The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0073; fax (319) 384-0024

Release: Immediate

(NOTE TO EDITORS: This release is a sidebar to the release about the Sept. 16 Hancher Silver Anniversary Gala.)

In 25 years Hancher has built an international reputation for innovation

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- When Boston's Handel and Haydn Society announced that its 1996 Mark Morris/Christopher Hogwood production of the Gluck opera "Orfeo ed Euridice" would premiere in the University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium, the show's Boston presenter reportedly shrugged and exclaimed, with the mixture of disgust and envy, "Well, of course. everything premieres there!"

As early as 1945, President Virgil M. Hancher gave public voice to a personal dream for the enhancement of the UI's cultural education -- an auditorium to showcase music, theater and dance. Although Hancher was UI president for nearly 25 years, he did not see the fulfillment of this vision during his lifetime. But his personal dream became an institutional goal, and found fulfillment in 1972 with the opening of the world-class hall that bears his name.

Hancher Auditorium was immediately hailed as the jewel in the already-imposing crown of the Iowa Center for the Arts. National critic Byron Belt, who attended the opening festivities, wrote for the Newhouse syndicate, "For excellence, imagination, encouragement of scholarly accomplishment and public participation alike, the Iowa Center for the Arts ranks as one of America's outstanding achievements. Here, amidst the cornfields and a town-campus of 50,000 is an auditorium worthy of the greatest cultural center anywhere."

The festivities symbolized the auditorium's dual mission -- as both a cultural resource for the state, and as an important element in the UI's educational mission. The first performance was a popular entertainment event of historical importance, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the dedication concert featured the University Symphony Orchestra and Choruses.

The auditorium remains an educational laboratory and showcase, the site of student performances ranging from the University Symphony and the Dance Gala to the summer All-State Music Camp. And now, through an interactive link to the Iowa Communications Network, Hancher has brought Bobby McFerrin, Wynton Marsalis and other prominent artists into classrooms in all parts of the state.

As a non-profit arts presenting organization and public facility, Hancher has always been a major venue for internationally famous touring artists. The auditorium has hosted more than its share of household-name celebrities and hits -- Rubinstein, Ella, "Les Miz," Pavarotti, Marceau, "Cats," Baryshnikov, Marsalis, Bernstein, Segovia... The stories of their visits have become local backstage legends: how Nureyev almost refused to perform because of drafts on the stage; how School of Music Director Himie Voxman surrendered his entire house to Vladimir Horowitz; how Yo-Yo Ma gave his time to a benefit event for a UI student needing a bone-marrow transplant.

But Hancher's reputation for leadership in the performing arts -- highlighted just last December with the Dawson Award from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) -- is not based on its success as a "road house." Since the early 1980s Hancher has been a militant force in the arts, testing innovations in programming, trailblazing efforts in arts funding and pioneering initiatives to nurture creativity.

In a nominating letter for the Dawson Award, APAP's highest honor, David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet called Hancher "a galvanizing force in the national arts community" and "a model voice of advocacy and support for artists today."

The course to innovation was set by Hancher's first director, James Wockenfuss, who came to the UI at the beginning of the construction process. Wockenfuss first established Hancher's tradition of quality and variety, but by the early 1980s he was ready to build on that foundation.

In his quest to bring the best to his audiences, Wockenfuss became a creative activist. For example, when he decided that his audience should see the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which had never toured in the Midwest and was reluctant to take the risk, Wockenfuss literally organized a full Midwest tour for the company.

But if Hancher's current stature was to be traced to a single source, it would be the Iowa Dance Residencies in the early 1980s. In collaboration with the dance department, the Arts Outreach program and the University of Iowa Foundation, Hancher hosted a series of extensive residencies featuring the Joffrey II Dancers, the Nikolais Dance Theatre and Dan Wagoner.

Using the UI as a headquarters and Hancher as the site for concluding concerts, the companies were dispatched to Iowa communities large and small to present performances, conduct educational activities and to mingle with the people. The Joffrey II ballerinas even won the women's team competition at the Iowa state cowchip throwing championships in Keota.

In the midst of the Iowa Dance Residency years, Hancher and the University of Iowa Foundation launched the Hancher Enrichment Fund, an endowment spurred by a quarter-million-dollar challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In the competition for NEA funds, Hancher was head-to-head with some of the nation's most prestigious, big-city arts organizations, but NEA panelists were impressed by the success of Hancher's innovative and ambitious residency program.

By the time Wockenfuss left the UI in 1985, the stage was set for an escalation of activism, and activism was an approach embraced enthusiastically by the extroverted new director, Wallace Chappell, who describes himself as a "risk-taker."

Chappell inherited Hancher's first commission, Canadian choreographer James Kudelka's "The Heart of the Matter," performed by the Joffrey Ballet to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of the Iowa Center for the Arts. (Kudelka is now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, which will perform during the Silver Anniversary season.) But, as Chappell intended, that was only the beginning.

In the last 12 years Hancher has commissioned or co-commissioned nearly 50 works in ballet, contemporary dance, theater and chamber music. Many of those works were created at the UI, and are among more than 25 world premieres and American premieres that have been presented by Hancher. The auditorium established long-term, multi-project relationships with the Joffrey Ballet, the David Parsons Dance Company, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, Bill T. Jones, Iowa City native and UI alumnus Rinde Eckert, choreographer Laura Dean, the Kronos Quartet and other artists.

A recent Hancher commission, the String Quartet John Corigliano wrote for the farewell tour of the Cleveland Quartet, resulted in two 1997 Grammy Awards -- one to Corigliano for best contemporary classical composition, and another to the Cleveland Quartet for best chamber music performance. Other Hancher-commissioned works have gone on to international tours, have been preserved in recordings, or have become elements in company's regular repertories.

By far the most visible and acclaimed of Hancher's commissioning projects have been large-scale world premieres by the Joffrey Ballet -- "The Nutcracker" in 1987 and the Joffrey/Prince collaboration "Billboards" in 1993. Each became the American dance event of its year, and artistic director Gerald Arpino has repeatedly stated that the Joffrey Ballet owes its survival to Iowa's support.

Other projects have provoked the full range of responses, from shouts of "bravo" and critical raves to vociferous controversies and intermission exoduses. As Chappell is quick to point out, those are the rewards and consequences of taking risks. "In arts commissioning, like any other research-and-development enterprise, you have to survive the duds to revel in the masterpieces," he says. "And often the failures are as important as the successes in an artist's development."

That formula for progress was well understood when Hancher became one of only two university-based arts organizations in America profiled as "exemplary" in the book "21 Voices," published by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

In celebrating its Silver Anniversary Hancher is doing what it always does -- present the best of the new and the old. And in its season brochure it emphasized its connection to education by featuring images of artworks by internationally renowned silversmith Chunghi Choo, a faculty member in the School of Art and Art History.