A Historic Theater Moves Into the 21st Century

Classic Arts Features   A Historic Theater Moves Into the 21st Century
When the doors opened on the renovated David H. Koch Theater in early November, audiences began to experience some wonderful surprises. In both subtle and dramatic ways, the historic house has now moved into the new millennium.


Its classic lines designed by famed architect Philip Johnson remain respectfully intact but its amenities and technological capabilities have been improved to match the most advanced theaters in the world.

In a recent conversation, Ken Tabachnick, New York City Ballet's General Manager, said a guiding priority of the renovation was the desire to be fully sensitive to the needs of audiences. He first talks about the terrific new, modern seating, which is far more supportive than the original. Handsome in dark brown wood with maroon coverings, the seats are still well spaced to maintain the original layout's ample legroom. But now they have been carefully tested for sound absorption to improve the musical experience. For those who sit in the orchestra, the addition of new side aisles is especially pleasing. "Some people have told me they used to feel uncomfortable in the middle of the orchestra," he says, "but they are now freed by this more convenient access. And the symmetry of the hall is just as visually grand." Patrons with disabilities will also enjoy additional seating throughout the theater.

Moving on to other aesthetically agreeable developments, there are the new wall coverings in the public areas, which are now a cool cream color laced through with gold threads that sparkle in the light, and the new deep red carpeting with a diamond pattern that echoes the design on the auditorium's rings. The restrooms also had an extensive makeover, with new stalls added to some of the women's rooms, and new red and burgundy fixtures to enhance both men and women's.

Though most audience members will probably never see the performers' dressing rooms, they might be happy to learn that they too have been renovated, no doubt making for more contentment backstage and even onstage. Also very important to everyone's comfort is the entirely new air conditioning, heating and ventilation system that has been installed. As for production advances, Tabachnick cites a couple of significant technical breakthroughs: the enlargement of the orchestra pit and the installation of a mechanical lift that will move it up and down.

"This will make a big difference in the acoustical presence of the orchestra," Tabachnick explains, adding that the renovation also included an upgraded lighting system which will give lighting designers more flexibility. "These things are subtle," he says, "but critical in the presentation of dance and opera."

New York City Ballet and New York City Opera have carried out these renovations through a joint capital campaign undertaken with the City Center of Music and Drama. The building, originally known as the New York State Theater, has been renamed in honor of David H. Koch's $100 million lead gift to the campaign. Major funding has also been provided by the City of New York, through the Department of Cultural Affairs with support from the City Council and the Manhattan Borough President.

Of all the remarkable changes brought about by the complex renovation, Tabachnick is most thrilled about the theater's new, sophisticated technological capabilities. "Here's why we'll now be able reach millions more people," he says. It starts with the new media suite that is outfitted with all the necessary equipment to capture, edit, and distribute high-definition images and the digital sound of performances, rehearsals, and any other activities taking place in the theater. The theater is also now outfitted with a number of permanent high-definition cameras, as well as more than 60 broadcast service panels installed throughout the theater, which allow easy set-up for additional camera positions, enabling both companies to beautifully record their performances.

Tabachnick adds that the theater is also now equipped with a sophisticated media management system, which will have multiple uses for people working in the theater, as well as for fans of the companies. "We will now be able to digitize thousands of tapes, scores, videos and papers related to the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet that have been stored away in our archives," he says. Once digitized, staff can easily access a multitude of materials, much of which can also be made available to the public via the Internet, attracting untold numbers of new fans. "I'm just thinking of the high percentage of the population who now gets almost all its information online," he says. "Can you imagine what it's going to be like for them when they discover all that New York City Ballet has to offer right at their laptops? Incredible."


Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for many publications including The New York Times and Dance Magazine.

The David H. Koch Theater's new media suite

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