Equipped with texts from old performances, students studying Boston College classics spread over the bright green grass and rocky steps of the Stokes Amphitheater to set the stage for a unique learning experience.
For students of the classics, ancient performances and plays are essential to understanding their lessons, but they are rarely performed live in a classroom. Usually, readings and video clips from such events are enough – but Assistant Professor of Classics Tom Sapsford is trying to change that.
As a new faculty member in the Classical Studies Department and a two-course instructor this semester, Sapsford uses his experience as a professional dancer and choreographer to create a unique and engaging learning environment for his students.
A fundamentalPart of Sapsford’s background that guides his classroom teaching is his experience studying at the Royal Ballet School, a world-renowned ballet institution in London, UK, which saw him begin to tour of the world at the age of 18. After he excelled at school, where he was Winner of one of the first-ever Jerwood Foundation Young Choreographers’ Awards for his choreography, Sapsford has completed his dancing career.
âYou don’t dance forever,â Sapsford said. âI was one of the first of my contemporaries to quit.
Subsequently, Sapsford spent time as a choreographer, working for renowned choreographers like Wayne McGregor, Will Tuckett and Michael Clark, as well as his choreography commissioned by the Royal Opera House and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
What brought Sapsford, a professional choreographer and dancer, to the realm of classical studies was a single copy of The odyssey.
âI started to read it and was mesmerized,â Sapsford said. “It was just shockingly beautifulâ¦ the combination of mythology and human narrative happening at the same timeâ¦ just captured in this beautiful and evocative language.”
This led Sapsford to obtain a BA in Classical Studies from the University of Bristol in 2010. He then continued his studies at the University of Southern California, where he obtained his doctorate. in 2017.
After brief stints at New York University in 2019, where he was a Fellow at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and at Bates College, where he taught Classical and Medieval Studies, Sapsford entered the Department of Studies. British Columbia classics. According to Gail Hoffman, head of the Classics Department, Sapsford is the latest member to fill the department to its “imagined ideal size.”
Sapsford said that the fact that British Columbia is a great research university but also has a liberal arts degree program is an attractive factor in coming to British Columbia.
âOne of the things that’s so awesomeâ¦ is the ability to make classes more creative and student-focused than a liberal arts college offers,â Sapsford said. “So this combo [with academic research] really attracted me.
Sapsford’s first interviews and discussions with the department impressed BC faculty, who were eager to have him on board.
âHis Zoom interviews, his Zoom presentation and all the one-on-one discussions we had with him really turned everyone on,â Hoffman said. âWe were just like ‘wow.’ He’s someone that everyone wanted to work with.
Additionally, Hoffman acknowledged that Sapsford could introduce a new element of theater to the classics department.
âThat was one of the really exciting things about his application portfolios – it would allow us a connection to theater studies,â Hoffman said. “We could see that he was going to teach classes that are classic studies but in a new way that neither of us had any expertise.”
During his first semester on the Heights, Sapsford combined his academic and artistic background in his teaching by teaching a choir class. The course aims to examine the performances of ancient choirs and their relationship to their societies by studying both the performance and the exploration of ancient texts.
In addition, his class examines the role that group performance plays in modern times in the context of the 1936 âNazi Olympicsâ, the Arirang Mass Games in North Korea, and flash mobs.
Sapsford’s background in choreography and dance allows the Classics department a unique connection to theater studies, as Sapsford has held several workshops with his choir class. These workshops included plays, such as Aeschylus’ necromantic choir Persians, at the Stokes Amphitheater in their native languages, bringing the documents and performances discussed in class to life.
Sapsford also incorporated the ROTC into his program, as his choir class performed exercises with the ROTC to examine the links between choral dance and military maneuvers. In addition, the class traveled to the Newton campus to learn sound projection with the Trinity Chapel organs from the Boston College University Choir.
“It’s very rare that you do a class where you learn to read this stuff and then real experience living it yourself, âSapsford said. âIt’s an exciting course.
Hoffman, who joined a show at the Stokes Amphitheater, said she recognizes the added benefits of playing the older shows.
âI walked away with huge appreciation for what it adds,â Hoffman said. “You can take an acting class where you know you’re going to do theater, or you can take a classics class where you know you’re going to read the plays, but to develop and do all of those things in an umbrella is new. experience for everyone and really enjoyable.
Although her choir class only has four students this semester, Sapsford’s experience as a professional dancer who can examine ancient texts and apply them to real life enriches her choir class, said Emma Schweitzer, Lynch ’24.
âHe brought a lot of his own experiences,â said Schweitzer. “It was great to have someone who really did it and can use it and not just have it taken from a manual. “
Schweitzer, who hopes to take another of Sapsford’s classes in the spring, said Sapsford always monitors his students and how they are doing, and his willingness to do so only strengthens the classroom environment.
âHe really cares about us as people,â Schweitzer said. “He always asks us how
we doâ¦ and how we do it mentally. It’s something you don’t always get and something that really connects the class and your teacher.
In addition to incorporating live performances into its teaching program, Sapsford is expanding the classics department by a geographic aspect. Although the department focuses primarily on the Mediterranean region, Sapsford said he would teach a class on Greco-Roman Egypt this spring and also teach a course on the history of sexuality. Also, he worked extensively with papyri, which most classical studies departments did not, allowing him to work directly with Greek manuscripts, he said.
Outside of the classroom, Sapsford pursues his passion for the classics. He recently sent the final manuscript of his new book to his publisher, which he says he has been working on for six years. The book examines a figure from ancient Greece and Rome who is known for her extravagant gender behavior while also having some pretty extreme and frowned upon sexual behaviors. With his book set for release in 2022, Sapsford has said he will continue to write about the classics. Over the winter break, Sapsford will be writing a chapter on queer theory and classical texts for a collective volume. In addition to writing, he is also planning to host an event for the Archives of Greek and Roman Drama Performances at Oxford University this spring.
For Sapsford, classical studies are important today because of the relevance they have had in world history and the impact they will continue to have.
âThe classics have a central place in many subsequent periods of culture estimation and have often been used to determine how best to do things in a positive and negative way,â Sapsford said. âTo the extent that the ancient Greek and Roman world was part of the Renaissance spark, it was also a direct model for the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. ”
Sapsford said that many of the ideas we carry today stem from understanding ancient history and that society has a lot to learn from the past. He also warned that the classics can be handpicked to justify actions taken by the modern world.
“[Antiquity] will be picked up, often handpicked, to justify today’s aesthetic, social and political decisions, âSapsford said. “So it’s really weird that this culture from so long ago has such relevance to the things that are happening and the creation of culture and society today.”
Photos courtesy of Tom Sapsford