While current economic conditions are forcing some arts organizations out of their homes (“Homeless In The American Theatre,” Live Design, October 2008), the Joffrey Ballet has found permanence in Chicago after 50 years as an itinerant. The company's new two-and-a-half-floor space on the corner of East Randolph and State is 50,000sq-ft., large enough to include offices, wardrobe and laundry rooms, locker and dressing rooms, a physical therapy room, storage space, a box office, a musical archives room, and, of course, dance studios.

One of the Joffrey's seven studios doubles as a 144-seat black box performance space. The 60'×70' room becomes a 60'×35' stage with a seating area. The Joffrey wanted to manage the conversion quickly, without the need for an enormous crew. Where would they put spectator seating when practicing in the studio? How would they darken a room with large windows and mirrors when performing in the theatre? What could they do about lighting? And if the studio is flanked by other studios on two sides and an outside wall on the third, where will performers enter?

Creating a convertible studio proved tricky but not as tricky as ensuring that seven studios in close proximity would serve the needs of a dance company. “We have studios next to studios and studios on top of studios,” says Bruce Sagan, a Joffrey board member who chaired the construction committee. “The original building scope was for a steel frame with long spans.”

This actually created two problems. Whenever theatres are close to one another — think multiplex movies — acoustic isolation becomes a concern. Add movement in the floor to music, and normal sound management just isn't enough. Although street noise was not a problem, sound would travel vertically and horizontally between studios. Acoustician Richard Talaske found the steel structure challenging. “When steel vibrates, it can stay in vibration longer than a concrete structure,” he says.

“If you have ever been in a place with long spans, like an airport waiting room, you can feel the floor move,” adds Sagan. That's not unsafe for a person going about daily activities, but “when you put 40 dancers moving in rhythm in that space, it can affect the performance, and they can injure themselves.” Would it be possible to stiffen the floors to make them suitable for dance? Sagan and his team asked one last question: Could they use the new location, in the heart of Chicago's downtown loop, to promote the company?


How did they deal with vertical sound issues? “Very expensively,” says Sagan. “We needed to provide a base level of acoustic isolation between the two floors, while avoiding problems for the dancers due to floor vibrations,” adds Talaske, explaining that a building has resonant frequencies at which it can vibrate. “Once a dance company sets the building into motion, the floor is compliant, and a rising floor makes stumbling possible.”

The three to six cycles per second of resonant frequencies required by standard building codes aren't always enough. “We find the upper end of the range the minimum to make sure dancers won't stumble,” says Talaske. Sagan notes that, if you stiffen the floor sufficiently so the dancers can work on it, you also need to control the sound transmission to the studio below. “So you hang a ceiling below the stiff floor,” Sagan says, explaining that the added ceiling and the stiff floors have to have different resonances so that both problems are solved.

To stiffen studio floors, 4'-deep joists were placed 2' apart, supported by huge beams. Sagan says the builder found the extreme solution outrageous. “You could land a 747 on these floors,” he says of the basket-weave dance floors, which are elaborate systems of wooden strips and plywood made by American Harlequin Corporation. The bottom studios have ceilings made of multiple layers of drywall, hung on resilient spring hangers that are not fixed to the wall. “The frame that holds the drywall is attached to the floor above with spring-loaded hangers so vibration above is not transmitted to the ceiling below,” Sagan explains.

In addition, an air gap of 5' between the ceiling of the lower studio and the floor of the studio above, where the joists were placed, prevents sound transmission. “An air gap is a great absorber of sound, if you enclose the air in it,” Sagan says. “So, the walls have a big air gap to treat horizontal sound, and the ceiling between studios has a big air gap.” Sagan adds that they used sound-proofing caulk to prevent tiny cracks that would allow sound to travel.

Loud music, played in one room, could not disturb rehearsal activities in the adjacent studio. “This involved construction with gypsum board wall systems, about 13" or 14" thick — six or seven layers on two separate stud systems,” says Talaske. “The gypsum board wall system required resilient connections at the base and head ends of the walls, and this wall system was designed to reduce sound transfers through the wall and also to address most of the secondary flanking paths which, if proper detailing wasn't implemented, could degrade acoustic performance of the demising wall that separates two rooms.”

“The studs do not touch because the tracks of the studs are put on a rubber neoprene,” says Sagan. “There are layers of drywall on one side and two walls on the other side, and in the middle, there are sound-proof fiberglass bats.” In addition, Talaske installed sound-absorbing treatments in rehearsal rooms to reduce activity noise and create an environment with good speech and music clarity. Acoustically rated door and window systems, with double layer glass, were used in the studios.

Solving The Convertible Studio

The convertible theatre is used for fundraisers, giving subscribers a chance to preview parts of upcoming shows, and for testing new work, giving dancers a chance to experiment in front of a small invited audience. “The black box was not designed to be a full-fledged performance space,” Sagan says.

To enable dancers to have two entrances from both upstage corners, builders used sound lock doors, a double set of doors with space between. Dancers can enter the adjacent studio for crossovers. Drapery covers mirrors and dance barres as well as the exterior windows, blocking out light. “Simple drapes would have been easy, but we needed blackout drapes over the windows,” says Sagan, noting that Chicago Drapery & Carpet, Inc. provided the drapes. The solution was an old-fashioned stage drapery pull, with a continuous rope that goes up and down to pull standard black stage drapes.

Automated retractable seating from Irwin Telescopic Seating, similar to that used in convertible high school gyms, hides along the side of the space when it becomes a studio. Seats nest, folding to the size of one seat deep and about 12' high. “When you unfold them, you have a heavily raked set of seats,” says Sagan, noting that these are upholstered seats with backs and arms. The entire conversion process takes one person approximately 15 minutes.

Everyday fluorescent lighting serves for rehearsals and classes, but the Joffrey also worked a lighting grid into the space and connected it to a lighting console. The sound system has two configurations and can run from either the floor or the viewing booth, where the light console is also located. Still, the space is without wings and cannot accommodate sidelight.

The Joffrey company moved into the new space in July 2008. In addition to the convenience of studios near offices and support rooms, the new building has given the dance company space to start educational programs in association with the Chicago Public Schools as well as dance classes for adult professionals and amateurs.

It has also been a tool for promoting the Joffrey, which juts out from a higher complex but has its own entrance with a box office on Randolph. Above the front door hangs a flat screen video system so that passersby can see videos of Joffrey rehearsals and performances. And there's a sign: Joffrey Ballet, in huge letters. In daylight, the sign is subdued, “quiet black letters on a stainless steel frame,” Sagan says. Lit from the inside, the letters turn bright white at night, with deep blue LED edging that draws immediate attention.