From the president: Dancing at the Ruby

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April 20, 2018

One evening this past winter at an event celebrating the opening of the brandnew Rubenstein Arts Center, I watched from a few feet away as the dancers of the American Ballet Theater performed in the “jewel box,” the center’s glass-enclosed second-floor dance studio. The lights were low, but from my chair under the towering windows, I was close enough to see the sweat on the dancers’ brows and the intensity of their muscular movement. I felt a sudden burst of inspiration to join them, to get up and dance with the dancers. Thankfully, I resisted.

On a follow-up visit to the “the Ruby”—as it has been affectionately dubbed—the jewel box was transformed. I stopped in to see choreographer Nina Wheeler’s jazz dance class, her dozen undergraduate students moving to the rhythms of a live percussionist with the same intensity across the same floors as the American Ballet Theater a few weeks before. Gone was the hushed reverence of the evening ballet performance, replaced by the joyful syncopation of jazz in motion. The gorgeous afternoon light poured through the windows, creating patterns on the floor through which the dancers moved, and the studio seemed to open to the treetops and the campus outside.

As I walked through the building with Scott Lindroth, vice provost for the arts, it occurred to me that every space in the Ruby offered that limitless capacity for transformation. That was by design, said Lindroth; the building was intended to adapt to the full diversity of the arts at Duke. Down the hall from Wheeler’s class, we visited a multipurpose studio where junior Lexi Bateman, a visual arts major, was working with professor Raquel Salvatella de Prada on a multimedia exhibit that in October will pair with an exhibition about migration and art in the Nasher across the street. Salvatella de Prada told us she loved being able to make the space her own as her project evolves.

Another room offered a class in in hip-hop production taught by Grammy-winner Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit, his quiet confines insulated with sliding walls from the burring drills and saws in the DukeCreate makerspace next door. In the new film studio off the main atrium, an M.F.A. in documentary studies candidate was presenting her final project for critique, and in their new studio, WXDU’s on-air personalities were decorating with obscure album covers and vintage furniture of questionable provenance, following the long tradition of student DJs on campuses around the world.

We ended our tour in the von der Heyden Studio Theater, watching singers rehearse blocking for “The_Oper&, a world-premiere opera created by faculty members John Supko and Bill Seaman and directed by Jim Findlay ’89. The_Oper& uses projection, scrims, and computer programming to create a dramatic combination of motion and sound, unimaginable in a Duke facility before the Ruby. During a break, Supko reminded us that though we think of opera as a singular word, it’s the Latin plural for “works,” combining song, choreography, literature, and music.

That struck me as a perfect description of what I had seen at the Ruby. With open access to this magnificent new studio space, students and faculty will be able to make new connections in their practice, their teaching, and their research. In turn, the Ruby, like the glass-enclosed jewel box, can open the arts at Duke to the campus outside, welcoming all members of the Duke community: a team of biomedical engineers from Duke hospital interested in aural pathways in classical music, for instance; or kindergartners from a Durham public school who are having their first experience with theater; or even a university president who might be curious about ballet. With these magnificent resources at his disposal, all he’ll have to do is get up and dance.

  • Vincent E. Price is the 10th President of Duke University, where he is also Walter Hines Page Professor of Public Policy and Political Science in the Sanford School of Public Policy and Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.