After 12 years, the $42 million Cowles Center opens Friday in downtown Minneapolis amid sky-high expectations.
While it faces a myriad of challenges, many believe the renovated 500-seat hall could do for dance what the Guthrie did for theater when it opened in Minneapolis in 1963 -- galvanize the local scene and give it national prominence. "In the cities where theaters like this have been built, such spaces have been real catalysts for upping the quality of local groups," said Douglas Sonntag, director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. "The Cowles is absolutely top-tier in terms of how that building stacks up nationally."
This weekend's glitzy opening includes dance star Savion Glover, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman and a veritable who's who of Twin Cities arts backers.
The faithful believe that a destination building downtown could propel dance from the wings to center stage.
"People associate an art form with a building," said James Sewell, whose company will present spring and fall shows at the Cowles. "You look at Orchestra Hall and see that's a place for music. The Guthrie is where they do plays. The Cowles Center gives us that focal point, a way to get into the mainstream consciousness."
That focus is immediately apparent this season, when dozens of Twin Cities companies that performed in lesser-known venues throughout the metro area will all converge on a single downtown address. Cowles officials hope to attract audiences from Wayzata to White Bear Lake, Maple Grove to Burnsville, just as the State and Orpheum theaters do with their concerts and touring Broadway shows.
The Cowles Center has announced a 2011-12 season devoted to local dance, with shows scheduled every weekend from September through June. Performance styles range from tap to ballet, modern to ballroom, Indian to "The Nutcracker."
Unlike metro areas such as Miami and Houston, the Twin Cities does not have a dominant ballet or dance company. Instead, there are 15 medium- to large-size companies, each accustomed to doing its own thing. They include TU Dance, Zenon, Ragamala, Minnesota Dance Theatre and James Sewell Ballet. They will have to learn to work together in ways that they have not done previously.
"It took some talking to get them to give up their mailing lists," said Frank Sonntag, executive director of the Cowles (and no relation to Douglas Sonntag). "But once we're in for a year or so, they will get to see what we have to offer."
Companies on the Cowles season include quite a few that have trouble selling out smaller venues for a run of one or two weekends. They have been enticed to perform at the bigger Cowles by introductory rental fees that are about half of the market rate, said Sonntag. This practice is intended to continue for the hall's first few years.
Sonntag at the Cowles said that the venue expects to take in half its $2 million budget from rent and ticket sales and the other half from contributed income.
Of equal appeal to audiences will be affordable tickets.
The top price for a ticket to "Sacred Ground," a Ragamala show in the Indian style known as bharatanatyam that launches the Cowles season Sept. 23, will be $25. That is the same as it has been for Ragamala performances in recent years at the Southern and the O'Shaughnessy.
"Our audiences are very price-sensitive, and we want to welcome people in," said Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala, a 20-year-old company that has seven full-time employees and an annual budget of $650,000.
The Cowles offers more than a downtown spotlight for Twin Cities dance companies. It has created incentives for patrons to design their own subscription packages (perks include discounts on parking and at nearby restaurants). The center also offers robust marketing and box-office support that is far above what local companies are used to and is similar to the way that the Joyce Theater operates in New York.
Now that they have built it, will audiences come to a part of Hennepin Avenue better known for club dancing than modern dance?
"We definitely believe that they will," said Frank Sonntag. "What the Twins have shown is that it's a safe, family environment down here. We will do everything to attract and keep audiences."
Douglas Sonntag added that he believes dance companies are going to have a flurry of unexpected growth.
"It's like when a museum moves into a new building and suddenly the collection looks inadequate in their brand new surroundings," he said. "The physical presence of the building creates expectations for the audience about the quality of the work, and that can sometimes be a stretch for the companies to ramp up their physical productions. I hope that they meet those high expectations."
The backers of the Cowles, named for Sage and John Cowles, longtime cultural benefactors whose family formerly owned the Star Tribune, are betting that it and the dance community will shine.
"We live in a very special community with lots of great dancers and choreographers," said Cowles board member and benefactor Wendy Dayton. "We had such a fantastic, strong donor base that made this happen to begin with. I think they're deeply committed to our long-term success."