The world’s most famous vampire is taking up residence at the University of Dayton this Halloween season.
Thanks to an ongoing collaboration between UD and the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, all freshman Humanities students — many dressed as vampires — will be heading to downtown Dayton when the Dayton Ballet presents “Dracula: Bloodlines” Oct. 25 -28 at the Victoria Theatre. To prepare for the field trip, students are immersing themselves in the themes of the classic tale.
First-year student Hannah Klein is one of more than 2,700 young people who will attend the show. She says this ballet is a prime example of the ways in which literature, folklore and art can be combined to create a story that blends interdisciplinary learning and entertainment.
Fourth-year student Will Landers participated in the project when he was a first-year student and found that it gave him new perspectives on his coursework. This year, he’ll attend as a teaching assistant. “I most enjoyed attending the performance with my classmates and friends,” Will recalls. “Coursework can often seem distant or abstract, especially philosophy, so seeing a story performed live made the experience feel more tangible to me. The arts immersion also allowed me to see downtown Dayton, which I appreciated as a student without a car on campus.”
The upcoming DPAA Signature Event also features the Dayton Philharmonic and guests from the Dayton Opera — soprano Olivia Yokers, mezzo-soprano Courtney Elvira and bass-baritone Tyler Aless. Choreographer for the story ballet is the company’s artistic director Karen Russo Burke. The score was written by composer Austin K. Jaquith, a professor at Cedarville University.
The story of Dracula
Since its 1897 literary debut, the story of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” has been told in various forms including drama, opera and film. The lead character is Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler,”) a 15th-century prince who resides in the area near Transylvania and is transformed into a vampire.
During the course of the ballet, other characters from the classic tale are introduced, including Lucy Westenra, Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, Dr. Van Helsing and Dracula himself. Burke has added the Biblical character of Lilith to her interpretation of the story.
The Arts Immersion Initiative
The roots of the UD collaboration can be traced to Richard Chenoweth, a former UD music faculty member who came up with the idea of having the entire UD first-year class attend the Dayton Philharmonic’s “Rite of Spring.” He hoped to have them enrich the experience through faculty and community panels and events that explored the symphony’s themes.
That event was a hit and led to the partnership with the DPAA. For the past six years, all first-year UD students enrolled in a Humanities Commons course have attended a performance, alternating among the ballet, symphony and opera. The hope is to enhance learning by linking themes of the designated production with various academic disciplines —English, history, philosophy and religious studies. The connected set of courses encourage students to explore a range of disciplinary perspectives to answer the question: “What does it mean to be human?”
Past arts immersion experiences have taken students to Dayton Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet”; Dayton Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.” Representations from the DPAA and UD meet each year to determine which season offering best lends itself to an appropriate theme.
Last year’s freshmen attended Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, “The Consul,” a Dayton Opera production that centered around issues of immigration and the plight of refugees.
“‘The Consul’ told a story that was unique, surprising and thought-provoking,” UD sophomore Maya Smith-Custer said. “The opera had very relevant connections to modern day social issues. In class, we also drew connections to our philosophy and historical studies.”
To date, about 10,000 students have experienced one of the performances.
How it works
Overseeing the project is Aili Bresnahan, assistant professor of philosophy and Humanities Commons coordinator. “Part of our goal was to integrate UD students with the cultural community in Dayton and to get students off campus so that they can consider themselves citizens of a larger world,” she says. “And if they stay in Dayton after graduation, which we hope they will, they’ll already feel part of the city.”
Bresnahan says the university strives to make students realize — through service and experiential learning — that they aren’t situated on a little island in the middle of nowhere. “We have responsibilities and we should engage with the environment we’re in,” she believes.
Making the connections
This year’s theme, chosen by faculty, is “Power and Vulnerability.”
“Our idea here is that ‘power’ and ‘vulnerability’” call us to reflect on humanity at its best and its worst,” explains Bresnahan. “Students can connect this idea to their own lives, considering such dynamics as brute force, coercion, wealth, advantage and other attributes that can lead to dominance of one group over another in their personal, business, and other relationships”.
Programming in September and October has ranged from a vampire-themed film series to panel discussions and theatrical improvisations focused on what it means to have, lose and transfer power. The project has included a writing contest for a student publication and an art contest for banners on campus sponsored by the Department of Art & Design. The Department of Religious Studies faculty explored the Biblical Lilith legend; English faculty used Stoker’s 1897 novel and other texts from the period in the classroom.
Bresnahan says it hasn’t always been easy. “For a lot of students, especially our international students, this may be the first cultural event they see in the United States,” she says. “We’ve had music majors who have never been to a symphony or opera. Some students wonder how to dress for the occasion and how to behave.”
The response from students, she says, has been mixed. “Sometimes we don’t hear until their junior or senior year what the experience meant to them. We’ve also had some students who’ve been unbelievably thrilled and have gone back to see other productions.”
It has been difficult for some professors as well. “If you’re expert in medieval history, it’s not always clear why you would bring your class to an arts performance,” Bresnahan says. “So we have two faculty workshops a year to make those connections.”
Bresnahan says the creative collaboration is growing and catching on. “I hope this project will give our students a little spark of a love for the arts, a sense of the larger Dayton cultural community outside of our campus, and a sense of the relevance of the arts to our development as human beings.”
“If they’re engineers, or doctors or scientists, they’re still people. They still have a spiritual, cultural, community life. They can still have books they read, music they listen to, and larger community engagement with the arts.”