Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Frank Sonntag

A Warli performance by Ragamala Dance. Photo by Ed Bock

On September 9, the Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts will open its doors as one of Minneapolis’s premier art spaces. Formerly known as the Minnesota Shubert Performing Arts and Education Center, the new Cowles has renovated the historic Shubert Theater (dating from 1910) and the Hennepin Center for the Arts (originally a Masonic Temple built in 1888), and connected the two with a Great Hall and Education Center. The resulting facility will house 20 arts organizations and thousands of square feet of space for performances, workshops, and dance classes. On the eve of its grand opening, we spoke via e-mail with Cowles Center Executive Director Frank Sonntag, who told us about the power of dance, the Center's reinvention of its historic home, and how the Cowles will reshape the dance landscape of the Twin Cities.

NEA: What is the vision for the new Cowles Center for Dance?

SONNTAG: The vision of The Cowles Center for Dance is to provide a focal point for the considerable dance community in the Twin Cities, to raise the level of visibility for dance, and to nurture the artistic and creative aspirations for dance artists by providing a state-of-the-art facility, designed with the art form in mind. We will offer excellent sight lines, audience intimacy, a fly space, orchestra pit, marketing support, and management expertise that will help these companies flourish. We will bring packaging options and media sponsorships to the table that will raise the consciousness level of dance on the part of the community. We will also include national and international dance talent on our season as a tool to further develop the dance audience locally.

NEA: Two of the buildings that will house the Cowles Center already have a history rooted in performance. Can you tell us about the former lives of these buildings, and how the Cowles Center will continue this legacy?

SONNTAG: The 1888 Masonic Temple was converted to an arts center in 1979; today it comprises the Hennepin Center for the Arts within The Cowles Center. It contains five spectacular double-height rehearsal studios that now contain sprung-wood dance floors. There is a 250-seat black box on the top level, inside of what was originally designed as the temple's drill hall and banquet room. There are 20 not-for-profits that make their home in the building, including six dance companies, four choral organizations, and a variety of arts-related organizations such as Very Special Arts Minnesota, The Italian Cultural Center, Minnesota Dance Medicine, a Pilates studio, and several others.

The other historic building is the Shubert Theater. Built in 1910, it is the oldest extant theater in the state. The theater went through several incarnations and name changes over the yeas---The Alvin, The Academy---and it hosted The Bainbridge Players, performances on the Shubert Touring Syndicate, vaudeville and burlesque shows, and talking movies. It was bought by Minneapolis movie mogul Ted Mann and converted to show wide-screen releases, but closed in 1983 as the area around it declined and its useful life appeared to be over. It served as a dilapidated pigeon roost until Artspace Projects got the notion that the theater might be moved to a site adjacent to the Hennepin Center for the Arts and be combined with new construction to create a home for dance. The idea was that the work created in the studios of the former Masonic Temple lacked a performance venue where it could be presented to the public.

The adaptive reuse of the historic structures has breathed new life into both of them, and they now collectively offer something to a seriously undercapitalized art form and to the public as well. Minnesota's flagship for dance will be among the finest dance venues in the world, and will serve artists and audiences for many generations to come.

NEA: Rather than focus on a specific genre of dance, The Cowles Center will represent breakdancing, ballet, Middle Eastern dancing, African dance, modern dance, etc. How does the Center find common ground across these very different styles?

SONNTAG: The common ground will be providing a voice, visibility, and marketing support for high-quality dance in its broadest sense---much they way the Joyce Theater does in New York City. We will provide a nurturing environment for the creation, presentation, and education of dance of every style, and encourage cross-over among audience members so they might discover an appreciation for forms they may not be as familiar with. Growing the audience for dance and providing substantial marketing and managerial support for companies will be the focus of our efforts.

NEA: What does The Cowles Center hope to bring to the Twin Cities’ arts community?

SONNTAG: We will raise the level for dance to that which has long been enjoyed by music, theater, and the visual arts, through a state-of-the-art venue that is designed specifically for the art form and for the comfort of the artists and audience members. Although there will also be music and theater on our stage, the season will always be predominantly dance events. There is a real need for a 500-seat theater in the ecology of available performance venues in the Twin Cities. The Cowles will now fill that role.

NEA: What are some Cowles Center events that residents and visitors can look forward to in the coming year?

SONNTAG: Our very first presentation will be the world premiere of Sacred Earth by Ragamala, a very highly regarded East Indian Dance Company, which will kick off a 22 city national tour. The acclaimed vocal ensemble Cantus will present four different concerts this season at the Cowles, and the highly anticipated revival of My Antonia by the Illusion Theater Company will be among selections on our first season. In addition, Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy will provide a holiday staple. Flamenco, ballroom, hip-hop, and tap are also "on tap."

NEA: What would be your dream performance to host at The Cowles Center?

SONNTAG: Our grand opening gala performance September 9 is a pretty good indication---something that will demonstrate the diversity and quality of dance in all of its glory. The performance will include a ceremonial blessing (in full feather regalia!) by Native-American Fancy Dancer, Larry Yazzie; Whendy Whelan of NYCB and Clifton Brown of Alvin Ailey will perform Among the Stars by Jessica Lang; Minnesota Choral Artists will perform Mortson Lourdsen's nocturne, Sure on This Shining Night; Jonah Bokaer, formerly with Merce Cunningham, will perform a pièce d'occasion, Sage Phrase, in tribute to Sage Cowles; and Savion Glover will tap dance! All of this is in addition to full-company performances by our three largest resident companies. The gala is sold-out, and we will repeat the program on the following evening for the dance community, giving away 200 complimentary tickets to performing dance artists in the community. It is very important to us that they be excited about the Cowles Center. These performances will be followed the very next day (September 11) by an all-day open house with continuous performances on the main stage, participatory events in the educations studio, and an open house throughout the entire complex featuring resident artists in their studios. This event will be completely free and open to the public. It is hard to imagine anything more gratifying than unveiling the Center for such a broad-based spectrum of the community as we will over this three-day period.

NEA: Why do you think we---the general public---need dance? Why do you need dance?

SONNTAG: Need is a strong word. We need food and a roof over our heads. Then there are quality-of-life concerns. That is where art comes in. The transformative power of good art cannot be overestimated.  Think of that last time a work of art brought you to tears. It is rare and very special, but completely transformative. Those who have never experienced it know not what they are missing! What I think people should LIKE about dance is that there are musical and visual elements combined. Beautiful bodies moving through space...what's not to like about that, right? Often people feel as though they do not know enough about dance to appreciate it, when really, if they would just relax, sit back and watch it unfold, they'd most likely discover how delightful the experience of dance can be!

NEA: What is your definition of “Art Works”?

SONNTAG: See above! Add to that the economic implications of revitalizing blighted neighborhoods with artist live/work establishments. Then add the economic multiplier of a vibrant cultural scene (restaurants, parking, shopping) and you get a pretty powerful economic stimulus package including job creation and crime reduction. A more enlightened, more engaged citizenry is just the icing on the cake!

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