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Minnesota Ballet's artistic director resigns

When Allen Fields and Robert Gardner joined the Minnesota Ballet 15 years ago, Fields used to tell Gardner he'd be in charge one day. "He always said, 'Eventually you'll move into this role,' " Gardner recalled. "Eventually" happened this week as...

When Allen Fields and Robert Gardner joined the Minnesota Ballet 15 years ago, Fields used to tell Gardner he'd be in charge one day.

"He always said, 'Eventually you'll move into this role,' " Gardner recalled.

"Eventually" happened this week as Fields announced he has stepped down from his role as artistic director of the Duluth-based ballet. Gardner, formerly Fields' second-in-command, has assumed the role of director.

"Fifteen years ago when they were looking for a new director, I had to build a plan for the ballet," Fields said. "To be honest with you, it took me about that long to get it done and [the ballet] is now where I envisioned the company would go."

Fields' departure comes after a period of grooming Gardner for the role. Gardner directed his first full-length story ballet, "Sleeping Beauty," last spring and has been the ballet's de facto boss this season with Fields on sabbatical in Winona, Minn.

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"I didn't necessarily know this was coming now, but I wasn't necessarily shocked by it," Gardner said.

Fields will be remembered for improving the ballet's technical skill and virtuosity. Betsy Holcomb, the ballet's development director, pointed out that he's been able to get the performance rights to exclusive pieces, such as George Balanchine's "Apollo," that are not often performed.

"There is absolutely no question it's so much more professional now," Holcomb said. "He's worked wonders."

Fields broadened the ballet's touring schedule, adding stops in Canada and a one-time trip to El Salvador to the ballet's logbook.

"They have a strong role to present ballet not only in Duluth," said Jack Bowman, dean of the University of Minnesota Duluth's School of Fine Arts and a member of the ballet's board of directors. "They really have a statewide and regional reputation. They represent us real well."

Artistically, Fields made impressions with his pas de deux -- dances for two performers -- and for reinvigorating some classic ballet pieces, such as "Coppelia" and "Swan Lake." His version of "The Nutcracker" has become a Christmastime staple in the Northland.

"He really tried to make them accessible," said Suzanne Kritzberg, the Minnesota Ballet's prima ballerina and a 17-year veteran of the company. "A lot of ballet, of old-time ballet, tends to be sort of pomp and circumstance. That's all very nice, but I think that parading around gets boring if you're not really a fan of the ballet. He tries to get right to the heart of the story."

Gardner said he'll spend his first years as artistic director raising money and building interest for the pieces he hopes to perform. On his wish list: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and a child-oriented performance. He'd also like to explore pieces along the lines of ballroom dancing.

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"I have all kinds of ideas, but you have to have funding for all this," Gardner said. "The board is very much behind me, but I don't want to scare them."

Carole Turner, the president of the ballet's board of directors, said Gardner's previous work with the ballet made him an appealing candidate.

"Robert has been with the ballet for the past 15 years, so he has a lot of experience as a performer and as a teacher," Turner said. "We've been impressed with his vision, his ability to lead and his enthusiasm. He has great artistic vision."

Kritzberg also praised Gardner's enthusiasm.

"If there's anything he wants in this world, it's ballet and the art of ballet and the history of ballet," she said. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who loves ballet as much as Robert does."

Fields said he plans to remain in Duluth for the short term and explore other arts options. He is directing the Playhouse's performance of "Cats" this summer and said he hopes to explore an interest in painting.

Fields will serve as the ballet's artistic director emeritus, meaning he will offer occasional fundraising and project advice.

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