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Richmond Ballet sets a new standard for postindustrial architectural excellence.

Raising the Barre

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A new production of "Cinderella" may be premiering Oct. 6 at the Carpenter Center , but the Richmond Ballet's really big opening this season is occurring just down the hill five blocks away.

After operating since 1978 out of the former Pleasants Hardware building on Lombardy at Broad streets, the company has new digs downtown at Fifth and Canal where a transformation has occurred that's as breathtaking as any pirouette likely to spin on the stage this season. The architecture firm of Bond Comet Westmoreland + Hiner retooled a 1925 factory building and created a sparklingly handsome dance center for 250 students, the dance troupe and a broad range of operations from box office to costume shop.

The architect obviously "listened" to the stalwart, mostly concrete pile with three stories and six broad window bays facing Canal. The building suggested it wanted to remain a factory, but this time around the plant would produce dancers. The building would celebrate, not hide from, its industrial roots.

Some observers reacted skeptically to the treatment. They argued that since dance, particularly ballet, is often gravity-defying and makes the physically difficult appear effortless, an industrialist architectural approach was heavy-handed. Hmmm. While the building does appear overly anxious to provide a stylish, industrial aesthetic, it's a reflection of the times: As we speed into a digital and wireless age, there's a romantic movement afield that embraces our recent, industrial past. Ironically, the ballet building is more industrial in spirit now than when it housed its original tenant, Consolidated Paper and Box Co. This is evident in the new steel and aluminum entrance canopy on Canal, where extra cable supports appear structural but are merely decorative.

Reynolds Metals Company purchased 407 E. Canal from Consolidated in 1970 and used the building for industrial research. Reynolds' major change was installing decidedly unlovely, fiberglass fenestration that looked as flimsy as the building appeared stalwart. Later in the '70s, when the Downtown Expressway was constructed along the block to the south, the building sat perched on a precipice overlooking the river, bridges and Manchester beyond.

When Reynolds recently donated the 53,000-square-foot building to the ballet, the recipients had a great opportunity but a difficult design challenge. Vertical supports had to be moved and ceilings raised. But to step inside the building is nothing short of celebratory. The problems have been met — and then some.

The interior is complex, at once airy, rational and full of surprises. And at one point, in the third-floor dance studio, the space equals the interior architectural excitement that one associates with Thomas Jefferson's Capitol Rotunda, Elijah Myers' soaring Old City Hall stair hall and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer's lobby at the Circuit City operations building at Parham and I-95.

From the sidewalk, front steps and a ramp lead to the light-filled lobby. Paved in gray granite, the walls are gray cinder block with dark mortar. Here, as throughout the building, there is blond wood trim. Beyond the reception desk, a corridor leads to offices and costume and wardrobe areas.

On the second floor, a U-shaped hallway organizes the space. There are three major dance studios on this level, all equipped with specially designed, cushioned flooring, sound systems and soundproofing. The dance barres that encircle the studios provide a sculptural, as well as necessary, element. They exemplify the sharp attention to detail found throughout the building.

On the rear, river side of the building are two large studios. Here, columns were removed and ceilings raised some 18 inches to achieve necessary heights for dancers' lifts and jumps. These structural changes were not cosmetic, but programmatic necessities and budgetary drains.

Interior windows along the corridors allow those in the hallways to enjoy the goings-on in the studios. There are also locker rooms and dancer-break areas on the second floor.

The third level houses artistic staff offices and the building's crowning design moment. Stretching across the rear of the building is a huge studio with a 32-foot ceiling. At the southeast corner a floor-to-ceiling window affords spectacular views of the surrounding cityscape. To accentuate the room's height, the architects tilted the roof at a slight, but distinct diagonal. From the outside, this angle dramatically breaks the strong horizontals and verticals that mark Richmond's skyline. From the inside, it's exhilarating. A rectilinear, concrete box of a building has become a performance itself.

Ultimately, the interior is about communication. The dancers use their bodies to communicate, while the building itself, by removing walls and raising ceilings, encourages communication between all who move through the spaces.

This building represents a compelling start to the 21st century and provides more than a few lessons in how downtown Richmond can reinvent itself in a postindustrial age. Richmond Ballet has set a new bar for architectural excellence and daring, not only for Richmond's performing arts groups, but for other fields.

Was it coincidence that the ballet chose "Cinderella" for its season opener? Like the fairy tale, this long-ignored wallflower has been turned into a

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