The challenge and the terror of the Cowles Center

The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts

I’ll be curious to see what happens in the Twin Cities as a result of the Cowles Center. We’ve long been a town with a lively, inventive dance community, and each dance company has managed to build enough of an audience to support itself. But it’s seemed to me that, before now, dance was typically seen as being very niche. Newspapers covered the subject, but grudgingly. There have been maybe two or three local critics who specialize in writing about dance, and they’re the critics everybody uses, and they’re free-lancers.

But now we’re moving into a time of dance edifices, and edifices generally make an implicit demand: Do not ignore me. This is not always the case, of course — HUGE Impov theater near Lake and Lyndale is an edifice, of sorts (a converted storefront), but we’re not seeing a flourishing of criticism regarding improv. Neither, from what I have seen, has there been an explosive growth in audiences for improv.

But the Cowles Center is a very different thing. It’s not a converted storefront, but the former Shubert Theater, which was built in 1910, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995, and was the only building on Block E preserved when the block was leveled. This was done, at great cost, by rolling the Shubert to its new location on rubber tires. Reopening the Shubert as the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts has been a multiyear, multimillion-dollar undertaking, and enjoyed its official opening on Friday with a $1,000 per seat gala black-tie event. That’s the sort of thing that signals that dance is no longer niche, it’s big money.

Further, the building is on Hennepin, in the thick of the so-called Hennepin theater district, situated alongside theaters that bring in Broadway and Off-Broadway touring shows, as well as platinum-selling musical performers and a-list comedians. The money demands to be taken seriously, but, failing that, the location demands to be taken seriously. Failing that, if the Cowles Center can manage to regularly attract big audiences for the shows, that will demand to be taken seriously. I would be surprised if they can’t — this last weekend’s events sold out.

Of course, Twin Cities dance deserved to be treated with this sort of gravity and attention even before the opening of the Cowles Center. It really is a fine community. But sometimes it takes an edifice to really drive that point home. Further, it’s not actually that easy to write about dance — it’s an extraordinarily diverse discipline, and the Cowles Center is to be home to troops as varied as Ragamala, which draws its inspiration from a southern Indian classical dance called Bharatanatyam, Native Pride Dancers, which looks to Native American dance traditions, James Sewell Ballet, which works in the diverse idioms of modern ballet, and B-Boy J-Sun, which performers contemporary hip-hop. I am hoping that Cowles will inspire a number of new critics who want to write about dance, but this is a daunting undertaking. The Cowles Center might be wise to partner with a press organization to create a program that will give critics the opportunity, in a formalized way, to learn about dance, and to explore writing about it. Actually, I think a lot of arts organizations would benefit from doing this.  

I haven’t written about dance as much as I would like, and don’t know as much about it as I want to. I have some background in it — I was, briefly, a dance minor in college, and taught ballroom at Arthur Murray. And I have written for a few theaters that make use of dance in their performances, so I have a rudimentary understanding of how a dance piece is created and put up on its feet. Arts criticism is a field that demands instant expertise, which isn’t really fair to the art, and almost impossible with dance. With theater, as an example, a critic can usually spend a good portion of a review just retelling the plot, as most plays have identifiable narratives. But a lot of dance is non-narrative, and is likely to beggar description for critics unfamiliar with the form. How to describe movement in a way that is engaging? How to write about movement with depth and understanding? These are the challenges of dance criticism, and the Cowles Center has challenged us to have critics, or be critics, that can provide criticism that is equal to the work being put out by the local dance community.

I’m frankly a bit overwhelmed thinking about it. There’s a steep learning curve ahead for me, and a real risk my early criticism won’t be up to the challenge, as I start at the bottom of that curve and work my way up. But, then, part of the pleasure of arts journalism is that it provides an ongoing opportunity to learn about art, to be a constant student, and an especially privileged student. Critics can often speak to the creators of art, or attend rehearsals, and can write about the same artists over years and sometimes decades, which provides ongoing opportunities for the criticism to deepen. So the opening of the Cowles Center isn’t just a challenge, it’s an enormous opportunity.

But there’s nothing quite so terrifying as opportunity. 

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jennifer Tuder on 09/13/2011 - 11:20 am.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments about the joys and challenges of dance criticism. I was wondering if online publications, like Minnpost, might have an advantage here: the ability to share recorded material with your audience. I would love to watch a particular moment from a production and then read the critic’s response to it. I don’t know how daunting the logistical issues might be, but it would be an exciting way to enjoy dance criticism.

  2. Submitted by Erica Mauter on 09/19/2011 - 09:02 am.

    Considering how the Southern has gone down in flames (figuratively, not literally), it seems the Cowles Center is arriving just in time to anchor the dance community. I don’t know all the politics, though, so that may not be the perspective from within the dance community.

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