Beaux Arts Ball returns

In this centennial year of Carnegie Mellon’s College of Fine Arts, the school has geared up for a celebration of its legacy and future. Its wide-reaching network of faculty, alumni, and students has touched the arts nationwide, and to celebrate, it’s bringing back one of its grandest traditions.

Get ready for the heralded return of the Beaux Arts Ball. After a decade of absence, the huge costume party will hit the university scene once more this Saturday. Trust me; you have not seen anything like it.

A brief history

CFA faculty and students have prepared for this event since the fall of 2005. They know they have a legacy to live up to, since the tradition began at Carnegie Mellon in 1912 under dean Henry Hornbostel.

“It has this Old World grand tradition,” said Jim Siders, masters student in music performance. “It’s a great chance to throw a thing like this with its background.”

“Over the years, it has recurred in fits and starts,” said Doug Cooper, the Andrew Mellon professor of architecture. “It’s really a wonderful, central experience — an essential thing in the life of the college.”

Many alumni and faculty fondly remember past balls, and former CFA students have already begun buying tickets for the event. The gala of magical performances and magnificent costumes left an imprint on the minds of so many that the college simply could not call this year a centennial without bringing it back.

So what caused the ball to disappear for 11 years? In 1985, the Beaux Arts Ball turned into a chaotic and hedonistic free-for-all as the party got way out of hand. Students just went wild, and many recall beer flowing down steps and through floors into staff offices. It cost the CFA thousands in damage and scarred the ball’s already controversial reputation.

Some students attempted to revive the event with mixed success after that, and the last relatively successful attempt occurred in 1995. Since then, the Beaux Arts Ball has faded from student recollection.

Students and faculty make their plans

This year, planning committees had to work with a student body lacking any collective memory of the ball. Faculty and staff led the massive undertaking, and students had to build from scratch.

“We developed a top-down planning approach with less student involvement than in the past, but this is not how it should be,” said Cooper. “The planning is stronger and more efficient when it is student-run. Students have more natural energy.”

Over two dozen CFA faculty members representing each school in the college helped organize the event. They selected a broad representation of students from the college to help them deliberate and make decisions. The students in advisory positions were chosen based on reputation in their school. The faculty and staff members wanted advice from students who could get opinions from their peers and speak for them. Siders identified this as a sort of grassroots group of student advisors.

“We made a constant effort for this to be a student event,” said Anne Witchner, assistant dean of Student Affairs. Although spearheaded by faculty, the planning committees aimed for a party that would make the most students happy.

Witchner said that the faculty and staff work mostly behind the scenes for an event like this, but she also stressed the importance of regulation and oversight. She said that the ball of 1985 and the few balls following that did not incorporate administrative input. While believing that student input is paramount, Witchner sees this oversight as necessary and thinks that previous balls suffered from lack of it.

Despite this emphasis on oversight, the administration has worked well with the students. Nikki Delhomme, a senior costume design major, said she was pleased with the way the planning was working out.

“It’s very relaxed. [The administration officials] aren’t cramming answers down our throat, and we still get a lot done,” she said.

A team effort

What the Beaux Arts Ball represents, then, is an intense and successful collaboration between all parts of the College of Fine Arts. Every kind of person, young and old, from every department of the college contributed to the execution of this festivity. Faculty contributed heavily to the party’s planning, but in many cases, the ball is a culmination of student work.

For instance, this is the first time that students designed the ball’s invitation. Assistant professor of design Kristin Hughes led the marketing side of the ball by encouraging willing students to apply what they learned to making tangible results. The techniques of using inks and papers to address the ball’s theme “Light and Shadow” inspired a vibrant invitation that plays with light in interesting ways.

“It’s nice to advise students when they can design something that actually gets produced and printed,” said Hughes. She believes that it’s good for students to express their voice and see the impact it has on the intended audience. The invitations were sent to alumni, CFA students, and other related individuals at the beginning of January.

“This kind of circumstance that brings together different disciplines is becoming harder to find,” said Cooper.

The event itself will also present a celebration of what CFA students have to offer. Rock bands of alumni and students will perform in the Alumni Concert Hall as a WRCT DJ fills the main CFA hall with tunes. In the backstage of Kresge Auditorium, the “Kresge Club” will feature students from the School of Music performing more intimate pieces in a cabaret setting.

This does not even begin to address the decorations that will adorn the college on the night of the ball. These decorations will take almost a whole day to set up. Entire classes have accepted the task to make the event stand up to its past with an extravagantly constructed atmosphere. Technical aspects of the decorations had to be thought over and rolled out in these classes. Again, the creativity will see tangible results.

“Every public space in the building will be theatrically lit,” said Siders.

The theme of “Light and Shadow” prompted students to use only lighting effects in the decorations. This invited design and architectural students to work together and combine principles, for lights incorporate more possibilities than, say, streamers and balloons. Cooper pointed out that the CFA building has such interesting features to highlight in setting up the ambience. Taking advantage of all that the building has to offer means a wonderful surrounding to a party.

“We wanted to build a sense of what was illusion and what was real,” said Delhomme.

“It’s very much a team effort from all the departments of CFA,” said Siders.

Let’s party!

Ultimately, these well-laid plans will all result in a fun-filled evening of merrymaking. Costume prizes and other surprises will keep the ball interesting until it lets up at 2 am on Sunday morning. In addition to the above events, the Zebra Lounge will be transformed into an oxygen bar. The Kresge stage will host silent films and performances afterwards.

The individuals at the party have the potential to bring some outrageous costumes to the scene. Delhomme hopes to see some risk-taking in costumes, mentioning one instance in the past where a student had a chess piece costume.

“This is one chance to dress up and be extravagant,” she said.

The safety issues of drinking alcohol in a packed building have been intensely deliberated in the planning committees with the help of many students, and they believe that their decisions will benefit the most people. Strict regulations will keep the ball in check, and Siders has helped coordinate the party with University Police, Emergency Medical Services, and the fire marshal.

“You can’t throw an animal house party and expect to get away with it in an institution like this,” said Siders. “It’s kind of expected that there’s a certain level of control.... I actually think that total lawlessness, not strict regulations, will drive people away. People want to go to an event that’s fun but safe.”

Now, the only thing left to do is get the word out. Witchner and Cooper emphasized that CFA has not kept the event all to itself. All students can purchase a ticket to the party extravaganza.

“It’s hard to have an event that no one’s heard of,” said Witchner. “Hopefully people will take advantage of this unique event.”

If everything goes well, this huge celebration of the College of Fine Arts will reinstate the great memories of the Beaux Arts Ball so that it can happen again. Siders believes that he and his colleagues have truly laid the groundwork for the future.