Flex Space

On an unseasonably sunny fall day, dance students at the University of California, Los Angeles—some in Flashdance tights and leg warmers, others in gear more suited to a yoga class—do impossibly complex-looking stretches on a window ledge at the entrance of their department’s new home. Performers from Compagnie Jant-Bi, the contemporary African dance troupe that’s about to put on a free noon show, dash through the circular mandala at the heart of the space, traversing a spacious curving passage on their way to the new outdoor theater. Outside, passing grad students from the adjacent Anderson School of Management, some wearing suits and ties, poke their heads into the open-air theater, which doubles as a studio, as the sounds of drum beats float across campus.

Vibrant and welcoming, the beautifully renovated $35 million Glorya Kaufman Hall provides a much needed headquarters for the university’s young Department of World Arts and Cultures (WAC). Established in a 1995 merger of the Dance Department and the cultural studies program—combining faculty from the departments of anthropology, art history, folklore and mythology, music, and theater—WAC’s founding goals were to understand society through the arts and engage local artists, with a strong emphasis on dance. When the program began to outgrow the college’s old Women’s Gymnasium, architecture firm Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) was hired to transform the dark 1932 Italian Romanesque–style building, adding a state-of-the-art performance space, bright rehearsal studios, and updated classrooms while still retaining much of its historic facade and flavor.

Having already completed two large-scale UCLA projects might have been enough to qualify the L.A.-based firm, but MRY also had an unexpected ace: partner Buzz Yudell took dance classes at Yale, and his mother once performed with Martha Graham. In a 1977 essay Yudell wrote, “All architecture functions as a potential stimulus for movement, real or imagined. A building is an incitement to action, a stage for movement and interaction. It is one partner in a dialogue with the body.”

With Kaufman Hall, MRY created a building that could inspire a ballet—or at least an outbreak of spontaneous leaps and arabesques. Basically un-changed for almost 70 years, the former gymnasium had a warren of lockers as an entryway and narrow passages that led to crumbling studios. In back there was a pool and an underused garden. The core of the original structure was the gym—a traditional space with wood floors, bleachers, and an arched ceiling of exposed trusswork. Goaded by faculty member Peter Sellars’s plea of “No more black boxes!” the architects partnered with Connecticut-based Theatre Projects Consultants to create a high-tech, flexible 400-seat theater that can go from proscenium to thrust to theater in the round. Now students who were to study traditional Japanese Noh theater would experience the physical space in which it was performed.

MRY gutted the locker room, keeping the retaining columns but opening up another front door, letting in more light, and creating a glowing white foyer with organic curves that initiate an easy flow through the building. The pool was spiffed up but kept in place, and the garden became the 3,600-square-foot theater pavilion, with sliding glass doors that give the rest of the campus a glimpse of the bodies in motion. Now a group of students watch from a second-story veranda as a dancer from the African troupe drops, graceful and angry, to the floor of the garden theater. “We wanted to really make the building, and the department, a part of the campus,” Yudell says.

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