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UCI Dean Has Had Her Kicks : Education: Ex-Rockette Jill Beck takes over the School of the Arts today. Her academic approach combines technology, dance and multiculturalism.

July 05, 1995|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How to succeed in academia? Become a Rockette.

That's how Jill Beck started out, and today, the erstwhile Radio City Music Hall hoofer takes over as dean of UC Irvine's School of the Arts.

"We did four shows a day, seven days a week," Beck recalls, "and then every four weeks you'd get a couple of days off. That reinforced the sense that the arts require enormous discipline."

Beck, 45, belonged to the famed chorus line for only one summer, and the rest of her resume reads more like the kind that opens scholarly doors and, supporters say, highly qualifies her for the new job. She replaces Robert Hickok, who retired last year after six years at the helm. Robert Cohen, who had been interim dean, will resume his previous duties as drama professor.

Her four degrees include an interdisciplinary master's in history and music from Montreal's McGill University and a doctorate in theater history and criticism from the City College of the City University of New York (CUNY).

She comes to UCI from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she has been dance department chairwoman and a dance professor since 1993. Before that, she chaired Connecticut College's dance department for a year and the dance and theater departments (simultaneously) at CUNY's City College for three years.

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She also has taught dance history, notation and reconstruction at such prestigious institutions as New York's Juilliard School, one of numerous organizations for which she has restaged modern-dance classics and such ballets as Nijinsky's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune."

"She's a genius in the classroom, a pied piper," said Martha Myers, dean of the American Dance Festival, one of the country's premiere dance events, where Beck has taught and restaged works. "People love her as a teacher, and I think she has an understanding of theater, and in the arts generally that will make her a very special leader."

UCI music professor and jazz flutist-composer James Newton, who headed the search committee that selected Beck, praised her expertise in several disciplines, critical to overseeing the entire arts school.

He also singled out her sensitivity to multiculturalism, fund-raising abilities--also crucial in a time of diminishing funds in academia--and computer technology know-how.

Newton added that UCI's studio art faculty, the department's heaviest computer user, "felt Beck understands that technology is going to bring a lot of innovation to education in the 21st Century."

The university as a whole has been positioning itself to better compete in the information age--in fact, it is considering requiring all students to own personal computers. The School of the Arts recently shortened its name (from School of Fine Arts), in part to reflect a more updated approach embracing new computer technology.

At SMU, Beck was co-creator of a multidisciplinary outreach program in which Dallas students perform traditional dances of local cultures, then learn about those cultures on interactive CD-ROM. To fund the project, she obtained a $170,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Shortly before moving here last month with her husband, Robert Beck, an environmental psychologist, Beck, whose salary is budgeted at $101,000, discussed her past, and, while refusing to voice specific plans for UCI before getting to know the terrain, looked to the future.

An articulate, carefully spoken woman who appears to care greatly about the arts, she said during a phone interview from Dallas that her interdisciplinary approach began early.

She was born in Worcester, Mass., and her parents put her in ballet, jazz and musical-theater classes when she was 4. She played piano and violin and acted in school drama productions as a teen.

She received her bachelor's degree in philosophy at Worcester's Clark University. While pursuing that degree she worked various musical-theater jobs, including her stint as a Rockette.

Radio City Music Hall, she said, "is like a big spaceship backstage," decked out with state-of-the-art lighting and special-effects controls, "so in terms of getting into a big theater and learning how major events are rehearsed, designed and produced, it was a good introduction."

After next dancing with Quebec's La Compagnie Marie Calumet, which performed various cultures' traditional dances, Beck entered McGill to study music and history ("I wanted to know more about world history so I could place my understanding of art history in context"). She then taught in remote communities throughout Quebec.

"I'd teach whatever the dynamics of the community brought into high relief," she said. "Where the arts were new to a community, that meant creative movement for children. In more established areas, it meant musical-theater performance classes. It was my first exposure to working with community needs and to the understanding that the arts can represent many different values to many different people."

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