After 17 years teaching dance at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Duane Cyrus was looking for a career challenge.
The University of Arizona delivered, naming him the director of the School of Dance last summer. He officially started his tenure in July.
In August, Mia Farrell uprooted from her home of 14 years in London to lead the UA’s Hanson FilmTV Institute in the School of Theatre, Film & Television, also under the umbrella of the UA College of Fine Arts.
The two bring a wealth of experience to their roles along with a shared vision of redefining how we think of diversity in the arts.
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“It’s not always about black or white. Whatever I do, I am practicing diversity whether it’s being the only Black (dancer) on stage or the choreographer,” said Cyrus, who grew up in New York City and fell in love with dancing after seeing “The Wiz” on Broadway. “I understand what it means to have a perspective that people might not know about, but it’s about bringing in voices of Indigenous people, of Asian people, of African-Americans, but understanding that African-American is more than one thing. Blackness is not one thing. I’m from the Caribbean; my folks are African-Caribbean.”
“When you start to hire people of color, people of marginalized communities … you are going to have somebody sitting there advocating and moving forward to actually affecting change,” said Farrell, who grew up in Los Angeles and fell in love with movies at a young age. “You put people in these positions of leadership and, hopefully … what they bring with them through their own tastes and experiences and really doing the work, that, to me, is where you can really start to unlock things.”
The hires are part of a broader mission for the College and the university at large, said Andrew Schulz, the UA’s vice president for the arts and dean of the College of Fine Arts.
“This is my fifth year and an important part of the mandate I was given … was to elevate the role of the arts,” Schulz said. “I came in with part of that vision being about encouraging a conversation about what does 21st century arts education look like. When I first arrived here, we were mired more in the mid-20th century and this isn’t just UA, this is nationally.”
The arts in the 21st century look nothing like the 20th, especially recently, a point that hit home for Schulz and his UA colleagues in the spring of 2020.
“George Floyd and the social justice unrest of 2020 was really a catalyst to think much more urgently and in a much more focused way,” said Schulz, whose first response to those events was to hire Amelia “Amy” Kraehe to serve as the inaugural associate vice president of equity in the arts for Arizona Arts, the collective that includes the College of Fine Arts and the university’s arts presenters, from the Center for Creative Photography to Arizona Arts Live and the schools of music, dance and theater.
“Part of what you are seeing now is the effect of having created this infrastructure and empowering Amy to really make sure we are thinking every day and across our disciplines of what equity and diversity in the arts would look like,” Schulz siad. “That’s bearing fruit with these hires.”
Schulz said the mission also includes advocating for curriculum that reflects the needs of the faculty and students, including programming across the broad spectrum of the arts that reflects those populations.
That’s something that Cyrus and Farrell have wasted no time in implementing.
For his “Fall for Dance” showcase, Cyrus, who replaces founding School of Dance directors Jory Hancock and Melissa Lowe after the couple retired at the end of the 2020-21 school year, has programmed works by faculty member Chris Compton and visiting professor Tang Dao alongside “Company B,” a seminal work by Paul Taylor that views “the turbulent era of World War II through the hit songs of the Andrews Sisters,” according to program notes.
The program also includes “In A Flow” by Juel D. Lane, whose resume includes performing in “Jesus Christ Superstar” for NBC Live and with the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” last year.
“These are the types of folks I want to bring that have a contemporary African-American voice,” said Cyrus, who has danced professionally with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey dance companies and works in a range of styles including jazz, musical theater, drama and contemporary dance. “It’s more than just installing a Black person. It’s about a mindset that allows the space for Black people of all sorts and for women. That’s another issue in the arts, the level that women get to rise to in the arts. All of those voices need to be there. What I see as my job is to continue and to develop and encourage all of our accountability toward really being diverse. Diversity doesn’t mean it becomes less. It means having that space to be fully who we are. Everyone gets a chance.”
Farrell is relaunching the Hanson FilmTV Institute, which has been dormant since its last director left in 2019. The institute, established in 2002 by avid film lover Vivian Hanson and funded through the Jack and Vivian Hanson Foundation, was created to serve students studying film and television. It brings in industry leaders to mentor and engage students, but it also has what Farrell calls a “community facing aspect” with guest filmmakers and screenings of films you won’t see at your neighborhood cineplex offered to the public.
“These are free screenings that people can come out and get engaged with,” said Farrell, who spent the bulk of her 30-year career promoting films, film festivals and blockbuster movies including “The Lord of the Rings” triology, “The Hunger Games,” “The Expendables 2” and “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1 and 2.”
Her ideas include creating pop-up screenings in parking lots or city parks in addition to screenings on campus. She also will continue the institute’s legacy of spotlighting Latinx filmmakers, including those from neighboring Mexico and Arizona’s Native American communities.
“But as an African-American woman and given the work that I have been doing working in film … I would like to open that up so that we are looking at Black faces and voices from the LGBTQ community, storytellers with disabilities,” she said. “It is not just about teaching students how to make films or teaching them what they need to do if they want to go off to L.A. and be a director or producer. I want to inspire them about what kind of professional they want to be, (show them) other aspects of our industry and other roles they may want to do.”
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at email@example.com. On Twitter @Starburch
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