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Aiken Festival in Full Flower

The now-annual spring break festival in South Carolina, Juilliard in Aiken, has done nothing but grow since it started. This year’s edition, which took place from March 5 to 11, involved 39 Juilliard dancers, actors, and musicians, including current students and alumni.

Drama students Ryan David O’Byrne (left) and Evan Todd perform a scene from Chekov’s The Seagull.

(Photo by Ocozzio)

Drama students Danielle Brooks (left), Gayle Rankin (center), and Joaquina Kalukango sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from Funny Girl.

(Photo by Ocozzio)

Organ department chair Paul Jacobs holds forth.

(Photo by Ocozzio)

Ernesto Breton and Ingrid Kapteyn dance a duet from a collection of excerpts from José Limón’s A Choreographic Offering.

(Photo by Ocozzio)

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Juilliard’s relationship with this small South Carolina city known for polo and horse-racing began in 1996, when authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith bequeathed Joye Cottage, their historic mansion, to the School to be used as a retreat. Seven years later, Juilliard musicians started presenting concerts there, and the idea of a bigger Juilliard involvement began to grow. In 2008, Jazz Studies presented a series of concerts, workshops, and outreach programs in Aiken. For Laurie Carter, vice president and general counsel, and executive director of the Jazz Studies program, that first residency represented a chance to expand awareness of career opportunities outside a metropolis that can seem the be-all-and-end-all job market for students studying in Manhattan. Before long, she envisioned possibilities for a relationship with the town that would deepen beyond its potential as a venue. The following year, the first Juilliard in Aiken festival was held, with several musical ensembles on a four-day tour.

Under the direction of Alison Scott-Williams, associate vice president for diversity and campus life at Juilliard, and Sandra Fields, president of Juilliard in Aiken, the festival has grown to an almost weeklong event with performers from six departments. 

These “baby steps” were necessary through the first years of the program to test its feasibility for future expansions, said Riccardo Salmona, vice president for development and public affairs. Without overwhelming the generous resources of Aiken and its inhabitants, each year has added a new layer of the original vision to the festival. An especially exciting addition this year was the inclusion of Juilliard’s Dance and Drama Divisions. According to Scott-Williams, audiences in Aiken were so thrilled by the added concerts that tickets for the Evening of Dance program sold out nearly a month before showtime. The complete roundup included 21 students and alumni performing jazz, vocal, organ, string, and piano music; 10 first-, second-, and fourth-year dancers offering pieces from their repertoire; and 8 fourth-year actors presenting a cabaret. 

These performances represent only one pillar of the festival’s mission, however. While one goal is to allow Juilliard students to reaffirm their artistic passions, “outreach has always been the focal point of the relationship” between Juilliard and the town, Carter said. When they were not on the stage, this year’s participants engaged in lessons, master classes, workshops, lecture demonstrations, open rehearsals, and collaborative showings that reached more than 3,000 people, from children to nursing home residents, in Aiken and across the surrounding region. (That’s up from reaching 600 students in the first year of the festival.) A goal of the community involvement portion of the festival, Carter said, is to let passionate people outside of Juilliard reap some benefits of its exceptional education. 

Salmona agreed, noting that Juilliard in Aiken doesn’t just provide a performance opportunity and venue for Juilliard students outside of their school lives in New York; it also addresses a “real thirst for the performing arts across generations, but particularly among younger individuals” that he has observed in Aiken. In fact, two young men who attended a previous year’s festival outreach program have since taken part in a Juilliard Jazz camp.

This unique alliance is a testament to the bonds formed between performers and nonperformers both on and off the stage. The Juilliard artists discovered the joy of performing for a community they had come to love over a week of sharing classes and stories and meals and homes. Upon returning from this year’s festival, second-year dancer Gillian Abbott marveled at the way “knowing and caring about each face in the audience makes the performance all the more meaningful.”

—Ingrid Kapteyn, Second-Year Dance Student

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