The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts

The Cowles Center Thinks Outside the Box for Pandemic Programming

While such hallowed spaces as the New York State Theater, New York City Center, Jacob’s Pillow and the Joffrey Ballet Auditorium may immediately spring to mind when one thinks of notable dance venues, there are numerous spots around the country devoted to this vital art form. And few are as beloved by its local audience as Minneapolis’ Cowles Center for Dance, which has been presenting some of Minnesota’s finest artists for the past decade.

Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented people from entering its theaters since last March. Nevertheless, the Cowles has learned to make the best of a bad situation, both by finding clever uses for some of its spaces and making the most of modern-day technology to keep much of its programming and educational services available.

“We had eight productions planned between March and May 2020, and like lots of people, we originally only postponed them briefly,” says Joseph Bingham, the Center’s Director of Operations & Production. “But then we realized the seriousness of this pandemic and we went about finding how to present them in the spring of 2021. Fortunately, four of the companies can still do these virtually in the March and April, and two more will be able do them somehow in April 2022.”

In addition, Bingham says the Cowles tentatively has what he calls an “ambitious” line-up of programs set for Fall 2021, although how and where those performances will take place remains up in the air. “A lot of my colleagues are saying they’re committed to fall; but we will probably wait until summer to make a more definite announcement,” he says. “Either way, I think some virtual programming will remain, since we know not everyone will be comfortable returning to the theater. Still, on the other hand, a lot of our audience is over 60 and will likely be fully vaccinated by then, and they have indicated they are willing to spend the money to return to live theater. The bottom line is that when our audiences feel comfortable enough to return, we promise there will be enough seats for them.”

As for its educational programming, the Cowles has hardly given up the proverbial ship. “We were still able to do online residencies and teach in real time, and then we did a lot of YouTube educational videos since we realized that learning cannot always be synchronized, so these can be watched any place at any time,” says Jessi Fett, Director of Programs & Education. “One of our greatest accomplishments was a program called “Six Feet, Six Solos,” in which we chose six artists from over 80 applications. We got them to come to the Cowles Center, using all the proper precautions to perform in a 6X6 rehearsal space with a socially distanced audience. We have learned to be reactive, and that’s been a really good lesson for us from this otherwise terrible time.”

Naturally, the Cowles’ revenue has been severely impacted during the pandemic, but again, its leaders have put on their proverbial thinking caps to find innovative solutions to close the gap. “We have had to do fundraising around naming our spaces or some specific programs,” notes Bingham. “Plus, our building has eight floors, so we have a lot of office space available, and we’re finally seeing some recovery in renters. And we’re always thinking of more diverse ways to raise funds; we’re even considering creating some paid, director-to-consumer educational programming.”

For all the temporary setbacks, the Cowles’ leaders are focusing on the silver lining inside the dark cloud of Covid-19. “I am genuinely excited about the conversations we are having – and will continue to have -- about who can be on our stages, which spaces can be used the most effectively, and how to engage new artists and audiences -- not just the people who have been here in past 10 years,” says Fett. “No matter what, we realize art can always be made and needs to be made. Better yet, we know there are people out there eager to make work and watch that work. And it’s our duty to be there with them!”