Krannert Center Retrospective

—Patricia Knowles

Warming Up in Krannert Center Photo by Darrell HoemannMonday, August 28, 2017, 6:30 p.m.

We've had two inches of rain in 20 minutes. There's a leak in our hallway. My strategic placement of a bucket to capture the water evokes memories of my first year in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA)—1973. Leaks everywhere in this four-year-old building. When it rained, we brought out the buckets to protect the fragile new sprung floor in the dance studio (DRK). Their placement determined our paths through space when moving across the floor in technique class. Merce Cunningham would have loved this chance construct! An extensive and expensive resurfacing of the outside terraces corrected the problem. There was no way to predict the possible drainage flaws of this prototype building with a terraced external surface that served as a roof and covered more square feet than any existing structure.

Rewind to 1970

I can still feel the astonishment and awe of experiencing KCPA for the first time when, as a young faculty member at the University of Georgia, I participated in a meeting of the American Dance Guild hosted by the Department of Dance. I never imagined that just three years later this incomparable edifice would become my professional home for 28 years.

Equipment Crisis

During my first semester of teaching, several building attendants suddenly entered the dance studio in the middle of technique class and removed the piano. I later found out that it was on the KCPA inventory, and it was being moved to the Studio Theatre for a vocal performance by the director's wife that evening.

Production Pains

In 1974, my second year at the University of Illinois, I had been invited by Harold Decker, the legendary choral director in the School of Music, to collaborate on the production of Menotti's theatre piece The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore. This production was scheduled in the Festival Theatre as an "extra event." I soon discovered that this title meant that there were no allocated production or budgetary resources, and I had to beg an overworked production staff for help with costumes, scenery, and technical support. Some of the dancers made their own costumes; a former student passing through town designed a set consisting of simple platforms and flying banners, which were executed by the Scene Shop. There was a half-time production director who was rarely in his office. We never had a production meeting.

This was my first experience with a production of this complexity. We had a minimal crew and only one tech rehearsal. Although the production director was present at that rehearsal, I have no recollection of his assistance in any way. I do remember his telling me that I "knew nothing about production." The Center's longtime lighting designer/magician Ray Caton, who had a special affinity for dance, saved the production with his sensitive and transformative lighting. A few years later, after the formation of the Board of Producers, we were able to repeat this production with full-scale support. I cherish the memory of watching from the last balcony row of the sold-out Festival Theatre with a very full heart.

Lesson Learned: Never Assume

The semester following The Unicorn production, Professor Decker invited me to do choreography for a new work composed by Thomas Frederickson, an esteemed professor in the School of Music who served as director of the school from 1970 to 1974. The piece was a choral setting of four poems by contemporary poets. Unbeknownst to me, there had been no communication between the conductor and the composer, who learned shortly before the world premiere of his work that the performance would include choreography. He called me immediately, and while he exercised considerable restraint, he was not happy. When I expressed equal astonishment, he said that "conductors were notorious for this sort of thing." The quartet of dancers, which included myself, had worked long and hard on the challenging pieces, and I was not about to offer to withdraw the dances. He, laudably, did not insist. Throughout the performance, I imagined him in the audience with closed eyes.

Board of Producers to the Rescue

Initially, the resources of the Center were focused primarily on the presentation of outside events. Contact between artists performing in the Center and the students and faculty in the performing arts disciplines was minimal. Likewise, there was little communication between the resident producers. Big changes were in the wings with the formation of the KCPA Board of Producers in the mid-1970s. This governing body for resident productions had the authority to formulate policies, plan collaboratively, collectively structure a season performance calendar, and problem solve. We also became friends! BOP, which met monthly, was comprised of the heads of dance, music (including the opera director), and theatre and the KCPA director, who served as chairperson. It was the brainchild of Michael Hardy, a former member of the theatre faculty who served as Krannert Center's manager of business and production operations from 1975 to 1978 and became KCPA director a year later.

We now had an administrator who was sensitive to the needs and potential of the educational component of the Center. During his four-year tenure as director, he assembled an experienced production staff that was fully invested in the facilitation of the resident productions, established guest artist residencies, began to commission new work, and paved the way for students, faculty, and community to interact fully with the accomplished artists invited to perform. Under the direction of Michael Ross, whose creative and expansive vision has ignited KCPA for the past 20 years, the integrated roles of KCPA "as classroom, laboratory, and public square" have been fully realized.

A Unique Climate for Collaborations

The outstanding production staff and resources of Krannert Center coupled with the long-standing working relationship of dance and music at the university made for some ambitious and memorable collaborative ventures for Illinois Dance Theatre (IDT): L'Histoire du soldat with Ian Hobson conducting and William Warfield narrating; Carmina Burana with chorus and orchestra conducted by Harold Decker; resident composer Ben Johnston's Mass and our collaboration on a new work, Tribute, for which he arranged texts of American Indian and Eskimo poems performed as a structured improvisation by the New Verbal Workshop; composer Scott Wyatt's Time Mark, in which a percussionist playing an array of instruments shared the stage with two male dancers.

Paul Vermel, UI Symphony director, conducted an original score by composer Norman Lloyd for IDT's performance of Panorama, Martha Graham's stunning 1935 masterwork for 36 women in red. Illinois was the first university to perform this work, which was included on KCPA's 25th anniversary concert. Maestro Vermel also conducted Debussy's L'Après-midi d'un faune for IDT's 1992 reconstruction of Nijinsky's first ballet.

Perhaps our most unusual collaboration was with acclaimed Japanese paper artist Kyoko Ibe, who laboriously created exquisite paper sets for the dances performed on IDT's 1998 season. The theatre's generous overhead fly space and ample flying equipment, coupled with an expert technical assistant from the Department of Theatre, made this challenging production possible. Ibe's artwork was exhibited in the Colwell Playhouse's foyer during the performance run.

Our Shared History with the Revolutionary Merce Cunningham

In 1953, Merce, along with his newly formed company and his musical collaborator, John Cage, was invited to campus to perform for the Performing Arts Festival, an international festival hosted by our College of Fine and Applied Arts to celebrate cutting-edge performing and visual arts. Six years later, Margaret Erlanger, director of the Dance Division at the time, invited him to return for a four-month residency as the first dancer-in-residence in a university dance program. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful association with the university. The university awarded Merce an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 1972—the first for a dancer in the history of the university.

In 1985, an extensive 10-day residency of Merce, Cage, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was planned in collaboration with the School of Music. Events included three nights of company videos narrated by Cunningham, a composer forum with Cage, the New Music Ensemble performing a major Cage work, master classes in Cunningham Technique, and two company performances in KCPA. It was February, and as fate would have it, John slipped on the ice and broke his arm as he was approaching composer Ben Johnston's home to have dinner. When I arrived at the house to transport Merce to one of the video showings, everyone was seated in the dining room in meditational silence. A glowing candle in the center of the table was the only source of light. Merce said softly that John had had an "incident." He accompanied him to the hospital while we went ahead with the video showing.

Architect Jack Baker was hosting a gathering in honor of our two guests later that evening, and he took great care to have their macrobiotic food on hand. Merce appeared briefly and said that John would have to fly back to New York early the next morning to have his broken bone set by the same surgeon who would remove the pins at a later date. He could not stay for the party. We were left with no guests of honor and dried garbanzo beans. John's great disappointment was that he would be unable to play the amplified cactus, found the previous week in the Arizona desert, for the company performances. A few weeks later, I received a handwritten letter from Merce saying that John's "incident" was mending well and rapidly and that he was already back at the computer.

The Hosting of American College Dance Festivals

Krannert Center with its strong technical support staff, four indoor stages, classrooms and rehearsal rooms, two spacious studios, and a lobby large enough to accommodate all participants in an opening celebration of folk and square dancing (1988) is an unparalleled venue to bring together 600+ dance students, teachers, and musicians from 40+ dance programs to celebrate dance in our Great Lakes region. Festival events include faculty and student performances, an adjudicated gala concert, an array of master classes, film showings, panels, presentations, and a banquet. Our seventh festival is planned for spring 2018.


For many years, I visited the leading dance programs in higher education throughout the country as an accreditor for the National Association of Schools of Dance. There were programs with subpar facility resources doing quality work because of talented, committed, inspiring, and mutually supportive faculty and strong administrative leadership, and there were programs with impressive facilities but lacking in passion and commitment to a shared sense of mission among the faculty, arts presenters, and administrators. The uniqueness of Krannert Center stems from the fact that it was built with a twofold mission from the start—to present the finest artists from the professional world and to make full use of these artists and the re-sources of the Center in the education of our students.

This university has a long-standing reputation for its support and promotion of the arts, beginning with the internationally acclaimed Contemporary Arts Festivals in the 1950s. Professional dancers such as Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, and Paul Taylor performed with their companies on these festivals, and connections were forged with the Department of Dance. Meg Harper, a longtime member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, met Merce here during his residency in 1959. Beverly Blossom was interested in joining the faculty in 1967 because of her previous visits to campus as a performer with Nikolais. The university has awarded three honorary doctorates to dancers: Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, and Katherine Dunham. Artists-in-residence in the department have continuously augmented the faculty artist/teachers.

The foundation was laid for the flourishing of the performing arts programs at the university, and the building of Krannert Center provided a permanent home for the arts to flourish in new and integrated ways. As KCPA began to find its way 50 years ago, the quiet, behind-the-scenes guidance and support of Jack McKenzie, dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, who retired in 1990, was a major force in the realization of the vision. He was present at the formative Board of Producers meetings and performances of the resident departments, and he twice served as acting director of the Center. Dean McKenzie was responsible for those critical staffing decisions essential to making KCPA a true center for the vibrant presentation and practice of the performing arts—a center with the highest standards of excellence, which continues to enhance the quality of life in our university community in profound ways.