Dances with Building
Dancing through Design
As the designers explain it, the dance theater is the result of a collaborative process between architects and dancers. The designers worked with the faculty to learn about dance and about movement — how the human body fills space and glides through it.
The architects also learned about labanotation, a method for graphically describing choreography. They became enchanted with George Balanchine's "Serenade," which was the choreographer's first ballet written for students of the American Ballet company.
Through the Dance Notation Bureau and the George Balanchine Foundation in New York, the designers acquired the labanotation and score for "Serenade." They studied the notations, and overlaid the starting positions for each movement of the work. What emerged was a matrix of points that became the locations of the dancing columns that support Eller's second-floor dance studio.
The wire screens on the east elevation display a free and easy movement as they dance across the building. One needs only to revisit "Nude Descending a Staircase" by painter Marcel Duchamp or the photographs of dancers and acrobats by Eadweard Muybridge, to appreciate the architects' ability to translate the three dimensions of the human body into an architectural presence, and to make it waltz across the facade.
The screens of scrim are elaborately constructed, held away from the dance studio's glass walls, offering protection from the elements and shade from the brutal desert sun. From below, one gets the impression of standing behind a chorus line on stage.
As the strips bend under the second floor volume, they stream overhead amid the dancing columns, like Möbius strips in the wind. The result is an inviting, warmly lit canopy of rich, earthy, orangey brown.
On display in the glass-enveloped studio, dancers arc through the second-floor volume, high above the campus. At night they look like dancing ciphers, celebrating their art and animating the glass facade with their movement. Viewed from the building's side, they move like lithe shadows behind the gauzy scrimwork.
For the performance space deep inside the building, Gould Evans essentially turns the scrim-clad box inside out. The theater is a cavernous space, seemingly carved from a solid mass of desert rock, like Petra, in Jordan. Against a backdrop of a black-box space, the angular forms reach up and over, joining arms above the audience.
The architectural language of the 300-seat theater strikes a sure note of fidelity with the exterior wire scrim. The theater also contains a full fly tower and is outfitted with a control suite, catwalks, spotlights, and an orchestra pit.
The Arizona climate invites performance to also take place outside. An indoor dance studio can be opened to a courtyard with the ease of rolling up two large overhead doors, extending the space.
The Stevie Eller Dance Theatre is a building at ease in its campus setting, creating a focal point of movement and light to become, in the words of the university's president, Peter Likins, a "beautiful architectural beacon that celebrates art and dance."
To accomplish this fusion of dance and architecture, Gould Evans has demonstrated form-making with purpose, not purely as an end in itself. The result is architecture and dance sharing the same stage.
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Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, a senior associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.