In the Spotlight: Aaron Greenwald and Duke Performances

When Aaron Greenwald came to Duke in 2007 to be interim director of Duke Performances, concerted efforts to raise the profile of the arts at Duke were in their early stages. As executive director, he’s led the organization through a time of great change and expansion. Duke Performances now presents about 80 shows per season—a “willfully eclectic” mix of music, dance, and theater—in a diverse collection of venues. It’s inviting the community to campus, as it always has, but also meeting its audience in the community. And it’s finding creative ways to make connections from the performing arts to academics across the curriculum.

A key part of Greenwald’s strategy as director has been to cultivate an eclectic set of venues to suit his eclectic lineup of shows. With the transformative renovation of Baldwin Auditorium two seasons ago and renovations on Page Auditorium nearly complete, Duke’s on-campus performance halls are sounding better and looking better than they ever have, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ideal for every show. For example, none of them have the capacity and reach of the Durham Performing Arts Center or the nightclub ambience of Motorco Music Hall, to name two off-campus venues that are in regular rotation.

The match of show and setting has been especially important for Duke Performances’ distinctive commissioning program. For instance, the first new work performed in Baldwin Auditorium was a piece commissioned from renowned pianist-composer Billy Childs for the celebration of 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University. It was just a few weeks after the hall’s grand reopening that a capacity crowd filled it to hear Dianne Reeves, one of the premier jazz vocalists of our day, sing Childs’ somber, challenging composition. A few months later, Duke Performances produced an “indie pop puppet opera”—a collaboration between then Duke theater professor Torry Bend and the Durham-based band Bombadil. Its four shows filled the Durham Arts Council’s auditorium—the epitome of a community performance space—with families and fans eager to see what these local heroes had dreamed up. (It was a pretty wild ride.)

As a presenter at an academic institution, an important part of Duke Performances’s brief is to connect artists to the curriculum. To that end, it arranges campus residencies for some of its artists during which they give workshops, open rehearsals, and talks, to visit classes, and to mix informally with students and faculty. The interactions extend beyond the obvious pairings of instrumentalists with student composers, choreographers with student dancers, and so on. For instance, the theme of the play that theater troupe Rude Mechs presented at Duke in 2014 was evolution by natural selection. As part of their residency, they visited the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center to discuss the art of communicating scientific concepts to the public—increasingly a concern in scientific circles.

I spoke to Greenwald in mid-April about his vision for Duke Performances, his background, and how he keeps all these balls in the air. A few weeks earlier I had a small part in the residency of violinist-vocalist-composer Jenny Scheinman. She was on campus to perform music she’d composed to accompany film of mid-twentieth-century life in the Piedmont—a documentary montage assembled from archival material in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. A few days before her show she visited the songwriting class I teach and several of my students performed songs for her. She’s an artist with tremendous focus, and the friendly, incisive way she engaged with the students and their songs was a pleasure to watch. The whole project, which took material from Duke and returned it much enriched while engaging regional history and the documentary arts, is a testament to Greenwald’s vision and to the value Duke Performances brings to campus.

-Robert Zimmerman