During a year of virtual rehearsals, Shang Wang ’24, a member of Harvard’s Radcliffe Choral Society, thought about leaving the group “a trillion times.”
With students away from campus, RCS members practiced by recording themselves singing along to a track and remained on mute throughout the Zoom rehearsal. It was Wang’s freshman fall and her first experience with the chorus, one that she called unfulfilling.
She stuck it out until the group returned to in-person rehearsals and performances this fall, though, and she is now enjoying the group so much that she attends board meetings and plans to get more actively involved in event planning.
“This year, it’s exceeded my expectations,” she said.
After more than a year of adapting to virtual programming, Harvard’s vibrant performing arts groups have roared back to life. Though they have faced challenges adhering to Covid-19 restrictions, artists said the ability to come together in person again is well-worth it.
Performing arts groups at Harvard span dozens of disciplines. According to the Office of the Arts, professional and student-led ensembles produce around 500 concerts annually. The schedules for Sanders Theatre and Lowell Hall alone feature 100 student rehearsals and more than 100 performances a year.
Students say they are drawn to joining performing arts groups for a myriad of reasons: continuing their high school hobbies, exploring artistic interests, or seeking out a particular social scene.
Cordelia Yu ’24 said she was drawn to the Asian American Dance Troupe despite the virtual format her freshman fall not only by the welcoming energy from upperclassmen, but also the desire to reignite a hobby that she previously gave up.
“I feel like dance was something I dropped in high school,” she said. “So I wanted to get the interest back up.”
Alexandrea G. Harriott ’22 joined the Harvard Kuumba Singers her freshman spring. She found fulfillment both extracurricularly and socially in Kuumba, which is a Swahili word that means “to create.”
“I first joined because I wanted to get more into the Black community on campus, and I felt like they were really a staple of that on Harvard’s campus,” she said.
Angel G. Hoyang ’23 is involved with the Harvard Ballet Company, the Modern Dance Company, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones, among other performing arts groups on campus.
She said the Veritones have been the “most fulfilling” experience that she has had at Harvard so far, as it allowed her to explore different music styles outside of classical music.
Covid brought Harvard’s thriving arts scene to a screeching halt, leaving performers scattered across the globe and auditoriums empty. Students reported mixed experiences with their performing arts groups during the virtual school year, but most said they remained members.
“I guess you can’t really compare the past two years, this year and last year, just because they’ve been so radically different,” said Ruben A. Fonseca Castro ’24, who joined the Harvard Wind Ensemble and the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in fall 2020.
Yu, similarly, drew a sharp contrast between her experiences both years, calling the online version and the in-person version “two separate experiences.” Some groups did not meet regularly at all, and some students in the groups that met found themselves not getting the most out of virtual rehearsals.
“We didn’t meet regularly at all, ever really,” said Benjamin R. Meron ’23, a member of the Harvard Undergraduate Drummers, or THUD. He said he was drawn to the group by its creative style that uses unconventional percussion — and occasionally acting — in its humorous shows.
“I saw this group at Visitas, and I thought, ‘This show was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’” he said.
Virtually, though, being a part of the group was less satisfying.
“Maybe we had a couple socials with some of the members who just wanted us to get together on Zoom and play games, but we didn’t have any sense of rehearsals — the club basically just didn’t exist,” Meron said.
Hoyang said the virtual year had a greater negative impact in a cappella than dance because of a cappella’s dependency on feeling the other singers’ energy.
“Just in general, dance doesn’t have to be done with other people — it can be a very solo endeavor,” she said.
“We learned how to work with space virtually and digitally, and in a flattened space of 2D-ness rather than 3D-ness we were used to,” Hoyang added. “But the same cannot be said of a cappella because as a format, it depends on everyone working at the same time together.”
Dramatic art was also affected, according to Mira S. Alpers ’24, the director of the First-Year Musical last year and the director of this year’s contemporary play “This is Our Youth.”
Alpers, a Crimson Arts editor, said her directorial interests — interpersonal dynamics and how people connect with one another — were not as successful with virtual theater due to lag and pre-recorded material.
“Virtual theater’s weird,” she said. “I think some people in the midst of the pandemic, who were trying to look on the positive side, were like, ‘Oh, I hope this is an enduring art form.’ And I don’t hope that — I don’t think it needs to be.”
Despite varying experiences during the pandemic, all eight performers interviewed for this article said they have appreciated the return to normalcy.
Mira S. Becker ’24 choreographed a dance for the Harvard Radcliffe Modern Dance Company this semester, after a year on Zoom during which she said there was “no way” she could have done so.
“To create a final product was just really rewarding, especially after so long of being on Zoom,” she said. “Just to have it performed in front of me was very exciting.”
Yu, also a dancer, said in-person rehearsals have been an enhanced learning experience.
“It’s still nice to just physically see how formations are changing when you’re onstage, how the lighting works, which is something I had never done before because you just edited videos,” she said.
Meron said one of his favorite parts of this semester was meeting new faces, especially with significantly more incoming members this fall.
His freshman year, THUD took six new members, but this year, they’ve taken 11 because of the lack of auditions last year.
Now back on campus, some artists, like Wang, are planning to pursue or have already taken up board positions in their groups. Yu is the artistic director of AADT, and Hoyang is the incoming president of the Veritones.
Harriott, who is a senior, said that even though she cannot give “100 percent” of her time to Kuumba, she still finds herself going back for “solace.”
“You go to Kuumba because it gives you something like a type of solace that doing these other things isn’t going to give you,” she said of in-person rehearsals.
“I’d rather that — coming back with just a breath of fresh air, and being loved, and creating in that space,” she added.
—Staff writer Felicia He can be reached at email@example.com.