Sugarplum fairies and mythic figures from classical Indian dance were among the big winners in the first year of the Cowles Center for Dance, which opened last September on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis after 13 years of fitful fundraising and other challenges.
The 505-seat venue sold out performances of Minnesota Dance Theatre's "Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy" and Ragamala Dance's "Sacred Earth."
Nearly 30,000 tickets were sold in all of the 110 performances presented by the center in its first year.
Still, on many nights, the theater was less than half full.
"We played to 54 percent of capacity, and we're pretty pleased with the results," said Executive Director Lynn Von Eschen. "We had a target of 50 percent, so we exceeded that. And we hope to be higher next year -- maybe 60 percent. But that's not the only yardstick we have to measure success. We are helping to build an ecology and a scene."
The Cowles, named for cultural and civic pillars Sage and the late John Cowles, came into being after a final push by funders to raise the last bit of the $42 million cost to move, gut and renovate the historic Shubert Theater. The venue has an annual budget in the $2 million range. Its opening provided a quantum leap for local companies, offering a first-rate performing space with great sightlines and valuable backstage support, including at the box office -- a step up for the relatively small companies that dominate the dance scene.
"It is a godsend -- an answer to our prayers," said Linda Z. Andrews, founder of Zenon Dance, which performed four weekends at the Cowles.
Compared with how the company has done traditionally, she said, "we doubled our audience in the fall and increased it by 25 percent in the spring. It's going to take time to get people to learn about the Cowles, to come into the venue. But we're very pleased with the results, and how we were treated. Just having a box office to take care of everything is a big deal."
Minnesota Dance Theatre moved its popular "Nutcracker" from the bigger State Theatre, and had to remove 35 seats to make room for the orchestra. (The original plan called for an orchestra pit that could go up and down. That feature is being installed this summer.) MDT Executive Director Lise Houlton said that she was thrilled to have it.
"There are things that we have to get used to, like how the union rules prevent us from touching certain things, and we have to watch the clock to not incur overtime," she said. "Those are things that we have to adjust to as we grow, I guess."
The Cowles' first year was heavy on local acts, as is its 2012-13 season. There were performances by the likes of TU Dance, Carl Flink's Black Label Movement and James Sewell Ballet.
Even so, the Cowles, which opened in uncertain economic times, faces a number of challenges, from the perception of security in its downtown neighborhood, which had shootings and stabbings last weekend, to a rocky start in the management office. The venue, a subsidiary of nonprofit developer Artspace Properties, had an abrupt leadership turnover just months after opening. Von Eschen, a veteran executive at the Ordway Center in St. Paul, took over at the Cowles in January after predecessor Frank Sonntag resigned, reportedly over differences with Artspace management and the "Minnesota nice" aesthetic.
From the Big Apple with love
If the Cowles is to succeed, it has a good model in the Joyce Theater, one of New York's premier arenas for dance. The Joyce has a 472-seat mainstage, an annual budget of $9 million to $10 million, and 48 weeks of programming each year. (The Joyce also operates rehearsal and smaller spaces away from its headquarters.)
The Joyce sells an average capacity of "between 75 and 78 percent," said Executive Director Linda Shelton, who has led the theater for 19 years.
"I don't know the details of the Cowles, but it sounds like they are where we were when I just got here," said Shelton. "We had a $2 million budget with a very fractured and fractious community. We have been building an audience while supporting dance and dance companies in ways that we did not at first imagine."
The Joyce subsidizes the rent for half of its yearly programming. It also commissions about six works a year and offers rehearsal space for companies. And it coordinates its activities with other venues, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The Cowles, which will continue subsidizing the rent for all companies during its second year, is figuring out what it can do, and how. Shelton said that the venue would be wise to work with Walker Art Center, Northrop, the Southern Theater and the Ritz, among others.
"As you know, dance is perhaps the least capitalized form," said Shelton. "What we quickly figured out for the Joyce is that we had to be a source of stability for the community, to help it to grow and, hopefully, prosper. I hope the Cowles succeeds and I'm glad that there's a community that's supporting it."
Von Eschen was optimistic, and determined.
"It will take some time to introduce ourselves to the whole community, but we intend to," he said.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390