The University’s 375th birthday celebration placed students at its center, and more than 40 student groups were asked to perform as part of the October 14 festivities. But the precisely calibrated schedule for these performances—a few minutes each, at four distinct sites in Harvard Yard, over the course of one hour—was no match for the anniversary evening’s relentless rain.
Confusion reigned, with no one certain who was in charge or whether the performances were still supposed to happen. Students huddled in the dark near the performing areas, awaiting direction. “How are we supposed to dance in this?” a member of one troupe wondered.
But the show did go on, if a few minutes late. Performances on the main stage in front of Memorial Church were lit by floodlights—and unprotected by the large tent that covered the rear of the stage. Some dancers rolled on the ground as part of their routines; water drops flew off them when they rose again. Others used the rain to their advantage, executing extra-long slides across the dance floor.
Yo-Yo Ma ’76 had been scheduled to play “in the round,” on a small stage at the center of the Yard, facing Widener Library but behind the enormous red velvet cake commissioned for the event. During the main program, Ma performed from the Memorial Church steps at the front of Tercentenary Theatre and the smaller stage stayed empty, with a few disappointed students gathered around. But the stage wasn’t empty all night: earlier in the evening, during the student performance hour, a cappella groups coopted it after finding that the “grass” where they had been assigned to sing was now mud. (The University police ejected groups from the stage at least three separate times, saying it was not meant to hold so many people.)
With the combination of rain, umbrellas, and darkness making it impossible to see, audio cues became more important. A line of bellydancers wove through the crowd, finding their way forward by following the sound of each other’s jingling belts.
At times, the din of the driving rain made student singing, storytelling, and comedy hard to hear. Other groups were challenged by the nature of the performance space: the Noteables, a group that sings tunes from musical theater and cinema, typically sings with a piano, and wasn’t able to play recorded accompaniment because of the wet weather—so they performed a cappella, fighting to make themselves heard over the din of the University band, which was playing the soundtrack to the evening’s parade behind them on Widener steps.
For all the advance planning involved, the spontaneous, improvisational spirit that ultimately defined the evening may have been more in tune with the “home-grown family get-together” that University marshal Jackie O’Neill said she and President Drew Faust desired. To be sure, the adverse performing conditions made audiences more appreciative and generous with their whoops and applause. “The rain hasn’t stopped any of these dancers from being awesome!” declared partygoer Victoria Zarak, the wife of a Harvard School of Public Health student. “I love all of it!”