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Lake effect: Gardner closes out ballet's milestone season with his largest production, a 'Swan Lake' in three acts

Dancers Sarah White (from left), Sam Neale and Emily Reed practice for Minnesota Ballet’s three-act production of “Swan Lake.” Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
The Prince (Ryo Munakata) performs a leap while practicing this week. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Minnesota Ballet dancers practice Monday for the ballet’s biggest production to date — a three-act “Swan Lake” that opens on Friday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

It's been about 25 years since a new-to-Duluth dancer choreographed Act II of "Swan Lake" for the Minnesota Ballet, and in the following years, it's been seen here and there. As Robert Gardner approached a milestone season — 25 years with the company, 10 at its helm as artistic director — he said the ballet's board of directors asked about his dream production.

Adding on to what he started all those years ago: A three-act "Swan Lake," he told them.

"Let's make it happen," he said he was told.

The Minnesota Ballet premieres its fully-staged "Swan Lake" this weekend — the season finale and also the final professional performance of longtime dancer Nikolaus Wourms — with shows at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.

Gardner said the time is right for the biggest ballet of his career: The company has a solid core of dancers capable of staging a demanding ballet. Plus:

"It's iconic," he said of the 140-plus-year-old story with a score by Tchaikovsky. "It's the great romantic ballet of our time."

THE STORY

"Swan Lake" opens with a celebration for Prince Siegfried, who has neared an age where he needs to settle down and start thinking about eligible maidens. There is an upcoming ball on the horizon, and a good chance to see who's available. But first: He wants to go out hunting.

Siegfried finds himself alone, with a straight shot at a flock of swans. Before he unleashes his bow, one of them turns into a beautiful woman. Odette tells him that she is a swan by day, woman by night, thanks to a spell cast by the evil sorcerer Rothbart. But it's nothing a little true love can't reverse. Then, suddenly, there's Rothbart. Siegfried wants to inflict harm, but Odette stops him: That will make the curse a permanent condition. After Rothbart disappears, the prince and the part-time swan commence with falling in love.

The next day at the ball, Rothbart shows up with Odile, his daughter and an Odette lookalike, who tries to and succeeds at leading the prince astray.

Tragic conclusion follows.

THE MAKING OF

Gardner started the creative process by considering time period and costumes. Once he could see the characters, he could see how they moved. He met with artist Ann Gumpper, who created backdrops that have a Maxfield Parrish-ness to them.

Gardner's original Act II got some tweaking, he said, and he's re-staging some of the iconic parts of it in the style of choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, who staged a revival in the late 1800s.

"You can take this classic and put your own imprint on it," Gardner said.

First-year dancer Daniel Westfield is in the role of Rothbart and said it doesn't matter where you've come from or where you've been — you spend your entire career training to be a prince. But here he is, the anti-hero.

"I enjoy acting," he said. "So it's fun to get into a different headspace."

In his career, he's danced nearly every role of "Swan Lake" — except Rothbart. He spent early performances digging back to recall notes given to his former colleagues performing the part.

Stratton, too, is pulling from past examples of white swans. She never thought she would star in "Swan Lake," but: "I've been lucky to watch several really good dancers," she said, including co-Odette Sarah White, who dances the role on Saturday.

SWAN LAKE SUPERIOR

When the ballet was first performed in 1993, then-Duluth mayor Gary Doty and then-Superior mayor Herb Bergson renamed Lake Superior "Swan Lake" for the premiere.

Its reception was equally grand. Historically tough News Tribune critic Dominic Papatola called the season finale "the highlight of the season" and described dancer Christina LeNeau's Odette as a "nearly spotless performance."

For years, Odette was the signature role of longtime dancer Suzanne Kritzberg, who retired in 2012 after 22 years with the ballet. A News Tribune reviewer described her 2004 performance as her strongest in years.

"Her facial expressions and body language dripped with the kind of sadness and despair that can wrack a suffering body," V. Paul Virtucio wrote.

Nikolaus Wourms

WOURMS' SWAN SONG

Wourms, who has been with the Minnesota Ballet 13 years, said his body is no longer able to handle dancing full-time. He will continue to teach and choreograph with the Minnesota Ballet, while beginning a career as a personal trainer at Snap Fitness.

Wourms, a Grand Rapids native who came up through the School of the Minnesota Ballet, first left the company in 2002 — but decided that was a mistake. He returned years later — a return he is grateful for.

"I'm satisfied that I finished what I started and that I went as far as I could," he said. "And I'm not going to quit again. I'm going to keep going as a choreographer and director."

Wourms has played plenty of princes in his day, but he's also gone dark: He danced the titular role in the ballet's original "Dracula." He's also received two fellowship grants from the New York Choreographic Institute — which has ties to the New York City Ballet.

IF YOU GO

What: Minnesota Ballet's production of "Swan Lake"

When: 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Symphony Hall, DECC

Tickets: Start at $19 adults, $14 students, $12 children; available at the Minnesota Ballet, Ticketmaster outlets including the DECC box office and www.ticketmaster.com.