A new home for dance

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July 4, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss
A sneak peek inside the Cowles Center on Hennepin

While walking around the city this summer, you may find yourself stumbling across a troupe of dancers in an unexpected place.

It could be ballet atop a parking ramp, break dancing on a street or an intricately choreographed modern dance piece on Nicollet Mall. If you do run across such an event, chances are that it will be far more polished than the flash mobs that occasionally pop up around the city. These performers will be some of the most experienced professional dancers around.

These unexpected events will be part of the “Random Acts of Dance” program announced by The Cowles Center, the new arts complex opening in September. Minneapolis already has some of the most iconic art centers in the country — The Guthrie for theater, The Walker for modern art. The staff at The Cowles Center want it to be our next great art center — a mecca for everything dance.

“What we’re building here will be one of the best venues for dance in the world,” said Frank Sonntag, the center’s executive director, on a recent tour.

Touring the space, it’s easy to believe the claim. The Cowles Center at 528 Hennepin Ave. is actually comprised of three buildings: the Goodale Theater (formerly the Shubert), the Hennepin Center for the Arts and a new connecting building that serves as the center’s entrance and houses the U.S. Bank Atrium and the Target Education Studio. The three spaces flow seamlessly into one another and have clearly been designed from the ground up by nonprofit developer Artspace Projects with dance and dancers in mind.

Much of what makes The Cowles Center so ideal for dancers will be invisible to the audience. There are the dressing rooms with attached bathrooms with showers, the back-of-house hallways floored with special linoleum designed to be gentle on dancing shoes and the extra-large dressing room for performers with oversized costumes.

“A lot of thought went into the design,” Sonntag said.

On paper, these may not sound like major features. But Minneapolis has a surprising amount of dance activity — per capita, the most in the nation according to Sonntag — and very few venues designed specifically for dance performances.

At some venues, dancers may find themselves with no place to clean up after a physically demanding performance, or worse yet have to dance on a stage that’s hard on their bodies. Fortunately for the audiences at The Cowles, many of the other dancer-centric features will be obvious. The 500-seat Goodale Theater features a sloped main floor and a single balcony called the “Grand Tier,” both of which are designed so that no seat is further than 65 feet from the front of the stage. While balconies are often considered inferior seats, the view of the stage from the Grand Tier is perfect — even from the back row, viewers should be able to see the expressions on performers’ faces.

The stage itself is a specially design “sprung wood” floor with multiple layers of rubber and insulation to create the perfect surface for dancers, and the area above the stage stretches up 110 feet to accommodate a complex series of pulleys and flywheels so sets can quickly be zipped into the air and out of site for lightning-fast scenery changes.

But there’s much more to The Cowles than its centerpiece stage. The Cowles Center will also house two dance schools, the Minnesota Dance Theatre and Zenon Dance Company.

Ten dance studios will be available for artists to rent at affordable prices. Office space will also be available for nonprofit organizations, and at least 20 are expected to move into the center, with shared resources to help them lower their operating costs.

Videoconferencing technology will bring events at The Cowles to classrooms around Minnesota, the country and the world. “We just broadcast a dance class to Kuwait,” said Marketing Director Troy Linck. “But they couldn’t call it ‘dance’ for cultural reasons, so we had to call it a ‘movement’ class.”

With so many features geared toward creating the optimum environment for dance, it’s no surprise that The Cowles is expected to become the region’s epicenter for the dance community.

“Much of the dance in the community will be focused here,” Sonntag said. “There’s too much going on for everything to happen here, but this place will definitely be where much of it happens.”

Playing that role of a central location will go a long way in promoting the visibility of the dance community, said James Sewell of the James Sewell Ballet, one of the Twin Cities’ best-known dance organizations.

“What it’s going to do is give dance a platform for public visibility,” Sewell said. “People associate an art form with a place. Even though we have one of the best dance communities in the country, the average person doesn’t know it’s there at all. This is going to give us a platform to launch into the consciousness of the average person on the street.”

Louise Robinson, managing director of Ragamala Dance, echoed the sentiment. “It will bring a focus on dance as an important discipline in the community. And this size of stage is so perfect for this community right now.”

Ragamala Dance will be the first company to perform at The Cowles Center, debuting an Indian-inspired multimedia dance performance called “Sacred Earth” on Sept. 23.

The James Sewell Ballet will hold its first performance in the center on Oct. 21. In the first season of The Cowles Center’s life, audiences will also have opportunities to take in Native American dances, ballroom, flamenco and dozens of others.

“The dance community here is astounding in its depth and its breadth,” he said. “Unlike most communities, there’s no ‘big ballet and everyone else.’ Everyone here is equal. There’s something for everyone.”