Ready for the Spotlight

A public arts conservatory is a marvelous testament to ambition, both for students and for the state as a whole. The UNC School of the Arts is unlike any other institution in the country, offering some of the finest and most creative students across North Carolina the chance to achieve true excellence in some very challenging fields. From ballet to film to costume design to digital animation, UNCSA students are working tirelessly to honor age-old arts and give rise to new ones. The place is a genuine wonder.

Chancellor Lindsay Bierman kicked off the day with a Board of Trustees update that doubled as a master class in public speaking. Having a chancellor who used to edit Southern Living comes with certain advantages, and a keen sense of style is among them. It helps, of course, when you’re announcing something as heartening and admirable as a $1 million scholarship pledge, made by UNCSA’s former chancellor Alexander Ewing.

The day only got better from there. As a conservatory that hosts high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students studying a range of artistic disciplines, UNCSA has plenty to show off. I walked through the wonderland-like workshop where costumes come together, designed and built with painstaking care. It’s hard enough to design a man-size, menacing robot-egg; it’s another matter entirely to make sure an actor can comfortably wear the thing. Film studios across the country have commissioned costumes from UNCSA, and it’s easy to see why.

Student Body President Allison Burkholder, who served as my guide for part of the day, showed me around the wig and makeup studio, where she has spent a lot of time studying the craft. I saw the film studios where students practice everything from camera operation to screenwriting, and I watched a sampler of big-screen projects that rival any festival in the world. For all of the cinephiles in North Carolina, I also learned the UNCSA has one of the few 70mm projectors left in the country, meaning it’s a great place to catch an art-house film in the original format. In film as in all things, UNCSA knows how to show respect for tradition while preparing students for whatever comes next.

During a conversation with students in the campus’s light-filled coffee shop, I heard about the incredible energy that comes from putting the most creative minds in North Carolina alongside classmates recruited from all over the country. Because of the elite status of UNCSA’s programs, the campus draws applicants from some of the top schools in the United States. It doesn’t just keep Tar Heel talent in the state, but recruits driven young people from all over.

The fruits of that pairing were on gorgeous display in dance performances that matched North Carolina students with out-of-state counterparts, producing one of the loveliest ballet sequences I’ve ever seen. And to give a sense of what it means to be an internationally renowned conservatory, the dancers didn’t simply learn a complex Russian ballet — they learned it directly from prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, one of the finest classical dancers of the 20th century, who came to UNCSA for a residency.

From there, it was onward to the School of Drama, which produced seventeen different shows over the academic year. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect ending to the tour than a rendition of “My Shot,” performed with raucous energy in front of a student crowd. The rousing number from Hamilton is a near-perfect anthem for the students at School of the Arts, or for any of the thousands of university students who are working and dreaming and achieving on our campuses each and every day. And of course, UNCSA alum Paul Tazewell has done Tony-nominated work on the Broadway production.

With every word, I drop knowledge!  /  I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal  /  Tryin’ to reach my goal.  /  My power of speech: unimpeachable…. I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot!

School of the Arts is working hard to raise scholarship funds so that no student has to give up a shot at a world-class arts education. The evening after the campus tour, I came back to Winston-Salem for the school’s inaugural Collage Concert, hosted in the beautiful Stevens Center in the heart of downtown. It was the prelude to a fundraising gala to bolster student scholarships, and the students made a brilliant case for themselves. UNCSA professor and music director Christopher James Lees stitched together a medley of orchestral performances, soloists, and even short theater scenes to give a rollicking revue of student work.

Dueling tambourines shared a program with gorgeous Spanish guitars and violin solos. There was even a riff on Lady Gaga — performed entirely on oboe. Audiences don’t usually get to laugh out loud or clap along when there’s a symphony on stage, but this is School of the Arts. They think a little differently here, and that makes North Carolina a livelier, more interesting place to live. And it definitely makes for a fun concert.

It’s easy to detail the economic impact of the arts in our state, from film industry jobs to added tourism dollars. But a day at UNCSA reminds you that there’s an even greater richness to be had, a pride and appreciation that comes from celebrating the creativity of our young people. The students I met work incredibly hard, driven by an intrinsic passion that is unmistakable. It’s to our everlasting credit that North Carolina recognizes the value in that passion, and built a fine home for it.

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