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Linda Shapiro reports back with a dispatch from the performances of last weekend's richly appointed, well-heeled grand opening gala and community open house for the brand new Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.
By Linda Shapiro
September 15, 2011

Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy of the Cowles Center for Dance & Performing Arts

THE NEW COWLES CENTER FOR DANCE & THE PERFORMING ARTS has been a long time coming. As a cheeky video segment during the grand opening last weekend demonstrated, the 1910 Shubert Theater underwent as many incarnations as a Hindu deity before its stylish transformation into a cross between a flagship theater and an education and community center for dance. In the past, the building has housed a local stock theater company, the Minneapolis Evangelistic Auditorium, burlesque, and a wide-screen movie palace. It has been burned, flooded, abused and abandoned, and was almost razed when Block E reared its ugly head. Then in 1999, an organization called Artspace hatched a plan to move the grande old dame a few blocks and hook it up with the Hennepin Center for the Arts. In a solo adagio turn worthy of Pavlova, the Shubert was mounted on massive dollies, and over the course of 12 days made its majestic way to its new location. The feat is registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest building ever mounted on rubber tires.

From that point, it took more than a decade to raise the money, redesign, refurbish, and rename the Shubert in honor of John and Sage Cowles, the enlightened philanthropists who have given so much to arts and culture in our fair cities. Over the weekend, the Cowles Center opened its doors to the public with gala performances and an open house.

A gala performance is a many-headed beast that must 1) show what the new Goodale Theater (named for Bob and Kathie Goodale) can do, 2) show off the talents of resident companies, and 3) glitz up the event by importing stars with names that even the begowned and tuxedoed ladies and gents who are not dance aficionados might recognize. Both Friday night's performance for the well-to-do* at $1000 a ticket and Saturday night's less pricey event with a heavily papered house full of dancers managed to do all three -- with various degrees of grace under pressure.

First, the theater: clean lines with hints of the old Shubert in swatches of exposed brick and a couple of Greek pillars flanking the stage, which is both wide and deep. There are 500 seats with unobstructed views, and no seat further than 65 feet from the stage. You'll find more legroom and a much warmer, brighter lobby than, say, at the Guthrie. And the new theater has the loveliest stage curtain I have ever seen, a kind of shimmering grey-blue that I associate with something we called "changeable taffeta" in my youth. More than anything, that curtain says this is a dance house where everything coruscates.

The works the local companies chose to perform for the grand opening says a lot about who they are and what they want to showcase. Native American Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie led off with a lively invocation, "Native Spirit Blessing," decked out in flashy feathers that washed the stage in color. Both Minnesota Dance Theatre (MDT) and the James Sewell Ballet chose different varieties of flash, as if to demonstrate how hip ballet can be. Sewell's "Adjunct Fractal," in particular, was all hard-edged modernism, fragmented phrases rife with odd coordinations and distortions of classical ballet moves and positions. The dancers carried out Sewell's sometimes robotic, sometimes playful, always acrobatic moves with flair, looking chic while they did so in diaphanous black costumes.

An interlude of music by the Minnesota Chorale and a charming couple of moments in which teenage ballerinas in tutus danced with the tiny starlets from MDTs school showed both that the Goodale Theater has fine acoustics, and that the Cowles Center has an educational as well as an aesthetic mission.

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The new theater has the loveliest stage curtain I have ever seen, a kind of shimmering grey-blue that I associate with something we called "changeable taffeta" in my youth. More than anything, that curtain says this is a dance house where everything coruscates.

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Then MDT launched into excerpts from Lise Houlton's "Rumblings," a pastiche that seems designed to show the range of styles and attitudes -- athletic, dramatic, romantic, edgy -- that its eight dancers can cram into 15 or so minutes. The live music by pianist Tom Linker was beautifully rendered. Less easy to negotiate were the dance's seismic shifts: from icy geometrics to partnering with lots of groping and grappling between bare-chested men and sleekly clad women, to ladies in fancy gowns and long white gloves.

The evening's other local company, Zenon, offered a whirlwind of movement as six dancers rushed headlong through shifting patterns that looked great on that really big stage. The speed and stringent athleticism of "Storm," created for Zenon by New York choreographer Daniel Charon, made it a real crowdpleaser, especially at the end of a long evening. But while you had to admire the ferocity, velocity, and facility of the Zenon dancers, the piece gave off some contradictory vibes: one minute, anxiety was in the air as dancers took running swipes at one another or gazed fretfully into the middle distance; the next, they were smiling broadly and churning out lush, ecstatic movement. Despite the mixed messages, it was wonderful to see dancers tear-assing around in all that space, without having to hold anything back.

If the copious stage allowed dancers in ensemble works to move about without fear of slamming into a wing, three solos showed how riveting and intimate the space can become. Renowned tapper Savion Glover rendered a mini-history of percussive dance through an improvisation that slipped from hoofing to rhythm tap to stuttering dialogues between his two independently functioning feet. Military tattoos dissolved into Latin rhythms into slipping and sliding reminiscent of sand shuffling. As one observer put it, Glover seemed to be in a self-created world, receiving ecstatic messages and then sending them back out to us in code.

Equally mesmerizing was Jonah Bokaer's "Sage Phrase," created by this former Merce Cunningham dancer in honor of Sage Cowles. Bokaer's quick spurts of movement and directional changes, his animal alertness and charged stillness referenced Cunningham's aesthetic while remaining fresh and personal. With ardent simplicity, he initiated impulses that washed through him in waves, or abruptly altered course -- a testament to the infinite possibilities available to the dancing body.

David Parson's signature solo "Caught," brilliantly performed by Alvin Ailey dancer Clifton Brown, was a testament to the technical capabilities of the Goodale Theater. It was a gimmick that grew legs as strobe lights flicked on and off, catching the dancer at various points onstage and in various positions, almost always airborne. The ultimate dancer's illusion -- the defeat of gravity -- seemed to resonate with everyone in the audience, even the man sitting next to me, who put down the iPhone he'd been gazing at throughout the concert and leaned forward in rapt attention.

Brown also performed an unremarkable duet, "Among The Stars" by Jessica Lang, with the quite remarkable New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Just watching these two manipulate a length of silky cloth as they melted from one phrase to the next was to know what the term "star turn" really means.

What the presence of the Cowles Center really means is another matter. This dance community has been fueled by the ornery individualism of its often under-served artists for over four decades. The Cowles Center is a part of that ecology. Yes, the theater will allow certain artists whose work is designed for a state-of-the-art proscenium stage to grow and evolve, and it will present 17 local companies in its first year of operation. But we can only hope that, in time, the Cowles Center will also model the scrappy resourcefulness and experimental zeal that has made the Twin Cities a thriving dance town.

*Correction: 9/26/11: The text originally included a mistaken use of the term "hoi polloi".

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Watch the above-mentioned cheeky video segment:

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Noted event details:

The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts celebrated its grand opening weekend last week, including gala on the evening of Saturday, September 10 and an open house and community day Sunday, September 11.

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About the author: Linda Shapiro writes about dance and performance. She was the co-founder and co-artistic director of New Dance Ensemble, a repertory company, from 1981-94.

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