In the winter of 1999, when the neglected and aging Shubert Theater was rolled down the block to its current resting place on Hennepin Avenue, city planners and arts community leaders were hoping/guessing/praying/betting that within five years, the burgeoning Twin Cities dance scene would be robust enough to support a landmark facility dedicated to the art of bodily movement. Unfortunately, what moved most during that time was the project’s timeline.
But that’s all in the past. After 11 years of fundraising and spirit-boosting—and several bleak periods when it seemed as if the project might never be completed—the $42 million Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts (renamed in honor of long-time dance supporters/philanthropists Sage and John Cowles) is finally scheduled to open. A three-day gala is planned for September 9–11, and the first official performance in the space will be the world premiere of Ragamala Dance’s Sacred Earth on September 23.
The new center is really three structures connected by some ingenious architectural glue. On the south side is the imposing masonry of the 1888 Hennepin Center for the Arts, which houses the administrative offices of the Cowles Center and several of its resident companies. In the middle is a gleaming glass façade, the complex’s forward-looking face, on the first floor of which is an attractive new lobby (with a full bar and carpet that is supposedly “spill-proof”). The second floor features a large practice and rehearsal space outfitted with videoconferencing equipment for educational purposes.
On the north end is the center’s showpiece, the 500-seat Goodale Theater, housed in the historic shell of the old Shubert. Built in 1910, the Shubert has been a Broadway theater, vaudeville house, burlesque palace, and movie theater, but not much of the original interior remains. According to Colin Hamilton, vice president of creative capital for Artspace, the organization that managed the project, the goal of the renovation was to preserve the unique “experience” of seeing a show at the Shubert, albeit improved with state-of-the-art technology,exquisite acoustics, and a lot more legroom.
“Part of what people find appealing about the Shubert is the intimate feel of it,” says Hamilton. “It’s unusually broad and not very deep, so performers can have eye contact with anyone in the theater. But they used to pack 1,500 people into that space. We’ve got 500 seats, so it’s much roomier, and all sorts of things have been done to tailor and optimize the acoustics. The building itself is a finely tuned instrument.”
Designed specifically for dance, the stage has a sprung floor, roomy wings, and a pit large enough for a 42-piece orchestra. The seats are arranged in a fairly steep bowl above the stage, so sightlines are superb—and, in keeping with a long Shubert tradition, there is no center aisle. The exterior façade has also been extensively repaired and polished, preserving the building’s original Beaux-Arts design and glazed terra-cotta finish.
Taken together, this three-in-one complex embodies the dreams, vision, sweat, and financial support of many disparate people with a common goal, and when the ribbon is cut on September 9, it will open a new chapter in the history of local dance. “I’ve been dreaming about this day for 25 years,” says Linda Z. Andrews, artistic director of Zenon Dance Co., one of the primary tenants of the Cowles and the most successful modern-dance company in town. “Despite the delays, I did not lose hope. I was just hoping it would open in my lifetime.”
Zenon, like many local dance companies, spent years performing in various rental spaces, particularly The Southern Theater, often adapting its work to the limitations of the space in which it was performing. “As much as I liked the bombed-out look of The Southern, the floor was hard and there were things we just couldn’t do,” says Andrews. Not so with the Cowles. “Artistically speaking, the Cowles opens up enormous creative possibilities. There are no limitations,” she says. “I can’t wait to get in there, because I want to bring bigger, better choreography and do things that have never been done before.”
The Cowles raises the Twin Cities’ national profile as well. Besides the Joyce theater in New York, there is no comparable facility of its kind anywhere in the country. There are multiple-use facilities that include dance in their mix (such as Northrop Auditorium, Walker Art Center, Ritz Theater, and the Ordway), and there are individual dance companies that operate their own multi-million-dollar facilities, but there are no multiple-company institutions of the Cowles’ size and budget dedicated primarily to dance. Seventeen local dance companies will call the Cowles home, but they are not all capable of filling those 500 seats nightly. Consequently, the national dance community is watching to see if the Cowles’ model can actually work.
“The Twin Cities is a national hot spot for dance,” says Amy Fitterer, executive director of Dance/USA, a national service organization for American dance. “There are many cross-disciplinary presenting houses around the country, but the great thing about the Cowles is the strong community commitment to dance it represents. If it can unite the dance community and expand the ecosystem and audience for dance—that’s very powerful.”
Keeping the Cowles Center in the black over the long haul is not going to be easy, however, and no one knows that better than executive director Frank Sonntag, who was hired in February after a successful stint as director of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in New York. “To succeed, we need to continue fundraising, keep courting donors, cross-promote and expand the local audience for dance, develop partnerships with other arts entities in town, and take full advantage of the buzz we’ve created,” says Sonntag. “The first two years are crucial.”
The challenges are not trivial. After all, the audience for dance is relatively small and fragmented; the people who attend dance events are often intensely loyal to one specific dance company or style (ballet, jazz, flamenco, modern, ballroom, etc.); people who don’t care about dance really don’t care about it; and efforts to “expand” the local dance audience beyond its natural limits have a long history of futility.
Then there’s the location: downtown, between the architectural carcass of Block E and Dreamgirls strip club—a forlorn tract of real estate that has been successfully deterring suburbanites for generations. For the time being, nothing can change that—but people are trying. Hennepin Theatre Trust, which owns the State, Orpheum, and Pantages theaters, recently received a $200,000 “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to begin exploring how to “re-invent” the entirety of Hennepin Avenue from the Walker Art Center to the Mississippi River as an “arts-inspired cultural corridor.” If it ever happens, the stretch from 5th Street to the river, where the Cowles Center sits, will represent a formidable challenge.
It’ll be years before there’s any movement on that front, however, and the Cowles needs droves of Minnesotans to start falling in love with dance now. “If the Cowles Center can find a way to make dance more attractive and palatable to the general public, they will be tackling a problem that has existed here forever,” says John Munger, an elder statesman of local dance who teaches at Zenon Dance and performs under the moniker of Three Rabbit Dance. “The problem is that the dance community and the general public are seriously disconnected,” says Munger. “The general public has no idea that the Twin Cities is one of the top four or five dance communities in the nation.”
To be sure, there are 15 dance companies in the Twin Cities with budgets of more than $1 million each. There are dozens who work on more frugal budgets, and there is an entire network of independent choreographers and dancers, many of whom are nationally prominent. What many people don’t know, says Munger—who is completing an as-yet-unpublished census of Minnesota dance-making entities he conducted for Dance/USA—is that “culturally specific dance organizations (e.g., Native American, Hispanic, Irish, Polish, folk, hip-hop) in the Twin Cities have a total audience of more people than the top 15 dance companies in the Twin Cities combined.”
That’s a fact that Cowles director Sonntag recognizes and is cunningly using to his advantage, says Munger. In addition to performances by the larger companies in town—e.g., Minnesota Dance Theatre, James Sewell Ballet, TU Dance—Cowles is programming performances by several smaller companies, such as Native Pride Dancers and Breaking Boundaries Dance Co. “It’s important to give smaller companies an opportunity to attract a larger audience,” says Sonntag. “We want the Cowles to be aspirational, but we also want it to be accessible.”
The other secret weapon in the Cowles’ quiver is education. Over the past decade, even as fundraising for the renovation slogged along, the organization was quietly training more than 48,000 students and adults, including 16,000 in 38 communities throughout greater Minnesota—all of whom represent a potential audience the Cowles is intent on nurturing.
The recent implosion of The Southern Theater as a producer and presenter of local dance will help fill the Cowles as well. This spring, financial difficulties forced The Southern to lay off its entire curatorial staff and abandon most of its programming, dealing a severe blow to the dance troupes and independent choreographers who depend on it. The Cowles can pick up some of the slack, but not all. “We can’t be everything to everyone,” says Sonntag—though he recognizes the hole left by The Southern and says he’s open to ideas (an independent choreographer’s showcase, say) that might help fill it.
In any case, the Cowles will present 114 performances by 22 companies in its inaugural season, most—though not all—of it dance (the vocal group Cantus will also perform, and Illusion Theater is presenting a play, My Antonia). Only one non-local company, New York’s Keigwin & Co., will appear—a fact that “is a testimony to the strength of our commitment to Twin Cities dance, and the strength of local dance itself,” says Sonntag.
How it will all play out remains to be seen. The Cowles has set for itself the modest goal of filling 50 percent of its seats in its first season.
Let the dancing begin.