When a Black Box Goes Dark

Lightsey Darst on the entanglements of dance-making and the spaces that house it, how each colors and irrevocably bounds the other, and on the void left by the Southern in the local dance community and the promise of spaces to come.



THE DARK SPACE. At first it’s a wound. A dark mouth, it caves in, it sucks. Things on its edge seem poised also to fall in. You leave quickly, look the other way when passing by.

The people displaced by its demise pack up and move on to other places, charting their course by uncertain stars. One sees them weaving slowly in long trains, laden like crabs with all their tatty things, wrapped up in heaps of garments so their features blur, unrecognizable. Some of them don’t make it to where they are going. Instead, they fall by the wayside, then step out of the wreck of their things naked and walk off, leaving these husks as a warning to any future travelers or settlers. Those that do arrive (in various nooks and crannies, like hermit crabs) may be found, in a few years, showing off the features of their new hovel, offering warm but flurried hospitality, hoping you don’t mention the other, the old home. You may stay for a while — maybe you will even be charmed by what has become of them — but at some point you will realize that these are not the people you once knew, not anymore. They have lost or gained something along the way. They move differently.

Going by the dark space again, you sense how its collapse does not merely tug at what is immediately around it. Lines radiate from it out into space, lines of lightlessness and poverty. In these rays nothing can move or grow.


The Southern Theater, Minneapolis. Let me picture it to you:

It’s what’s called a black box — the stage has no secrets. Wings do not extend from its sides into pre- and post-magical space, dancers must simply keep dancing. The stage is the same space as the rather steeply banked seats. We have an impression of the touchable modern world here, them being us. We might as well be out there making too.

Halfway upstage, though, is an old proscenium arch, its concrete eroded in places, lit with a dainty arc of bare bulbs. Beyond this the stage does admit mysterious entrances and exits. You could soar off in a lift stage left and no one would know what had become of you. Doorways on either side of the arch allow room to lounge, flirt, languish. If the open front of the stage encourages honest effort, the doorways hint at domesticity and private emotion, while the arch promises escape, transcendence, another world.

The arch’s romantic decay rhymes with other chipped flourishes, roundels, and laurels, with exposed brick and flaking art nouveau flowers painted on the walls in time-muted mauve, maroon, and moss-green. Clearly, you are in a place of experience: no glossy first loves here, no fresh steps; every motion is ghosted by a long past, and adds its weight to the future, fading into its own ghostly afterimage even while it still lives.


Let me make it clear that I’m talking about spaces for dance. Dance lives in space in special ways; you can think of it as an art of moving architecture. With few exceptions, dance en plein air feels trivial and provisional: a costless escape from nothing. But when dance arrows along the objects we’ve made, it illuminates the life we’ve made as well. We may move dances from place to place routinely, as if space didn’t matter, but the truth is that a dance’s germinating and destined places cast their impress on the dance, describing its center, limning its escapes.

Here’s William Forsythe, talking about the Frankfurt Opera stage and its effect on his work:

You can see well practically from every seat, and one has the feeling on the stage that one is rather in a landscape — it’s so large. And this influenced very much my thinking about space and making things in space… things took time. In other words to walk fifty metres takes more time than it does to walk twelve, yeah, and so the temporal structures of pieces adapted themselves to that kind of space. And because the space itself is so beautiful, I didn’t want to fill it with anything but light. So I sort of left the majority of, of scenic elements out, and tried to build a repertoire of light, even building lighting instruments myself, designing them myself and building them, and having them built rather, and deploying them to create unique visual situations for this stage.

Or consider the studio in Tallahassee where I danced for six years in high school and college. The Southern Academy of Ballet Arts occupied a long low building on the south side of town, in a sprawl of warehouses, nightclubs, and auto body shops. The studio itself was like a warehouse — windowless, dusty — and it, too, was a nightclub when the ballet girls cleared out on weekend nights (a dangerous place we’d never go, a place where you could get knifed, called the Garden); it had been built as a roller rink years ago, perhaps in the twenties. Back then, roller rink floors were made of wood, beautiful gold-brown narrow boards of rock maple that ran in the direction you’d skate, joined at the corners like log cabin quilt blocks. That floor wanted you to travel it; it sent you, hurled you round its trim corners and out across the open space. With nothing to distract us from motion — no decorations other than dingy purple spatter-painted walls and the Garden’s small disco ball tucked in the dusty rafters — we sprang free and recklessly down our steep diagonals. Barre bored us; nobody bothered with a jammed-together perfect fifth position. We didn’t have the world’s best technique, but we had momentum. We’d sacrifice everything to move. Summer nights, when we opened the back doors to the tropic lushness of a drainage ditch and beyond that, the bone rattle of railroad tracks, that was what we loved best. That — the precious floor, the history, the knife-fight, the sullen Tallahassee air and sinfully green elephant ear crowding towards the door — that was how we danced.


When dance arrows along the objects we’ve made, it illuminates the life we’ve made as well. A dance’s germinating and destined places cast their impress on the dance, describing its center, limning its escapes.


Now I take ballet class in a high, square, light-filled room, white-walled, its columns and pilasters topped with Corinthian and Ionic capitals. People model themselves in space here; they balance, they perfect. They move neatly.


I’ve seen the Southern swagged with pink, our adored debutante, doted upon by dancers in love with what a dance is, in Chris Schlichting’s love things. I’ve seen its back brick wall tenderly scaled by a woman in her partner’s arms, her feet tracing a world we’ll never enter, like the feet of Christ you see sometimes on cathedral ceilings. I’ve seen the Southern become a prison for a man self-condemned, its walls hemming him closely in like the circle the Vitruvian man turns in, in Jennifer Hart’s solo for Sam Feipel, “The Lamb”. I’ve seen Kristin Van Loon caress the arch like a housewife with a hard itch to scratch, and I’ve seen dancers stream out the forward exits as if entering the future. I’ve seen Eric Boone eat a line of marshmallows across the back of the stage, one at a time, for an hour. I’ve seen the Southern become a small Midwestern town, a shanty, the Pequod. I’ve seen aerialists tumble down silks from the high ceiling, ballerinas cut the stage’s steep lines with darting feet, Middle-Eastern dancers spinning an ecstatic zar along the time-beaten walls.

Vanessa Voskuil’s en masse, with seventy-plus swirling on the floor, drew a new center of gravity on the Southern floor; I felt myself leaning, the entire theater falling into the human whirlwind. Shawn McConneloug‘s “SubVert” haunted the Southern’s halls with the whirr of cicadas and a claw-toed diva from earlier days, a haunting that began on film and wound up in dance, a haunting I can imagine still resounds in the empty inside.


What took down the Southern is local, banal, and confusing: call it financial mismanagement. But the consequences of its fall are worth explaining to you to show what the loss of a dance space can mean in practical terms, as I hope I’ve just shown you its cost in the intangible.

Unlike most metropolitan areas of its size, the Twin Cities does not have a large civic ballet company to lap up the lion’s share of funding, audience, and press. Instead, we have many small companies — two chamber ballets, a modern repertory company, multiple choreographer-centered modern companies, nationally significant companies based on Indian classical technique, many companies exploring techniques from other parts of the world, a ballroom dance company, dance-theater companies, etc, etc. We also have a thriving group of avant-garde choreographers who make work on each other or with pick-up casts.

We’re rich in performance series and funders. We’re also rich in venues, and we’ve just seen an unprecedented streak of theater-building and refurbishing. The Walker Art Center and the Guthrie have recently built beautiful new spaces; Ballet of the Dolls renovated the Ritz Theater as a home for itself; the University of Minnesota is set to overhaul its enormous Northrop Auditorium soon; and the Cowles Center has just opened as the Twin Cities’ only space dedicated to dance. We are very lucky here.

But the Southern was special and central in all this, the only full-sized theater presenting a curated season of mostly local work. Subtract the Southern, and there is no place for independent choreographers and companies of modest means to present work under a trusted imprimatur. The Cowles Center will cater to the companies who’ve signed on to perform there; the Walker and Northrop book touring work. Besides the Southern, independent choreographers have few options among theaters: The Ritz (a rental space with very little administrative or promotional support — exactly what the Southern seems to have become), the Red Eye (an awkward space which features dance only infrequently) and the Bryant-Lake Bowl. The BLB’s tiny stage, a curtained alcove only nine feet deep, is home ground for Twin Cities avant-garde choreographers. It’s justly well-loved as a cabaret space for rough-and-tumble runs, rough drafts, and one-offs. But it can’t house scale or full movement. Independents have hundreds of options if they look at galleries, private spaces like the Ivy Studios, and their friends’ houses, but these spaces offer no promotional muscle of their own, no season, no ready access to the general public.

If no one fills the void the Southern leaves, this is what I see: a sharper division emerging between those with means and those without. Those without will find their visions reduced to the dim, small, or strange space available; no more luxury, no more playing with the ghosts of a grand past, no more exposure to wide audiences. Those with means will also suffer because they will no longer rub elbows with their poorer fellow artists. They will no longer have to practice intellectual agility or respond to new ideas. The democratic vitality of our dance community will be seriously damaged.


Ultimately, when a dance space goes dark, the cause is a failure of imagination — someone’s imagination, anyway. A knee-jerk reaction keeps us from blaming the audience in these situations; the customer service culture that’s poisoning America insists the customer is never wrong, and the fault must lie with artists who offer what no one wants. Well, I reject this.


The dancers I know aren’t crying about the Southern because they knew better than to think it would last — and they know better than to think this is the end of anything.


Shame on the people who sit at home night after night rather than going out and confronting the workings of another mind and heart. Shame on those who want always what they already know they like. Shame on those who will not risk their comfort for a chance to connect.


However: the dark, too, is part of the story of any dance space.

Let me tell you another story. In the nineties, when Zenon Dance Company moved from one downtown building to another, one Zenon dancer, Shawn McConnelaug, dreamed of keeping the old space to rehearse in. She and two friends (Paula Mann and Georgia Stephens) scraped together the cash to rent the space, and lying on the floor one day (they were dancers, after all), they christened it SpaceSpace. When, a few years later, the building sold and they had to move, McConnelaug found the back door open in another downtown building, walked up to the second floor, and decided she’d found the next SpaceSpace. SpaceSpace hosted not only rehearsals, but showings, and soon the friends cobbled together a bit of grant money and set the place up as a theater. Here, jammed in among your friends, you could watch dances while the sun set over Minneapolis, the skyscape burning through gritty windows behind the dancers. Stripped down, bare brick, SpaceSpace gave permission to sweat and unlovely striving, to raw work and racing blood. But the disrepair that made the building available and affordable to dance ultimately doomed it: the elevator broke, making SpaceSpace no longer handicapped-accessible, and so no longer eligible for grants. McConnnelaug and her friends moved on, and SpaceSpace faded into the past.

But wait: years later, the dance duo Hijack, chatting with a photographer, discovered that his vast downtown studio, only half of which he used, was the very same SpaceSpace. He offered them the unused half to rehearse in. Coming in, they discovered on the wall a chalk line they’d drawn once in a performance, which they’d promised would come off the bricks and never did, never has. Since then, SpaceSpace has hosted rehearsals for Deborah Jinza-Thayer and BodyCartography, among others — and in the work that’s been made there I think I feel its raveled ends, its generative mess.

As everyone knows, the new Cowles was once an old Shubert, destined for the wrecking ball, and the Southern itself has been dark before. Between its first incarnation as the Sodra Teatern and its just-past vibrancy, the Southern was a restaurant, even a garage. You might even say a dance space needs that darkness — needs the threat that propels the dance. (Julia Solis’s photographs of abandoned theaters beautifully capture that threat, seemingly at the moment that the decay becomes a dance of its own.)

And there’s another element here. I’ve been conflating dancers and their spaces, as if the two weren’t separate. Dancers, the poorest of all artists, are used to moving on, to taking what they can get. They thrive on disruption; their art is all about change. The dancers I know aren’t crying about the Southern because they knew better than to think it would last — and they know better than to think this is the end of anything.

I was stretching the truth when I told you earlier that nothing grows in the wake of a collapse, if I didn’t outright lie. In fact, lots grows there — like woods after a fire.


But conservation of energy, however comforting, is merely a metaphor. I don’t want you to feel absolved. Something is lost, and lost always, when a dance space fails.

You may be curious about the fate of that Tallahassee studio I mentioned earlier. A few years after I left, the dance academy had to move to a much smaller space outside the city limits; they were only renting the old studio, and the owner wanted to sell the land. Whether he sold it or not I don’t know, but the land was cleared for a development that (post-market crash) never came, the building demolished, scrubbed off as if its heat and glow had never been.

No one now moves how we did when we danced there.


I wrote this much months ago and then left it, uncertain where the piece should go, what I should finally say. Should I leave you in the dark or open some ray of light? The dark, I knew, was temporary, but I wasn’t feeling the light myself, until very recently — until I saw a new space open.

I don’t mean the Cowles. Everyone’s telling that story. Besides, it will take some time before we can tell how that space and its curating hand shape dance here. I mean an opening with much less fanfare: the new TU Dance center, which is not only a rehearsal space for the company but, more importantly, a dance school, with classes for all levels.

Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, co-artistic directors, had a lot to tell me about their new studio, which is in a former cabinet shop wedged between a mechanic and a Subway on a mixed-up block of University Avenue; it’s an area that used to seem desolate to me, but now seems ripe for revival, thanks to the light rail and the school.

They told me how this one space was the result of three years of searching through former gyms, churches, and whatever else; how Pierce-Sands had to take it on faith, not able to see its promise until they’d cleaned out the ductwork, sawdust, and swinging fluorescents, until, standing on a ladder one day, she saw it: the room, the light, the permission. They told me how much work it had taken, how generous others had been (the ever-kind James Sewell, for example, loaning them his touring floor surface). They told me how the work, everyone’s and their own, had hallowed the space for them; Pierce-Sands spoke of finishing the wall bars, how later in class her hand slid along the bar she herself had varnished and “it just felt good.” They told me about their dreams for the space, how they started on this path originally because Sands, trying to decide his future, said, “I want to create a place for people like us — dancers.” Pierce-Sands spoke of the space’s feeling, how she wanted it to be welcoming, how it already felt “regenerating” to her, how she, you, anyone can “be in the space and be loved by it.”

But you should go talk to them yourself. You should go see their space, walk up the loading dock ramp through the glass doors that open directly into the studio — no waiting room, no walls. You should feel what it does to you: how as soon as you step in the door you’re in the dance, how the light-filled room gives a sense of endless negative space waiting to be carved by your body. And you should accept that invitation to alter the world around you, for however briefly. You should dance there.


About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, “The Works.”