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Building the Future of Dance

Since moving into its first official headquarters on Maynard Street 120 years ago, the teaching and performance facilities of U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance have slowly but steadily evolved (see timeline). That evolution continues in 2014 when the 50-year-old Moore Building is slated to undergo a major renovation and expansion, bringing the Eero Saarinen-designed building decidedly into the 21st century with significant improvements in size, acoustical properties, and other critical updates.

The renovation of the Moore Building will do for music students what the Walgreen Drama Center did for theatre & drama and musical theatre students. This state-of-the-art facility, home to the Arthur Miller Theatre and Stamps Auditorium, opened in 2007 and has revolutionized the learning and performance experience for both performance majors and those training for careers in design and production.

“With the help of generous lead benefactors, such as William and Dolores Brehm, Glenn Watkins, and Charles and Jean Walgreen, as well as the many thousands of others who have contributed to our building projects, we’ve made enormous strides in adding new and renovated spaces appropriate to a world-class performing arts school,” said Dean Christopher Kendall. “But we remain on a mission to continue to improve every aspect of the physical learning environment for all of our students. The next critically important goal, then, is for a state-of-the-art dance building that will provide our dance majors—and non-majors who want to enroll in our excellent classes—the resources and space they need for study, practice, and performance.”

A Reputation For Excellence

Since 1909, there has been a curriculum for dance at U-M, which developed steadily throughout the 20th-century within the Department of Women’s Physical Education. In 1974, a formal Department of Dance was finally founded as part of what was then the School of Music.

Since then, the Department of Dance has become one of the country’s finest. With a long history of dedicated and celebrated dance faculty, the department continues to be a magnet for exceptionally talented students.

“It’s the breadth of expertise and dedication of the faculty, their artistry, scholarship, and international reputation, that attracts our students,” said Angela Kane, chair of the Department of Dance. When prospective students come to the University, she adds, “they pick up on the vibe of the department, the total engagement of the students, and our unique blend of a conservatory with top-class academics. That’s how we continue to attract exceptional talent.”

For senior Nola Smith, that’s exactly why she chose Michigan. A dance major with a minor in movement science (at the School of Kinesiology), Smith said that U-M was the only college that offered that ideal balance of academics and art. She was also impressed by the personal attention of the department, and, she says, continues to be amazed by it.

“Everyone is so invested in you,” said Smith. “We have these assessments at the end of each semester, and the faculty members really understand each student so well, they know what each person is working toward. There’s a lot of care and support.”

With both undergraduate and masters degree programs, and aspirations for a PhD program as well, the Department of Dance thrives in its place within a major research university. It also attracts an international roster of guest artists—dancers and choreographers (many of them alumni) from the world’s finest companies—who conduct master classes, presentations, and collaborations on special projects.

The only thing standing between the dance department and an increasingly brilliant future is the building where students practice and learn their art.

Becoming Vibrant and Visible

For its first 80 years, including its first three as a department, dance was headquartered at Barbour Gymnasium, a women’s facility on Central Campus. When the deteriorating building was slated for demolition in 1977, however, new facilities had to be found for dance students. Though there was no money for a brand-new space, a solution was enacted by adding on to the recently constructed Central Campus Recreation Building (CCRB).

During the 35 years that have elapsed since the Dance Building opened, hundreds of students have studied and trained there, many going on to distinguished careers as dancers and choreographers. Still, while the department has continued to thrive, the space has not grown with it.

“New facilities would allow us to grow our program and offer four levels of ballet and modern dance, which is what high technical standards are all about,” said Kane. “At the same time, increasing student, faculty, and guest artist rehearsal and performance space has become a top priority.”

While dance students continue to enjoy opportunities to perform on wonderful stages across campus—including the Power Center for the Performing Arts on Central Campus and the Duderstadt Center on North Campus—a new facility devoted to dance would allow the department to house its own exceptional performance space, complete with box office, lobby space, handicap accessibility, and adequate parking.

“It’s time to build for the future,” said Kane. “The current Dance Building wasn’t imagined as a space for 21st-century dance studies, in terms of interdisciplinarity and the use of technology.” At the top of Kane’s wish list for dance students, just behind studio space, are “smart classrooms,” equipped with the latest in high tech computers, video cameras, monitors, and more, which have become integral to both teaching and choreographing dance.

Having students and faculty more accessible to each other is also a goal. Currently, dance faculty offices are housed in a separate building next door. “There’s not as much interaction with the students as we’d like,” said Jessica Fogel, a professor of dance who joined the department in 1985. Faculty and students also feel somewhat detached from their colleagues and peers by being the only SMTD department without a presence on North Campus. “I miss the proximity for exchange and collaboration and just what happens when you’re walking down the hall and meeting and chatting with colleagues, students, and peers,” said Fogel.

Smith adamantly agrees. “A big element of my time here at U-M has been collaborating with musicians. Every time I’ve talked to them, they ask ‘Why are you guys so far away?’ It creates this element of mystery about the dance department. All of the SMTD students need to be able to see each other regularly and interact.”

The wish to have dance students located on North Campus is shared by the rest of the faculty and student body. “Theatre & drama faculty and students yearn for the chance to engage in meaningful collaborations with the dance department, and right now the logistics of those collaborations make that difficult,” said Priscilla Lindsay, chair of the Department of Theatre & Drama. “The kind of inspiration that is possible when actors and dancers and musicians are in the same room together, the same building, is electric. Each feeds off the other.”

Imagining the Future

When students and faculty imagine a new dance building, it materializes in their minds’ eye. “We can see this building,” said Kane. The vision, and primary hope, is to realize a doubling of space, from 9,000 to about 20,000 square feet. Ideally, there would be six studios, including one that contains a smart classroom. A proper box office, a true theatre space, and a public area for congregation and collaboration are all on the wish list, as is a fully equipped body conditioning studio and a physical therapy unit—both of which are standard to the best college dance facilities today.

Most vivid, perhaps, is the idea of second and third floors with floor-to-ceiling windows where all of the department’s activities can be seen— warm-ups, rehearsals, classes, and so on. “We want to be visible, because we’re not now,” said Kane. The visible, kinetic character of dance activity will enliven North Campus at all hours of the day and night.

Fogel references the lobby at the Ross School of Business as a perfect example of a space that facilitates creativity. “It’s this open space and it’s hopping because it’s a place for people to get together and collaborate and talk and eat and work. It’s quite thrilling to see the buzz in there. A building really changes the quality of exchange.”

Smith sums up the sentiment from the artist’s point of view: “There’s something to be said about your environment being able to inspire and energize you.”