2012 Commencement Address by Alumna Janet Eilber

Forty-three years after her Valedictory address, 1969 Interlochen Arts Academy alumna Janet Eilber addressed the 2012 Academy graduating class on May 27. Janet has been the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance since 2005 and is a Trustee Emeritus of Interlochen Center for the Arts.

"Suddenly, 50 Years Later…"
For those of you who don’t know me, one of the reasons I’m up here today is that my family moved to Interlochen 50 years ago next week. My dad and mom had taken jobs on the faculty of Joe Maddy’s new arts boarding school, so I’m kind of a living artifact in the Academy archives.

As someone once said: Before I give my speech, I have something to say…

I don’t want to make any excuses, but I just want to point out that writing a commencement speech that also celebrates a 50-year legacy is a real exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Jeff, You made it sound so easy when you invited me – you know, it should probably be a bit about what Interlochen has meant to you, some remembrances of the 50 years and, you know, some advice to the graduates. And, keep it under 8 minutes…

Okay, here goes. Graduates, I’ll try to keep the reminiscing short. Because I know this is an out-of-body experience for you. I remember sitting there 43 years ago and my brain was gone. Yes, I admit, I had been up late the night before toilet-papering Bob Murphy’s house – but that wasn’t really the reason – I was out of here – my brain was on to what’s going to happen next week, and next year, and beyond – and whoever spoke that day – didn’t have a chance of making an impression on me.

Actually… I spoke that day. I had to give the Valedictory address.

And since my mind was already gone – the faculty members who were trying to get me to organize the speech were a bit frustrated. It was this pile of hand-written notes. It didn’t have speech-like structure. I called it a “collage” (they obviously didn’t realize how prescient I was) and it was a collection of memories, quotes from letters alums had written me, impressions that I hoped came together to evoke the indescribable essence of Interlochen.

I used a quote from Leonard Bernstein about making music: He said, “I can’t tell you what it is to be in absolute unison with more than 100 people in such fine detail that you are not only pulsing together, but breathing together.”

I basically talked about the supportive atmosphere, the bonding – the great love -- that had grown over our years learning and living together at Interlochen.

But, to tell the truth, after 43 years of reflection – I realize how much I left out of that speech, and there are a few things I’d like to add. Jeff, thanks for the re-do.

It turns out that this connectivity we all had was only the backdrop for what was really going on -- an approach to creativity and creative thinking that permeated the campus. Perhaps I didn’t see it clearly at the time because it was the norm. It was simply the way things worked at Interlochen.

I know this approach started at the top with Joe Maddy – with his visionary determination to create a new type of school -- and with the decisions that were being made about how this new school should educate.

But I came to understand this way of thinking from the point of view of a student, and through a wildly diverse range of experiences. These are not just the extraordinary happenings -- like having Aaron Copland visit rehearsal – but the everyday – in our academic classes, our social interactions – everything.

At 8:00 a.m. every Friday morning of my senior year, the dance instructor, Bill Hug, held a class in dance improvisation. It was time dedicated to training the imagination, to practicing thinking that went beyond technique, expectations, or preconceived notions – it was about expanding your mind – this was the late 60s, remember.

Bill would give us an improvisational structure or prompt of some kind and ask us to react with movement on the spot, or maybe he would give us 20 minutes to invent something. We’d have partners or teams or work by ourselves. We’d be given concepts about space or time, words to react to, or to speak, situations to unravel or create resolutions for.

The goal was to root around in your own brain, to conjure up an impossible range of uninhibited responses to questions or ideas you had never considered before, to choose the reaction that spoke most strongly to you, that you felt would have the most impact -- and to literally put it into action. We were practicing imagining; we were practicing risk-taking, choice, and personal investment, and we were discovering who we were and what we thought. Education doesn’t get much better than that – whether you are going to be a dancer or a dentist.

Today, with the hair-raising pace of new technology, concerns about how to remain competitive in the world economy, and God knows what else, there’s a worldwide discussion going on about “innovation.” What is it? How can we get it? Where does creativity live in the brain? Where do ideas come from? How does one innovate? I think the answer is the same as those time-honored directions to Carnegie Hall -- practice, practice, practice.

It’s wonderfully evident to anyone who has been on campus – or even near campus – for the last few days that the creative atmosphere at Interlochen Arts Academy is thriving!

Along with the discipline, expertise and lifelong friendships you graduates have acquired in your time here, you’ve also been introduced to a different way of looking at the world. The creative eco-system at Interlochen has given you invaluable skills that will serve you as you face challenges that have yet to be invented.

So back to my cognitive dissonance and squeezing both the past and the future into this speech. It turns out they come together on a day like this. The Interlochen legacy is not the archives: the old photos, the thousands of recordings, or even the memories we’ve been dredging up in the last few days – as much as we have enjoyed them. The Interlochen legacy is a legacy of launch -- of propulsion – of bequeathing to each new group of graduates an approach to the future.

At my launch with the class of 1969, I was given my diploma by the Director of the Academy, and I’d like to officially say thank you. So thanks, Dad, for my lifelong Interlochen experience. And -- you know – sorry about that Bob Murphy thing.

So I’m down to my advice to the graduates – if any of them are still listening…

Graduates, you don’t need any advice. You’ve had a remarkable education, and like me, you’re probably not going to really appreciate until you go use it. So, go! Grab your diploma and consider yourself launched. Congratulations!