The Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center: an Expressive Landmark to Philanthropy and Dance

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Entering the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center is like entering a cathedral constructed of the philanthropist’s whims.

From the south entrance, a two-story-high corridor undulates through the central vein of the building. It connects to studios that are named, and respectively colored, for vibrant gemstones, providing “inspiration” to the students within. The hallway, like the fictional Ohio suburb from David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of The System, is shaped like a human body part, this particular bird’s eye view offering the curve of a dancer’s leg en pointe.

The high ceilings–just three levels span what would be considered five stories–promise the art form in question more than enough room to breathe and expand. From a nearby classroom window, I observe B.F.A. students warming up with taffy-pulling arm gestures and exaggerated open-mouthed yawns. The moment at once reflects the current improvisational leanings of the contemporary dance world as well as a future in which graduates will benefit from having had the means to explore, from being given the space and time to find their own expressive movement as individuals.

Photo by Celine Kiner. Courtesy of USC.

Photo by Celine Kiner. Courtesy of USC.

It’s hard to avoid the fact that I’m writing from the place of my own institutional history: of having been, and subsequently making my own way out of being, institutionalized. It was an abrupt call back to my years as a tightly-wound B.F.A. student at Ailey/Fordham when my old advisor’s assistant, Justina Gaddy greeted me. Gaddy is now USC Kaufman’s all-in-one Communications Department. (But back in those Ailey years, her smile was a happy punctuation mark upon my undergraduate days of dress codes and strict audition politics, the narrow path forecasted for us past graduation, and the rigors of technique classes on top of technique classes on top of technique classes. Speaking from experience, USC’s faculty and students are lucky to have her.)

But I am also writing as a Southern Californian dance professional, focused and personally invested in the building, spreading, and sharpening of our craft in Los Angeles and beyond. Vice Dean Jodie Gates founded the Laguna Dance Festival in 2006, the first to draw out that area’s surprisingly enthusiastic audience for concert dance. More recently up and down the Southern California coast, the emergence of critically acclaimed companies and prestigious schools has afforded some of us to use the word “renaissance,” in reference to the current climate, including liberally by Vice Dean Gates herself. If that word is in fact justified, then we should count her among our renaissance women. In Gates-ian fashion, when she was named to help run the Glorya Kaufman School, she brought along her Rolodex of pros with Wikipedia pages. Among them was her former boss at Ballet Frankfurt, the choreographer William Forsythe. His part-time appointment, alongside protégé Thomas McManus and friend Patrick Corbin, was nothing short of a coup for this could-be “Juilliard of the West.” And although Forsythe is the name on the under-40 set’s lips, other appointments are sure to be equally strengthening: Fiona Lummis will teach Kylián. Kyle Abraham, a MacArthur Genius, was recently appointed. He and choreographers Victor Quijada and Desmond Richardson have taught and performed for years at LDF, and now are USC Artists-in-Residence.

Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto. Courtesy of USC.

Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto. Courtesy of USC.

By the time Ms. Gaddy and I reach the lobby adjacent to the Performance Studio and the grand staircase–upon which Mr. Forsythe appears, a compact demi-god crossing to a classroom–I feel as though I know Ms. Kaufman. I can at least discern her imprint. The $46,000,000 building, completed by the bid-winning firm Pfeiffer Architects, is audacious; not just for hallways shaped like legs and studios named “Topaz,” but for sparkling granite countertops in the bathrooms and at the box office and  art deco light fixtures that were set aside from the founder’s personal collection before being arranged into a stop-you-in-your-tracks constellation that hangs at the school’s central entrance. A large painting holds court from over the curve of the staircase, taking me back again to Ailey during Ms. Jamison’s reign. It is a portrait of Ms. Kaufman with her late dog, Troy, who Ms. Gaddy connects to the school’s mascot, the Trojan.


Photo by Celine Kiner. Courtesy of USC.

Fortunately for the students, the building is audacious in a practical sense, too. The Performance Studio converts to a 140-seat black box theater (much like Ailey Citigroup Theater) possessed of state-of-the-art projection technology and the world-class School of Cinema Arts is a stone’s throw away. The studios’ Harlequin floors are raised, as they should be, and hover away from the curved walls so no vibrations will travel from room to room, allowing simultaneous instruction in hip hop and ballet, both of which B.F.A. students are required to take. A “collaborative workspace” is incomplete on an upper level, as is the USC Village on the construction site next door, which will create a main thoroughfare that pushes up against and leads students into the building. Meanwhile, a few rooms are reserved upstairs for classes having nothing to do with the dance majors. All this is to encourage the flow of non-dancers into the dance-dedicated edifice, in hopes of cross-disciplinary pollination and collaboration.

The bells upon whistles begged the question: does dance–as a field–require this kind of treatment? Can we justify it?

In Dean Robert Cutietta’s office, I broached the question of the school’s inception, the initial conversation that led to its being built. Later, I read in The NY Times that Ms. Kaufman felt like the school was courting her, but Dr. Cutietta recalled things differently. During a dinner with a mutual friend who brought Ms. Kaufman along, the donor teasingly asked what it would take to open a new school on campus, the first in over 40 years. At the time, USC did not offer a dance major; classes were held in a PE building. In response, Dr. Cutietta, who directs the Music School (he now juggles both positions), named as astronomical a figure he could think of, knowing the hurdles would be nearly insurmountable–faculty and curriculum building, for one, in addition to the construction of a state-of-the-art facility. But as legend has it, Ms. Kaufman cleared them on the spot, assenting to the mystery figure.

“Joy” is often cited as the motivation for her frequent and generous funding of dance projects, which have ranged from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Juilliard and UCLA (although the state-run university proved to be a disappointing platform for her vision). Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance is Ms. Kaufman’s presenting series at the nearby Music Center, which now will give USC students the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from visiting artists of the highest caliber. Still, no gift has equaled this one, the exact amount of which Dr. Cutietta won’t disclose but which he admitted “only four people on campus know.” As the LA Times reported, the sum was meant to cover at least half of the building costs with the rest going into an endowment. Some have guessed the number reaches nine figures; even $40 million would be twice what she’s given elsewhere. In the 2013 The NY Times interview, Ms. Kaufman herself used the words “infinity” and “the moon,” but declines to say the number because, frankly, for her it’s not about that, and frankly, it’s none of our business.

She turned to philanthropy after losing her husband and son-in-law in a plane crash in the ‘80s, her grandchild then growing in her daughter’s womb. A child of the Great Depression, dance lessons were unattainable. But she always loved dancing, doing so (and continuing to do so) in social settings. She became the wife and now is the widow of one of the founders of KB Home, the Detroit business established and eventually catapulted to Fortune 500 success by Donald Kaufman and Eli Broad. To seek joy now, played out in whatever combination of whimsy and efficacy she chooses, seems an understandable–even great–endeavor.

The school would not exist without its creator. “Sometimes it takes a gift,” confirms Ms. Gaddy as we observe the fishbowled B.F.A. students from a second-story viewing platform, earmarked as a future lounge. Yet, the boundary between “gift” and commerce has long plagued my own artistic career. When I work for free, is that a gift? For whom? What about the significant costs of obtaining a job in a market where there are so few: daily classes and gym memberships to stay in shape, the gas money and shifts given up for auditions, the time spent waiting cut after cut, if you’re lucky? Vice Dean Gates addresses my concerns in this regard outright, citing entrepreneurship and crossover opportunities in animation, VR, film, and TV as potential avenues for future graduates. Generously, she nods to me as she mentions the former; it’s the solution I’ve adopted for myself, which she doesn’t need to know but does. And then there are the few, she continues, who will “get the gig.” With only 15-20 students likely to be admitted per year, the enviable connections sure to be fostered at school, and a curriculum focused on the international reach of the field, perhaps the mundane limitations of the dance economy won’t matter for these students, just as they seem not to matter for the school itself.

So, economically speaking, is dance audacious? Does it justify the grand gesture? As I thought about the gift in the larger sense of the dance community, I couldn’t help but wonder if some kind of debt would be incurred, shared somehow by all of us. Are we, some of us graduates of these kinds of well-funded programs, holding up our end of the deal? But then, if the gift were appointed to another school on the same campus, would anybody think twice?

Photo by Celine Kiner. Courtesy of USC.

Photo by Celine Kiner. Courtesy of USC.

In the end, I suspect the burden the dance community bears when a philanthropist swoops in to foot the bill for our development is simply to receive the gift. Ms. Kaufman has said that her gift comes “from the heart.” (Perhaps this becomes a different conversation when we become aware of funders throwing “dark money” in our direction.) And, of course, there’s still a price tag attached for the majority of students. In addition to that and the daunting imbalance of potentially low monetary returns after graduation, dancers put in an almost impossible investment of hard physical work. What’s surely also required is their own audacity, the courage to move in unconventional ways, to be themselves so loudly yet without speaking. All of this and more yield what Ms. Kaufman and her new school call “a force for joy.” Rather than feel ashamed or even worried when they were confronted by such great charity, the architects and faculty members and even prospective students who rallied around this new vision entered into a collaborative relationship with Ms. Kaufman, granting her as much involvement as she rightfully wished, as they each contributed their own respective gifts: expert opinions, multiple years of their lives, and a shared willingness to learn.

Back in Dr. Cutietta’s office, he’s mentioning the headlines that bore Ms. Kaufman’s name before the school’s ideation: “Glorya Kaufman Gives X” and “Glorya Kaufman Gives Y.” They never included the word “dance,” he explains, a beyond irksome omission after she’d gone so far out of her way to help promote it. Even at first glance, The USC Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center solves that problem: it’s all in the name.

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