by Lightsey Darst   February 22, 2012

Lightsey Darst continues her reflections on post-Southern dance spaces in the Twin Cities, with an essay on the promising new mid-sized theater opened by James Sewell Ballet, Tek Box.
Images from the 2011-2012 James Sewell Ballet season
Images from the 2011-2012 James Sewell Ballet season
Courtesy of the JSB website
Tek Box - formerly Sewell Studio 2A in Hennepin Center for the Arts
Tek Box - formerly Sewell Studio 2A in Hennepin Center for the Arts
Logo courtesy of JSB

LATE LAST SUMMER I WROTE ABOUT 2B, the studio in the Hennepin Center for the Arts where I take ballet class:

. . . a high, square, light-filled room, white-walled, its columns and pilasters topped with Corinthian and Ionic capitals. People model themselves in space here; they balance, they perfect. They move neatly.

At the time that I wrote this, 2B had looked and felt this way for ten years or more; I thought it would go on looking like this for another ten. But today it's completely different. The walls between the columns have been painted a rich fawn; caramel-colored velvet curtains hang over the long windows and across the second-floor balcony (hiding the costume closet with its racks of raggedy sylph-blue and the red and black flounces of Nutcracker Spanish). Directed overhead spots illuminate the space precisely.

I have to admit when this renovation was in process I didn't like it. The paint makes the white pilasters stand out, closing and complicating the space; the curtains cut off the dreamy, dirty city light. And the lights, when first installed, gave the floor the unfriendly sheen of a skating rink.

But now that it's done, I think I'm going to like dancing there. By the contrast I see I exaggerated the perfectionism of the old 2B. You couldn't get much sense of space, true (except when racing up the steep diagonals), but you could always get away, out of the light, offstage. The new 2B has no offstage. The rich retro colors dreamily suggest a private theater in a czarina's winter palace; outside I imagine miles of frozen forest, nowhere to go. 2B's new lights outline each shape, filling in the space under jumps, capturing each move. I feel that I must perform, must make what I can of what I do. I feel a pressure to finish, and I like it.

I wouldn't have known to ask for this. Dance space is a bit like weather. It affects our moods and moves, and we can't always predict what we will love -- a taste of spring or a fairy-tale snow.

Why the change in 2B? Financially ailing, Minnesota Dance Theater gave up the space to James Sewell Ballet (JSB). JSB has wanted the studio for years because of its proximity to 2A, the Sewell studio. But now, with the collapse of the Southern and the advent of the Cowles Center, James Sewell also had a new motive for taking 2B: to turn 2A back into the studio theater it once was. He has now done that. 2A, now christened the Tek Box and very shortly available for rental by anyone, opened with its first performance -- JSB's Ballet Works Project -- last weekend, February 17.

What does the new space mean for dance in the Twin Cities? Briefly, it could mean a lot: a force for democracy, community, and diversity that we badly need in the post-Southern Theater era. Or it could mean almost nothing. It all depends on what happens next.

Let me describe the space, to begin with. The Tek Box is a black box: a single rectangular space with the audience seated at one end on risers, directly facing the dance, with continuous walls and ceiling (no orchestra pit, fly space, or backstage). But it might be better called a white box, as its walls and ceiling are still studio white, and its most striking configuration is a white cyclorama (stage backdrop) and white "wings" (narrow mobile screens that can be angled sidewise to provide entrance and exit or turned flat to make a solid wall). Actually, better still, we could call the space a light box: tricked out with the latest LEDs, as responsive as a well-trained horse, the Tek Box is a lighting designer's dream. At opening night, Sewell's light man Kevin A. Jones (who also designed the space's technology) took the Tek Box through its paces: subtle shifts from dawn-pink to mother-of-pearl to lagoon-blue; shaped gradations; sudden washes of orchid-purple, leafhopper green, vivid tangerine, quick as a mating squid. At times I thought I was in a Skittles ad, tasting the rainbow. I've never seen some of the effects Jones pulled out, in particular a muddy red, with the theater almost dark, that filled up the entire space like a mist of blood.

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Tricked out with the latest LEDs, the Tek Box is a lighting designer's dream: subtle shifts from dawn-pink to mother-of-pearl to lagoon-blue; shaped gradations; sudden washes of orchid-purple, leafhopper green, vivid tangerine, quick as a mating squid. I thought I was in a Skittles ad, tasting the rainbow.

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The technology, the absurdly comfy chairs, the general brightness and cleanness of the space, as well as the privilege of sitting so close (you can see the dancers race out beside you to the side exits, one of my favorite things about a black box), combined with the obvious makeshift nature of the space (it has a bare 102 seats), gives the Tek Box a strange feeling of provisional luxury; it's a sultan's tent. This clarifies a nagging impression I've had about the Tek Box's near-neighbor, the Cowles -- an impression, I can now see, of poverty. Oh, the Cowles is big all right, and it's "nice," but aside from its shimmery blue curtain, it feels un-special, unloved. The Cowles has (I assume, by design) no particular aesthetic, which means it has no style. Could it acquire some in time? Maybe. But the Tek Box has flair already.

What remains to be seen is how this flair fits into the dance scene here. At a show-and-tell reception a few weeks ago, artists admired the space but remained fixated on the bottom line. Sewell said the space would rent for maintenance (that is, without profit), but if that maintenance rate turns out to be higher than what the Red Eye or the Playwrights' Center charges, I'm not sure how many will pay for its aesthetics. I also don't know how many will like the Tek Box's particular style. Minus the Southern, independent choreographers have been showing work at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, the Red Eye, the Ivy Studios, and in galleries and homes -- grungy insider spots, crippled spaces that force choreographic decisions. Will they go for the Tek Box's luxe freedom? Finally, it's possible people will get weird about accepting Sewell's generosity. Sewell is widely admired here, and for good reason, but if people feel that showing at the Tek Box comes with some kind of aesthetic allegiance -- or, even more problematic, institutional allegiance to the Cowles Center -- they may stay away.

Which would be a pity for a number of reasons. The Tek Box -- being downtown, easily accessible, and next to the Cowles -- may bring in audiences who can't find their way to the Ivy Studios or don't feel comfortable at the BLB. Even if their audiences don't diversify, performers at the Tek Box will find themselves mixing with the other inhabitants of Hennepin Center for the Arts; other than the occasional Walker event, there hasn't been a mixing space like this since the Southern. Also, the Tek Box can offer emerging choreographers a chance to play with full theatrical effects (and record impressive-looking work samples), which, if you're planning on taking your show beyond Minneapolis, you badly need. There's our local choreographic art to consider: with even avant-gardists dancing more these days, think how a readily available black box, with its wonderfully deep geometry, could push choreographers to arrange dance in space (whereas the shallow BLB stage, for example, encourages frieze-like, frontal compositions).

Finally, I like the space. Ballet Works looked good there. I like seeing the dancers up close, almost interacting with them -- a rare pleasure at a ballet show. I like how the stage space is so big in comparison to the house. It gives the sensation of wealth, of more motion than I could ever quite grasp. I liked how Sally Rousse's "Freemartin Twin" excavated the stage's corners; I liked how Karen Sherman's "How Social Hunters Die" teased the confectionary space with a cheeky, theatrical divertissement. I like the possibilities of the Tek Box -- space, light, freedom, beauty -- and I want to see more. I like this change in our weather.

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Related performance details:

You can see the new Tek Box space in action for yourself, as James Sewell Ballet's Ballet Works Project continues through February 26. Ticket details and performance times are available online here.

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About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship.