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Minnesota Ballet Founded as
Duluth Civic Ballet in 1965
It was 1965. Hubert Humphrey took the oath of office as vice president in the Lyndon Johnson administration. The Twins lost the seven-game World Series to the Dodgers. The Dick Van Dyke Show dominated television, and The Sound of Music won the Academy Award for best picture. New York City and New England went dark in a mammoth blackout. On the arts scene, Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts. Rudolf Nureyev graced a cover of Time Magazine.
And in Duluth, a wave of interest in ballet demanded more than the meager fare of dance recitals by private schools and a very occasional performance by a touring professional company. Donna Harkins, a ballet teacher with a studio in Duluth Heights, saw in her senior students the potential for a dance company that could stage its own presentations and perform with other arts organizations.
In spring 1965 she choreographed and produced the first all-ballet performance featuring area amateur dancers. The show proved so popular that Northlanders wanted to encourage the young dancers. In December 1965, twenty ballet supporters in the Duluth area formed a board of directors, with Jan Gibson as the first president, establishing the Duluth Civic Ballet with the intention of providing excellent instruction in ballet and using the area’s advanced students to form an amateur performing company. The first budget was $1,000.
Decades later, the Ballet celebrates its growth into a professional touring company with significant artistic assets and a growing national reputation. The years have seen exciting milestones attained as well as disappointments overcome. Every artistic director, with particular vision and strength, has shaped the Ballet’s growth, preparing the way for the next director. And always the community has supported and encouraged this gem of the Northland’s arts scene.
Fortunately, the founding Board members had no idea of the task they had set themselves in 1965, or they may have quailed at the challenge of establishing and maintaining a ballet. Harkins accepted no salary for leading the fledgling ballet in the first year and in her own studio tirelessly trained and rehearsed the young dancers chosen by audition.
Herman Hertz, conductor of the Duluth Symphony Orchestra, played a pivotal role in supporting the new company, inviting it to perform to The Nutcracker Suite and Hansel and Gretel in the symphony’s concert December 1966. Board member designed and constructed costumes and built an elaborate set for this milestone performance. A gigantic sugar plum descending from the Duluth Auditorium ceiling not only provided a dramatic entrance for the Sugar Plum Fairy, but helped to disguise the enthusiastic but amateur status of the company.
That same month, a workshop for the Civic Ballet, conducted by Anna Adrianova Andahazy and Lorand Andahazy, directors of Ballet Borealis in St. Paul and former dancers in Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, made clear that for the young company dancers to have any standing in the ballet world they needed advanced training. At Harkins’ urging, Anna was hired as the Civic Ballet’s new director, who weekly flew to Duluth to teach an evening of classes at the Ballet’s first studio of its own, the former Dreamland Ballroom on First Avenue West. Not surprisingly, this weekly commuting proved too time-consuming for her to continue, but she had planted the seed of professionalism in the new company.
How to pursue that professionalism was the challenge. As a first step to identifying what it needed to do next, in summer 1967 the Ballet hired Bernard “Bud” Johanson, director/choreographer at St. Teresa’s College in Winona, to advise the Ballet. After teaching a class, assessing the Ballet, and visiting the Duluth Auditorium, Johanson was impressed with the whole organization and advised Ballet to hire a full-time professional director.
By January 1968, the Board had found the means to hire as the Ballet’s first professional resident director, George Montague, formerly the choreographer and a principal dancer with the Illinois Ballet. He first had to overcome the shock of arriving in Duluth during a blizzard and a wind chill of minus 39 degrees. Quickly recognizing that the Ballet’s advanced students needed intensive classical training before they would be ready to mount a major ballet performance, he founded the Ballet’s School of Classical Ballet. In his tenure, 1968–72, he laid the classical base for the Ballet; with his advanced students he performed with the Duluth Symphony Orchestra and the Duluth Civic Opera. On June 6,1970, at the Duluth Auditorium, the Ballet staged its own first major performance, augmented by guest artists Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandez of the American Ballet Theatre.
Following Montague, with his classical emphasis, directors have taken the Ballet many directions. In his tenure, 1972–74, Patrick Crommett, a former dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, took the young company to Texas in November 1972 to perform with the Wichita Falls Ballet Theater. In Duluth he choreographed many modern pieces, notably a rock ballet and a interpretive piece performed in honor of Ann Royer’s sculpture Auchina (“The Alien”). In April 1974 the company staged Ballet Beautiful, featuring the premiere of the spirited Sedalia, created by guest choreographer Lois Bewley, a former member of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet.
In the 1974–75 season, the Ballet dropped “Civic” from its name, reflecting the growing professionalism of the company. George Montague was invited back for the Ballet’s tenth season; the tenth anniversary was celebrated in March 1975 by three evenings of ballet featuring current and former company members, a celebration that went on despite a pair of monster snowstorms that forced two of the three evenings to be rescheduled.
In 1975 the Ballet next hired as Artistic Director Gilbert Reed, a former dancer with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and founder of the Ballet Ensemble at the University of Utah. Reed choreographed many dramatic piece, filling the stage with dancers and theater majors for such productions as The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Carmen, and A Christmas Carol.
Also beginning in 1975, the Ballet company included some professional dancers along with advanced students. In 1977, the Ballet moved to the newly established St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center, “The Depot.” Also in May of that year the Ballet had the honor of hosting the Mid-States Regional Ballet Festival at the Duluth Auditorium, featuring choreography performed by companies from Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Ohio.
When Reed left in 1978, his wife, Nancy Reed, a former dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music, became artistic director. In her year as director, the Ballet reprised A Christmas Carol and staged two other performances at the University of Minnesota Duluth. In December 1978 the Ballet’s performance featured Fantasy on Polish Airs, by guest choreographer Duncan Noble, former soloist with the American Ballet Theatre.
In the 1979–80 season, the Ballet was once again without an artistic director. It solved the problem by bringing three guest artists. George Montague returned once more, this time serving as choreographer-in-residence for the performance in November, which featured his Haydn Variations. Robert Moulton, head of the Theatre Movement Department at the University of Minnesota, was guest artistic advisor for the performance in February; David Voss, assistant to the director of the Minnesota Dance Theatre, served as artistic advisor to the Spring Gala in March.
A full-time artistic director was again hired; in his tenure, 1980–82, John Landovsky, a native of Riga, Latvia, and a former principal dancer with the Chicago Opera Ballet, created many dramatic pieces such as Slavonic Dances and Irish Suite. He also staged The Nutcracker at UMD. A December 1981 U.S. News & World Report article about the dance boom cited the growth of the Duluth Ballet to seven professional dancers and a $175,000 yearly budget.
Ironically, the Ballet’s fortunes hit the lowest the next season, 1982–83, with no professional dancers and only the school to sustain the Ballet. Jon Benoit, who had choreographed for the San Francisco Dance Theater and the Nederlands Dans Theater, was hired as artist-in-residence and staged a chamber performance in March danced by himself and advanced students.
The Ballet revived in 1983, with the hiring of German-born Gernot Petzold, who hired six professional dancers for the company and established an eight-member junior company of advanced students. A former member of the repertory company of the American Ballet Theatre, Petzold served as artistic director for the next five years, 1983–88, choreographing many stark, modern pieces in a minimalist style, such as Oma and GlaCaGla. In his tenure, the Ballet made its Twin Cities debut in October 1986 at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, a performance earning the Ballet pronouncements of “charm,” “promise,” and “viable” from Twin Cities critics. Petzold also established in 1983 the Ballet’s tradition of staging a full production of The Nutcracker; his were held at the Marshall Performing Arts Center at UMD.
For the next director, the Ballet chose the first from its own ranks, Nancy Gibson, who had been company member and ballet mistress and had choreographed for the Ballet, notably Under the Moon. As director 1988–92, she created classical pieces such as Bach Cello Suite, popular modern ballets such as Savannah and Suite for High-Tops, and an appealing version of Peter and the Wolf. Under her direction the Ballet staged its Nutcracker for the first time at the DECC Auditorium. In 1990 the Ballet celebrated its 25th anniversary by bringing in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for a special appearance benefiting the Duluth Ballet.
Hired in 1992, the new artistic director, Allen Fields, had been principal dancer with the Cleveland San Jose Ballet and a guest dancer with international experience. During his tenure—the longest in the Ballet’s history—the Ballet staged for the first time such historic favorites as Swan Lake Act II, Coppélia, and Giselle Act II; as well as repertory pieces in diverse styles from ballroom (Sentimental Rhythm) to jazz (Ella), to swing (Rough Cut Swing).
Under his leadership, in 1994 the Ballet became the Minnesota Ballet, to more appropriately reflect the Ballet’s growth into one of the premier professional ballet companies in the region, and moved its major local performances to the DECC Auditorium. In 1995, in the Ballet’s 30th anniversary season, it made its first international tour, to San Salvador, El Salvador, performing to standing-room-only audiences.
In 1997 the Ballet premiered its all-new Nutcracker production with its distinct touches of the Northland, a favorite at home and on tour that has earned the Ballet prestige and proved a significant financial asset.
Under Fields’ leadership the Ballet launched its largest capital campaign, remodeling the historic Grain Exchange in the Board of Trade Building, which in 1999 became the Ballet’s new headquarters. The old trading floor, overlooked by tall, arched windows, ornately-carved Italian ceiling, and three lofty balconies, has proved an elegant yet practical studio. Where once traders shouted bids, rushed to telephone booths, and flung grain about, company dancers and students now perfect their pirouettes and grand jetés.
Continuing the Ballet’s tradition of augmenting its repertoire with works by guest choreographers, Fields invited Ginger Thatcher, Diane Coburn Bruning, Karen Gabay, and Donna Schoenherr to create works in their own styles as well as to provide the company with an opportunity to work with additional dance artists. And in spring 2001, Wilhelm Burmann, internationally-known ballet coach, came to the Ballet to teach master classes and prepare the Ballet for Giselle Act II.
And one of Fields’ most important priorities was to win the rights to perform ballet works by master choreographers. Northland audiences have been treated to Antony Tudor’s delightful Little Improvisations and beautifully-flowing Continuo, Agnes de Mille’s comic morality satire Three Virgins and a Devil, and George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. The trusts controlling each of these pieces have sent representatives to prepare the company members, who grow as dance artists under such instruction.
In the 2002–03 season, Fields celebrated his tenth anniversary with the Ballet by premiering his first fully-commissioned work, The Passions, his choreography enhanced by original piano music by composer Bruce Wolosoff, modern art drop by artist Margaret Garrett, and costumes by Kathryn Marsaa. In 2003, Fields premiered his sparkling production of Cinderella, set in Renaissance Tuscany, and in the 2005–06 season he served as producer for Sleeping Beauty, a dreamy version choreographed by Robert Gardner and set in medieval Europe. Gardner was named associate artistic director in 1998 after serving six years with the Ballet as ballet master and resident choreographer.
Just in time for the its 40th anniversary, the Ballet won the right to perform Balanchine’s world-renowned Apollo. Setting Balanchine’s seminal ballet was Balanchine Trust representative Paul Boos, who had recently set it on the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
Starting in 2007 under the leadership of the present artistic director, Robert Gardner, the Ballet has premiered such productions as his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Firebird, Carnival of the Animals, and the contemporary ballet Recurrent Stages, with original music by composer Ryan Homsey, and his full-length Swan Lake. In the 2015–16 season the Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary with a Gala Performance featuring works from its five decades.
In 2019, as its new Artistic Director the Ballet hired Karl von Rabenau, who had studied at School of the Minnesota Ballet and served as guest instructor in the summer term the previous twenty years. Von Rabenau danced as soloist with the Milwaukee Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Ballet Omaha. After retiring from his professional career, von Rabenau a full-time pursuit in teach dancer, a personal passion. He has held several teaching positions with Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, Point Park University, and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
From that first ballet teacher and a score of enthusiastic citizens, the dream has continued to grow. The community founded the Ballet. The community has sustained it for decades, and remains a valued part of Minnesota Ballet as it moves onward and upward in its second century of excellent dance, education, outreach, and performance.