The Walker Art Center has evolved considerably since its roots in the downtown mansion of a 19th-century lumber baron. It wasn't until 1971, however, that the Walker most familiar to Minneapolitans, a sturdy brick structure designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, came to dominate the intersection at Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues. Fast-forward to the present, and the Barnes building now has company--and a bit of competition--in the form of a shimmery, chameleonic, aluminum-mesh-clad creation by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The new Walker not only houses additional galleries but also a state-of-the-art theater. Gone are the days when performers--particularly dancers--had to alter their choreography in order to adapt to the narrow auditorium stage in the Barnes wing: The new William and Nadine McGuire Theater can accommodate all but the biggest productions in a 385-seat setting that feels anything but small.
"When people come here to develop a new piece, we can allow them, at the end of their work, to have a fully equipped place where they can present it before going to New York or a major festival. We feel we've really lost a lot of potential synergies with artists in residence working across town in different venues," explains Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither during a recent expansion tour. "We're able to provide artists with a different kind of service because this performance space is comparable to a standard 1,500-seat theater." At 2,800 square feet, the stage provides maximum opportunity for choreographers to consume the floor, and directors can incorporate extensive scenery (the theater boasts 48 feet of fly space over the stage). Bither is often questioned about the intimate size, but he believes "the scale of the space is related to the mission of what we do. Too often places have used economic arguments to overbuild." The result draws upon conversations with artists about their ideal venue, as well as the expertise of consultants Fisher Dachs Associates (theater) and Kirkegaard Associates (acoustics).
While the McGuire Theater will intrigue the technically minded, what most will remember is the visual impact of entering a theater with black metallic mesh walls (the same material as the expansion exterior) enhanced by an embossed design meant to evoke the tin ceilings of old buildings. The deep purple wall color and silver accents on the balconies combine for a paradoxically lighthearted gothic effect that could have been inspired by film director Tim Burton. "These very modern references point to earlier eras of theater," says Bither, "but it's not a modernist box. [The architects] were interested in having a distinctive feeling in the space that will be memorable. I really had to advocate to make sure the design of the theater doesn't overwhelm what's on the stage."
The artists Bither booked for the Walker opening, including postmodern virtuosos Meredith Monk and Philip Glass (the latter performed at the Barnes opening), are up to the task. The packed schedule also reflects the curator's global vision. Indonesian choreographer Mugiyono Kasido, for example, transforms his training as a classical dancer into a whirling transcendent experience, and Pakistan's Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali unleash an ecstatic form of Islamic sufi music. Local performers include percussive innovator Joe Chvala and singer Ruth McKenzie, dance duo HIJACK, and electric guitarist Steve Tibbets in collaboration with Tibetan Buddhist nun Choying Drolma. Rounding out the program are avant-rockers New Humans and one-woman-virtual-band Tracy + the Plastics, both of New York, and guitarist Bill Frisell with pedal-steel master Greg Leisz.
When it's all over, Bither will breathe a sigh of relief. "For years, there have been many sleepless nights," he admits. "I think building a new performance space is one of the hardest things in the world to do. I just wanted a space that artists love working in. Artists in America, dancers in particular, have really suffered from a lack of that. Here is a place where form and function work hand in hand."