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Students Dancing on Cloud Nine in Revamped School of American Ballet Studios

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Photo: © Iwan Bann/Diller Scofidio + Renfro.


Elizabeth Diller, cofounder of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Peter Martins, New York City Ballet director and faculty chairman of its affiliated School of American Ballet, personified giddiness one morning this winter as they guided journalists around the school’s newly revamped Lincoln Kirstein Wing at Lincoln Center, in New York City. Where there were only two studios, now there are four, thanks to a mezzanine delicately suspended inside the original, daylight-filled volumes.

Diller—wearing a black-and-white outfit that in context evoked ballet students’ practice attire—and Martins chatted playfully about their working relationship. “The reason why we have such a good rapport is because we’re both interested in bodies in space, and defying gravity,” Diller said. The pair was also clearly thrilled at solving one of the school’s most pressing problems—space.

The 73-year-old ballet academy, which the choreographer George Balanchine established in 1934 with Lincoln Kirstein, cofounder (in 1948) of New York City Ballet, has occupied its present Lincoln Center quarters in the Samuel B. and David Rose Building since 1991. But the school outgrew its 11,154-square-foot facility by the 1990s, when it introduced new programs such as choreography workshops. After administrators nixed another firm’s proposed expansion plan, which also envisioned studios inserted into existing airspace (Martins felt it created a “pancake” effect), in late 2004 he and school executive director Marjorie Van Dercook invited Diller to assess the situation. Martins said, “I asked Liz to look at these studios. Was there a way to take wonderful studios like these and somehow cut them in half?”

Diller managed to find a way, although she agreed it was a puzzle. “This was a very unusual expansion. It’s almost like Russian nesting dolls. We had to do a lot of investigation regarding structural problems and mechanical issues with regard to the height and depth of the space itself.” At 16 feet, the ceilings were not quite tall enough to slice the studios vertically without resulting in another pancake. But the design team discovered a deep mechanical plenum they could exploit for a growth spurt. After they shifted the location of ductwork, the new upper studios now measure 11.5 feet from floor to ceiling, while the lower spaces are 11 feet high. “Tall enough for the end of Serenade,” Martins said, referring to the finale of Balanchine’s famous ballet (first created for the school), in which the lead dancer, standing upright, is lifted aloft by the corps, who carry her offstage.

A narrow lounge divides the new 1,200-square-foot upper studios, which are pulled away from the perimeter walls to suggest that they float. Two trios of steel beams hold the new rooms in place. This 50-foot span detours to avoid windows, curving downward in the lower studio. “The space above is great fun to be in—students see outside, they have a connection to the city,” Diller said. For privacy, instructors can flip a switch that obscures the electrochromic glass of the lounge. A dual layer of tempered-laminated glazing with a 4.5-inch sound-absorptive airspace, vibration isolation devices, and acoustic surfaces prevent the music and footfalls of one class from clashing with those of another.

Construction of the $7.2 million project began in the summer of 2006 and only displaced students for three months during the fall semester. “Everyone is showing a lot of tolerance for dust and noise—and there’s going to be a hell of a lot more of it,” Diller said. Indeed, her firm is currently shepherding a much larger redevelopment of the 45-year-old Lincoln Center complex. The project’s first two components, which will better integrate the campus into the city and undertake several extensive building renovations, are scheduled for completion in 2009.

David Sokol