A History of Dancing as Community with Hancher Auditorium

Hancher Auditorium’s Dance Series has been a fixture of the University’s performance life since its inception for the 1972/1973 inaugural season. At that time, for roughly the price of a new vinyl LP, students bought balcony seats for a triptych of performances by internationally renowned dance companies: in October, the Dukla Ukrainian Dance Company promised cultural exchange from behind the Iron Curtain, in February, Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater celebrated African-American culture and promoted racial diversity among professional dancers, and, in March, the National Ballet of Canada showcased Rudolf Nureyev’s new interpretations of classical dance standards. Throughout the following decades, dance remained prominent in Hancher’s programing, leading to longstanding relationships and new works for the dance repertory.

A large portion of my summer work with Hancher’s public-engagement team has revolved around its history of dance as recorded in the University Archives and in the pages of local and national newspapers. As a creative wing of a University that “seeks to advance scholarly and creative endeavors through leading-edge research and artistic production,” Hancher has done much to assist the creation of new pieces of performance art. It has commissioned more than 100 new works in its nearly 50 years of existence and its initiatives—such as the recent Embracing Complexity program—work to bring diverse voices to the stage. While Hancher’s forthcoming seasons will offer their own to-be-announced dance selections, the following is a sampling of some historical productions that highlight both original creations and public engagements.

For the Holiday season of 1987, Hancher co-commissioned the eminent Joffrey Ballet of

Poster for The Joffrey Ballet at Hancher. Courtesy of University Archives.

Chicago to create a new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. It was the first time that the Chicago-based company staged the well-known Russian ballet, and the production by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino was much-anticipated. On December 10, above a political column covering the recent Reagan/Gorbachev talks regarding Afghanistan, an article on Joffrey’s new work consumed the front page of the Daily Iowan with the announcement: “‘NUTCRACKER’ OPENS TONIGHT.” Its success was immediately confirmed by the press and its long-lasting position in Joffrey’s repertory was solidified. For the production’s 2016 update, Hancher and Joffrey held open auditions for local student dancers ages 7–18, furthering a connection between Hancher, dance, and the Iowa City community.


On April 8, 1996, the Mark Morris Dance Group gave the world premiere of Morris’s take on Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Commissioned in

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Advertisement for Mark Morris’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Courtesy of the Daily Iowan.

part by Hancher, the production was no small undertaking and included live musical accompaniment from the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston. While the drama of Gluck’s 1762 baroque opera remained consistent, Morris reconsidered the role of dance within the scenic progression, casting his dance company as an omnipresent Greek chorus that provided physical commentaries on the musico-dramatic unfoldings. All of this took place with the support Hancher and the University of Iowa community who organized a series of public concerts, discussions, and lectures featuring current faculty members such as Rob Ketterer from the Department of Classics, David Gompper of the School of Music, and Downing Thomas from French & Italian Studies.

For American Ballet Theatre’s 2019 production of Whipped Cream, the intersection of high-level national dance, Hancher, and the Eastern Iowa public was on full display. The

ABT’s 2019 Production of Whipped Cream. Courtesy of Hancher Auditorium.

sweets-themed show was designed to boost community participation in each of the company’s tour stops. In addition to participation in the University’s 2018/2019 Homecoming Parade, Hancher opened its doors to an assemblage of local dancers from ages 8 to 50 with the goal of selecting a corps of hometown extras for the following weekend’s performance. The selected child and adult performers went immediately into rehearsals with ABT staff, and over the course of six days prepared their essential roles—including cupcakes, candy canes, and surrealist snow yaks. As University of Iowa professor emeritus of dance Francoise Martinet once told the Los Angeles Times, when it comes to dance, “Iowans are nobody’s fools.”

Throughout my time with Hancher, I have come to appreciate both the ways in which its creation of new works supports the mission of our University and the efforts of its public-engagement team to directly connect performers and productions to the Iowa public. Hancher’s work is part and parcel of the University ethos, and its contributions should not be considered anything else. Now, more than ever, is when we need to publicly uplift the creative work of humanity.