found in major metropolitan areas.

Dramatic theatre had its debut at U-M in 1896 with the Michigan Oratorical Association’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, following the popularity of oratory courses in dramatic reading. Between 1909 and 1914, seven plays were produced, prefacing the first play production course for credit in 1915. In 1923, the Student Laboratory Theatre was launched to meet an increasing interest in theatre and provide more opportunities for engagement. Known today as Basement Arts, it continues a long tradition of student-run theatre at U-M that is open to all.

The student-run MUSKET company was founded in 1908, first producing student-written operettas and, for the last 50 years, popular Broadway musicals. The formal Department of Musical Theatre was created in 1984, providing 32 years of professional-quality musicals performed for sold-out audiences year after year.

In total, more than 2,000 plays and musicals-produced by SMTD departments and student-run organizations-have been performed throughout the history of the University, forming an intrinsic part of our culture.

The addition of theatre, dance, and musical theatre to the SMTD curriculum are examples of an ever-evolving vision for what a performing arts school should offer. The School continued this pattern with a formal program in Performing Arts Technology in 1985, anticipating the growth of that field, and two years later, Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, in recognition of our country’s original art form. Adding even greater variety to the School’s roster of performances, the two disciplines have also contributed substantially to cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Today, SMTD annually presents more than 450 performances and events, from public lectures and solo recitals to fully staged operas, musicals, and plays, adding immeasurably to Ann Arbor’s reputation for having big-city attributes.

All this is made possible through the exceptional guidance of 188 faculty members and the collaborative efforts of 101 staff. Faculty and staff also add to the vibrant cultural life of Ann Arbor, providing the community with a spectrum of performances and other events, such as historical installations and public lectures.

At the same time, many of our students are enhancing the community through community engagement. Activities range from teaching music to underserved schoolchildren through our Michigan Artist Citizen program, to providing inspirational performances in hospitals and senior citizen centers. These contributions are vital, and can lead to life-changing experiences for both our students and the lives they touch.

The impact that SMTD has on U-M and Ann Arbor community is at the heart of why we do what we do. We are not just graduating exceptional artists and scholars: we are developing artist-citizens who will play a critical role in society, much as they already do at Michigan.

The performing arts provide thrilling inspiration; encourage dialogue about challenging topics; provoke laughter, tears, delight, and awe; and unite audiences in times of joy and sorrow. Not merely sparkle, to light up our dark winters and cheer on our teams, the performing arts are vital to the University of Michigan’s core identity, and to the heart and soul of the Maize & Blue.


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.