USC’s New Innovative Glorya Kaufman School of Dance Is in the Spotlight
It’s poetry in motion.
Written and Photographed byRose Eichenbaum
When Glorya Kaufman donated a multimillion-dollar endowment for the construction of a new dance school at the University of Southern California, she did much more than kick off a brick-and-mortar facility. “The dancing philanthropist,” as she is known, facilitated what has become the most innovative university dance program in the country. In just five short years, Kaufman’s dance program has become the Juilliard of the West, making Los Angeles the new Mecca for dance.
“The Glorya Kaufman School of Dance is the greatest dance school I’ve ever seen,” says Nigel Lythgoe, creator of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. “Over the years I have no doubt that it will adjust the power of theatrical dance training from the East Coast to the West as well as internationally.”
The recognition hails in part from the school’s unique approach. The Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, affectionately referred to as “Kaufman,” introduced “the New Movement,” a 21st-century approach to theatrical dance training conceived by Jodie Gates, the school’s founding vice dean and a former Joffrey Ballet principal. Unlike other programs in which students train in one dance form, the New Movement focuses on the intersection of all dance forms. Students train not only in their style of expertise, but in many styles—ballet, contemporary, jazz, and black vernacular dance/hip hop. Expanding a dancer’s body awareness and movement vocabulary not only enables them to perform with greater facility, it promotes respect, collaboration and inclusivity within the art form.
“What makes Kaufman exceptional is that it functions as a high-level arts conservatory inside one of the world’s leading private research universities. In addition to rigorous technique classes and live performances not unlike Juilliard’s, students are also required to carry the same academic course load as any major liberal arts undergraduate,” says Jackie Kopcsak, professor of ballet. “This is a winning mind-body combination you don’t find anywhere.”
To implement the New Movement, Jodie Gates tapped many of the most respected dancers and choreographers within the concert and commercial world to join the school’s faculty. Professors include luminaries such as William Forsythe, Saleemah E. Knight, Patrick Corbin, d. Sabela Grimes, Jackie Kopcsak and Bret Easterling. In addition to its full- and part-time faculty, which helped define and shape the school’s one-of-a kind curriculum, Kaufman also commissions artists in residence for three to six weeks each semester. Students enjoy the rare opportunity to work closely with some of the concert world’s most celebrated masters and perform their signature works. Aszure Barton, Dwight Rhoden, Desmond Richardson, Barak Marshall, Sonya Tayeh, and Zippora Karz are just a few who have taught technique to or directed Kaufman students.
As you might have guessed, it is a highly selective program. Of the hundreds of applications and audition videos Kaufman’s faculty combs through each school year, only 25 students are selected. “What we look for are dancers who have a certain vigor to their intellectual curiosity and who want to fuse their intellect with their physical prowess,” says associate professor Patrick Corbin. “Training at Kaufman is a tough, rigorous, physical and intellectual experience that pushes students to the limit.” It’s not for the faint of heart, yet Kaufman’s students are the first to sing its praises.
“The awesome thing about Kaufman is that it sharpens my academic pursuits, which go hand-in-hand with my artistic ones,” says senior Evan Sagadencky of Tarzana. “Living and training in LA is the perfect recipe to propel my interests and define my artist’s path.”
Sophomore Aidan Tyssee from Redondo Beach also compliments the program’s dual focus. “Kaufman has given me a rich academic education and the opportunity to take my art and apply it to other dimensions and practices and use it in the real world. It’s opened me up to so many wonderful mindsets and perspectives. I’ve begun to think of my art more as an approach to life than a dance technique.”
Justin Epstein from Woodland Hills was part of Kaufman’s inaugural class, graduating last year. “What I learned from my time at Kaufman was not just steps and choreography. I learned a lot about listening to other people, respecting people and loving people. I learned more about being a person than being a dancer,” he reflects. Justin is now cofounder of RYBG, a film, sound scoring and choreographic-based production company with fellow Kaufman alum Adam Agostino.
When Justin and the rest of the inaugural class graduated in 2019, they hit the ground running, filling the ranks of some of the most prestigious dance companies from coast to coast: Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York, Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago and Alonzo King LINES Ballet in San Francisco. Two Kaufman alumni even got roles on Broadway in the revival of West Side Story.
The success that Kaufman graduates have found is no surprise to industry insiders. “The students receive the highest level of training in all styles of dance, taught by the most brilliant teachers who embrace a joyful approach to learning,” shares Julie McDonald, agent and founder at McDonald Selznick Theatrical Dance Management in LA. “Kaufman is a true gift to our city.”
And the benefits go far beyond the stage and screen. “The New Movement is not only training dancers to move in myriad ways and to be proficient, productive and artful, it’s changing the mindset of how you behave in the world—to be better people and better human beings,” explains Corbin. “Anybody can teach someone how to dance. But what we’re interested in at Kaufman is what kind of people we’re putting out there in the world.”
Rose Eichenbaum is an award-winning photographer, writer and the resident photographer for USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.