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Chautauqua Preview: The American West


The Chautauqua Institution explores the American West this week -- in its daily lectures and in an original arts production that will be staged in the Amphitheater Saturday night.

The American West has been romanticized in countless movie and television westerns.  But in the more than 200 years since the Louisiana Purchase started the nation's westward expansion, there's been debate over what was gained and what was lost.  There's no doubt the United States became an economic powerhouse once it connected both coasts.  And says Chautauqua President Tom Becker, westward expansion had an impact on ending slavery.

"People say the movement west was a strong influencer of Lincoln's fight against slavery," Becker said.  "The merchant class (moving west), as opposed to those who were involved in agriculture, didn't want slavery in those communities.  They wanted a more wide open meritocracy."

As far as what was lost, a highly-renowned scholar of Native American descent will share his thoughts about westward expansion and its impact on his culture.  W. Richard West, Jr. is a Cheyenne Indian.  He's the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.  West will speak Wednesday morning at the Amphitheater.  In a 2011 interview with Prairie Public Broadcasting, West said the challenge for modern-day Native Americans is finding a way to preserve the culture they lost because of westward expansion while at the same time embracing the future.

"We need to make sure we know where we are from and where we're going in fundamental cultural terms," West said.  "But at the same time, we have to be able to cope with cultures that are not our own."

Then on Thursday, two former governors of Western states, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Robert List of Nevada will address the political and economic gains that resulted from this nation's westward expansion.

Chautauqua President Tom Becker previews this week's morning lectures at the Amphitheater.

The theme of the American West is the basis for this year's inter-arts collaboration at Chautauqua.  For a second consecutive year, Chautauqua's various arts group are working together on a major production.  Last year, it was Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."  Bringing theater, the Chautauqua Symphony, opera and dance all together was challenging.  But they had a body of work to go on.  This year, Theater Director Vivienne Benesch says they're creating something brand new, a show they're calling "Go West!"

"This year, the story is from cloth because you can't possibly include everything and what is everything in the story of America's westward expansion," Benesch said. "What that can include is incredibly very subjective." 

Credit Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Institution
Go West! artists and staff meet.

Associate Artistic Director Andrew Borba is directing "Go West!"  In a video produced by the Chautauquan Daily, Borba said the production will celebrate America's pioneer spirit.

"There is this notion that going west is part of the American dream and the push to explore is inherent in Americans," Borba said.  "We want to explore this artistically."

"Go West!" will be staged one night only, this Saturday at 8:15 at the Amphitheater.  Also this week, an opera set in the American West opens at Chautauqua.  Director Jay Lesenger says "The Ballad of Baby Doe" tells the story of Horace Tabor, a "silver magnate" who heads west in the 1880s.

"In the middle of all this, his marriage fell apart.  He ended up having an affair with a pretty, young blonde named 'Baby Doe.'  He divorced his wife," Lesenger explained.  "This was a big scandal.  He wanted to run for the Senate but lost that opportunity.  And then he lost everything."

So, does "Baby" Doe stay with Horace?  Well, Lesenger says you'll just have to show up at Norton Hall this Friday night at 7:30 to find out.  

Opera Director Jay Lesenger talks about the production of "The Ballad of Baby Doe."

Also Friday night, the Time Jumpers featuring country music star Vince Gill perform at the Amphitheater at 8:15.