Karl von Rabenau’s pas de deux “At Last,” which is part of the program for the Minnesota Ballet’s fall performance, is a four-part piece about the beginning of a new relationship. It’s flirty, funny, theatrical and athletic — a 1950s romantic comedy with shaky-legged hopefulness that starts with an Etta James soundtrack.

“You only get to introduce yourself once,” the company’s new artistic director said during a recent rehearsal, “so I’m thrilled it could be this pas de deux.”

The ballet’s “Carnival of the Animals and Other Dances” — which has performances at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Marshall Performing Arts Center on the UMD campus — marks a transition for the local professional company. It’s a show set by Robert Gardner, newly minted repetiteur emeritus, who scheduled the season, hired the dancers, and years ago commissioned the masks created by artist Mary Plaster.

Mathilde Lambert and Sam Neale rehearse Tuesday for tonight’s and Saturday’s Minnesota Ballet’s production of “Carnival of Animals.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mathilde Lambert and Sam Neale rehearse Tuesday for tonight’s and Saturday’s Minnesota Ballet’s production of “Carnival of Animals.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The program includes Gardner’s piece, last seen in 2010, “Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1,” choreographed by Allen Fields, and “Scenes from a Supper Club” by LilaAnn Coates White.

Since mid-September, the company has been run by von Rabenau, who grew up here and first trained with the Duluth Ballet and spent much of his career with the Milwaukee Ballet.

This will be the final production staged by Gardner, who has been with the company for 27 years, first as a dancer-creative staff hybrid and, for the past 11 years, as artistic director. He, too, applied for the job that von Rabenau now holds. The position re-opened this past summer as the board of directors looked to restructure, pushing the administrative duties to executive director Kelli Latuska and giving more space for the creative work to the artistic director.

On Tuesday afternoon before rehearsal, von Rabenau led the company’s class, and Gardner watched a bit, while also ironing out a behind-the-scenes set snafu and carrying a phone charger.

“It’s a different thing to sit back and watch them and see how they’re doing,” said Gardner, who said he never had that chance as artistic director. “I’m very proud of the company I hired for this season. I think they’re a lovely group.”

Mel Winkler, the president of the board of directors, said Gardner has been wonderful in the transition.

"Robert is always going to be someone we look to as a great contribution to the ballet," she said. "He's one of the people who brought it to where it is now.

"The move at this point, though," she added, "is good for the ballet going forward."

***

Gardner will be with the Minnesota Ballet at least through “The Nutcracker,” which plays locally Dec. 13-15 in addition to touring. His recent role has involved staging the fall show, the nuts and bolts venue details and helping von Rabenau acclimate to the duties beyond teaching, coaching and choreographing — things like fundraising and outreach, he said.

Gardner said this temporary collaboration is going very well.

“(Von Rabenau) will sit in on rehearsals and make wonderful suggestions,” he said. “It’s always good to have another set of eyes. He’s got a great eye, and he’s very good at seeing technical things or inconsistencies, things I don’t see because I’m looking at the bigger picture.”

Robert Gardner hands out dresses to dancers during Tuesday’s rehearsal. Gardner is leaving the Minnesota Ballet. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Robert Gardner hands out dresses to dancers during Tuesday’s rehearsal. Gardner is leaving the Minnesota Ballet. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Gardner came to Duluth 27 years ago as a guest ballet master and dancer alongside Allen Fields, and then stuck around. He and company celebrated the ballet’s 50th anniversary in 2015 with a gala that included pieces of past performances dating back to its inception in 1965. This was a moment that Gardner said he truly felt like he had accomplished something big.

“I felt like such a part of the lineage of the dance community here,” he said. “I felt like it was a gala like in New York City. I really pulled off what I wanted to pull off with that and present these works, and the dancers were fabulous, and we had guest musicians and we were doing pieces from the ’70s and pieces from the ’60s. You could sort of see the history and where I place in that history.”

Soon after, he staged a three-act “Swan Lake,” something he had wanted to do since his second season, when he staged Act II.

“I felt like the 50th anniversary wasn’t the culmination,” he said. “I’m still growing.”

Gardner stressed that he is not retiring. He said he is feeling optimistic about his options post Minnesota Ballet, whether it means staying in Duluth, going to the Twin Cities or heading to the East Coast. His new title, which translates to one of honor for a former ballet master was at one point his end-goal, he said.

“When I was a young dancer, this was my dream,” he said.

***

Karl von Rabenau distinctly remembers leaving Duluth, he said, and the view from the car window as he looked back at the city one last time as they crested the hill. He was 16 and en route to Boston Ballet School, and would later go to San Francisco Ballet School before landing with the Milwaukee Ballet — where he was until recently.

“Who doesn’t want to go home again, right?” he said. “I left at a pivotal time in my life, and I didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye. I was on a mission. Realistically, we’re not afforded that time as dancers. It’s go-go-go. There’s no time to sit and reminisce. There was always part of me that missed here.”

He returned with his wife, Jennifer Miller, a retired dancer who will be his ballet master and two daughters: Adelaide, 11; and Kadence, 8, who also dance.

Von Rabenau has maintained ties with the Minnesota Ballet over the years. Gardner brought him in to teach summer classes and his nephew, Reinhard von Rabenau was for many years an audience favorite.

Mathilde Lambert performs a jump during Tuesday’s rehearsal for Minnesota Ballet’s production of “Carnival of Animals.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mathilde Lambert performs a jump during Tuesday’s rehearsal for Minnesota Ballet’s production of “Carnival of Animals.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

As a dancer, Karl von Rabanau described himself as "tenacious, a bulldog." A compliment from a notoriously tough teacher ultimately led him to decide he wanted to do the same. He had finished a difficult exercise.

"It had gone better than I ever could've imagined in my dreams," he said. "It's one of those moments when you're in the moment, and it's bigger than you, and the hairs on your body stand on end. I walked away from the center of the room and thought, 'I want to give this to as many students as I can.' And that was where the joy began."

Winkler described von Rabenau as being very creative and as having a calming presence.

"He has attention to details and wants to make sure that things are done correctly," she said. "He's very much about the growth of the dancers and helping them become the best they can be."

***

It was business as usual during a recent rehearsal at Marshall Performing Arts Center. Dancers wrapped themselves in layers — moon boot style slippers and sweaters — stretched, and gathered in clusters around the room while new dancer Mathilde Lambert and Sam Neale, who is in his eighth season, worked through their pas de deux on stage.

Sean Sullivan, who was with the Lexington Ballet last season, said the Minnesota Ballet is the best company of his career. This weekend, the artist who grew up performing traditional Irish dance will perform as part of the titular performance. He will be a tortoise and a mule, among other characters. Sullivan has had more contact with Gardner than von Rabenau in his brief time with the ballet.

“This is the easiest transition I’ve seen,” he said.

If you go

What: "Carnival of Animals and Other Dances"

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center, 1215 Ordean Court

Tickets: Start at $19 adults, $14 students, $12 children; Available at Minnesota Ballet, 218-529-3742 and at the MPAC box office.