By Dawn Parker
The following is an email I recently sent to the University of Georgia’s dean of Fine Arts and the head of UGA's Department of Dance. Some additional concerns that have been brought to my attention are the fact that they have silenced the faculty and banned them from speaking out, especially to the media and the fact that they have demanded dance director Bala Sarasvati's creative research be turned over which certainly seems to span the concept of stealing intellectual/creative property rights without her at the helm.
There is certainly an injustice happening in the department that needs to be addressed!
I have waited a couple of days for my anger to subside so that I could write a mindful and cohesive email regarding my thoughts on a matter that came to my attention this week. I'll admit I have become remiss in keeping up with my alma mater in the busy day-to-day happenings of my own life, but this situation is not something I am willing to sit back and stay silent about.
My name is Dawn Abernathy Parker and I graduated from the UGA Department of Dance in 1993. I came into the department during a large transition period.
We were still performing our main concerts in the Fine Arts Theatre, smaller concerts in what is now the Carver Studio and running lights on literal dimmer switches while using large coffee cans as scoop lights and slide projector lenses turned backwards for spotlights. We had a $0 budget for costumes. We actually paid for costumes and my own mother sewed countless unitards, skirts, pants ... whatever was needed, without hesitation. You see, I have a very vested interest in this department even though I may have graduated almost 30 years ago because it was my blood, sweat, tears and even money that helped pave the way for the tremendous growth in the department in subsequent years. I say this, not to boast, but to say I have always had a sense of tremendous pride in my legacy.
That changed this week.
There was a single catalyst for a change in the department in 1990. Her name is Bala Sarasvati (aka Shelley Shepherd). Bala came into UGA as a short-term artist. She did not intend on staying past a few years but saw something the "could be" in this little Georgia dance department. And she worked TIRELESSLY to create art, to raise funds, to put the department on the "map" in collegiate dance and to attempt to reach out to the community. I was there for the origins of this legacy. I am a founding member of CORE and worked side-by-side with Bala for my entire UGA career. I have maintained a relationship with Bala for almost 30 years now. I have worked as a dance instructor for over 30 years! I think I am more than relevant and qualified to speak up on her behalf and on the behalf of countless alumni whose lives and careers she shaped and influenced.
Bala has never been an easy director. She pushes you, both physically and mentally. She challenges you to question artistic choices and risks. She expects you to hold yourself and those around you accountable to higher standards and expectations. She upholds all of these consistently and without question. If you train with Bala, you leave her knowing you have tools to exist, not only in the professional dance world, but in just about any career or situation that you pursue. The fact of the matter is we need MORE of these directors and people in our young people's live, not LESS! By catering to the weaknesses and inability of our young people to hold themselves to higher standards, find a greater work ethic and simply abide by rules and experience disappointment, we are doing them all a disservice in thinking they can exist in a world outside of their parents' protection and control; and, be assured, they will not be able to be productive members of society outside of the school walls! For whatever the situation may or may not be, assuming no illegal behavior has transpired, removing a director from the company she founded weeks before a performance is a travesty and testament to poor leadership and leadership choices.
When someone has been in a position for almost 30 years (again, barring an illegal act), there is absolutely NO excuse for removal in this fashion. It is particularly heinous for someone who has been so instrumental in developing the department over decades ... pursuing and receiving grants and fellowships and funding for new theatre spaces, aerial equipment, research, etc, etc, ... to be simply set aside and discarded without a thought of the many she has trained, influenced, mentored and led over the years. Quite frankly, we are angry, hurt and shocked! Quite frankly, we are pissed off!
If it is the intention of the University to take the department in a different direction, why not allow celebrations of the long-term faculty and maybe even let them finish out a nice 30-year tenure and laud the accomplishments made in that time. Instead, this sudden and shocking removal has left so many of us in the dark and confused. It has made us question why the department is now headed by someone with absolutely no dance background but a music background. It has made us question what the motives are to remove relevant and legacy-building faculty. It has made us question what the intentions of the University are for the department, in general! Is the University of Georgia intending on phasing out the dance department altogether? Because it certainly seems as if some of the recent decisions in leadership and decision by leadership are leaning in the direction of discrediting and dismantling the department. We (the alumni) would certainly like answers.
To conclude, I think it would be prudent that an apology be issued to Ms. Sarasvati and an immediate reinstatement as director of CORE Concert Dance Company.
I have sent many students through the department over the years and my own daughter was looking forward to possibly joining the department, as well. At this time, I cannot in good conscious recommend any students until some changes are made and I, sadly, would not even send my own daughter as my legacy.
I would appreciate a response to my concerns!
Director of Theatre
Kennesaw Mountain High School