Architecture About Dancing

UA's long-awaited dance theater opens this weekend in a big way.

When a dance theater is on the drawing boards, it pays to hire an architect who once danced herself.

Donna Barry, who with José Pombo designed the new $9 million dance and opera theater at the University of Arizona, didn't dance long--she studied ballet when she was 12--but it was enough to help shape the project. Set to be dedicated with ceremonies and an open house Friday, the 28,600-square-foot building has "the idea of movement throughout," Barry said.

A wavy rust-colored stage scrim undulates along the theater walls inside and out, mimicking the gestures of dance. The outside scrim, a theatrical flash of deep orange against the boxy building's charcoal gray walls, wards off the fierce Arizona sun by day; it will shine courtesy of artificial lamps by night to announce concerts. The scrim, made of a rusted woven steel screen, will also fend off stray soccer balls from the playing field to the east.

The students in the UA Dance Division are already using the large studio upstairs, and their movements at the ballet barre are visible at all hours through the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mall.

"We saw the studio as a beacon to the UA mall advertising the dance program," Barry said.

The architects, of Gould Evans in Phoenix, even based the design of the indoor-outdoor lobby on George Balanchine's 1934 "Serenade." Standing in for Balanchine's long-ago dancers are columns that tilt forward from a vertical axis; the light fixtures and benches echo the dance's movement.

"We got a copy of the labonotation (dance code) and made the floor plan from the starting positions, just as the dancers are on the cusp of movement," Barry said. "We worked with the engineers to create a matrix." Even the bathrooms have tiny mirrors, in a labonotation pattern that suggests the washing of hands.

A sage green carpet inside the glass-walled lobby alludes to another kind of movement--the swings and kicks of the tennis and soccer athletes playing on the nearby courts, planted in green grass. The sage-green cushioned seats inside carry on the color theme, and their staggered placement offers excellent viewing of dancers on stage.

The theater itself sits on a grassy knoll that's meant to evoke a stage. Pombo, co-architect with Barry, says that the exterior reprises the interior: The dark outside walls evoke the black stage inside, and the rust-colored scrim relates to the interior sound walls. The audience members are meant to enter through a progression of theatrical spaces, outside to inside.

"The excitement of the theater is something that starts when you're still at home," Pombo said. You get dressed up and then arrive at a theater that's dramatically lit, and sitting above the lawns.

A delighted Jory Hancock, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal who heads the dance division, said the architects collaborated with the practitioners and profs in dance and opera and came up with a "brilliant blend of form and function." The design has already won a Citation Award from the state division of the American Institute of Architects.

The long wait for a new dance theater makes its completion "much sweeter," Hancock added. Now also head of the faculty senate, Hancock said he and his wife, dance prof Melissa Lowe, were lured to the UA in 1987 partly on the promise that the university would build a dance theater in the complex that houses the music, drama, fine arts and architecture buildings, along with the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the Center for Creative Photography. Sixteen years later, he's looking forward to the kick-off gala Oct. 4, in which dance students will sashay across its boards for the first time. The dance division will continue to use the studio classrooms in the Ina Gittings building next door to the new theater.

In these days of radical legislative budget cuts, the dance division relied on the kindness of its fans to get its theater built. Hancock said that two-thirds of the theater money came from private donors, and just one-third from university coffers.

The major donor, who chooses to remain anonymous, "went around the country and looked at 10 or 12 of the best university dance programs," Hancock said. "They saw ours and said, 'What do you need?'"

In exchange for $3 million from this single donor, the university agreed to kick in another $3 million if the dance department could raise the remaining $3 million. Donor Stevie Eller (spouse of Karl, the billboard king whose name is part of the official title of the UA's college of business) gets her name on the theater, and Mel and Enid Zuckerman, owners of Tucson's Canyon Ranch Resort, lend theirs to a combination physical therapy center/studio/dressing room on the bottom floor.

Hancock foresees the theater helping to build Tucson's dance audience, giving the city's local professional troupes another venue to rent, and providing the university's students with more opportunities to dance. Local dance groups are already clamoring to perform there. O-T-O-Dance, formerly known as Orts, will dance there Nov. 14 and 16, and Hancock is in discussions with Ballet Tucson and Tucson Regional Ballet. And the UA's own student dance ensemble has scheduled a school year's worth of concerts, including In the Season Dec. 4-7.

Until now, student dancers have had to compete with student musicians for performance time in Crowder Hall, a music hall with poor sight lines. The UA dancers also will share their new theater with opera singers-in-training. The new theater has an orchestra pit, full fly tower and an unusually large stage, 42 feet deep, to accommodate opera sets, but it left room for just the 300 seats.

"We did things not to compromise the artistry of the performances," Hancock said, "Now that we have our own theater we can do more performances. We'll just add more shows."

Hancock credits the strength of the division's triple-threat dance program, which places equal emphasis on ballet, modern and jazz dance, for the donors' willingness to open their wallets.

"Some people think, 'Build a building and they will come.' We built the program first and now we're about to have a building that matches the quality of the program."