Back in 1975, the University of Southern California opened the School of Gerontology to study how the human body grows old. That was the last time the university established a new school on the main campus.
Forty-one years later, USC finally cut another ribbon this month on the latest school also dedicated to studying the human body. But this time, students won’t study how the human body ages. Instead, they’ll study how the human body moves.
The new facility is named the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center. With a full spectrum of dance classes now in full swing, the $46 million complex holds the distinction of being the largest of its kind at any private university in the U.S.
On a recent afternoon, 18-year-old, second-year dancer Paulo Hernandez-Farella had just popped out of a contemporary dance class where he was studying efficient movement.
"It’s a lot of using your hips to drive the shift of movement," Hernandez-Farella said. "Whereas before I was leaving my body behind.”
The sun-filled multilevel center has been designed with the dancer in mind. There are spaces everywhere to stretch, warm-up and rehearse. Even the hallways are lined with barres, just in case you want to kick a leg up at any moment to loosen those tight hamstrings. For Hernandez-Farella, this is fantasy come true. He grew up in Eagle Rock and attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
“Since freshman year, I had a dream school in mind, and it was on the East Coast," Hernandez-Farella said. "USC-Kaufman was announced my sophomore year of high school, and all bets were off— that was my new dream school. All my teachers were [saying], It’s a perfect program for you. You have to look at the faculty they are hiring, you have to look at the amazing experiences. Plus, I’m such a West Coast boy! So, I was like, What do I have to do to get in here?”
Hernandez-Farella might be a West Coast boy, but he could have easily decamped for the East Coast. Dancers who want to train professionally usually have to head to cities like New York. So Hernandez-Farella believes the Kaufman School is a game changer.
“Early on, I didn’t think I was good enough," he said. "It’s always a thing that dancers go through, especially during high school. It was always a fear of mine and I always held back a lot. And then, over time, I just stared drastically improving. I attended a lot of summer programs. I would come back every year and my teachers would be amazed at my improvement. I’d be a completely different dancer.
"So when senior year came around, I did two applications: USC and Juilliard. And then I did my 'broken leg' schools just in case! The thing for dancers is that you have your top colleges you want to go to. And then, if I had broken my leg that year, I had back-up schools.”
While this new dance school’s home is a state-of-the-art — if not downright flashy — facility, its beginnings were rather hushed.
“This is one of the stories that people will choose not to believe,” says Robert Cutietta, dean of the new dance school. He only met philanthropist Kaufman five years ago. They grabbed dinner near USC and spoke before dashing off to catch a dance performance on campus.
Cutietta recalls: “She said at the dinner before the show, ‘Why isn’t there dance at USC?’ And I said, ‘I’ve wondered that myself.’ I thought about it before because my daughter is a dancer. My wife is a dancer. I didn’t know the answer. But I knew it was missing. But I didn’t have an answer. There was no answer. So she said, ‘Well, what would it take?’ I said, ‘First of all, it would take a lot of money.’ She said, ‘How much?’ I threw out a crazy, crazy number. She said, ‘Okay, let’s do this!’
"I went to that concert. I don’t remember anything. I called the University president on his cell phone and we had tentative approval to move forward by noon the next day.”
The university will not reveal the actual amount of Kaufman’s gift. But it’s clear that it had to be quite generous. The 55,000-square-foot complex boasts an impressive mix of tech-savvy studios and lecture halls where students are encouraged to collaborate across academic disciplines, while learning from world class faculty such as veteran choreographer William Forsythe. The school’s director, Jodie Gates, is herself a Forsythe trained dancer and choreographer. So she’s setting a high bar at auditions for admission.
“I’m not just looking for the physical dancer. I’m looking for a curious thinker. Someone who thinks outside the box,” Gates said. “We have a young lady who is a ballerina that is also studying in the law school here. So, when you say the word dance, it’s a loaded word if you don’t know it. But if I said, ‘What do you think of motion?’ That’s about where motion takes me. So I like to talk about how that dancer might also be a scholar. They have to be that hybrid talent we are looking for.”
The first class entered in the fall of 2015. As students progress through the four-year program, Gates says collaboration is required. Upper class students will be expected to reach out to their counterparts in the music school to devise new work. But Gates insists her students explore how dance connects to other disciplines as well.
“Dance has capabilities that haven’t been tapped into yet,” Gates said. “For example, cognitive science and how dance helps with dementia and autism. There has been data collected already about how movement specialists work with these types of disabilities. A proscenium stage is not the only way to view dance anymore.”