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Elemental Arts Initiative Making a Splash This Semester With Water-Themed Programming

A shark balloon floats over concert-goers in Little Bridges

A shark floats overhead at one of the 2012 Ussachevsky Memorial Festival concert in Bridges Hall of Music.

In its second semester, the Mellon Elemental Arts Initiative is making a splash on campus with arts and related programming focused on the theme of “water.” This past Family Weekend, students directed and performed 10-minute plays on the theme, and the Pomona College Choir performed with the Millennium Consort Singers and renowned conductor Martin Neary.

Professor of Music Tom Flaherty had a new work, "Water Ruminations," premiered at the February 18th choir performance in Bridges Hall of Music. “The text comes from a lovely group of six poems by the 13th-century poet Rumi, in English translations by Coleman Barks, and I’ve set them to music for double choir and organ,” says Flaherty. “The poetry sings of literal and spiritual connections between water and sky, a drop of water and human life, flowing water and love, drinking water and its container, the giddiness of spring and rolling seas, and the ocean’s gifts and sin.” Other works at the performance will also have thematic or auditory connections to water.

A few weeks ago, water was also in the air at the 20th-annual Ussachevsky Festival, a two-day celebration of electronic music named after pioneer Vladimir Ussachevsky ’35. Large helium fish balloons floated throughout Little Bridges as a wave of water-themed works were performed. Flaherty's "Under the Weather" was premiered by violist Cynthia Fogg and organist William Peterson. The piece included the sound of rain and thunder also. Flaherty instructed the audience to all snap a photo at a precise time so that their flashes would approximate lightning.

Barry Schrader’s "The Hall of Mermaids," another premiere, referenced P.T. Barnum’s famous hoax artifact, the Fiji Mermaid. The final performance of the two-day festival featured five students and Professor Genevieve Lee playing "Fêtes des belles eaux" (Festivals of the Beautiful Waters), by Olivier Messiaen, on recreations of the early electronic instrument ondes martenot. The piece was first composed to accompany a water and light show at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition, Flaherty says that most upcoming concerts this semester will at least touch on the theme of water.

The Theatre Department is enjoying the water fun as well with this year’s 10-Minute Play Festival. Now in its sixth year, the festival features student-written plays about a theme. Students also direct and act in the plays, which are performed on Friday afternoon during Family Weekend in the Frank Blue Room. Playing off the water theme, the scripts touch on subjects like the controversy over bottled drinking water, best friends on a sinking cruise ship, and the awesome and mysterious power of the ocean. 

In the Dance Department, a number of guest artists are visiting campus to teach and recreate dance pieces from their repertoire with students. Movement director and choreographer Peter Pucci visited in January to work with students on his work, “Surfing.” Pucci is a Drama Desk Award nominee; the director of his own dance company, Peter Pucci Plus; and has choreographed ballets for the Joffrey Ballet and Ballet Hispanico. Linda Lehovec, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is currently on campus teaching the students her piece, “At the Water's Edge.”

The Environmental Analysis Department is also diving in with its first annual Elemental Arts film festival and symposium during Alumni Weekend on the theme of watersheds. The two-day symposium will take place Thursday, April 26, and Friday, April 27. Char Miller, director of Environmental Analysis, says the program will move from the philosophic and theoretical to the practical and applied regarding water issues and conservation ethics on both days. For the film series, the feature Green Fire explores the life and legacy of Aldo Leopold and how he shaped and influenced the modern environmental movement. The short film Rock the Boat takes a look at the problems facing Los Angeles by following a group of kayakers on an "ambitious and absurd" journey down the entire length L.A. River in 2008.

At the symposium on local water issues that Friday, spiritual leader Robertjohn Knapp, who has worked on water issues around the globe, will lead off the day. Miller will discuss the Pomona Valley watershed; Trevor Bisset ‘09, an employee of the Coachella Valley Water District, will discuss the issues that area faces; and Na’ama Schweitzer ‘13 will discuss her research on bioswales.

The Elemental Arts Initiative is a four-year project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The project is a mix of new and re-aligned offerings, including:

  • Guest artist residencies in Theatre, Dance, Music and Art
  • Annual Symposium and Film Series curated by Environmental Analysis
  • Summer Experience in the Arts (SEA), modeled on the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) but exclusively for summer projects in the arts
  • ArtsInspiration, a competition for student-initiated projects
  • Theme-based arts programming on campus, such as the 10-Minute Play Festival, Spring Dance Concert, campus concerts and exhibitions
  • Theatre for Young Audiences, a community partnership with the Fremont Academy in the Pomona Unified School District
  • ArtsImmersion, a practice-based, experiential course involving all four arts departments

The College will dedicate a full academic year to each Elemental Arts theme, beginning with water in 2011-12. For more information on the Elemental Arts Initiative, visit