A Building Created With Ballet in Mind

Few dance companies in the United States can boast a custom-made facility such as Boston Ballet's, one that signals the company's rising national stature

WITH the defiant confidence of a dancer leaping from the wings onto stage, the Boston Ballet is bidding for entrance into the cultural big leagues with an brand-new building that is of architectural and dance-world significance.The five-story facility here in Boston's South End is a bold stroke against the gloom of recession and arts-funding cutbacks, and reflects the 28-year-old company's rising status both in its home city and on the national and international dance scene. Nestled snugly between rows of 19th-century brownstones and tree-lined avenues, Boston Ballet's new home boasts seven spacious studios, including one "grand studio" the size of the stage at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, where the 47-member company performs. "Even though this is a hard time for artists and arts in America, a place like this makes the statement that the arts are always going to be important," says Bruce Marks, artistic director, sitting on the floor of his yet unfurnished office. Ballet trustees picked local architect Graham Gund for the project, who is noted for his varied cultural and commercial buildings in New England, structures that blend with the flavor of existing neighborhoods. The $7.5 million ballet building, which opened this month, was completed in 15 months, after the demolition of the ballet's old headquarters. Unlike most dance companies in the United States, which tend to exist in "make do" spaces such as former garages, warehouses, and renovated lofts, Boston Ballet is now one of the few with its own specially constructed building. At roughly 62,000 square feet, it is one of the largest dance spaces in the country. "The ballet was interested in a building that would look like it was specifically designed for them, with a character that related to the ballet," said Mr. Gund, walking through the building as workers applied final coats of soft-blue paint to decorative stair railings. "If you look at the outside, the placement of the stones on the facade and the windows give a kind of lyrical feeling, which to me, suggests a sense of the ballet," he says. Gund knew he wanted a brick building, using a pattern that matched the smooth, deep-red brick of the neighborhood houses. The roof design, he says, is meant to echo the traditional gables and cornices abundant in the South End. "By 'peeling away' the corner [of the roof] and then exaggerating it with that large cornice, it gives a feeling of weight at the top of the building, and permitted us to shape the top on the front. The whole front of the building becomes a gable on the upper story," Gund says. Boston Ballet dancers and administrators tell stories about the original building (once a garter belt factory) which had a loading dock for a front door. Adjoining buildings also served as studios over the years. They remember the dipping floors, the low ceilings that prevented dancers from doing lifts, the poles in the middle of studios, the dirt, and the mice that liked to scamper across Mr. Marks's desk. "You would avoid the poles during rehearsal, and then on stage during a performance, you'd still 'avoid' the poles!" says ballet mistress Elaine Bauer, who has been with the company 20 years. While the ballet school, educational activities, and offices occupy the lower floors of the building, company dancers get the privilege of locker rooms, lounges, whirlpools, and open-air balconies on the top floor. "What you look out on is uplifting," Ms. Bauer says, referring to the skyline views. "On days that you feel very frustrated, ... that will be able to lift your spirit." The main draw, however, is the 50-by-100-foot "grand studio" with enormous arched windows and enough extra space for an audience of 200 to view the rehearsals. The ballet plans occasionally to rent the studio to other dance companies in Boston, which is notoriously "under-theatered" for dance. Marks is counting on the new building to trigger more interest in Boston Ballet, now the fourth largest classical company in the US in terms of budget. Despite sizable grants from a number of foundations, more than $2 million more is needed to completely pay for the structure. Just as the distinctive, historic buildings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Hall) and the Museum of Fine Arts help define the image of those organizations, ballet officials say this building will strengthen the ballet's standing in the community, "solidifying our place as a major institution in Boston," says D. David Brown, general manager. Boston Ballet's new home "is a sign of stability," says Dianne Brace, program director at Dance USA, the national service organization for nonprofit professional dance. In the last decade, she says, the dance field has seen many ballet companies (San Francisco, Houston, and Pittsburgh, for example) building anew or renovating their headquarters. New space for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle is currently under construction. Though San Francisco Ballet's 1984 building is an impressive forerunner, Gund says, "I wanted this one to be very different from San Francisco. That building has a very corporate feel to it. This has a more intimate feel, in keeping with the neighborhood." Windows in the ground-level studios look out onto the sidewalk, allowing passersby to watch the dancers and hear the music. "We wanted to retain the feeling, the light, and the openness to the community that the old building had," Marks says. The front lobby has a fanciful design mimicking a theater's proscenium with an apron and mock curtains, as well as little balconies. Though it is too soon to tell exactly how well the facility functions in practical terms, principal dancer Daniel Meja from France is enthusiastic. "This is going to improve the arts here," he says, during a final rehearsal for the company's summer tour of Spain. "Other arts institutions need to follow. This building is going to be a world-wide example. I'm lucky I'm here at the right time, in the right place."

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