Short Features

Arts for the People
UNH students get an immersion in culture

Three tour buses idle outside Horton Hall on College Road, doors thrown open, their drivers eyeing the students gathering outside amid intermittent downpours, huddling in small circles of friends, talking, smoking, laughing in the rain. College students don't wear rain gear, but in their jeans and khakis, mini-skirts and platform shoes, neither do they look like typical patrons of the arts dressed for the Boston Ballet.

Suddenly the students swarm a late arrival, an elegant white-haired gentleman dressed in black and carrying a large umbrella. Mel Bobick, a professor of sociology in his 41st year at UNH, comes alive in the chaos; he flashes an impish grin and jokes with the students as he passes out tickets to dozens of outstretched hands. Soon the buses, loaded with 150 students and a handful of alumni and faculty, head off on another cultural excursion with Professor Bobick, a tradition he began at the University some 30 years ago.

On the way, Bobick reminisces about his own introduction to the arts. He grew up in the 1930s in Chicago, when even a boy from a North Side Serbian ghetto could play musical instruments and take dance classes at the public school, attend the city's free symphonies and operas and wander through its exquisite museums. He is angry that many of today's youth don't have the same opportunities he enjoyed.

"What are we doing in this rich country, where the largest percentage of government wealth goes to wealthy corporations?" he fumes, his pitch rising. "The government should make provisions to expose everyone to our artistic heritage. If you want a rich country, you've got to have rich art!"

So Bobick brings the people to the arts. This semester, the students in his class, Arts and Society—along with some 1,500 other UNH students and alumni—have attended "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Marriage of Figaro" by the Boston Lyric Opera, and "Madame Butterfly," conducted by Seiji Ozawa of the Boston Symphony. They've seen "Porgy and Bess" at UNH's Johnson Theatre, the David Parsons Modern Dance Company at the Portsmouth Music Hall, an all-Balanchine evening with the Boston Ballet, and taken an architectural tour of Boston led by UNH lecturer Joan Esch. The class has read Homer's Odyssey and seen a dramatic portrayal of the work, taken a pottery class before viewing the University's collection of pottery by Edwin and Mary Scherer; they've talked to artists, visited museums and taken lessons in ballet and modern dance. Tonight they will see the ballet "Dracula," now in its first run in Boston.

"I was privileged to live in a city that was public-minded, so I was immersed in the arts at a young age," explains Bobick, a 72-year-old whose natural buoyancy defies his age. "I've always wanted to share these things that are grand and beautiful with people, especially students. The most satisfying thing for me is to see how immediately great art influences young people who haven't been exposed to it, and how quickly they realize there is a rich, wonderful world that they didn't know about."

Senior Jason Yi is auditing the class after taking it for credit in his first year. "I wanted to take another class with Professor Bobick—just to learn from his wisdom. He's very passionate about the arts and that really affects people." Yi says the class has awakened his own interest in the arts and shown him that "life is about more than going to work."

As usual, Bobick has finagled front-row seats for his group to get them "inside the performance." Tonight they are dazzled by the dark spectacle of Dracula—who sweeps majestically across the stage with a magnificent bat-like cape—and by the hypnotic grace of his pale and lovely victims.

During intermission, Bobick checks on his charges before rushing off to hobnob with the Wang Theatre staff and trustees, all of whom he seems to know by name, and to chat with the Boston Ballet's new general director, Jeffrey Babcock (who Bobick learns is a descendant of former UNH professor Donald Babcock). He darts away to talk with a few more alumni and students when he notices the ballet's choreographer, Ben Stevenson, lingering nearby, and he's off again.

After the show, senior Anna Mecagni is exuberant. "It took my breath away, " she gasps. Her parents have been taking her to the Boston Ballet since she was five, but she says, "This was very different, intense and dark. So much passion and drama!"

This is her last semester at UNH, and Mecagni says it's been her best. "I may be biased, but I love Mel. He's infectious. For students who've never seen the arts, he gives them a deep sense of what's out there. Those who have been exposed come away with a much deeper understanding.

"This class has been a joy. Our discussions are about things like, what is beauty? How can you judge it?" she says. "Your head is spinning."

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