Saturday, Sept. 9, the College of William and Mary’s new Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall opened its doors to the public for a soft opening, which included a performance of “Nine – A Tribute to the Little Rock Nine” by the Leah Glenn Dance Theatre. The event marked the official beginning of the Year of the Arts at the College.
The celebratory evening began at 6:00 p.m. with tours of the new performance building, courtesy of theater students at the College. Attendees toured the three new performance spaces, the Main Stage Theatre, the Studio Theatre and the Laboratory Theatre, as well as various classrooms, dance studios and rehearsal spaces located inside the new building.
At 7:30 p.m., attendees filed into the Main Stage Theatre for the performance of “Nine,” occupying all 499 seats in the auditorium.
Choreographed by Frances L. And Edwin L. Cummings professor of dance and Africana Studies LLeah Glenn, “Nine” originally began as a four-minute solo dance performance depicting the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, then 14-year-old Carlotta Walls LaNier. Glenn later decided to expand the performance to include all nine members of the Little Rock Nine, as well as some of their classmates.
“I am incredibly honored and appreciative that my company, Leah Glenn Dance Theatre, was invited to provide the inaugural performance in the new Arts Quarter,” Glenn said in an email. “It is my hope that Nine serves as a catalyst for building community as we move forward in celebrating the arts at William and Mary.”
Steve Prince, director of Engagement and Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, led the costume and set design for “Nine.” Prince discussed how the performance aimed at highlighting the bravery and challenges faced by the nine African-American students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
“This piece, in essence, documents some of that tension and some of those spaces where they actually went within the school structure,” Prince said. “But it also speaks of how they were on the front line, and these kids took those brunts in order to open up school systems in the ways in which we are integrated now all across this nation.”
The show began with nine dancers, each representing one student of the Little Rock Nine. The dancers proceeded down the aisles and onto the stage carrying large banners with silhouettes of the students painted on them.
All the dancers remained silent the entire performance to provide greater attention to the combination of dancing, music, poetry, costume and set design.
Prince also noted that many of the racial tensions faced by the Little Rock Nine are still prevalent in the United States today. He explained how the performance both reflects our nation’s past and critically examines current shortcomings.
“We still have a lot of those tensions in the fabric of our nation,” Prince said. “This piece is one, to address some of that past, get us to look back, but at the same time, get us to look at what we’re doing right now, and how we can continue to raise awareness about the history, and raise awareness about the ways in which we are continuing to replicate those same sins of the past.”
Allison Foley ’25 was one of the dancers in the performance. She reflected on her experience participating in “Nine” and the importance of its message.
The arts are a means of inciting social change, and I think this piece certainly does that. The audience is invited to not only remember the Little Rock Nine, but also to recognize how recent integration truly was and call to question what work there is left to do in our current society concerning race. Everyone had a different background and way of dancing. It created a beautiful combination of movement on and off the stage.
“My favorite part of participating in ‘Nine’ was being able to contribute to this choreographic and artistic vision,” Foley said. “The arts are a means of inciting social change, and I think this piece certainly does that. The audience is invited to not only remember the Little Rock Nine, but also to recognize how recent integration truly was and call to question what work there is left to do in our current society concerning race. Everyone had a different background and way of dancing. It created a beautiful combination of movement on and off the stage.”
After the performance, professor of English and Africana studies Hermine Pinson along with Glenn and Prince joined the dancers on stage for a question-and-answer session with the audience.
Several members of the Leah Glenn Dance Theatre took the opportunity to express their gratitude towards Glenn, Prince and Pinson for making the production possible. Some of the members also elaborated on the continued fight for social justice in the United States.
Following the question and answer session, attendees proceeded into the lobby for a reception to celebrate the performance and commemorate the beginning of the Year of the Arts.
Tobin Doherty ’25, shared his initial reaction to “Nine,” reflecting on the culmination of the various artistic elements of the production.
“It was overwhelming,” Doherty said. “It told a story in a way that you could take in with all your senses and stay in the moment.”
American poet, author and educator Latorial Faison attended the production and was deeply impressed by the performance.
“The choreography, the art, the music, Hermine’s poetry, the dancers… it was all outstanding,” Faison said. “Very humbling. So well done. So many moments where I just felt like emptying my soul and spirit with a cry… what a racial, yet spiritual road we have trod in America.”
Following the performance, Prince discussed hopes of increasing collaboration between the Muscarelle Museum and departments within Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.
“We definitely want to do some collaboration between the Muscarelle Museum and Phi Beta Kappa, and so there needs to be more intentional collaboration across the disciplines,” Prince said. “I think that’s one of the things that is a hallmark of the institution. Being at a liberal arts institution is about funding rules, pathways between different things, whether it be theater, whether it be dance, whether it be music, whether it be visual arts, whether it be English and literature.”
As for the future of the Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, Foley believes the new facility will inspire general enthusiasm for the arts.
“This new building means more time for dance classes, more opportunities to rehearse, and with that, a draw towards the Dance Program at William and Mary, something that has shaped my college experience,” Foley said. “Dancing in the new studios has been wonderful, and I can’t wait to keep performing on the main PBK stage.”
Prince conveyed similar views, stating that the new building and the Arts Quarter will inspire unity in the College and Williamsburg communities.
Art helps us to remember, art challenges, art inspires, art uplifts. Art is something made from nothing.
“Art can be used as a tool to draw us closer together,” Prince said. “Art helps us to remember, art challenges, art inspires, art uplifts. Art is something made from nothing.”