Frank L. Sonntag of The Cowles Center | Interview
The executive director of the country’s newest center for dance on advocacy, education and shared risk.
It isn’t often that a new venue devoted to dance opens in this country. What’s the impetus behind the Cowles Center, where you’re executive director, in downtown Minneapolis?
Raising dance to a level that’s been enjoyed by music and theater here for a very long time, providing a venue that is discipline-specific, and just wait until you see it. This is going to be one of the finest venues in the whole world for dance, with amenities that [dance] artists usually have to make do without.
Tell me about its education component.
I could talk about it until I’m blue in the face. We have a distance-learning program that is free of charge to every teacher in the state of Minnesota. We reach tens of thousands of schoolkids in classrooms all over the country and around the world. It’s not about teaching kids in [Twin Cities suburb] Wayzata how to fox-trot. It’s about teaching Mexican dances to students in Fergus Falls [near Fargo, North Dakota], in Spanish. There’s a big difference.
I read that one of these classes was broadcast live to Kuwait.
Yes, although we had to couch it as “physical education” rather than dance, because dance in a Muslim country is problematic. Working with students in London was a little bit easier and, you know, [the Cowles Center] is also part of the revitalization of Hennepin Avenue.… Having this corner lit up at night will do a lot for people’s perceptions about downtown Minneapolis.
What perceptions are those?
Coming from New York, it’s perfectly fine for me, but the perception out in the suburbs is, “Oh, downtown, that’s a little unsafe.” It’s not, but perception is everything…and this project, from an urban-development point of view, is important step.
The theater’s seating capacity was almost halved during renovations, in the interest of sightlines and other considerations. How difficult was that choice?
Oh, very. That is always the big discussion around new facilities: How many seats should it have? The reason why it’s so important is that it determines what’s economically feasible. When it was 1,000 seats, the notion was that there would be place for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to have a Minneapolis home, instead of across the [Mississippi] river. At some point, it was determined that the second balcony was structurally unsound and the decision was made to gut [the house] and completely reconfigure it, which was very controversial—preservationists were up in arms over losing the balcony. But the end result is a space that will be very comfortable for both audiences and artists and, as I said, one of the very best venues to see a dance concert in the world.
Were there any models for the Cowles in either its design or its programming?
Yes. And no. I’m modeling the business on the Joyce [Theater in NYC], which is to say that we’re not passing on the costs of operating this theater to the people who use it. We’ve put together a split box-office scenario so that there is a shared risk, which allows local dance companies to perform here without betting the farm, much in the same way that the Joyce allows New York companies to perform in Manhattan without betting the farm.… There are things that we will bring to the table such as marketing muscle, which all of these companies need and which we will be uniquely positioned to provide, because now there is a focal point for dance that never existed before. We will put packages together, [such as,] pick four events off of the season and you’ll get 20 percent off the ticket price, 15 percent off of restaurants in the neighborhood and a parking deal, you know? Our packaging will encourage the marketplace to purchase more events than they would if they were cherry-picking.
What does “shared risk” mean, numbers-wise? Fifty-fifty?
About, yeah. We will tweak that in year two and beyond but, for now, that’s what it is and it’s smart because that’s why our [inaugural] season looks like it does. We’re presenting 18 local dance companies. That, in and of itself, tells the story of the need for this place.
Are there plans to incubate new work at the Cowles through residency programs for artists?
The short answer is yes. Those plans are in formation; I would very much like to have some venue for us to develop artistic talent.… There is a choreographers’ evening here that is run by the Walker [Art Center]. I’m no fool—we can’t waltz into town and replicate that. It would be a misstep to pull something like that out of the garage too early but, yes, I would like for us to be a catalyst for creation as well as for performance.
Did you ever think you’d live in Minneapolis?
Nope, and I had never set foot here. But it was divine intervention; I felt like this job had my name all over it.… I always thought that I’d spend the rest of my life in New York but, honestly, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. To build cultural infrastructure—that doesn’t come along very often.
I should let you get back to work.
I’ve been running around like crazy. But it’s a glorious problem to have. That’s what I signed up for.
The Cowles Center’s three-day grand opening celebration features performances by the James Sewell Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theatre and Zenon Dance Company; Clifton Brown of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan; Jonah Bokaer, formerly of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; and legendary tap dancer Savion Glover. On September 11, admission is free to a full day of open house and community events.