"Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky."
Rhonda Garelick, for one, appreciates the Willa Cather quote.
The first thing that struck the born-and-raised New Yorker when she came to Nebraska was the expansive blue sky that spreads across the state like a giant blue tablecloth.
"The most beautiful thing about Nebraska," she said, "is the sky. I've never seen such a big, beautiful sky.
"For me, it's a little bit of a transition from living vertically to horizontally," she continued. "I'm used to going up and down elevators and seeing things from heights and crowds. Now, I drive over very spacious streets and look at the sky and trees. It gives you some breathing room."
Since arriving in Lincoln in the summer of 2008, Garelick has hit the ground running as founder and director of the new Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The symposium consists of a public performing arts series attached to a residential artists program and special seminar for UNL students. Its goals are to create a diverse audience for performance, to educate the public about diversity and to use performance to create public discussion of issues concerning citizenship and democracy.
In collaboration with the Lied Center for Performing Arts, the IAS is funded through a $60,000 grant from the Hixson-Lied Foundation and supplemented with grants from the Cooper Foundation and the Chancellor's Office for Research.
The idea, according to Giacomo Oliva, dean of the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, is for the symposium to have an "internal and external impact."
"We want this to go beyond the scope of our students," he said. "We were looking at ways for others to benefit." Thus, the public lecture component.
This year's IAS theme is "Race, American History and Performance." Garelick is using drama, dance and technology to examine U.S. history - particularly African-American history - and how it pertains to the concept of "race."
For instance, on Wednesday, legendary trumpet player Wynton Marsalis will perform at the Lied Center (tickets begin at $45). As part of the IAS series, noted Columbia University professor Robert O'Meally will deliver a free public lecture before the concert at the UNL Visitors Center. O'Meally, founder and former director of the Center for Jazz Studies, also will work with UNL students during the week.
On Friday, MIT theater arts and dance professor Thomas F. DeFrantz will present his solo tap dance event, "MONK," at the Sheldon Museum of Art. The piece uses tap as a narrative form of storytelling to explore the life of jazz great Thelonius Monk. DeFrantz's performance also is free.
The symposium also includes appearances/performances by playwright Nilaja Sun, dance critic Marcia Siegel and the David Dorfman Dance Company.
"We're trying to achieve, for a lack of a better word, a synergy among these different performances and lectures, many of which are free and open to the public," Garelick said.
The symposium's first event last month featured filmmaker Jennie Livingston and a screening of her acclaimed documentary "Paris is Burning." Filmed in the late 1980s, the film chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African American and Latino gay and transgendered community involved in it.
Livingston, who also spoke about her current projects, drew a standing room only crowd to the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.
"When I saw the crowd at the Ross, I thought, 'Yes, it will work,'" Garelick said. "People want to come."
Afterward, the IAS surveyed the audience to gauge their response.
"We received fantastic feedback from the audience," Garelick said. "They were moved and informed and fascinated by her and the film."
One respondent wrote: "As a side note, I just want to thank you so much for bringing this event to campus. Since we don't live in a 'major metropolis,' our access to this kind of opportunity is somewhat limited. I'm impressed that an event of this caliber was held here, and I hope there will be many more to look forward to in the future!"
Garelick, of course, was thrilled.
"It's very freeing to do something like this," she said. "It's not every university that would let a newcomer in and do something like this."
Garelick was a perfect fit, according to Oliva, who was looking for someone to implement the performing arts program.
Her resume is extensive - and impressive. She is a critic of performance, literature, fashion and cultural politics. Having earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University, she has authored two books and is working on a third about modern fashion and European politics. She also has written for and been quoted in such publications as the New York Times, Newsday and Chicago Tribune. She recently was quoted in a New York Times story about fashion designer Coco Chanel.
"She is extremely capable," Oliva said. "Because of these dollars from the Hixson-Lied gift, this gives us an opportunity to catapult ourselves on the national and international stage. These dollars will do exactly that."
Garelick grew up in a Brooklyn household "filled with lots of singing and dancing," enabling her to "gain an appreciation for that sort of thing." She took up dance as a child and studied ballet, modern, jazz, African, hip-hop and tap.
In college, she discovered an academic interest in the performing arts.
"I soon found I was much happier when I integrated my personal loves and things I did outside of school with my professional life," she said.
She came to Lincoln with her husband, J. Daniel Veneciano, the new director of the Sheldon Museum of Art, and immediately found her place at the university as an English professor and director of IAS.
She also found a home.
"I've never seen such an embracing community," she said of Lincoln. "Both my husband and I have been so welcomed and supported personally and also in our professional endeavors."
Garelick is working on next year's symposium, tentatively titled "Technology, Prosthetics and the Body." She's already booked visual/performance artist Orlan as well as Heidi Latsky's dance company, Gimp, whose members include those with undeveloped or amputated limbs.
"(The symposium) is important because it opens conversation," she said. "I think the performing arts provide an enriching experience beyond just buying a ticket and going home.
"What I really would like to see is more conversation about what's happening on stage, and I think to do that, you need to provide context."
Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or email@example.com.