The news came as a shock, a pleasant one. On May 7, the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, on the cusp of taking in its first crop of BFA dance majors, announced William Forsythe as a cornerstone faculty hire. The influential American choreographer will return to the United States after nearly 40 years in Germany creating furious, hyperkinetic dances. He will begin teaching in Los Angeles a year from now, in September 2015.
Brokering the Forsythe deal—an undisputedly huge “get”—was Jodie Gates, the former Joffrey ballerina who danced for four years in Frankfurt, and who is now the Kaufman School’s vice dean and director. Her aspiration for dance at USC, beyond being a high-powered training boutique for a small cluster of dancers, is that it will reach, with complex tentacles, beyond campus boundaries. “This is my legacy, helping the community understand how important dance is to its fabric,” says Gates. To achieve this goal, she is ready to reinvent the wheel: “My mission at USC is for a new model for dance education.”
The signing of a superstar choreographer adds gloss to the considerable buzz surrounding the Kaufman School, USC’s first new degree program in 40 years. Gates, a poised woman whose long auburn hair frames a pair of animated eyes, radiates happiness about the venture. Since retiring from her 25-year career with the Joffrey, Pennsylvania and Frankfurt Ballets, she has transitioned from choreographer to University of California–Irvine professor to founder of the Laguna Dance Festival in Orange County. “Everything I have done in my life has led me to here,” she says with composure, in a characteristic blend of earthiness and earnestness. “I’m supposed to be here, guiding this vision.”
The new program came into being through the largesse of a spirited and popular dance enthusiast with a philanthropic bent toward arts education. Glorya Kaufman’s transformational gift of an undisclosed sum, rumored to range around eight figures, topped two prior significant Los Angeles dance gifts ($17.5 million, in 1999, to UCLA and $20 million, in 2009, to the Los Angeles Music Center). The funding has sluiced the ecosystem for the artform in Los Angeles, a well that for many decades ran relatively dry.
Admissions are now open for the Kaufman School, involving first an online prequalification (deadline: December 1), then in-person auditions to be held in January. “We will accept 16–20 students—conservatory style,” says Gates. “We want gender balance.”
Even where their technical training is concerned, Kaufman School students will face unusual dance exposure. “Ballet is the backbone to every single day,” Gates says. “The next backbone, which is highly unique, is hip hop. What that means is not ballerinas popping and locking in pointe shoes, but that hip hop is one of the most innovative new dance forms just now being codified. There is an articulation and clarity of motion that is stunning.”
Hip hop three times a week; the other two days are relegated to ballroom partnering technique for five weeks during the semester. Does the emphasis on popular forms mean that USC dance graduates are training for the booming commercial dance scene in Los Angeles? “Certainly,” says Gates without hesitation.
Gates chats in a conference room of the program’s temporary office space in a modest campus structure. Significantly more glamorous digs are under construction. (Dirt was turned in April on USC Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center—a handsome, red-brick dance complex comprised of 55,000 square feet of performance space, a dance wellness center and multiple dance studios; price tag: $43 million.)
“A big part of the program is its interdisciplinary approach. It’s broader than just dance,” says Gates, who serves under USC Thornton School of Music dean Robert Cutietta. “We intend that our students understand dance and media, dance and technology. We want them to excel in dance leadership and development management and gain entrepreneurial skills. That is important to us, and to Glorya Kaufman: to create leaders in the field, with entrepreneurial spirits.”
The underpinning of this philosophy rests on a smart calculation about the environment offered at USC, a top academic research university. “The difference between a conservatory and a university is that we have all these resources at our disposal,” says Gates. To her delight, other disciplines are embracing dance back. “The schools and partners are saying ‘Let’s do it,’” she says.
The support comes from the top. USC president Max Nikias, in a statement, welcomes the artform to campus. “We look forward to watching USC Kaufman develop into one of the world’s premier schools for dance education, as well as our university’s sixth exceptionally vibrant arts school.” And Cutietta, noting the fit with USC’s strengths, highlights Forsythe’s multidisciplinary experience in a statement: “He has worked closely with composers, architects, philosophers, digital animators and sports scientists.”
Gates’ progressive pedagogy intends to remove dance from arts-world isolation (the dance “silo,” as she puts it) and mix it, as an equal partner, with top arts, sciences and business programs on campus.
A first round of alliances has been struck with three USC entities: Thornton School of Music, School of Cinematic Arts and the Brain and Creativity Institute. The program will also benefit from master classes from visiting companies who perform at Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center in nearby downtown L.A.
Kaufman was deeply involved in forging this innovative vision for dance education. “We are opening the field of dance, exposing dance to neurological studies, animation, music, cinematography. Our students are required to take business classes. They will know how to read a contract,” she says. “This is unique. I hope other schools will copy us.”
“We have a whole new concept. What Juilliard is doing is fantastic. But it’s not what we are doing,” she adds.
No matter where the opportunity, the program seeks to create a new breed of dancer; in Gates’ terminology, “hybrid artists.” “We see possibilities for choreography for stage and cinematic arts, choreography for animation and gaming, choreography for all types of screens,” she says.
Central to this vision is the hire of Forsythe, a brilliant interdisciplinary practitioner who is music literate and a master of lighting and production design. His choreographic methods will be taught in improvisation and composition courses, working with freshman- through graduate-level students. In coming years, the school plans to establish a choreographic institute, with Forsythe as its artistic advisor. “He is the greatest dance philosopher of our time,” says Gates. “He will change the landscape for dance here in Los Angeles, on the West Coast and in America. His involvement in academia will be a game changer,” she says, adding, “He is so respected across campus. And he is a great teacher.”
The program has found a passionate partner in USC film school faculty member Mike Patterson, a veteran director of music videos, animated shorts and more. Patterson worked with Gates to create a video for the Kaufman website home page that reflects the value the school places on dance for the camera. Two dancers, shot so closely you can see the pores of their skin, ramble solemnly through a sinuous duet. Patterson, who pioneered his work with dancers in music videos in the 1980s (notably the Grammy Award–winning “Opposites Attract,” starring Paula Abdul), takes a broad view of multimedia art or commerce using dance.
“There’s choreography everywhere; you could call it ‘moving objects.’ Animators do this, too. Bill [Forsythe] and I synced up on all the ways to include dance in new media and extended it beyond classic media, which would be the stage,” Patterson says.
Tapping the university’s rich resources, Gates anticipates innovation. “The program is specific to dance performance and choreography, yet it explores new artforms. We expect it will create new jobs…allowing no limitations on what is possible, but imagining what could be.”
The Kaufman School has one firm limitation, however, according to Gates: “The idea of dancers being seen but not heard is not part of this program.” DT
Debra Levine celebrates 30 years of dance writing this year. She blogs on dance and all the fine arts on arts-meme.
Photography by Joe Toreno; photo of proposed Kaufman Center courtesy of Pfeiffer Partners Architects; of Glorya Kaufman courtesy of USC