GREENSBORO The significance of the moment brought Alexandra Joye Warren to tears.
Modern dance virtuoso Jan Van Dyke, Warren’s college adviser and mentor, long had envisioned a community venue appropriate for presenting the art form.
Now, thanks to Van Dyke’s $1 million gift before she died of cancer in July 2015, this new venue has taken shape in the downtown Greensboro Cultural Center.
Warren and nine other dancers became the first to try it out.
“It feels like an honor to put your mark on this space — something that she left behind for us — and to sweat on it and dance on it,” Warren said as she finished a rigorous masterclass there last weekend. “It feels like the right way to open it.”
Contractors have doubled the size of a former rehearsal room on the ground floor of the city-owned cultural center into the Van Dyke Performance Space.
Next to the new Carolyn & Maurice LeBauer Park, they have created a 2 1/2-story, 7,500-square-foot venue with movable seating that can hold 200 to 400-plus patrons.
In addition to $1 million from Van Dyke for construction, the city financed $700,000 in roof, restroom, electrical and heating, ventilating and air conditioning upgrades, City Manager Jim Westmoreland said.
Within the black box-style theater, no pillars or poles block audience sightlines, letting them see dancers’ feet on the floor-level stage.
The stage is a large hardwood, shock-absorbing sprung floor that gives it a softer feel for dancers. It is recessed into a cavity to make it flush with the concrete floor that surrounds it.
When needed, dancers can place a cushioned vinyl floor called a Marley floor atop the wood.
The adaptable stage and space can host a variety of events. Behind the stage are two dressing rooms and two restrooms, next to a board room where performers can warm up and await their time in the spotlight.
“Jan wanted to make sure that all kinds of performances could be done here — poetry, jazz, all kinds of music, dance, lectures, town meetings, anything where people needed to come together, not just for dance,” said Florence Gatten, who chaired the board of ArtsGreensboro and acted as its project manager.
For now, temporary folding chairs fill the concrete floor. The stage curtain and permanent seating remain to be installed.
The auditorium-style seating will be in a raked or slanted configuration, that can be retracted and moved against a wall for large standing groups. Portable folding seats can be added when needed.
The NC Dance Festival, which Van Dyke co-founded, will mark the space’s inaugural performance on Nov. 12.
Van Dyke nurtured and promoted modern dance across North Carolina. She made it her profession for 52 years, as a performer, teacher, choreographer and artistic director.
She taught dance at UNC-Greensboro for 23 years, influencing generations of up-and-coming dancers such as Warren.
She founded Dance Project, a nonprofit based in the cultural center. It runs the NC Dance Festival, the professional Van Dyke Dance Group, and the Dance Project at City Arts that offers classes for children and adults.
Van Dyke often lamented the community’s lack of appropriate dance performance space outside UNCG.
“I also know how many young people leave Greensboro because there is no opportunity here in dance,” she said in 2014.
That year, she pledged $1 million from an inheritance to create the venue.
“I feel lucky to have the desire, the vision and the means to help make this happen,” Van Dyke said at a ceremony in June 2015.
Less than three weeks later, she died at age 74 from incurable primary peritoneal cancer.
The Van Dyke Performance Space fills a gap in the city’s inventory of public and private performing arts venues.
Next year, another much larger venue, the 3,000-seat Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, will be under construction on the other side of LeBauer Park.
Both will allow the city to compete more favorably for acts against venues in other neighboring cities.
“We are making Greensboro a cooler place,” said Tom Philion, president and CEO of ArtsGreensboro, the arts marketing and fundraising agency housed in the cultural center with other nonprofit arts organizations.
ArtsGreensboro worked with city government on the Van Dyke Performance Space, and will manage it.
Greensboro Coliseum Managing Director Matt Brown and its maintenance and production manager, Mike Perdue, provided expertise.
Lighting designer and production consultant Bob Thurston volunteered time and advice.
SKA Engineering handled the design. R.P. Murray Inc. served as contractor.
Come next summer, seven artistically-designed windows, illuminated with LED lights, will decorate its brick exterior.
The Public Art Endowment of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro will chose the artist from among three finalists.
The endowment has pledged $50,000 to finance the project, public art consultant Cheryl Stewart said.
Last week, project organizers gathered for the first time in the new space to pay tribute to those who brought it to fruition.
“The last time I saw Jan, she turned to me and said, ‘Florence, I’m counting on you to make sure that this vision happens,’” Gatten said. “My faith system allows me to believe that she is here with us and is delighted with what we have been able to do together.”
ArtsGreensboro already has received inquiries about renting the space, Philion said. He and the city continue to finalize an operating agreement that spells out rental rates.
Rates will be competitive and vary for resident organizations, nonprofits and for-profit users, he said. They will cover costs of contracting with experts to run the space.
Philion sees it as an asset not only for Dance Project, but for City Arts and its musical and theatrical groups. During construction, the City Arts Music Center had moved band and choral rehearsals to The Depot, the downtown transportation hub.
An American Music Series sponsored by Wrangler will take place there, to kick off Dec. 1 with fiddler Mark O’Connor.
Brown Paper Tickets will handle online ticket sales. Tickets also will be available at the door for shows.
“We are trying to fashion a building that serves the public in a new, interesting way,” Philion said. “It makes wonderful new and different kinds of entertainment available to our community.”
Dancers in last weekend’s masterclass found the occasion bittersweet.
Most had studied with Van Dyke. Some had performed with the Van Dyke Dance Group.
Virginia Freeman Dupont now directs the group with Laura McDuffee and Kelly Swindell. She taught Van Dyke’s technique to dancers who spun and leaped across the stage.
Anne Morris, who directs Dance Project with Lauren Trollinger Joyner, snapped photos for Instagram before joining the class.
To Morris, “It felt like a ‘thank you’ to Jan, and a ‘we’ll take it from here’ moment,” she said.
At the N.C. Dance Festival next month, the Van Dyke Dance Group will perform her work, “Full Circle.”
Van Dyke will dance, too.
Her protégés will show her perform in video footage from the 1970s. They discovered it in the archives of George Washington University, where Van Dyke received her master’s degree.
They will be forever grateful to the mentor who made it possible for them to stay in North Carolina, and not be forced to move to New York to pursue their careers.
“Jan’s legacy is not just her choreography, not just the programs she started, and not just this theater, but the dancers ...” Morris said. “We are her legacy.”