Hannah Wiley moves beyond dance to foster an arts community on campus

Hannah Wiley,

Hannah Wiley didn’t know, in 1998, that a new chapter of her life was beginning. At the time, the veteran director of the UW’s dance program had been kibitzing with the directors of the art, drama and music schools, brainstorming new ideas.

“Think big,” President Richard L. McCormick had told them during a dinner at his home. He might as well have dropped a match into a gallon of gasoline. As directors of schools known for creativity, they put their heads together and churned out enough possibilities to take them well into the new century. But one idea rose to the top for immediate action—to hold a summer arts festival on campus.

The foursome discussed the festival with Michael Halleran, divisional dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “They had this idea that they could jointly run it, with staff help, but I knew that wouldn’t work,” Halleran recalls. “Someone needed to take ownership.”

The question was who. Wiley, ’73, likes to say that she got the job because she had to leave a meeting early and the absent person always gets “volunteered.” But that’s the Wiley sense of humor coming forward. It’s a characteristic she’s known for—so much so that everyone asked to describe her mentioned it. It’s also her modesty. As School of Art Director Chris Ozubko says, “Hannah’s the kind of person who can stand in the wings and be very happy to see others getting the glory onstage.”

Then there’s her legendary energy and drive. Halleran calls her “intense and committed, a perfectionist.” Others accuse her of being a workaholic, but with a twist. Drama Director Sarah Nash Gates says Wiley “cares passionately about what she does, but she also thinks it should be fun.”

So, for all these reasons, Wiley was offered the unexpected opportunity of directing the new festival. In its first year the festival broke all expectations—attracting more than 9,000 people who paid about $70,000 for its ticketed events.

But it isn’t just her personality that makes her ideally suited to that job. It’s her choices in the earlier chapters of her life, when she repeatedly grabbed opportunities to cross disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Who better to run a festival designed to celebrate everything from children trying their hand at drumming to a production of the classic Hamlet.


Hannah Wiley had a fairly typical childhood in Spokane: two parents, both educators; two brothers. But her mother’s self-described philosophy of parenthood was “keep them busy, keep them learning.” So Hannah and her siblings were enrolled in a variety of activities, most notably music. Wiley’s father was born with perfect pitch but never had a chance to develop his talent, and Wiley’s mother was determined that her children wouldn’t suffer the same fate. All three studied piano and each played another instrument. Hannah’s was the cello.

It wasn’t until fifth grade that ballet was added to Wiley’s schedule, a move designed mainly to use up her considerable energy. “I just adored it,” she says of that introduction to dance. She went on to dance almost continuously, spending summers during her high school years at well-known programs for young artists in Port Townsend and Banff.

Martha Wiley says now that she had no idea her daughter would become a dancer. She certainly didn’t start out to make her one by offering dance lessons. Nevertheless, when Hannah graduated from high school, her parents told her that if she wanted to pursue a dance career in New York, they would support it.

At that point Wiley made the first of many decisions favoring breadth over immersion—she came to the UW. It was a campus, she remembers, teeming with opportunities for a young artist. She signed up for numerous courses in the School of Art, she played cello in the University Symphony, and she majored in drama. As for dance, she began by signing up for a modern dance class to fulfill a physical education requirement.

The class was a revelation, for Wiley says she was then a “bunhead”—dance slang for a devotee of ballet—and had never before seen modern dance. What impressed her was the attention the teacher paid to body mechanics.

“Ballet has been taught the same way for hundreds of years and it’s mostly based on mythology,” Wiley explains. “Biomechanics isn’t considered; the joints are abused; you’re encouraged to force yourself into positions no matter how you’re built. So this class is where I first started questioning all that.”

Another important experience during Wiley’s undergraduate years was studying theater history with Richard Lorenzen. Then on the faculty in the School of Drama (he later directed Educational Outreach and is now at Northwestern University), he remembers Wiley as “extraordinarily bright and inquisitive, but like many artists, she didn’t have much knowledge of history. I probably flatter myself, but I like to think I raised her consciousness about that.”

History would play an important role in later chapters of Wiley’s life.

When she graduated from the UW, Wiley didn’t have clear career goals, but she accepted an offer to teach dance to preschoolers at Cornish College of the Arts. Feeling uncertain about her new role, Wiley asked the late Karen Irvin, then Cornish director, for advice. “She gave me some plastic flowers for my hair and said, ‘Just make them love you,'” Wiley remembers.

She must have succeeded, because years later some of those preschoolers turned up in her dance classes at the UW, telling her they remembered her and their early training. But it wasn’t the preschoolers who had a lasting influence on her later life; it was the adults she taught in an evening class. Wiley attempted to add some of what she had learned about body mechanics in modern dance class to her teaching of ballet. It was a method she would build on in the years to come.


Wiley had spent two years at Cornish and another year and a half performing in a small dance company when she was invited to apply for a position in the Dance Department at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. The thought of leaving her beloved Northwest was daunting, but Wiley jumped in with both toe shoe-clad feet. She decided to make her very first visit to New York City when she went east for the interview.

In New York she had another revelation: she attended modern dance performances of the classics in the field. Suddenly, she became aware that although she had been exposed to theater history, music history and art history, she knew nothing of dance history, at least outside of ballet. That knowledge, it seemed, was confined to the East Coast.

“I really felt cheated,” she says. “That felt wrong to me, to have gone to a huge state school with a wonderful reputation and not to have seen those dances, not to have them even mentioned.” It was an oversight she would later work to correct.

Hannah Wiley dances in a New York City production in the early 1990s.

Wiley was hired by Mount Holyoke, and a year later, when the small department’s chair left, Wiley succeeded her. A few years later, still in her 20s, she became chair of a consortium known as the Five College Dance Department, made up of Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Amherst, Smith and the University of Massachusetts.

“We were a department in name only,” remembers Hampshire Professor of Dance Rebecca Nordstrom. “What Hannah did was to make it all function like a department.” That meant, Nordstrom explains, everything from working with top administrators of all the schools to getting the course numbers of comparable classes aligned so that students could take classes at any of the schools and their transcripts would look right.

“Hannah has a tremendous amount of energy and a great ability to work with all kinds of people,” Nordstrom says. “What’s amazing is that she seems to be equally skilled at administrative work and creative work. Even as department chair she never stopped performing and choreographing.”

When it was suggested she come up for early tenure, Wiley was advised to get her master’s degree. Enrolled at NYU, she used the degree program as a chance to study anatomy, biomechanics and physics, at last learning the science behind the movements that she had first encountered at the UW. As she had expected, it made a difference.

“I completely revamped my teaching after that,” she says.

One recipient of all she was learning was Maria Simpson, ’96, then a 12-year-old performer in a dance company that Wiley sometimes choreographed for. “Even at 12, I knew that meeting Hannah was life-changing for me,” says Simpson, now an assistant professor of dance at the UW. “No one I had encountered before was like her. She could explain why a certain position of the body makes a movement easier. She made ballet fun for the first time.”

Simpson explains, using the classic dancer’s high kick as an illustration. All dancers, she says, want to “get their legs up to their ears.” But often ballet teachers don’t explain how that’s most easily accomplished. “If you understand how the hip socket is made, you know that by putting the body in a particular position, one bone gets out of the other bone’s way and it’s easier,” Simpson says.

There is, however, a lot of resistance in the ballet world to such teaching. “They think somehow that the science takes away from the art,” Simpson says. “People like Hannah are not popular with the ballet establishment.”


Throughout her sojourn in Massachusetts, Wiley had come back to the Northwest at every opportunity—teaching summer classes and choreographing plays for local theaters. Then, in 1987, she was offered the chance to become the head of what was then the UW Division of Dance, housed in her alma mater, the School of Drama.

No sooner had she arrived to take the position than Wiley began working on a new program to cross yet another boundary—that between professional dance and the academy. She had noticed during her years in academia that professional dancers who came to the university often had difficulty teaching, while academics who had never danced professionally didn’t bring the best work to the studio. Her idea was to create a graduate level program for retiring professional dancers (typically in their early to mid-30s), enabling them to teach at the college level.

The College of Arts and Sciences was supportive, so Wiley doggedly went about jumping through the hoops to make the program a reality. The new M.F.A. in Dance program enrolled its first class in the fall of 1990. Students study another field to complement dance (many choose the anatomy route that Wiley took) and teach dance while also performing in the Chamber Dance Company. And part of that company’s repertoire is the historical classics of modern dance that Wiley felt so cheated not to have seen as a young dancer.

“What could be better than having these important dances performed by ripened professionals for our community?” she asks.

The dancers, many of whom come from dance companies where they have performed basically the same repertoire for a number of years, appreciate the opportunity. As Simpson says, “The classic dances illuminate the contemporary ones. Working on them makes my approach to contemporary work much clearer.”

A few years after her arrival, dance became a free-standing unit, and Wiley sought out connections with her colleagues in the other arts schools. When Gates was named director of drama in 1995, Wiley invited her and Music School Director Robin McCabe, ’71, to lunch. It was at that lunch that the three hatched plans for a joint musical theater production by their three schools, to be done every other year. They’ve produced two such musicals since then.

The no-formal-agenda lunches became a monthly occurrence, later including School of Art Director Chris Ozubko. The lively group often batted around ideas for the arts, so they were primed for the day when President McCormick encouraged them to “think big.”


Wiley agreed to direct the Summer Arts Festival largely because “I had been a program director for more than 20 years and was ready for a new challenge.” She began work in the spring of 1999, and was joined that August by Festival Manager Risa Morgan.

The first Summer Arts Festival was held last July with funds from Tools for Transformation, but a $12 million Campaign for the Arts has been launched by Arts and Sciences to support future festivals and also to raise funds for professorships; student scholarships and fellowships; visiting artists; exhibits and performances; and the Arts Technology Program. More than $3 million has already been raised.

Students from the School of Drama and the Dance Program rehearse a scene from Shakespeare presented at the 2000 Summer Arts Festival. Photo courtesy of University Week.

More important, under Wiley’s leadership, the festival raised the profile of the arts on campus. “Universities in general and research universities in particular aren’t known as makers of art,” McCabe says. “But I think we’re on the way to changing that. As more and more people become aware of the talent on this campus—among both faculty and students—they will look to us for leadership.”

And unlike commercial arts festivals, this one had a large educational component—classes whose students performed at the festival, two lecture series and two panel discussions on arts topics, and pre-performance lectures at some of the events.

“We knew that educational events were a natural for our festival, since we are, after all, an educational institution,” Wiley says. “But I was amazed at the response to them. At one of the lecture series, for example, we had to keep adding extra chairs every day because more and more people showed up. It seems there is a hunger out there for this kind of information.”

Wiley would like the festival to become a year-round presence by offering related courses in the University curriculum. And, remembering her own experiences at Port Townsend and Banff, she also wants to bring in young artists from K-12 for a monthlong series of classes that would culminate in the festival. She’s already working with Christine Goodheart—who was recently hired by the UW Office of Educational Partnerships to create an arts partnership with K-12—to make a start on designing such programs.

And next summer, Wiley will be crossing yet another barrier. The theme for the festival is “Pangaea,” the word given to Earth’s large land mass before it was separated into continents. It’s a theme that lends itself to the inclusion of science, and Wiley plans to do just that. Science at an arts festival? Well, after all, why not? Hannah Wiley has always seen art in the broader context of life. “I’ve often thought,” she muses, “that if we all danced together first thing in the morning and then started having our meetings, there would be so much less conflict in the world.”

Making the links: UW arts initiative serves K-12 education

A new partnership at the UW aims at nothing less than transforming arts education in Puget Sound area schools. The K-12 Arts Initiative, which will be part of the Office of Educational Partnerships, is designed to develop a comprehensive approach to K-12 arts education in the region by creating partnerships between the UW, professional arts organizations, the philanthropic community and the K-12 community.

Christine Goodheart, former program development director for New York City’s Lincoln Center Institute (the educational arm of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts), has been hired to direct the new initiative.

Goodheart’s first task will be to catalog what is currently being done to assist arts education, whether by the UW or other community organizations. Then she plans to convene a planning group made up of UW and community representatives to develop a three-year plan for arts education.

Goodheart states the goal of the initiative simply: “The arts can become a part of the lives of all our children.” For more information, contact the Office of Educational Partnerships at (206) 685-4745.