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Chorus singing
Choral singers performing Photo by Chris Hildreth

A Day in the Life of the Ruby

Things are rarely quiet at the Rubenstein Arts Center

8:09 a.m.

Nobody is in the studio of WXDU, but mellow music plays constantly, on automation. Speakers everywhere keep a low musical accompaniment running in the empty halls. Then the Duke blue LED bulbs hanging scattershot in the first-floor Ruby Lounge brighten, all by themselves. The floor-to-ceiling windows, partially uncovered, give the room a pleasant, filtered light.

The building has yawned and opened its doors. 

The Rubenstein Arts Center stands on a corner between the Nasher Art Museum and the Duke Gardens. Opened in 2018, it is two stories of blond wood floors (many of them sprung for dance), exposed steel beams, and wide-open glass walls. A second-floor dance studio called The Box juts out toward the Nasher across the street, and through its enormous windows passersby see dancers of ballet, modern, and other disciplines. Artworks line the walls. Performances fill a theater and a black box space. The Ruby is where Duke art comes to play.


The first teacher and students have filed in, and at a long table in a first-floor classroom, music grad student Brittany Green introduces a dozen or so tired students to modes and pentatonic scales.


In preparation for a 10 a.m. ballet class, piano accompanist Natalie Gilbert stretches in the streaming sunlight of The Box. She admires the views of the willow oaks on the lawn of the Nasher and says, “Professional companies come in here and ooh and aah.” Iyun Harrison, director of undergraduate studies and associate professor of the practice of dance, arrives and says he finds the notion of talking about the building, an inanimate object, “problematic.” “People make art,” he says. “We could be in a basement with no windows, but if we’re making good art that’s all that matters.” Gilbert raises an eyebrow. “That being said,” she says, “having good floors and a good piano is a good thing.” The room slowly fills with dancers. Harrison puts them through their paces. 


Down the hall, adjunct professor Kristin Clotfelter manages a group of beginning modern dancers. “Some of them have never been in the building before they arrive for this class,” she says. She points to the building’s broad windows. “I say, ‘Face the trees,’” she says. “That orientation of themselves in space is very important to modern dance.” Moving lessons. 


In the first-floor Makerspace, biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Alex Allphin is waiting to use an enormous computer-controlled router to cut a thick piece of aluminum for a scanner he’s building. The router is bigger than the one in the West Campus Makerspace. Meanwhile, five of the 15 3D printers hum busily, creating hands or skulls or other objects zapped to them from anywhere.


Divya Pokhriyal, graduate student in engineering management, manages the Cage, where students can check out video equipment. She does more than just manage. “I was inspired,” she says, “and took a class in 16 mm film production.”


Bill Fick ’86, visual and studio arts manager for Duke Arts, is in the Ruby Gallery building a platform for the altar-like ofrenda to support an enormous calavera – a papier-mâché skull – for a participatory Day of the Dead project. Local artists were making the calaveras, he says, “And I said let’s make an altar piece, and also do workshops and teach students. This is something we try to do in order to make it more interactive.”


Loren Barcenas M.S.’19, one of Harrison’s ballet students, sits at a table in the Ruby Lounge to calm herself. Her Duke master’s in global health wasn’t enough, so now she’s a Ph.D./M.D. student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and she’s enjoying the lounge’s markers and coloring pages.  “It makes me feel less stressed,” she says.

1:25 p.m.

In a second-floor classroom, Jason Sudak M.F.A.’17, lecturing fellow in cinematic arts, pulls down the shades and, with his Sound for Film and Video class, listens to audio they gathered in Duke Gardens. “Technologies are changing our relationship to listening, year by year,” he says. “What we’re doing is trying to learn to listen more carefully.” Listening lessons.


Marie-Louise “Lou” Bennett, instructor of art, art history, and visual studies, has led her drawing class from its room on the Ruby first floor to the Duke Gardens, where the students surround the Roney Fountain, using color for the first time. “We started off with charcoal and pencil, and today we’re jumping into color.” In the studio, she says, they don’t even turn on the lights, just letting the natural light in. Looking lessons.


The von der Heyden Studio Theater is a black box, a big empty room. Workers hang lights and arrange furniture and lamps, putting together “Meshroom.” “The purpose of the building is to build a world from scratch,” says creator Marika Niko M.F.A.’23, who calls “Meshroom” “a performance environment that forms an intellectual/intentional community around an open dance floor.” Rugs and colored lamps define spaces, populated by pillows, books and drawing supplies. Purple and green lighting adds mood. “Look at that,” says Scott Silver, of the venue and production management staff, as he walks through. “It’s art!”


For the first time all day the building buzzes. Student dance groups fill rooms on both floors. Musicians drag instruments into the von der Heyden. Catering places hummus and salads in the Ruby Lounge for a reception before a documentary in the Ruby Film Theater. Students from a video class have checked out cameras for an assignment, taking pictures in the Lounge’s changing light.


Guests filter from the reception into the film theater, and others enter the von der Heyden as “Meshroom” has its soft beginning: Musicians play. Niko and other dancers begin walking through the space; visitors do, too. People find comfortable places to watch, rest, dance. Periodically a dancer moves to the center of the floor and Niko and a few others murmur, “Someone is performing now; tell the person nearest to you,” and everyone watches. Then, “The dance floor is open now,” and the reverse happens. People draw, dance, move, read.


The documentary over, people exit. At 9, “Meshroom” ends with a simple raising of the lights, and people filter out of there, too. Dance rooms still hop with students: Rhydun, a competitive Bollywood-style dance team, fills one room with music and organized movement. In a second, Dhamaka gyrates in Punjabi folk dance. From the street, passersby can watch the Dancing Devils practice in The Box. 


The dancers continue, but the Ruby slowly empties. WXDU still plays on the hallway speakers.