Telling Stories Both Classic and New with Twin Cities Ballet of Minnesota

There are many different ways to tell stories: using words, using music, using images. Dance, in all its forms, adds movement to the equation, and Rick and Denise Vogt of the Twin Cities Ballet of Minnesota (the professional company associated with the Ballet Royale Minnesota dance school in Lakeville) are using both old and new imagery and music to tell classic stories in their spring program. I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Rick during his busy day about the company, the works they’re doing, and how he’s working to promote ballet in Minnesota. Afterwards, he let me watch about a half hour of rehearsal, which included a run-through of both works in the first half of the concert.

Dancers in a promotional image for the Classical Connections program

Classical Connections. Photo courtesy of TCB of Minnesota.

The Twin Cities Ballet of Minnesota is made up of seven professional dancers from around the country who have moved here to work with Denise and Rick and to perform four major shows a year, in conjunction with a corps of apprentice dancers and the occasional talented student from the school when a role calls for a younger dancer. Last December’s show, the “Minnesota Nutcracker,” sold out to appreciative audiences, and the two works that round out this season look to be exciting as well.

Rick and Denise’s vision includes bringing more traditional classical ballet back to the Cowles Center, where the Twin Cities Ballet of Minnesota holds many of its performances, and the Ames Center, where they’re the dance company in residence. This has included commissioning new work for a full-length ballet on the story of Beauty and the Beast, which premiered in May of 2014 with a score by Jordan Cox. This season they are performing “Art in Motion,” the aforementioned “Minnesota Nutcracker,” this month’s “Classical Connections,” and “Coppélia Nouveau” this May.

“Art in Motion” is an annual event featuring pieces inspired by non-ballet arts; typically, more abstract visual art, but literature and poetry provide inspiration, as well. The “Nutcracker” is relatively self-explanatory; it’s a bread-and-butter ballet with loads of interest. “Coppélia Nouveau” is a re-imagining of the classic Delibes ballet as a story within a story, that moves seamlessly between the dancers both onstage and backstage. The company’s first spring event, though, is “Classical Connections,” a set of four shorter works in varying styles that tells various stories through a similar media.

The first work on the program qualifies as a classic story, as the music is easily recognizable to nearly everyone: Copland’s Rodeo, the last movement of which is the “Hoe-Down.” This ballet, which was originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille and premiered in 1942, is less than a half hour long, and typically tells the story of a love story between four main characters, two men vying for the attentions of two women. Denise and Rick have re-choreographed the work “in homage to Agnes de Mille,” focusing more on the story between the two women, who are sisters, and characterize it as a “coming-of-age story.” The younger sister is worried that she will lose her older sister forever to the cowboy she’s falling in love with, and she attempts to stand between the lovers accordingly.

A cowboy, a traditional ballerina in a white tutu, and a male dancer in blue and white spandex

Luke Xavier, Marissa DeBenedictis, and Benjamin Stewart. Photo courtesy TCB of Minnesota.

The men — Luke Xavier dances the role of the Main Cowboy, with five Cowhands — imitate riders on horseback and use finger-guns to mime the Old West mythology that’s clearly referenced in the music. The women swish their skirts in a square-dance style; the dancer who plays the younger sister (Michaela Macauley) has many opportunities to show off her acting skills, and she makes the most of them. Copland used several folk-tunes outright in Rodeo, as well as fiddling styles and rhythms not traditionally associated with orchestral music. Even though this piece has been an accepted part of the traditional musical canon — and ballet canon — for fifty years or more, previous performers of the piece mixed both classic and (then) contemporary styles of music and dance, and the Vogts have continued this tradition.

The second work is classic in a slightly different sense: it’s a standard pas de deux (dance for two, or a duet) from the repertoire to showcase two dancers and their extraordinary athleticism and control. It’s from the ballet Flames of Paris, with music by Boris Asafyev based on songs of the French Revolution, and the two dancers here, Marissa DeBenedictis and Toleu Mukanov, show off their abilities separately as well as together. “I think the hardest part is going to be the bow at the end,” Marissa said, lying on the floor in exhaustion after a run-through. It’s probably the shortest work on the program, but by no means the easiest, although you would never know from the dancers’ demeanor. Mere minutes later, Toleu Mukanov joined the dancers to run through “Rodeo.”

It takes a year or two to take an idea from concept through performance, and Denise has been fascinated with the story of Frankenstein—the doctor, not the monster—and his wistful, sad romance for years. She initially premiered part of this work several years ago, during an “Art in Motion” production, but on March 10 and 11, we’ll see the whole twenty-five minute work that has been capturing her imagination for years now. Rick describes it as more conceptual than linear, and as mentioned above, it focuses on the doctor and not the monster, unlike the latter portion of the book. It will be danced by the whole company and falls third in our program, after intermission. The music for this piece is also re-imagining a classic; Denise has combined music from Maurice Ravel and Peter Gabriel (yes, that Peter Gabriel) to fit her vision. The story begins with Victor’s death and goes through other notable moments of Victor Frankenstein’s life, including the creation of the monster and his relationship with Elizabeth, in flashback style.

Two male dancers in blue and white, one with a beard and his hand raised in an arc.

Toleu Mukanov, left, and Benjamin Stewart, right, in costume for Victor. Photo courtesy of TCB of Minnesota.

The final piece on the program is Rick’s brainchild, a more abstract piece danced to three works by Beethoven. He describes it as “ballet for the sake of ballet,” which, given the beauty of the art form, is a story in and of itself. All the music should be recognizable, and the most well-known is probably the second part, the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2. But rather than in its familiar piano form, or one of the standard orchestrations, Rick had a former student of his, Rachelle LaNae, arrange it for cello and piano. Rachelle and a current dancer, Benjamin Stewart, recorded it for the performance, and given that Mr. Stewart is dancing in this particular work, it results in him accompanying himself.

Three women dancers, two in white tutus and a third in black.

Three dancers from Classicana smiling. Photo courtesy of TCB of Minnesota.

Rachelle LaNae, is a local singer-songwriter, and she’s also worked with Denise and Rick’s son and daughter-in-law on a full-length feature film called On Pointe, currently fund-raising for a release later this year. The movie focuses on the beauty of ballet and explores an uplifting story between a mother and a daughter, rather than some of the more recent grimdark depictions of the so-called “seamy underworld” of the dance life. It’s this beauty and joy that marked my interactions with Rick and the rehearsal that he invited me to watch.

During that rehearsal, I was able to observe (from a safe distance) the dancers run through the first two pieces, both Rodeo and the pas de deux for stamina. Rick pointed out to me some of the more difficult moves in the pas de deux: a series of turns, stage-eating jumps landed perfectly, et cetera. At the end of the run-through, I told him that I couldn’t see any way that anyone would find this anything other than compelling, and I expected that even people who know little about ballet would still be enthralled. I stand by those words, and encourage all of you to go to the performances this weekend.

The performances will be at the Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403, on March 10 and 11, and they will start at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available here or at the door and range from $25-$35.

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