- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

The Department of Dance at the University of Maryland in College Park used to be tucked away in trailers and ill-equipped performance venues at the far end of campus. "I would venture to say that there were many students who didn't even know we existed," says Meriam Rosen, professor of dance at the university. The department, whose nickname was "the Gulch," had a difficult time attracting both skilled choreographers and audiences.
But the dismal conditions seem like ancient history now, Ms. Rosen says. Last year, her department, along with the larger School of Music and Department of Theatre, moved into the $130 million, 318,000-square-foot Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Classrooms, rehearsal spaces and performance venues, and a library with 300,000 books and CDs, fill the building that sits on 17 acres next to Byrd Stadium.
"We're in a different world now," Ms. Rosen says. "I can't believe this space. … Being here has given us a respect we never had before."
The center has been open for about a year, but the finishing touches are still being applied — a last coat of paint is drying in the Concert Hall. A dedication week has been planned for the week of Sept. 21, with such performers as a cappella group SoVoSo and Parsons Dance Company.
"It's a way for us to say 'thank you' to all who made [this center] happen," says Susie Farr, executive director of the arts center.
From the outside, the building's brick exterior blends in with the rest of the University of Maryland campus. But, once inside, most visitors' jaws drop, says Amy Harbison, a media relations manager who often takes visitors on tours of the building.
The interior rivals such places as the Guggenheim Museum in New York in architectural prowess and confusing twists and turns.
"One of the things we want to improve is the signage," Mrs. Harbison says. "It's easy to get overwhelmed."
What first meets the eye is the wide lobby, shaped like an avenue, that stretches the length of the building. The lobby's ceiling is tall and full of skylights and white industrial-looking beams. Its walls are white with scattered cherry wood paneling.
"We call this the main street," Ms. Farr says. "The architects' idea was of an arts community and that each performance venue would open up to the main street. … That way the students from the different departments would interact."
The main street is lined by six performance venues, all specifically designed for its particular discipline. The largest venue is the Concert Hall, which seats 1,100 persons. It has the same beams and wooden details as the lobby, but the shape of the room and ceiling is cathedral-style.
The acoustics of the space can be manipulated 20 different ways to better accentuate the type of music that's performed, Mrs. Harbison says.
The second largest venue, across "main street" from the Concert Hall, is the Ina and Jack Kay Theatre, which seats 650 persons. Its seats are red and shiny and are placed in an amphitheater-like manner, creating a closeness between performer and audience.
"It's meant to look like the old Broadway house in its design," Mrs. Harbison says
The stage is equipped with a hydraulic pit, and a few hundred audience chairs can be removed to house a full orchestra in front of the stage, Mrs. Harbison says.
Backstage on a recent morning, students were painting the sets for "The Music Man," which will be performed Oct. 19 to 21 and Oct. 25 to 27.
The performance will include students from the theater department, professional actors and students from a nearby elementary school.
"This performance is a real marriage of what this center is all about," Mrs. Harbison says.
While the center primarily is an academic institution, it also is intended to provide a stage for local, regional and even international artists and be a resource to the public.
In fact, the funding used for the construction stipulated that artists from the area be able to use the venue, Mrs. Harbison says. The center received $94 million from Maryland, $10 million from Prince George's County and $26 million from private contributions.
"It was built with public money, and we want the public to feel comfortable and know that the center belongs to the public," Ms. Farr says.
The building, for which ground was broken in the fall of 1996, was designed by the California firm of Moore Ruble Yudell in collaboration with Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore and the District. It was named for Mrs. Smith, a Virginia artist and art collector and UM alumna who gave $15 million to the project with her husband, developer Charles Smith.
One of the challenges in designing the building was to create sound insulation among the six different venues: three theater spaces, two music stages and one dance venue. One of the ways this was achieved was that concrete was poured separately for each space, Mrs. Harbison says.
In the 180-seat Dance Theater, one of the smaller venues, a group of seven dance majors was rehearsing new choreography by Aviva Geismar. The dance, which tentatively is named "Evidence First Hand," is about inward and outward burdens to which we get attached, Ms. Geismar says.
To illustrate the weight of our collective and personal burdens, the dancers carry briefcases that either weigh the dancers down or seem to pull them in unwanted directions with jerky moves throughout the dance. A performance of the dance is scheduled Nov. 15 to 17.
"Let's try to do that a little less orderly," Ms. Geismar says to her dancers during the rehearsal. Among them is senior Taryn Weitzman, 20, dressed in a pink long-sleeved top and black tights.
"It's inspiring to be here," Ms. Weitzman says during a break. "This is like a mini 'Fame' for us," she says and laughs. "It's more professional, and we get much more exposure than we used to. … If one of the other departments needs a choreographer, they just walk down the hall."
The dance performance is one of 900 events that the center is presenting during the 2001-02 season, which is the first full season of programming.
Guest performers include cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Last year, all the dance performances sold out, and most of the other performances were close to selling out.
"What grade would I give [the center]?" Ms. Weitzman says. "I would give it an A."

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