Cowles Center for Dance: Too good to be true?

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The Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts new atrium space connects the Goodale Theater to the Hennepin Center for the Arts in Minneapolis.

MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

This weekend marks the grand opening of the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts. Today a myriad of dance companies are giving free performances in the refurbished Shubert Theater on Hennepin Avenue, in the hopes of welcoming new audiences into their new home.

MPR’s Chris Roberts spoke to the Cowles Center Executive Director Frank Sonntag, who admits he’s already beginning to get a handle on how Minnesotans like to distance themselves from something that seems too good to be true.

He also understands how dance artists are innately skeptical, given how their art form has historically been underfunded, under-appreciated and not understood by audiences. But Sonntag is supremely confident the new complex will lift the local dance scene to new heights, if only because it addresses the one major deficiency that’s plagued it for years.

“There’s not a building that people point to and say ‘That’s where they dance,’” he said. “But now there will be.”

Sonntag isn’t just referring to the refurbished former Shubert Theater, now named the Goodale Theater after Bob and Kathy Goodale, one of the center’s three “founding families.” There’s also a bright, airy atrium and high-tech dance education studio on the second floor which connects the theater to the masonic bulwark on the corner, the Hennepin Center for the Arts. But it’s the Goodale Theater that will probably inspire the most shock and awe this weekend.

The stage is an amazing expanse, 45-feet from the main curtain to the back wall, 89-feet from side to side. When some performers asked to have the dance floor made a “little softer” as they put it, Sonntag promptly had it fine tuned.

“It means we’ll probably have to replace it in 25 rather than 30 years but in the meantime those dancers will be leaping a little higher and there will be fewer injuries and, you know, that’s important,” he said.

Sonntag enjoys standing on the stage and taking in the majesty of this completely renovated turn-of-the-century theater. Four massive Greek columns are embedded in the walls on either side, reminders of the theater’s storied history. There are also sections of exposed brick, remnants of the original structure. Below is a state of the art orchestra pit that can accommodate up to 42 musicians. Behind and above, a cavernous fly space that rises more than 100 feet.

“Those things are what is going to make this a world-class home for dance,” he said. “Every aspect of this facility was designed with dance in mind. And dance is not the only thing that we will do, but it will be, predominantly what we do.”

Sonntag also insists tickets will be affordable and all the seats have excellent sightlines.

What do you think: is the Cowles Center for Dance “too good to be true?” What will get you in their doors, or alternatively, keep you away?

  • Joanna

    I went to the free open house this Sunday, and the place is wonderful. We got to tour the rehearsal spaces and office of various groups in the former Hennepin Center for the Arts, snack on the food from the cafe/bar in the Atrium, see free performances from old favorites and dance/performance groups that were new to me, and by the time we left, I had purchased a package of tickets for performances this coming year at good prices. I will continue to support dance in other venues, but this space is WONDERFUL for the dancers and the audience.

  • Brooklyn

    I was also at the open house today too! Everything was great! I’m a dancer myself so it was interesting to walk around and see all the different dance company’s,organizations. The space is such a great open area and the lobby is great everything feels very cheerful! It was an amazing experience and the performances were just excellent! I hope to go there again and I hope the cowles center (for dance) does well in the near future!

  • Susan

    Went today to the open house and had a great time. A note on the sightlines though: there are 4 seats in the balcony 2nd row-the two on either side of center-which are in my opinon unacceptably obstructed. It was amusing to watch so many people who, like us, sat down and then realized they couldn’t see half the stage and popped immediately to seek refuge elsewhere. At least we hadn’t paid and been locked into those seats.

    Those seats should just be removed. Other than that, even high in the balcony the views are great. Wonderful facility, incredible dance companies. We’re looking forward to seeing several shows there this year.