Equipped with texts of ancient performances, students studying the classics at Boston College spread across 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 key to understanding their coursework, but rarely are they performed live in a classroom setting. Typically, readings and video clips of such events suffice––but assistant professor of classics Tom Sapsford is trying to change that.
As the newest faculty member within the classical studies department and the instructor of two courses this semester, Sapsford is utilizing his background as a professional dancer and choreographer to mold a unique and engaging learning environment for his students.
A fundamental part of Sapsford’s background that guides his classroom instruction is his experience studying at the Royal Ballet School, a world-renowned ballet institution in London, United Kingdom, which allowed him to begin touring the world at age 18. After excelling in the school, where he was awarded one of the first ever Jerwood Foundation Young Choreographers’ Awards for his choreography, Sapsford concluded his dancing career.
“You don’t dance forever,” Sapsford said. “I was one of the first in my contemporaries to stop.”
Afterward, Sapsford spent time as a choreographer, working for renowned choreographers like Wayne McGregor, Will Tuckett, and Michael Clark, as well as having his choreography commissioned by the Royal Opera House and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
What brought Sapsford, a professional choreographer and dancer, to the field of classical studies was a single copy of The Odyssey.
“I started reading it and I was mesmerized,” Sapsford said. “It was just shockingly beautiful … the combination of the mythology and the human narrative that’s happening at the same time … just catched in this beautiful, evocative language.”
This led to Sapsford earning a bachelor’s degree in classical studies from the University of Bristol in 2010. He then continued these studies at the University of Southern California, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 2017.
Following 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 was a lecturer in classical and medieval studies, Sapsford entered the classical studies department at BC. According to Gail Hoffman, classical studies department chair, Sapsford is the last member to fill the department to its “imagined perfect size.”.
Sapsford said the fact that BC is a large research university but also has a liberal arts curriculum was an enticing factor in coming to BC.
“One of the things that’s so great … is the ability to do more creative, student-focused classes that a liberal arts college affords,” Sapsford said. “So that combo [with academic research] was really appealing to me.”
Sapsford’s initial interviews and discussions with the department impressed the BC faculty, who were eager to have him on board.
“His Zoom interviews, his Zoom presentation, and all the talking individually that we did with him really excited everybody,” Hoffman said. “We were just like ‘wow.’ This is somebody everyone wanted to work with.”
In addition, Hoffman recognized that Sapsford could introduce a new element of theatre into the classics department.
“It was one of the really exciting things about his application portfolios––that it would allow us a link into theatre studies,” Hoffman said. “We could see that he was going to be teaching courses that are classical studies but in a new way that none of us had expertise in.”
In his first semester on the Heights, Sapsford has combined his academic and artistic backgrounds in his instruction as he teaches a chorus class. The class aims to examine performances of ancient choruses and the ways in which they relate to their societies by studying both performance and exploring ancient texts.
In addition, his class looks into the role that group performance plays in the modern period within the context of the “Nazi Olympics” of 1936, the Arirang Mass Games in North Koreas, and flash mobs.
Sapsford’s background in choreography and dance allows the classics department a unique link into theatre studies as Sapsford has held several workshops with his chorus class. These workshops have included performing plays, such as the necromantic chorus from Aeschylus’ Persians, in the Stokes Amphitheater in their original languages, which helps bring to life the documents and performances examined in the classroom.
Sapsford has also incorporated ROTC into his curriculum, as his chorus class executed drills with the ROTC to examine the connections between choral dance and military maneuvers. In addition, the class has gone to Newton Campus to learn from the University Chorale of Boston College about sound projection with the organs in Trinity Chapel.
“It’s very rare that you will do a class where you get to read this stuff and then get some actual experience of going through it yourself,” Sapsford said. “It’s an exciting course.”
Hoffman, who joined a performance in the Stokes Amphitheater, said she recognized the added benefits of acting out the ancient performances.
“I went away with a tremendous appreciation for what that adds,” Hoffman said. “You might do a theatre class where you know you’re going to be doing theatre, or you might do a classics course where you know you’re going to be reading the plays, but to be expanding and doing all of those things in one umbrella is a new experience for everybody and a really enjoyable one.”
Although his chorus class has only four students this semester, Sapsford’s experience as a professional dancer who can examine ancient texts and apply them to real life enriches his chorus course, Emma Schweitzer, Lynch ’24, said.
“He has been bringing in a lot of his own experiences,” Schweitzer said. “It’s been great to have someone who’s really done it and can use that and not just have it be from a textbook.”
Schweitzer, who hopes to take another one of Sapsford’s courses in the spring, said that Sapsford always checks in on his students and how they’re doing, and that his willingness to do so only strengthens the classroom environment.
“He really just cares about us as people,” Schweitzer said. “He’s always asking us how
we’re doing … and how we’re doing mentally. That’s something you don’t always get and something that really builds a connection between the class and your professor.”
In addition to incorporating live performances into his teaching curriculum, Sapsford is expanding the classics department through a geographic aspect. Although the department is mostly focused on the Mediterranean region, Sapsford said he will teach a course on Greco-Roman Egypt this spring and will also teach a course on the history of sexuality. In addition, he has worked extensively with papyri, which most of the classical studies department has not done, which enables him to work directly with Greek manuscripts, he said.
Outside of the classroom, Sapsford continues his passion for the classics. He recently sent the final manuscript of his new book to his publisher, which he said he has been working on for six years. The book examines a figure in ancient Greece and Rome who is known for extravagant gender behavior while having quite extreme and frowned upon sexual behaviors. While his book is set to be released in 2022, Sapsford said he will continue writing about the classics. Over Winter Break, Sapsford will write a chapter on queer theory and classical texts for a collective volume. In addition to writing, he also plans on putting on an event for the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama at the University of Oxford this spring.
For Sapsford, classical studies is important today due to the pertinence it has had in global history and the impact it will continue to make.
“Classics has a central place in many subsequent periods of culture estimation and has often been used for how best to do things in both positive and negative ways,” Sapsford said. “Insomuch as the ancient Greek and Roman world was part of the spark of the Renaissance, it also was a direct template for the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler.”
Sapsford said that many ideas we carry today derive from understandings of ancient history and that society has a lot to learn from the past. He also warned that the classics can be cherry-picked to justify actions taken by the modern world.
“[Antiquity] will get picked up, often cherry-picked, to justify aesthetic, social, and political decisions of today,” Sapsford said. “So it’s bizarre, really, that this culture from so long ago has such a relevance on things that are happening and the creation of culture and society today.”
Photos courtesy of Tom Sapsford