One week before the October 5 ribbon-cutting ceremony for USC’s major new dance center, rows of bagged shrubs still sit in the yard and boxes of kettlebells are stacked by the reception desk. But dance classes have already been underway for a month in the lofty first-floor studios and dean Robert Cutietta is seated relaxedly behind a neat working desk in his top floor office of the broad Collegiate Gothic entity.
When asked to name some of the unexpected challenges he faced pushing through both this brand new arts school — the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, which opened in 2015 — and its concurrent building project — the $46-million Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, just opened for fall 2016 — Cutietta pulls out one of his business cards.
“This,” he says, displaying the nifty, new card: one side indicates he’s the dean of the Kaufman Dance School and — on the flip side — the card displays his older, continuing position as the dean of USC’s Thornton School of Music. “This card required presidential approval,” he explains. “Protocol said you can’t have something different on the back than on the front. But I wasn’t going to carry two business cards.”
Cutietta surely faced more pressing events as this two-story 54,000-square-foot building rose on a prominent corner of campus (at Jefferson Avenue and Watt Way), but this little detail he shares is emblematic of the relative ease of things when you’re working at a private university with a project-oriented president, C.L. Max Nikias, and a record-setting gift from longtime L.A. dance philanthropist Glorya Kaufman.
Though designed for just 80 undergraduates — about the same size as Thornton’s jazz program — it is the first new school created at USC in 41 years and “No one even knew how to do it,” Cutietta says. “When the school was formally announced in 2012, we had no servers, no email. USC is very decentralized, so every school is on its own, and we had nothing!” He pauses. “And here we are four years later: we have students, we have hired the entire faculty, we have a staff, we have a building.”
Hiring the Thornton School dean as steward of the dance program may seem part of the structural path towards “The New Movement,” the Kaufman School’s widespread branding message that includes “interdisciplinary” and “collaborative” intentions with USC’s schools of cinematic arts, dramatic arts, and music. But when Cutietta announced the first two major faculty hires — tenured UC Irvine professor Jodie Gates as vice dean; and preeminent, pioneering choreographer William Forsythe as artistic advisor for the Choreographic Institute — it instantly defined a dance conservatory of such international caliber that inter-departmental activities became a bit of a footnote.
Forsythe’s return to America — after the New York-born artist’s 40-plus years in Germany — bears a certain loose comparison to the moment in 1933 when Lincoln Kirstein snagged George Balanchine from Europe to work in New York City. Though Forsythe scoffs at the idea, his choreographic intellect and consistency makes him the closest heir apparent to maestro Balanchine, and his life-changing effect on dancers certainly merits a comparison. Indeed, in her early dance years, Gates shared a trajectory with Forsythe: dancing with him at the Joffrey Ballet, then Frankfurt Ballet. When she was developing initial school curriculum — 40 courses, “drawn in the air,” she says, before any faculty hires — she was elated when Forsythe agreed to run a Choreographic Institute for the program, with a contract that brings him to USC for three weeks each fall and spring. (He also has a new ongoing relationship with Boston Ballet, and still works on assorted projects in Europe every year.)
Working together to posit what dancers need for training and choreographic growth, Gates and Forsythe added hip-hop to the mainstay of Kaufman dance techniques. Not an adjunct class, hip-hop is taught on equal footing with ballet and contemporary classes (at a time when neither leading NYC conservatory — NYU Tisch or Juilliard — offers any hip-hop in the dance major program). The real “New Movement” here is how faculty — ballet teacher Patrick McManus, contemporary dancer Patrick Corbin, and UCLA-trained d. Sabela Grimes, an Afro-diasporic dancer/composer — pay attention to how the school’s three main techniques — informing training, phrase-making and choreographic structures — rub off each other as time progresses.
In her office across the hall from Cutietta, Gates’ setup is less complete, for the vice dean remains continuously on the fly, leaving in 18 hours on a recruitment tour. Plenty of great dancers apply, she explains, but they must also be able to get into USC first and pay the $51K tuition. (Though some partial scholarships are available, Cutietta describes the Kaufman School as “not overly generous" with them. "My fundraising efforts are geared almost exclusively to scholarships because I know that’s what it’s going to take to be competitive,” he explains.)
Yet Gates cites the Kaufman school’s ability to also offer courses that address the current complex climate for dancers — a waning of the traditional one-choreographer company model, the need for all dancers to have a web/video presence — as another meaningful asset. “The beauty of starting a school in 2013 when we did is that we could just look at the needs and be incredibly fluid. ...We can all sense that this is an exciting time to be at this program. But also to be in Los Angeles, this renaissance of dance that’s happening.“
Greater L.A. shared in the USC students’ unparalleled access to Forsythe this year. During October’s multi-venue “Fall for Forsythe” event, the choreographer presented a “Visions and Voices” lecture-demonstration with students in the Kaufman Center’s new black box studio, the building’s first public event; he showed two conceptual art pieces (using Kaufman students) at LACMA; and he curated a sublime concert program at the Music Center — spanning a wide swath of his career — performed with uncommon skill, commitment and communal joy by San Francisco, Pacific Northwest and Houston Ballet. As well, a costume design show — featuring his designs and commissions — hung at the Music Center.
Now in his late 60s, professor Forsythe (to his students) or just “Bill” (by everyone else), appears untouched by the years, and bears an unexpectedly warm, easy manner for someone whose stage work arrives with such driving exactitude and ferocity. During his "Visions and Voices" program, he called students — seated onstage in a semi-circle — to demonstrate elements of the classification system that he’s defined over decades to describe his choreographic interests and investigations. Working from the theory of shoulder placement in ballet, called épaulement, students displayed other ways to employ torsion and rotation, agreement vs. nonagreement, modifying modalities, and other variations to a choreographic phrase. “You get to see how we’re building this thing from the ground up,” Forsythe said to the audience, “a thing which is actually three-dimensional and happening in time.”
Forsythe’s community exposure in L.A. is unlikely to be this rich every year. But the point of the school over time is to send dozens of little unique Forsythes out into the world, investigating and connecting their own chosen movements with the same exquisite physical awareness, experimentation and rigorous structuring. That the work of Forsythe (the choreographer) remains predominantly presentational and performative through all its explorations — it still looks like concert dance — surely suits Glorya Kaufman.
Kaufman is not a hands-off donor, and the degree of experimentalism in student work was a source of contention in the dance program at UCLA, where Kaufman previously made her first record-setting college gift ($18 million) in 1999 for building renovations.
As Cutietta describes, “She was really hurt by that.” Adding, “To be perfectly honest, I think there was enough blame all around. I will not blame UCLA for that.” To avoid such conflict on the USC project, they took a year to draw up the complete gift contract and building plans. “I spent that year finding out what she wanted, so she wouldn’t be disappointed. And sometimes saying, `No, we can’t do that Glorya.’ So that was a year well spent.”
The new USC Kaufman building features some similarities to the first, UCLA Kaufman building — studios are named for gemstones at both and feature empty walls, light woodwork, and glass casing for any video monitors or other posted materials. On both campuses, the buildings are known as the Glorya Kaufman Dance building. Yet the light marble over at UCLA — so sensitive that it's required that red wine be banned at all functions — is swapped for a deep claret-colored carpet.
On the day of the official ribbon-cutting, made rousing by confetti cannons and marching band, the ceremonial talk naturally skews in celebration of Kaufman and the structure. President Nikias celebrates “the Collegiate Gothic design”: “I’m kidding, but it’s true. I tell people the looks of the building give us 1,000 years of history we don’t have, L.A. doesn’t have.“
Gates and Forsythe don’t deliver speeches but mingle cheerfully in the crowd with the trustees and guests and students. How does Forsythe feel about the heavy style of the building — coming as he does from a sleek, forward-thinking aesthetic? “It’s not 'my' building,” he says. “I don’t care about appearances. I don’t care if it's pink or polka dots. I really don’t. I have to go to work in there, and the quality of work in the studios is incredible.”
The requirements for dance are too often at odds with ultra-modern designs anyway, Forsythe continues.
“Too much glass. Too much backlighting: you can’t see the dancers. Or not enough proper air-conditioning, too cold or too hot. Or the floor is too hard, too slippery. The whole list.” He pauses. “Everything here is just flawless. Everything is as it should be.”