Long before the stately old building at Sixth Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis was the Hennepin Center for the Arts, it was a Masonic temple. That history is the inspiration for an unusual combination of performance and tour.
It's called "ICON SAM: The Temple Dances." For the next couple of weeks, audiences will move from floor to floor and from space to space. Organizers suggest comfortable shoes.
"Just go up the stairs and wait at that pipe!" Sally Rousse called out on a run-through back in March.
On that day, many of the performers walked the route of the show, which involved a lot of stairs. The idea was for dancer, choreographer and project leader Rousse to time how long the walking part will take. As a co-founder of James Sewell Dance, she's worked in this building for some 25 years.
Recently she has been trying to break away from being what she describes as a hothouse flower of a ballerina. She's been working on site-specific, immersive pieces where dancers and audience members can literally come face to face in different spaces. That's why she's been delving deep into this building's history.
"It's eight floors, very sturdy. Completely fireproof, so they say," she reported.
From the outside, the Hennepin Center looks like an office building. But inside it features grand halls with stages and balconies. Rousse said the Masonic Temple was built to serve the specific needs of the Masons fraternal order.
"To hold a lot of their ceremonies, and drilling. They'd drill for parades and flag stuff. And meetings and ceremonies," she said.
Funerals, too. And most of these elaborate ceremonies, with costumes and grand stage sets, were secret.
"They didn't really do these for audiences," said Rousse. "They did them for themselves."
You had to belong to take part.
Rousse led the group through a warren of corridors and stairways. She said the Masons were, of course, master builders. They used the most up-to-date techniques as they designed and built their temples. As time has passed and the temples have been sold, Rouse said, this has resulted in something the secretive Masons probably didn't plan.
"There are a lot of Masonic temples all over the world, France and in America, and they often get made into dance spaces, because they're free-span space, without pillars in the way," she said.
"ICON SAM," which is an anagram of Masonic, aims to explore ritual and history.
"It is billed as a promenade performance, so you will journey, from beginning to end, via stairs or maybe the elevator," Rousse said.
The show offers accessible routes for those who can't take the stairs. Rousse was timing that too.
"You will come upon dances that are taking place, with or without you paying any attention to them," she said.
Five choreographers are working on the show, as well as members of several dance companies. Some of the dances will be short, designed to last just the time it takes people to pass by. Audiences will visit dressing rooms and costume storage and watch longer dances in the large halls.
"We are going to end up on what was the most important floor, the sixth floor, which is where all the main rituals took place. It's one of the largest studios in the entire building," she said.
It's also the floor believed to be haunted. As the walkthrough concluded, people began trading stories of ghostly happenings they'd heard about.
"Joe Chvala did a show in here and at the end of the show, a friend of one of the dancers, who was in the audience, stood up and her shoes had been tied together," one person recounted, drawing nervous laughter.
"ICON SAM: The Temple Dances" runs from Thursday through June 24. While Rousse doesn't promise ghosts, she guarantees this won't be a boring history tour.
It's about building community, she said. "It's really being able to inhabit the space that the dancers are inhabiting. And therefore you belong. You belong with us."
And you don't need to dance, nor even know a handshake.