In the old days, university dance programs were often the step-children of physical education departments, with classes taking place in any old gym. That is certainly not the case today, when schools contract award-winning architects to design outstanding purpose-built buildings. One example of this trend is the stylish Stevie Eller Dance Theatre on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. Designed by a team of architects led by Trudi Hummel, Donna Barry, Jose Pombo, and Kyle Houston from Gould Evans Associates in Phoenix, the 300-seat theatre was not only built for dance, but its very design was inspired by dance as well.

“The architects got really excited about the project and wanted to make the building dance,” says Jack Bogan, of Landry & Bogan, theatre consultants for the project (they are based in Mountain View, CA). The architecture is based on a dance notation system called Labanotation, and specifically the notation for George Balanchine's Serenade, a piece the University of Arizona dance department was given special permission to perform last April. An overlapping grid of the movements for the piece was used to create the “dancing columns” that support a glass-encased second-floor dance studio. The glass of the building is framed with a rusted metal mesh in undulating geometric shapes, like a coarse metal screen, that helps protect the interiors from the strong Southwestern sun.

At the heart of this dance complex (the 28,600 sq. ft. Stevie Eller Dance Theatre is attached to the older Ina Gittings Dance Center) is the theatre itself, whose shape Bogan refers to as “a reserve fan. When we laid out the auditorium, we decided to make the walls non-parallel,” he explains. “The room is about six degrees wider at the front than the back. This helps contribute to the illusion that you are closer to the stage than you really are and helps create good sightlines.”

Seating is designed so that almost all of the audience can see the same show. “The last row is 3' 8" above the stage,” says Bogan, who also notes that the forestage area and orchestra pit (with a Gala Spiralift) stretch just 12' in front of the curtain, adding to the sense of keeping the audience close to the stage (the last row of seats is no further than 60' from the stage). The seats themselves are by Irwin Seating and arranged continental style with two side aisles and ADA access in the back of the theatre. “There is no balcony and no large cross aisle in the seating,” Bogan adds. “This increases the intimate nature of the room as well.”

An interesting interior design includes earth-tone walls that flow directly up the sides of the stage. “What is so unexpected is that there are so many planes in the interior,” notes Bogan. The rusted metal mesh from the exterior is carried into the interior for the ceiling of the glass-walled lobby. In the auditorium, the proscenium eyebrow is also metal mesh and serves to mask the three loudspeaker clusters of the left-center-right system.

Heather McAvoy of Landry & Bogan laid out the lighting positions, which reflect the specific needs of lighting for dance. There are three FOH box booms on each side of the house and two FOH ceiling slots, as well as ladders that fly in when needed in the wings. The stage lighting package includes 260 circuits with three racks of ETC Sensor® dimmers, an ETC Expression 3 console, over 200 ETC Source Four® ellipsoidals (a mix of 10°, 19°, 26°, and 36° units), 50 Selecon 7" High Performance Fresnels, and seven Altman Sky-Cyc 3-circuit units. The ETC gear was purchased through R.C. Lurie in Phoenix.

The stage rigging system was installed by Stagecraft Industries of Portland, OR, with 31 linesets, including a fire curtain (they also provided the grand drape). “The rigging allows them to pull a drop fully out of sight,” says Rose Steele of Landry & Bogan. “There is a 50'-high trim with room above it.” The roof of the fly tower sits 62' above the stage. “There is no grid,” Steele adds, “but an under-hung system with the rigging hung from the bottom of the roof beams.” The stage house, with full fly tower, measures 86' wide × 42' deep, with a 50' proscenium opening. The stage features a sprung dance floor (an upside-down open-faced sandwich of 4' × 8' plywood sheets with 2" square foam pads about 18" apart on the bottom) by L'Air International in Fort Worth, TX, and covered with a Harlequin dance floor from American Harlequin, based in Moorestown, NJ.

“This is really a wonderful, intimate space for dance,” says Mark Miceli, who is currently a technical director at the University of Arizona, working in the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. The senior technical director, primarily responsible for the lighting side of things, is John Dahlstrand, who was a key member of the design planning team, for the University. “We make a good team for sound and lighting,” notes Miceli. Jory Hancock, director of the dance division, was also instrumental in the design and planning for the theatre.

Prior to working at the University, Miceli worked for both Riske & Associates, the acoustics and AV consultants for the project, and the sound system contractor, Arizona Sound and Light. “At the time the theatre was built, I was working as the project manager/engineer for the contractor and was in the theatre since day one. I installed all the audio equipment. Now I work for the university and have to use it.”

What Miceli installed is a reinforcement system designed primarily for playback of recorded music used in dance concerts, with consideration for live accompaniment as well. “The department has a faculty position for a composer to work with a choreographer, so there is often live music,” says Miceli. “The acoustic signature of the room is middle-of-the-road that makes it comfortable for playback or live.”

The sound system in the main theatre (there is also a smaller system in an adjacent dance studio) includes a Yamaha M-2500 mixing console, Crown's IQ USM-810 digital signal processing system, EAW JFX-260 loudspeakers for the left/right clusters, EAW KF300E units for the center loudspeakers, Sound Advance SA2B/PB6 surround speakers, EAW SB250 sub-woofers, Community CSX38-S2 CSX28-S2 monitor speakers, and Crown K2 amplifiers. Denon CD/cassette decks are uses for playback.

“I would like to go to a smaller digital board for dance,” admits Miceli, who would keep the Yamaha on hand in case the space is eventually used for opera. He is also adding SFX software from Stage Research for special effects and to be able to run cues without being dependent on a CD player. Earthworks microphones are also on the “to-buy” list, for use in recording.

The Stevie Eller Dance Theatre has won two awards, the American Institute of Architects' 2003 Honor Award-Western Mountain Region and the Arizona American Institute of Architects' Citation Award-Design Awards 2003, and is a feather in the cap of the architects at Gould Evans. “The architects were very creative and not stodgy or hokey,” says Bogan. “They never let the architectural design overpower the function of the building.” One of the nation's best university dance departments now has a facility worthy of its program.