Turning Pointe

OKC Ballet’s elegant new locale marks promising change for the company.

story by Greg Horton

The days when Aubrey McClendon could almost single-handedly—it seemed—keep an arts organization afloat are sadly past. But the legacy of that storied patron of the arts will live on in a multitude of ways as we move forward.

One of the first beneficiaries of this new legacy is the Oklahoma City Ballet. In December of 2016, the company learned they could purchase McClendon’s former American Energy Partners Fitness Center for the staggeringly low price of $4.1 million. It’s a gorgeous space for dance, designed by esteemed expatriate Oklahoma architect Wade Scaramucci, who recently won Britain’s top prize for his firm’s work in London. In a move that showed the overall commitment of the company, board and community, the funds were raised in approximately six weeks, and the sale was completed in February.

The Susan E. Brackett Dance Center | photo by Timothy Soar

Acquisition of the facility—now the Susan E. Brackett Dance Center—is the first phase of a three-phase project to consolidate physical locations and expand the ballet’s offerings, as well as position itself worldwide as a desirable location for dancers. Robert Mills, the company’s artistic director, compared professional dancers to professional athletes in terms of how facilities and opportunities attract them.

“The recruiting process is very similar,” Mills said. “They look at the company, facilities, choreographer, performance space, and the quality of offerings. Also, just like professional athletes, they have a short window of time in which to perform, so they want as many performances as possible in that time.”

The 28,000-square- foot facility contains a shortened basketball court, and under the oversight of board member Jeff Blake—who is also the president of Gumerson Blake Design Build—the court is being converted into a practice floor that is 2.5 times the size of the Civic Center stage. As part of phase three, though, that practice floor will also become a theater for small productions, including modern dance and ballet.

Corps de Ballet dancer Seth Bradley & Soloist Autumn Klein | photo by Shevaun Williams

“The theater will allow us to stage small performances—experimental, avant- garde, modern—without the worry of filling a 2,400-seat theatre like the Civic Center,” Mills said. “The theater will make it possible to offer more opportunities to our dancers, and we can use it to stage the end-of- year performances for our school.”

Three different entities comprise Oklahoma City Ballet—Mills uses the three- legged stool analogy—all with a different focus. The performance company serves as one leg. The others are its American Ballet Theatre-certified school of dance, and an outreach department that includes Ballet Reach—a program for Title I schools. The new facility will benefit all three parts of the organization.

“We will increase our total number of studios to seven,” outgoing president Scott Davis said. “We have increased enrollment in our school, including more than 200 scholarships, and we are simply out of space.”

Blake said the building has three turnkey studios that will be available for the upcoming summer school intensive. Much of the work involves repurposing of the building’s ample space. Administration will be upstairs, and the facility already has an ADA medical-grade elevator—the old space was non-compliant and grandfathered in. The downstairs contains locker rooms with private showers and private water closets, as well as thousands of square feet of storage and future studio space.

“We will also have a dedicated physical therapy room for the first time,” said Sally Starling, the incoming president. “We’ve never had that capacity before, so now we’ll be able to take better care of our dancers and students.”

Principal dancers Alvin Tovstogray & DaYoung Jung | photo by Shevaun Williams

Phase two will begin June 5, according to Mills, and it is during that phase that almost all the renovations are to be done, which includes converting racquetball courts into studios and figuring out how to eliminate two load-bearing pillars on the bottom floor—an engineering problem that as of our walkthrough still had everyone scratching their heads.

As for outreach, the new facility allows the company to bring students in to watch practice or watch a performance. “We are able to take dance into many Title I schools, and to expose young people, many of whom are underprivileged, to the arts in the form of dance and music,” Mills said. “With the new theater, we will be able to bring them here to see where the classes we teach in their schools can possibly lead them. They will be mere feet from the dancers. It’s a much more intimate experience than we can pull off in the Civic Center.”

As for phase three, Davis said much of that depends on funding. “We have been able to acquire the building and start renovations without accruing debt thus far,” he said.

“We will complete the additional phases as funds are available.” That means that there is no firm date for completion, but the transformation of one of our state’s most accomplished arts organizations will mean additional benefits to our “real city.”

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Territory:OKC. For more on architect Wade Scaramucci, click here.