Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts: Local dancers weigh in


It's big. It's beige. It's here. The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts finally opened last weekend in a big celebration marking a new era for the Twin Cities dance community. Friday night was the opening gala, on Saturday the Cowles gave out hundreds of comps as a gesture of welcome, and Sunday featured a free open house event.

So how do Twin Cities dancers and choreographers like it? Responses ranged from ecstatic, to cautious, to rather negative. So we'll have to see if our town steps up to the plate and embraces the new facility, and whether or not the programming at the space will emerge to the forefront of dance innovation and excellence.


Resounding praise 

Probably the most ringing endorsement for the Cowles so far comes from those who actually performed at the opening. Linda Andrews, artistic director of Zenon Dance Company, was simply glowing on Saturday night. "Zenon is hot. We are on fire. We love it!" she says. "It's our home. We've been waiting so long for a stage like this." 
Zenon member Tamara Ober wrote in an email following the opening that she's thrilled about the center, which is great for the company because it's right next door to their studio. "The fact that we can be in our rehearsal space, the space where the work is created, to warm up and then gather our things in our arms and shuffle barefoot down the hallways, and walk right onto the stage is an incredible feeling--I'm still trying to figure out how to describe it... but it's safe, cozy, warm, strong, connected, familiar," she writes. "And the stage being right there also actually changes the way the Zenon rehearsal space feels by knowing that it is not only a little vortex where only students and professionals are buzzing around, but now it is a site where the public (the whole reason we do this crazy dance thing that we do) gathers." 

Ober loves that the floors in the hallways are not concrete, and that the dressing rooms have plenty of space, attached bathrooms, amazing lighting, a laundry room, showers, and many other luxuries. And the stage is amazing, according to Ober. The floor is nice and sticky, and there are lights at the front to mark center and quarter, which she says will help her dance differently. "I will not have to look down so much to find the darn center mark anymore," she says. "The Cowles is a beautiful, cozy, and heartwarming gift, one that I think we never expected to receive. Just the surprise factor of that makes it all the more thrilling." 
Sally Rouse, co-founder and dancer with James Sewell Ballet, also performed last weekend at the Cowles and was similarly excited about the space. "It's beautiful," she says. "You can see every face in the audience. It's going to be amazing." 

Photo by Mark Kartarik

Photo by Mark Kartarik

Still, some skepticism

Not everyone in dance community who attended the performance on Saturday were as enthusiastic. There's also a contingent of artists who are concerned that the Cowles Center won't be welcoming to local, experimental choreographers. 

The evening of work presented for the opening was rather safe, to be sure. There were some top-notch guest companies from New York who did have some great stuff, but one could hardly call their performances groundbreaking. Of the local companies, all were ballet with exception of Zenon, and all the work was rather fluffy. But perhaps it was just that the choreographers wanted to put on something celebratory for the opening. 
During intermission, Olive Bieringa from BodyCartography Project stated  that she was stunned by the lack of local contemporary choreographers represented at the opening. "It's embarrassing," she says. Still, Bieringa thinks that the stage is very nice. "I just hope they get local people in there doing contemporary work." 

Laurie Van Wieren also seems cautious. "So many people are excluded," she says. "There is a real earnestness about the work that's naïve."

"It's very... beige," says one local choreographer/dancer, who asked that his name not be used. 

The Southern elephant in the room

Dancer, choreographer, and elder of the dance community John Munger, who is the former Director of Research for Dance USA, says that the Cowles Center is exactly right for what is needed for companies that are already established in the Twin Cities. For companies like James Sewell Ballet, the State Theatre is too big and so is O'Shaughnessy. "They can't swing a full weekend of audiences of that dimension yet," he says. For these established companies, venues like the Ritz and the Southern are too small.
"What was lacking was a space in the 500 to 600 range," he says. The Cowles Center "is exquisite for watching dance. There isn't a bad seat in the house. The stage machinery is superb, there's big wing space, and the floor is gorgeous." Munger also likes that there are closeable travelers, so they can constrict the space if they need to. 

Above all is that the Cowles center focuses on dance. "Even the Southern never got to that point. Even though Jeff [Bartlett] would talk about dance in his opening speeches, it wasn't the Southern Theater for Dance. It also didn't have an educational component, connected studios, or resident companies. This does. That is a huge difference, and a major step."

However, Munger says that the Southern's financial difficulties and transition into purely a rental house with only one staff person is a major concern for the dance community. 
It comes down to a ladder. According to Munger, in 2009 a meeting convened with a number of companies--including the Southern, the Ritz Theater, and the Cowles--in order to talk about how these dance venues could work with each other and the dance community without stepping on each others' toes.

The representatives from these groups talked about a ladder. Someone fresh out of college or new in town could start putting on work at the Bryant-Lake Bowl or Patrick's Cabaret. The next rung would be the Southern, which at the time was a co-presenting venue. "That's what the Southern first created for itself," Munger says. "Bringing along beginners of promise and turning them into something more." The next step would be the Ritz, which was more expensive than the Southern at the time because it was mainly a rental facility, and finally the Cowles Center. 

This was a great plan, except it didn't take into account the Southern's collapse, and that broke that step in the ladder. "Now people who say, 'We don't have a ladder, how am I going to get into the Cowles?' They're right," Munger says. "The ladder is broken. That's a problem. That's a challenge. That's the next problem to deal with." 

The Cowles's season begins in earnest on September 23, when Ragmala steps in to show its stuff. Here's hoping that the center will be successful in drawing the audiences that it needs to thrive, and here's hoping that the companies in this first season flourish in innovation and excellence. In the meantime, there's still that other theater over on Washington Avenue that still exists. Will the Southern miraculously come back as a viable venue for up-and-coming, experimental work? Or will some new space emerge that can act as a bridge for local choreographers?

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