VIPs from across the Twin Cities and the nation walked one block from a gala dinner Friday at the Graves Hotel in Minneapolis to the ribbon-cutting of the $42 million Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.

The attendees, including Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, corporate titans Marilyn Carlson Nelson and US Bank chairman Richard Davis, and many members of the Cowles family, made their way through a stationary parade of ballerinas, drummers and a precision flag corps.

On the street and in the theater itself, the center's opening was one of exuberance and exhilaration, as the area's leading philanthropic families, foundations and corporations toasted the Twin Cities' latest amenity, the new flagship of dance.

"Only in Minnesota would you have something this grand being dedicated at a time when the economy is the worst it's been since the Great Depression," said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who paid tribute to L. Kelley Lindquist, head of Cowles Center developer ArtSpace. "The arts are an economic engine, a tool of revitalization and a way for communities to cohere. This leads the way."

Added Ben Cameron, of the Doris Duke Foundation: "It is grand and intimate at the same time, containing things that seem contradictory, just like [namesakes] John and Sage" Cowles.

The center encompasses the Goodale Theater, a 500-seat venue reconstructed from the 1910 Shubert Theater, which was moved on rollers in 1999 from its original location on what is now Block E. That renovated building is connected to the Hennepin Center for the Arts by a new atrium housing a lobby and an education center.

Among those performing on the new theater's inaugural bill, which will be repeated Saturday, were tap wizard Savion Glover, who was a hypnosis of mesmerizing rhythms, and Clifton Brown of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Brown's performance of David Parsons' "Caught" was a display in exquisite timing and virtuosity. The piece is danced mostly in the dark, with flashes of light, as if from a camera, capturing the dancer in photo-esque frames. Brown was at the top of leaps in one series of stage "photographs." Brown also performed a moving duet with Wendy Whelan of the New York City Ballet.

The opening night's roster was a showcase of the space, and also of the fact that local companies can stand shoulder to shoulder with out-of-town superstars. James Sewell Ballet's "Adjunct Fractal" and Zenon Dance Company's "Storm," which closed the evening, were both compelling.

Earlier in the day, NEA chairman Landesman met with the Sewell Ballet and the Hennepin Theatre Trust, a nonprofit that owns the Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters. He toured the construction site of the New Century Theater, a 250-seat black-box theater that the Hennepin Trust is developing in a long-empty City Center storefront, and participated in a lively discussion with Rybak and other officials at the Central Library about using the arts to transform Hennepin Avenue.

The NEA recently gave the Hennepin Trust a $200,000 planning grant for the street project, and about 150 arts advocates turned out to applaud suggestions ranging from artists' studios and housing to more music and creative lighting.

Landesman said the NEA is trying to further its arts goals by partnering with "sister agencies" in government, from Housing and Urban Development to the Transportation Department, "because they've got the money."

Added Tom Hoch, president of the Trust: "The vision is to have an entertainment district on Hennepin that goes all the way to the Mississippi River. The Cowles is a great addition to a dynamic vision."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 Staff writer Mary Abbe contributed to this report.

COWLES CENTER FOR DANCE & THE PERFORMING ARTS

What: Grand opening weekend.

When: 8 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

Where: 528 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $150 per ticket Saturday. Sunday is a free open house. 612-206-3621, or www.thecowles center.org.