It’s been a year since the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce released its "Big 5" list with ideas and priorities for the region.
One of those ideas: a downtown arts campus for UMKC, with the first phase to include the Conservatory of Music and Dance. This weekend marks the Kauffman Center debut for the dance division, putting the program and its challenges into the spotlight.
Rehearsing a large work in a small space
In the basement at UMKC’s performing arts center, dance students, in tights and leotards, spill out of the rehearsal studio. Two walls are lined with mirrors, and it’s stuffy and sweaty.
Choreographer Sabrina Madison-Cannon cues up a recording for her 20-minute piece called "Rapture," with music by composition professor Paul Rudy.
"Rapture" is a collaborative work and a large one - with over 30 dancers who start the piece lying in rows on the floor.
"It’s done in three sections," says Madison-Cannon, also an associate professor of dance. "The music is hauntingly beautiful, and I really tried to emulate what I was hearing in the music with the movement.
The work is designed to fill the stage of the Muriel McBrien Theatre at the Kauffman Center. The problem is that the studios at UMKC are not even half as big as that stage. And Madison-Cannon says that’s not the only issue.
"It’s small, it’s outdated, it’s not well-ventilated," she says. "It’s not an attractive space, which in the grand scheme of things may not seem that important, but when we’re recruiting the best of the best students, and they come and visit our location and then they go and visit another school that has invested heavily in their facilities, they get a different sense and a different feeling of what it might be to study there."
New momentum for a new home
Dance division chair Paula Weber says space is an issue for all Conservatory students, whether it’s scheduling time for a practice room or a rehearsal studio. But it's also about meeting national standards for facilities: 100 square feet per student, so they’ve got to keep their class sizes small. Weber says the dance program’s capped to about 70 majors.
"It’s kind of disheartening when a kid wants so badly to come here and we say, 'We’re sorry, we’ve met our quota.' They might have been on the waiting list and we just can’t take them," says Weber. "It’s very hard to say, 'Well, try next year,' but that’s what we have to do."
During her 23 years at UMKC, Weber says there have been many conversations about a new home for the Conservatory.
"Since I’ve been here, we’ve talked about a new building, or an extension or a phase 1 plan where we build on to this building," Weber says.
"When I arrived in Kansas City, that’s what I thought we would be doing is building a facility on this Volker Campus," says Conservatory Dean Peter Witte. "I arrived in 2008, as did the economic collapse."
Witte says with this collapse, the idea of building on campus evaporated. But, in recent years, with the re-emergence of downtown Kansas City, there’s been a focus on adding density and bringing the UMKC arts campus downtown.
"After a few key conversations, people connected the dots for us and said, ‘Well, what if we started thinking about your problem with facilities as an opportunity for downtown Kansas City and for the Crossroads district?" Witte says.
Moving forward, questions remain
Three sites have been identified as possible locations for the new downtown arts campus, including two in the Crossroads Arts District.
But there are a couple of big questions: Where does the money come from? This multiphase project is estimated to cost between $90 and 170 million, and there’s no clear source of funding. The more expensive option would include moving Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the Theatre department, arts programs in College of Arts and Sciences, and KCUR downtown over the next 20 years.
The other question: How would transplanting most of UMKC’s performing arts students and some of their events impact the Volker Campus...or downtown?
"Really, this concert (at the Kauffman Center) is proof of concept of what could be if UMKC’s Conservatory and its arts programs became an increasingly prominent part of the arts district here in Kansas City," Witte says.
For now, dance chair Paula Weber says she’s staying focused on the task at hand: training a new generation to pursue a career in dance.
Radiate! Illuminate! Dance! Friday, October 5, 7:30 pm and Saturday, October 6, Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo. The program features the UMKC dance students, and the choreography of George Balanchine ("Serenade"), Ronald Tice ("Prometheus"), Ray Mercer ("Sweet Chaos"), Sabrina Madison-Cannon ("Rapture"), Gary Abbott ("Hand to Mouth"), and DeeAnna Hiett (world premiere, "L'amore non ha pietà in D Minor").