RIT celebrates Shakespeare’s 400-year legacy

Events begin Saturday and continue through the fall

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Productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Infinity Quad, concerts by the RIT Orchestra with New York State Ballet and performances in American Sign Language and big band jazz are just some of the events planned to help Rochester Institute of Technology commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

Shakespeare, the English poet, playwright and actor, wrote nearly 40 plays and more than 150 sonnets. He died April 23, 1616, at the age of 52.

“He’s such an important part of Western culture,” said Michael Ruhling, a professor in RIT’s Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture and conductor of the RIT Orchestra.

Shakespeare’s appeal? “More than any other playwright from that Elizabethan era, Shakespeare seemed to be able to uncover and display all of the shades of humanity. Shakespeare seemed to show the development of human emotions in ways others couldn’t. His characters were more than two-dimensional. They were more in-depth and fleshed out on stage.”

Plans for the commemorative series began several years ago, said Steven Galbraith, curator of the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection. Galbraith, a Shakespeare scholar and former curator of books at Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library, began thinking how RIT could commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The more people who learned about it, the more events were planned.

“It took off from there,” Galbraith said. “Even though Shakespeare’s work is more than 400 years old, it still has a profound influence on the arts. The programming we have shows his influence, from big band jazz to fine press printing.”

While Shakespeare didn’t compose music, all of his comedies were written expecting to have live music in them, Ruhling said. “There are a number of things associated with Shakespeare’s time, especially madrigals. And as the Romantic aesthetics took hold in the arts around 1800, there was a renewed interest in Shakespeare because of his romantic use of language and character development.”

RIT’s commemorative events include:

  • 3 p.m. March 5: “Music Inspired by Shakespeare,” Vignelli Center. The RIT Orchestra and soprano Elizabeth Phillips perform a variety of works inspired by the Bard, accompanied by dance vignettes from New York State Ballet.
  • 2 p.m. April 23 and 24: Theatre on the Ridge, 200 W. Ridge Road, Rochester. The New York State Ballet presents a fully staged ballet using Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with music performed by the RIT Orchestra and Amadeus Chorale Youth Singers. Go to newyorkstateballet.org or Brownpapertickets.com for ticket information.
  • 7:30 p.m. May 11-14: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, RIT Infinity Quad. Outdoor performances by RIT students, faculty and staff.
  • 5 p.m. May 12: “Signing Shakespeare,” Dyer Art Gallery, Lyndon Baines Johnson Hall. American Sign Language poetry group Dangerous Signs performs Shakespeare sonnets and scenes in spoken English and ASL.
  • September through December: RIT’s Cary Collection will curate an exhibition in The Wallace Center, “Shakespeare in Fine Press,” exploring how book artists and fine press printers have expressed Shakespeare’s works.
  • To be announced: Carl Atkins, professor and chair of the Performing Arts and Visual Culture Department, will perform Duke Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder,” a 12-part suite of contemporary big band music inspired by the works of Shakespeare.