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James Sewell Ballet leaps to center stage
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The James Sewell Ballet is known for performing dynamic new works that are both engaging and accessible. Yet local ticket sales don't match their reputation. (Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet)
A Minnesota dance company is looking to raise its profile in the Twin Cities. James Sewell Ballet regularly garners rave reviews when it tours to New York and elsewhere around the country. But the high praise hasn't translated into packed audiences here at home. Now the company has announced it's going to change that by moving to center stage of the Twin Cities performing arts scene.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The James Sewell Ballet will perform its next season at the Historic State Theatre on Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis. For the past 11 years, James Sewell Ballet has performed at the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. Artistic director and founder James Sewell says the move is part of a strategic effort to promote dance in the Twin Cities.

"I think it's key for all dance organizations to find as many ways as possible to raise their profile," says Sewell. "I think people aren't aware of what a vibrant, important dance community we have here. It's really second in the country to New York in terms of the type of new work that's being created here, and the breadth of this community. But there hasn't been a high profile venue on Hennepin Avenue to let people know about that."

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Image James Sewell

When the James Sewell Ballet goes on tour, it garners accolades from critics on a regular basis. And it often draws better crowds than when it performs at home.

"It's important for us to get people locally to see us, on the same par as other dance companies coming to town. There are other shows that come in, they come to the State or to the Northrup," says Sewell. "They come to these type of venues, and we need to be seen in the consciousness of people in that same context."

Sewell says the State Theatre on Hennepin Ave. provides his audiences with easy access to a number of restaurants, bars and other venues before and after a performance. Such variety simply isn't available in the residential neighborhood surrounding the dance company's previous home, the College of St. Catherine.

The State Theatre has 2,100 seats. That's a huge space to fill, even for high-profile dance companies. Fred Krohn, president of Historic Theater Group, says the ballet's talent, combined with his theater's location, should help.

"I think they're going to find a wider audience on Hennepin Avenue than they've been able to," says Krohn. "I just think they are accessible and very artistically skilled. I think two or three years from now, we'll be thinking that the audience has really expanded."

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Image The Historic State Theatre

Krohn says he'll connect the James Sewell Ballet to a larger audiences of art lovers. Despite all the advantages, the ballet is only committing to work at the State Theatre for one season.

Linda Close, chair of the James Sewell Ballet's board of trustees, says the dance company's mission has always been to move into the Schubert Theater just down the street. The Schubert is being developed as a center for dance and dance education. But progress has been slow, and it's not yet ready to take them in.

"Our long term goal is to be in a space that will have as part of its mission -- a performing space for dance," says Close. "It will be an educational space, a place where students can come. So the Minnesota Schubert Center is more than just a theater."

Close says more than 60 percent of the ballet's audience already comes from the west metro area, so it makes sense to move to Minneapolis and develop that audience base even further. She says eventually she hopes the ballet will also have regular performances in St. Paul as well, but it may take years to build up an audience large enough to support performances in both of the Twin Cities.

Still, artistic director James Sewell says the move to the State Theatre is an important step in the right direction.

"Just the marquee alone, with everybody going by on Hennepin Ave. every day, is huge," says Sewell. "We are battling public awareness. We want the average person on the street to know that James Sewell Ballet exists here, that we are a valued part of the artistic community. And then we want them to make the decision to come down and see what we're doing. I think that can only happen by being part of the downtown scene."

The James Sewell Ballet's first run of performances in the Historic State Theatre begins Sept. 30, 2004.

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