How to succeed in academia? Become a Rockette.
That's how Jill Beck started out, and today, the erstwhile Radio City Music Hall hoofer takes over as dean of UC Irvine's School of the Arts.
"We did four shows a day, seven days a week," Beck recalls, "and then every four weeks you'd get a couple of days off. That reinforced the sense that the arts require enormous discipline."
Beck, 45, belonged to the famed chorus line for only one summer, and the rest of her resume reads more like the kind that opens scholarly doors and, supporters say, highly qualifies her for the new job. She replaces Robert Hickok, who retired last year after six years at the helm. Robert Cohen, who had been interim dean, will resume his previous duties as drama professor.
Her four degrees include an interdisciplinary master's in history and music from Montreal's McGill University and a doctorate in theater history and criticism from the City College of the City University of New York (CUNY).
She comes to UCI from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she has been dance department chairwoman and a dance professor since 1993. Before that, she chaired Connecticut College's dance department for a year and the dance and theater departments (simultaneously) at CUNY's City College for three years.
She also has taught dance history, notation and reconstruction at such prestigious institutions as New York's Juilliard School, one of numerous organizations for which she has restaged modern-dance classics and such ballets as Nijinsky's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune."
"She's a genius in the classroom, a pied piper," said Martha Myers, dean of the American Dance Festival, one of the country's premiere dance events, where Beck has taught and restaged works. "People love her as a teacher, and I think she has an understanding of theater, and in the arts generally that will make her a very special leader."
UCI music professor and jazz flutist-composer James Newton, who headed the search committee that selected Beck, praised her expertise in several disciplines, critical to overseeing the entire arts school.
He also singled out her sensitivity to multiculturalism, fund-raising abilities--also crucial in a time of diminishing funds in academia--and computer technology know-how.
Newton added that UCI's studio art faculty, the department's heaviest computer user, "felt Beck understands that technology is going to bring a lot of innovation to education in the 21st Century."
The university as a whole has been positioning itself to better compete in the information age--in fact, it is considering requiring all students to own personal computers. The School of the Arts recently shortened its name (from School of Fine Arts), in part to reflect a more updated approach embracing new computer technology.
At SMU, Beck was co-creator of a multidisciplinary outreach program in which Dallas students perform traditional dances of local cultures, then learn about those cultures on interactive CD-ROM. To fund the project, she obtained a $170,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Shortly before moving here last month with her husband, Robert Beck, an environmental psychologist, Beck, whose salary is budgeted at $101,000, discussed her past, and, while refusing to voice specific plans for UCI before getting to know the terrain, looked to the future.
An articulate, carefully spoken woman who appears to care greatly about the arts, she said during a phone interview from Dallas that her interdisciplinary approach began early.
She was born in Worcester, Mass., and her parents put her in ballet, jazz and musical-theater classes when she was 4. She played piano and violin and acted in school drama productions as a teen.
She received her bachelor's degree in philosophy at Worcester's Clark University. While pursuing that degree she worked various musical-theater jobs, including her stint as a Rockette.
Radio City Music Hall, she said, "is like a big spaceship backstage," decked out with state-of-the-art lighting and special-effects controls, "so in terms of getting into a big theater and learning how major events are rehearsed, designed and produced, it was a good introduction."
After next dancing with Quebec's La Compagnie Marie Calumet, which performed various cultures' traditional dances, Beck entered McGill to study music and history ("I wanted to know more about world history so I could place my understanding of art history in context"). She then taught in remote communities throughout Quebec.
"I'd teach whatever the dynamics of the community brought into high relief," she said. "Where the arts were new to a community, that meant creative movement for children. In more established areas, it meant musical-theater performance classes. It was my first exposure to working with community needs and to the understanding that the arts can represent many different values to many different people."
While earning her second master's (in theater history) and then her doctorate at CUNY more than a decade ago, Beck got involved with choreographic reconstruction. Since then, she's restaged mostly modern-dance classics by such pioneering American choreographers as Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, Anna Sokolow and Charles Weidman. This summer she'll restage "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune" for the Oakland Ballet, whose production will be filmed for the PBS series "Music in the Twentieth Century."
Doesn't all this concentration on historic dance make her focus a little, well, old? No, says search-committee head Newton, who said he was struck by Beck's "ability to understand the needs" of UCI's older scholars, some of whom have been with the school since the mid-'60s, as well as those of artists pursuing "postmodernism and even newer theories."
While not denying her desire to preserve the past, Beck asserted that she is "very supportive" of cutting-edge work and finds exciting UCI's "emphasis on new work and work with political content that is socially aware and informed."
Further, Beck said she's less interested in replicating works exactly "than in seeing what continuing merit a piece could have for a contemporary audience. Sometimes that necessitates a fresh interpretation, which may mean a new look at music-dance relationships or more development of the dramatic content of the work. Sometimes, with the consent of choreographers and their estates, there may be some redesigning of costumes which have become old fashioned, or redesigning of lighting."
So what redesigning does she hope to instigate at UCI?
"I would never find it appropriate to come to a new place with a vision to impose," Beck said, "so I certainly will spend a good deal of my first year learning as much as I can about the priorities of the artists and teachers and students working there, and collaborate with them on the articulation of a vision and philosophy for the next few years."
Still, Beck said she feels that some of her personal goals jibe with those of many UCI faculty and staff members she's met. Among them are an interest in interdisciplinary work, community outreach and technology--all aspects of the program she developed for SMU students.
That program began with members of six major Dallas-area ethnic groups, teaching their traditional dances to students, who then logged on to computers and, via graphics, text, video and slides, delved into such areas as "anthropology, geography, history, gender studies and belief systems," Beck said.
"I don't know yet whether [that program] can be a model" for replication or adaptation, Beck said. "But I do think we need to acknowledge the extent to which international cultures have influenced important directions in what we perceive as mainstream art. . . . And I do love computers, and I think that multimedia is a terrific way to bring all the arts together--your graphics and slides and video are all there on the same screen. It's a very interesting, new means for comparing and contrasting and juxtaposing the different arts."
Implementing any new programs, particularly those involving new computer technology, won't be easy. Due to state budget woes, the University of California system has suffered severe cuts, and UCI's School of the Arts' budget has declined from $6.6 million in 1991-92 to $6.4 million this year, according to assistant dean Ollie Van Nostrand.
Hickok left under one of three early-retirement programs the university has offered in the last five years. UCI's Cultural Events series, which presented touring groups, was scrapped last year.
Beck is keenly aware of financial constraints throughout academia but remains optimistic, pointing to the federal Department of Education grant she obtained for SMU and local arts patrons' recent gifts to the School of the Arts. In January, Marjorie Rawlins gave $1 million for instrumental-music scholarships, and Thomas and Elizabeth Tierney gave $25,000 for this fall's production of "City of Angels," an interdisciplinary effort of the school's drama, dance and music departments.
"I certainly will be seeking external funding as well as relying on existing budgetary structure," Beck said. "I'll also be actively searching for research dollars. Those are increasingly scarce too, but there are signals that people in the community are interested in the arts and getting behind new directions that UCI has taken."