Review: Minnesota Ballet moves 'Forward' in new Depot dance space

On Friday, the Duluth-based dance company made itself very much at home in the first performance space it's ever had to call its very own.

Signage on concrete pillar. Upper sign reads "Studio Four, this way" with arrow. Lower sign reads "North Shore Scenic Railroad."
Temporary signage helps Minnesota Ballet patrons find the newly designated Studio Four on Friday night.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — The St. Louis County Depot space now known as Studio Four originally served as a space for the handling of train passengers' baggage. That history became apt on Friday night as Minnesota Ballet inaugurated the next phase of the room's life with a series of new works that are very much about where we're going and what we carry with us.

Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld gesturing
Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld gestures with her right hand Dec. 28 while discussing plans for use of the Studio Four space on the lower level of the Depot in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / File / Duluth News Tribune

The bleachers, with a capacity of about 150, were packed with patrons who settled in for a generous evening of entertainment: The program began shortly after 7 p.m. and didn't wrap up until nearly 9:30 p.m. With five pieces and two 15-minute intermissions, the program — called "Forward" — comprised what some companies would regard as two evenings' worth of dance.

Artistic director Karl von Rabenau and executive director Maude Dornfeld deliberately held their welcoming remarks until after the first piece, von Rabenau said while standing on the newly installed dance floor. "I thought, you know what? We shouldn't do a curtain speech first," said von Rabenau. "We should just, in this new space, say: 'Here we are.'"

That opening statement came via choreography by two company members, Ellis Roux and Ken Shiozawa. "Catharis" was an exuberant burst of movement with jazz inflections, building momentum reminiscent of the locomotives sitting just around the corner in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. Ending in ecstatic collapse, the piece incorporated what emerged as the touchstone gesture of the evening: a supportive embrace.

If you didn't think people hug in ballet, well, they do now. Even as the program marked the company's confident emergence into a venue where it will build its future, it also served as a space to process the lasting effects of the ongoing pandemic. We all bear its scars, but lockdown found performing artists alienated from their lives' work, while the organizations enabling that work faced an existential threat.


As von Rabenau underlined in his remarks, two pieces on the program particularly spoke to dance's haunted re-emergence onto live stages. His own "Rinnovo" found the company filling the stage with a complex, contrapuntal ensemble piece that earned the night's first standing ovation. The benefits of the smaller space became clear as the performers' expressiveness captivated an audience near enough to read every facial expression and nuance of movement. (Von Rabenau also contributed the classical, springlike "Con Grandi Speranze.")

Five dancers in comfortable shirts, pants and dark socks cluster together in performance, one dancer at center leaning back on the support of the others.
The program "Forward" is a showcase of new dance works, presented this year at the Depot's Studio Four.
Contributed / Minnesota Ballet

"From Here" was choreographed by Jennifer Miller, the company's ballet master. Built on just six dancers, making it the evening's most intimate piece, it found dancers falling into each other's arms with a sense of both joy and grief, languid gestures unfolding before movers who held back with troubled expressions. It demonstrated what an intensely focused experience Studio Four can provide.

As a performance space, one of Studio Four's most distinctive features is its series of openings to a higher level that effectively becomes a mezzanine. That will present both opportunities and challenges for programming during hours when members of the public are roaming the St. Louis County Historical Society exhibits located there, but on Friday it added dimension to the warm sense of community as company members who had finished performing appeared overhead to line a railing and watch the evening's final piece along with the audience.

Studio portrait of brown-skinned man, smiling, with light beard and curly hair. He wears a patterned black-on-cream shirt.
Choreographer Adam McKinney is presenting a world premiere as part of this weekend's "Forward" program at the Depot.
Contributed / Minnesota Ballet

"Home Ablating Downstream" was created by guest choreographer Adam W. McKinney, who appeared in an introductory video calling Minnesota Ballet "an exceptional ballet company." After speaking about his perspective as a choreographer of color, he said that "to homogenize all people, in and of itself, is oppressive and disallows opportunities for creativity."

The piece emerged as a study in contrasts, opening with a silent, shared gesture of genuflection before exploding into a series of spiraling solos and fast-paced duets set to music including that of Mel Torme and "Yiddish swing" artists the Barry Sisters. Incorporating classical movements performed with a desperate, deliberately glitchy energy, it ended the program on a celebratory note while also evoking the evening's sense of continuing unease: A sense that while we're moving "Forward," not all is well.

While work remains to be done in every sense of that word, this weekend's program sees Minnesota Ballet taking full artistic ownership of a bold program and a warm new space. In the words of a tween sitting near me when the lights came up, "That was awesome!"

"Forward" will be reprised Saturday night at 7 p.m. For more information, see

Members Only
Two theaters formerly used by the Duluth Playhouse will host a wide range of performances and events, including dance and chamber music.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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