By Coco Mault
Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts
516 Hennepin Avenue
The Shubert Theatre may be most known for its dramatic move from the northwest corner of Block E to its new spot about a block away at 528 Hennepin Avenue in 1999. A block doesn’t seem that far, until you consider the weight of the building, 2,908 tons, the chilly Minnesota winter temperatures when the move occurred, and the fact that the rubber wheels they rolled it had to be slow-going.
The 12-day move was a success and even earned a world record, but the building sat in its new spot, boarded up and vacant.
Renamed the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in honor of Sage and John Cowles for their lifetime commitment to the arts (John was a leader in the creation of the Guthrie Theater, Sage a long-term board member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), there are sure to be some new momentous occasions to add to this building’s history.
Not only is the updated look of the building worth noting, but mostly — and finally — there will be exciting events once again taking place inside.
The center is planned to open this September, but in the meanwhile construction dust currently coats the morphing new interior and scaffolding, lumber, and blueprints compete for space on the new stage, which now has a clearance of 110 grand feet.
From the balcony seats, Executive Director of the Cowles Center, Frank Sonntag, couldn’t contain his excitement as he lead a tour for the local media. Everyone ended up in the balcony seats after a winding tour through the new impressive atrium lobby, spacious backstage dressing rooms, the stage itself, and even the “unsexy places,” as Sonntag referred to the back hallways. Sonntag dashed off news and information about the theater every step of the way, but his excitement showed as he shared news of the more intricate details he’s been finding out about.
“They’re just starting to put on the filigree on the columns that flank the stage,” he said as he pointed at a small spot bare of scaffolding. “These columns aren’t the originals, but are replicas from the original theater. The exposed brick and the columns are a nod to the history.”
The original Shubert is undergoing many dramatic changes, in fact. There were higher balcony seats that have been taken out, for instance. Turning the once 900-seat theater into a 500-seat theater. Standing in this new balcony area however, it’s hard to believe these are considered balcony seats. Make no mistake, there are seats below on the first floor, but, as Sonntag says, “It’s like being in your living room. No one is further than 65 feet from the stage.”
Granted that would be a very large living room, but for a theater, there is an intimacy created in this design.
“You’ll easily be able to see the dancers’ facial expressions and the dancers’ feet.”
And speaking of the dancers’ feet, the cement floors between the dressing rooms and the stage have been left untreated, which is eco-friendly, but will also protect the dancers’ pointe shoes.
“A lot of thought went into the design,” said Sonntag, giving credit to Artspace, the organization overseeing the project.
Not only did he point out the floors and special hallways, but also one of his favorite parts: a large, waist-high door in the orchestra pit. Inside, he said, was a humidity-controlled space just for the piano — something that will definitely make life easier.
And hopefully life will be easier for the dance community as well. Until the Cowles Center opens, the Twin Cities does not have a set venue for dance. This performance space solves a challenging issue that the local dance community has faced up until now, which is a lack of a set venue.
Typically local dance companies have performed at different venues throughout the Twin Cities for their shows and different seasons, some of which were not exactly the best for their art form. The Cowles Center, however, will provide the stability that dance companies need in order to expand their audiences. Not to mention what it will provide for the dancers themselves!
“It’s going to be one of the best venues in the world for dance and the performing arts,” Sonntag said.
The center will be home to about 20 nonprofits; the theater will be predominantly used for dance, but will expand to include more theater and music in the future. Minnesota has the most dancers per capita in the nation, so it’s about time they had a venue to call home.
“It’s about a $46 million project. It took a lot of time, but it’ll be worth it,” Sonntag said.
Fundraising efforts began to reopen the theater from the moment it closed in 1983.
“A lot of people didn’t think it could be done.”
But the moment is finally within sight.
The Cowles Center Grand Opening weekend is Sept. 9-11 and includes a gala dinner and performance on Friday, an evening of celebration for the Twin Cities’ dance community on Saturday, and a free family open house on Sunday.