Stage set for Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre upgrade, new ballet academy

Downtown • Along with new ballet academy and planned Broadway playhouse, SLC arts scene ready for big show.
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Quit hogging the spotlight, Broadway-style playhouse, there is another theater venture — mostly funded and ready to break ground next year — that will also alter Salt Lake City's downtown arts landscape.

A renovation of Capitol Theatre, conjoined by a stunning Ballet West Academy building, has completed all its rehearsals before planners and politicians. The $33.3 million project now is ready for prime time.

The five-level academy, complete with a rooftop terrace and west-side plaza, will house studios, offices, costume rooms, rehearsal space and more — allowing Ballet West to perhaps triple in student size. When it breaks ground, as early as next summer, the public sculpture just west of the Capitol Theatre will go away.

Hugging the academy's eastern wall, the Capitol will get a dramatically expanded lobby, a tweaked orchestra pit to introduce 31 premier seats, and a six-inch stage lift to provide better sightlines.

Coupling the projects allows architects to design the spacious lobby, add new concessions, restrooms and reception areas, and create new viewing areas and entry points for patrons in wheelchairs.

Eventually — it will be timed with the opening of the 2,500-seat Utah Performing Arts Center on Main Street — the plan's second phase calls for removing 200 Capitol seats, taking the home of "The Nutcracker" and revolving Broadway staples from 1,890 seats to 1,690.

More than half the tab has been lined up from public funding and private pledges. The rest appears likely through federal tax credits and a final wave of donations.

"We want to make the Capitol Theatre more comfortable," explains Phil Jordan, director of Salt Lake County's Center for the Arts. "But we also want to be careful not to remove Salt Lake off the Broadway touring market."

For that reason, the theater initially will be slimmed by just seven seats — a couple of dozen will be added near the orchestra and a similar number will be removed from the rear — keeping it dark just 140 days during mid-2013. After the $110 million Utah Performing Arts Center opens, perhaps in 2015, Capitol would launch its more-significant seat reduction. The timeline allows Capitol to continue staging Broadway shows for the next several years, then smaller Broadway runs after the larger playhouse opens. Mega-hits ­— think "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys" ­— would then play at the Utah Performing Arts Center.

"We feel we are at the right moment," Salt Lake County Community Services Director Erin Litvack told the Salt Lake City Council in early December. "We are at a tipping point for this project."

Ballet officials are especially bullish about the impact of their planned academy, which will match some of the biggest in the nation and could open in two years.

"This allows us to become the destination ballet school of the entire Intermountain region and the American Midwest," says Adam Sklute, artistic director for Ballet West.

The academy currently has 200 students who range from age 3 to early 20s. Academy director Peter Christie says having classes in the same spot as the theater will have an "enormous" impact and allow Ballet West to grow its student ranks from a wider community.

"Right now, we are so cramped, and we're dancing in several locations," Christie says. "It will be really helpful to have cohesion all under one roof."

Sklute says the showcase academy will allow the ballet to work with Utah schools and to market the space as one of the best ballet-training grounds. He predicts families who may be nervous about shipping their youngsters to ballet schools in New York, San Francisco or Miami, may like the alternative in Salt Lake City.

"We are making Utah, with this facility, a destination to dance."

Designers also are making the buildings safer to enter. A deal in the works with Rocky Mountain Power would allow students to enter the academy off West Temple, via a drop-off and pick-up lane in the now-grassy area just south of Arrow Press Square.

"It will be much easier," Christie says, "and safer for our kids."

The drop-off point — which allows parents to avoid the traffic-packed 200 South — would include a weather enclosure and possible security.

Rocky Mountain's substation will remain, as will the Blue Iguana and Benihana restaurants. But blueprints call for a more walkable alleyway with benches and trees along with an outdoor plaza for patrons during intermissions.

"It will become 'theater alley' or 'ballet alley,' " Jordan says.

More public amenities are planned inside the academy — and on top. Jordan notes enhanced meeting-room space may be rented for receptions before or after performances, or for private parties. The same goes for the rooftop deck. Part will be covered, but accessible during intermissions. And an open-air terrace, managed by the county, will be leasable for summer parties.

The main floor will line up with the historic theater lobby to boost the public space. There will also be new restrooms, concessions and merchandise stands. The redesigned theater hall will add legroom, staggered and tiered sightlines and compliance with recently strengthened federal disability laws.

The basement of the academy building will house dressing rooms and the costume shop. A mezzanine and another half floor will be home to student studios. A grand studio on the top floor will allow full dress rehearsals and small performances.

Jordan says the county is negotiating with state alcohol officials about the prospect of serving beer and wine at the newly configured Capitol and the Utah Performing Arts Center alike. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, he notes, is concerned about conspicuous consumption with ballet students nearby.

"We're thinking of the on-hour, off-hour situation," he says, explaining that Capitol could limit beer and wine consumption to inside and only in the evenings after ballet classes are over.

Given the flagging economy and the toll it takes on the performing arts, fundraising for the $33.3 million enterprise has been brisk. County officials already have bought the $2.4 million parcel and have secured $8 million more from the Tourism, Recreation, Cultural and Convention (TRCC) fund. Ballet West has secured pledges worth $8.8 million. Another ballet fundraising drive is geared to garner $4.2 million.

Another chunk — $7 million — is likely to come from federal tax credits that county Mayor Peter Corroon has all but penciled into the spreadsheet. He told the City Council he is "comfortable" the county is "near the top of the list" for federal credits.

That leaves a $3 million gap, which county leaders hope to plug with help from City Hall. In a 6-1 straw-poll vote Dec. 6, the City Council agreed to allocate the $3 million toward the Capitol Theatre plan from some portion of the Utah Performing Arts Center funding.

"It will be intrinsically tied to the UPAC project," confirms Art Raymond, spokesman for Mayor Ralph Becker.

"We are confident that we can get the rest of the way there," says Jodie Fisher, the ballet academy's public relations manager. "This is a very important first step for the cultural district."

Sklute says that if the new academy could be completed by the end of 2013, the grand opening could celebrate two significant milestones: the 50th anniversary of Ballet West and the 100th anniversary of Capitol Theatre.

That prospect, Sklute says, would be "brilliant."

"It would mean so much." —

Song & dance

A $33.3 million Capitol Theatre makeover, paired with Ballet West Academy, could break ground in downtown Salt Lake City next summer. Highlights include:

A reconfigured lobby with double the space.

New restrooms, concessions, rehearsal spots and reception space.

A tree-filled public plaza and a rooftop terrace.

A student drop-off and pick-up lane off West Temple.

Room for studios, offices, dressing rooms and costume storage.

A six-inch stage lift to improve sightlines.