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Alumni Bring More Heat to Burning Man

Alumni-led Art Haus Collective takes big and bold performances to big and bold venues.

Three years ago, Courtney Wise ’12 and collaborator Robert Dekkers had a vision to bring together two of the most revolutionary experiences of their respective times: the controlled chaos of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the unbridled structure of Burning Man, a desert city in northwest Nevada erected for seven days in the name of radical inclusion that teems with art and innovation. From this endeavor arose Art Haus Collective, a performing arts organization dedicated to bringing “edgy, spectacular performances of classical and contemporary works into unique spaces.”

“Radical Ritual” was Burning Man’s 2017 theme, and, Wise believed, an apt setting for a choreographed performance of Stravinsky’s 1913 avant-garde masterpiece.

“I thought this was the perfect opportunity to share our artform with a group of people who may not be familiar with Rite of Spring and to create something really big and extraordinary,” says Wise. “We had crazy excitement and drive to make it happen no matter what. People asked ‘what’s plan B?’ and we said, ‘there is no plan B.’”

Set in the desert, the performance featured a live orchestra and dancers and drew a crowd of an estimated 10,000 people. A photo capturing the moment earned a spot in the Smithsonian exhibit: “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.”

“When I first had the idea of bringing Rite of Spring to the Burning Man in 2017, I was simply a flutist and saw myself as a performer, not a creator,” says Wise. “I had never produced anything, never run an orchestra, or collaborated with other artistic disciplines. The excitement around the idea of bringing a ballet to the desert pushed me to acquire all the skills I needed to create something huge. Burning Man gives us permission to be whoever or whatever we want to be and to create whatever we can dream up!”

With the help of SFCM friends and a donation from the Conservatory, Wise’s dream evolved into reality. “The connections I made at SFCM as well as a generous donation from the school made this project possible! Without our conductor Brad Hogarth (MM ‘12), whom I knew from taking music history class together at SFCM, and our artistic manager and clarinetist Jeannie Psomas (MM ’12), Art Haus could not have gotten off the ground. Once we started to gain momentum, a number of our other alumni friends jumped on board, and we now have a wonderful tribe of some 10-plus alumni represented within Art Haus!”

This year’s Burning Man theme, “Metamorphosis,” inspired the Collective to perform another of Stravinksy’s masterworks, Firebird Suite. “Our choreographer, Robert Dekkers, loved the idea of using Firebird to explore themes of gender fluidity and self-expression.” In that spirit, the Firebird, traditionally danced by a female, was performed by a male exploring the spectrum of gender through the music and his movements.

Of course, performing in the desert doesn’t come without its challenges. Musicians must adapt their instruments to withstand extreme temperatures, zero humidity, wind, dust, and sun. The end result is nothing short of miraculous, bringing sound, dance, light, and colors to one of the most barren stretches of land in the United States. What really inspires Wise and her colleagues is the enthusiasm and commitment leading up to the performance. “This project got people so pumped. All of our performers and volunteers really put their hearts and souls into it. Dancers came out of retirement to join us. Musicians flew in from other countries to play with us. Volunteers who had no connection to the classical or dance world emailed asking how they could help. The energy was infectious.”

Through Art Haus’ radically innovative and collaborative approach to performance, Wise sees a unique opportunity to redefine classical music for a new age and for new audiences. “Classical music can have a purist mentality. We feel that making our performances bigger experiences that reach beyond the concert hall is how we can keep people interested and keep this type of music exciting and alive. It’s how we want to share our art with our generation.”

Wise reflects on how far she and her colleagues have come over the past three years and where they’re headed. “The Burning Man experience has pushed us to be even more imaginative and daring and has opened my mind to a million creative possibilities. It has also renewed my hope that classical music can remain relevant despite the changing times. We have proven that there is a thirst for the classical experience outside of the concert hall, so we will keep pushing the limits of where we can bring our performances.”

  • Photo of Courtney Wise '12 - Credit Josh Litwin

  • Photo Credit Chung Huynh

  • Photo Credit Chung Huynh

  • Photo Credit Chung Huynh

  • Photo Credit Chung Huynh

  • Photo Credit Chung Huynh