Tall, sinewy women, their necks thin and erect, mingle in wispy dresses on the arms of broad-shouldered men under the twinkling white lights of the canopied back patio at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. As dusk fades and cocktails are served, the black-tie crowd moves with a particular rhythmic elegance. Maybe that's because some of the country's biggest names in dance are here. There are Debbie Allen, Diavolo Dance Theater's Jacques Heim, choreographer and one-time Joffrey prima ballerina Jodie Gates, as well as Complexions Contemporary Ballet co-founder and dancer Desmond Richardson.
But the new biggest name in dance is Glorya Kaufman, who shook up the arts world last month when she gave the University of Southern California a gift that despite its undisclosed amount, has been called one of the largest donations in dance history.
Kaufman, wearing a brown velvet Christian Lacroix gown and her red hair in a neat twist, hugs a steady stream of old and new friends who have flown in from New York, Austin, Detroit and all over California to celebrate her gift. Curiosity over the dollar amount bubbles throughout the crowd.
Even before the night's event, Kaufman was known as the dancing philanthropist. In 2009, she gave $20 million to Los Angeles' Music Center so that major dance companies could perform in Southern California through her Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance. And she gave $18 million to UCLA's School of Arts and Architecture in 1999 to renovate the dance building. Her hope was that the university would eventually create a dedicated school of dance.
Now she is getting her wish at a different university with the announcement that USC will establish a dance school in her name. It will be the first endowment-funded school that USC has started in 40 years. And it has the possibility of transforming the city's dance landscape.
"It's groundbreaking, considering the level of people Glorya wants to bring into it — a Juilliard on the West Coast," Richardson says. After nearly two decades in New York, Richardson — who tonight performs a contemporary ballet solo in honor of Kaufman — is looking to move his dance company to Los Angeles.
It seems that Southern California might at last be ready for a grand expansion of its dance scene. But is USC ready for Kaufman?
She is the first to admit that she's famously hands-on with the projects she funds. For the Donald Bruce Kaufman branch library in Brentwood, she says, "I picked out every color and every chair and the wood; I did the same thing at UCLA." Of the new USC dance school's interior, Kaufman adds: "I will have a lot to say about it."
Kaufman aims to be as involved as possible in every aspect of the USC school, from helping design the contemporary and classical dance curriculum and hiring world-class faculty to constructing a brand-new building, the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center.
USC President C.L. Max Nikias is undaunted and calls Kaufman "an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary heart" who has "a rare generosity of spirit and a deep passion for dance."
But there are few who know Kaufman beyond the fact of her generosity. For all her very public gestures nurturing dance and other civic efforts over the past three decades, Kaufman is an especially private person. She has given few in-person interviews over the years.
So it's a little surprising when Kaufman extends an invitation to her home on a recent fall morning. The long, sloping driveway leading to her Beverly Hills home is lined with whimsical resin sculptures. Brightly colored ladies pop up from the bushes, striking ballet-like poses. The morning light dances off their curves, casting geometric shadows across the concrete.
Kaufman swings open the front door herself, offering a warm hug and a tour of her new $18.2-million home, designed like an Italian villa. It's her version of downsizing. Until recently she lived in the same massive Brentwood ranch house where, with her late husband, Donald Bruce Kaufman, she raised four children — Curtis, Gayl, Laura and Zuade, publisher of the progressive website Truthdig.com — and also saw the birth of 10 grandchildren. Unhung paintings and open boxes sit tucked away in corners, but otherwise, the house is unpacked, immaculate even, with its creamy, Italian marble floors, woven rugs and large collection of Deco-era artwork.
As she strides across the living room in slacks and a silky black blazer, Kaufman points out signed Erté tables, Venetian art glass and a wall of Louis Icart prints. Art, music and especially dance is what moves Kaufman, breathes meaning into her life, she says. She took up painting in the early 1970s and proudly shows off three of her works: an impressionistic floral, a still life of a woman's nude back and a bold geometric abstract. They are strikingly different in form and style.
"Change is who I am," Kaufman says. "That's why I'm drawn to dance — it's moving, always changing."
Kaufman learned to dance, she says, before she could walk. Her father, a seasoned dancer, would glide around the family's Detroit living room in the mid-1930s with Kaufman on his toes. As a child, she fondly remembers watching her parents dance across the floors of their apartment. Her mother was active in Jewish charities; her father was production manager of Automotive News.
"I loved how they looked at each other," she says. Deep down, Kaufman wanted to be a dancer when she grew up, but there was no money for lessons. Instead, she learned from friends, who held boy-girl dances in their basement rec rooms. "The rumba, the samba, the twist. We picked up from each other. It was such a wonderful way to grow up."
Dance is also how Kaufman — then Glorya Pinkis — knew that a young, struggling home builder in Detroit would become the love of her life. She was in her late teens and popular in her crowd when a neighbor set her up on a blind date with Donald Kaufman. The two took in a Cinerama movie, all the rage at the time, then dinner, followed by ballroom dancing.