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In Detroit, Reinforcing the Power of the Arts

The city of Detroit definitely has its problems: unemployment is high, the population is low, and education and the arts are slipping through the cracks of a decaying infrastructure at a seemingly unstoppable rate. Many citizens are concerned with basic survival, and there is a need for a major overhaul of city services and organizations. Detroit Arts Immersion, which started in 2009 and is partly funded by a Juilliard Summer Grant, has had a twofold mission: providing arts programming to homeless, abused/neglected, and paroled youth as well as giving free performances throughout the city. For the Juilliard participants—including several of us who were returning for the third year—the hope on entering the city has been to offer multiple avenues for expression while promoting ensemble work, self-esteem, and pride. This year, we had an additional goal: to make the program self-sustaining, with youth workshops run by local artists instead of Juilliard students who unfortunately could only be here for a few weeks each year.

Dancer Breanna O’Mara (center) poses with some of the Detroit Arts Immersion participants.

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To achieve the self-sustaining portion of our mission, we worked with local artists: three drama students from Detroit’s Wayne State University and a bassist from the University of Michigan. In addition to them, the Detroit Arts Immersion 2011 team was comprised of five Juilliard participants: Allison Job (B.M. ’09, double bass), Brittanie Brown (B.F.A. ’11, dance), Breanna O’Mara (B.F.A. ’11, dance), second-year drama student Corey Dorris, and fourth-year drama student Richard Dent. The plan was that through our collaboration, we would provide the local artists with tools to continue the programming throughout the year. 

We bonded with our enthusiastic collaborators as soon as we arrived, and as we spent that first week brainstorming our curriculum and beginning to collaborate on performance pieces, we were all already learning a great deal. 

One of our goals was to create pieces celebrating Detroit and then incorporate them into our lesson plans. One day the dancers taught a warm-up exercise from the Forsythe technique and built it up to a soul train line performed to hits by Motown favorites Marvin Gaye and James Brown. We also created a piece including spoken word of an original text, bass, and dance improv. But the most intriguing thing was getting to know each collaborating artist and to watch their passion and intelligence come out through teaching. It wasn’t always easy to teach our arts to those who don’t have much access to the vocabulary we customarily use, and doing so was a great exercise in defending and truly understanding the power behind each tool and aspect of our disciplines. 

The challenges and discussions continued through the week as we immersed ourselves in the arts and the city of Detroit. We spent meals debriefing and planned lessons over dessert and into the night. We taught more than 70 youths and performed for more than 600 citizens of Detroit. Still, perhaps the most inspiring part was seeing everyone experience moments that reinforced the power of the arts and why we were there. Most of these moments happened during classes; we could not help but be in humble awe of the talent, potential, and generosity we saw in the youth in the program. And it was a marvelous thing to have local Detroit artists welcome Juilliard students, to learn and teach beside us, and to be sufficiently moved by the experience to declare their desire to continue the program! In times like these it gives hope to the city of Detroit to have citizens working and wanting to make a change. It will undoubtedly take integrity, time, and training—all of which are absolutely necessary parts of the future of Detroit Arts Immersion—but with the energy and desire we saw in these local collaborators, there is no doubt that this project can continue. It was an honor for all of us to have such talented comrades as we came together to share our best with the youth of the city of Detroit. 

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By Loren Schoenberg

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