CONTACT: WINSTON BARCLAY
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0073; fax (319) 384-0024
(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
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
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
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
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.