From a young age, Karl von Rabenau has been “on his toes,” first as a dancer and performer and now as a teacher, choreographer and the current artistic director of the Minnesota Ballet,
Because Karl’s father was in the Air Force, he was born while his father was stationed overseas in Würzburg, Germany. After his father’s tour in Vietnam, the family was stationed here in Duluth. After that, Karl’s family stayed here, and he attended multiple schools in town, including Marshall School for high school, before his family moved to Boston, MA, so that Karl could further his dance training.
“Both of my parents are artists and were constantly seeking out opportunities to have my brothers and I experience art, whether it was actively participating in them or going to performances,” Karl noted. “We were incredibly fortunate to have my older brothers study violin and cello from two former DSSO musicians.”
“For me, my mother always believed I would be a dancer because of how physical I was. She enrolled me in dance classes when I was 6 years old, but it didn’t stick for me,” he said.
“When I was 12 years old my mother asked if I would be interested in trying again. To convince me, she bought tickets to The Nutcracker that December. Like many kids, I was mesmerized by what I saw on stage, so agreed to give it a try.
I took my first class in the studios Minnesota Ballet still works in today shortly after the performance I saw,” he explained.
He added, “It wasn’t always easy. There were many hiccups along the way, but I had a very patient teacher and really wonderful classmates who accepted me. The moment I stepped on stage, there was no turning back. I was hooked!”
Learning and Succeeding in His Craft
In the dance world, it is not unusual for people to graduate from high school and go right into ballet companies. “This is the route that I took,” said Karl. “Upon graduating from high school in Boston, I was fortunate to be hired as an apprentice with Boston Ballet. The degree I have is simply the forty years I trained, danced and continued teaching and directing in this profession.”
After high school, Karl apprenticed with the Boston Ballet for two years. Then he was hired as a company dancer with the Omaha Ballet. After one season, he auditioned and was offered a corps de ballet contract with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
After five seasons, he was back on the audition trail again because he was missing the Midwest. From those auditions, he was offered a soloist contract with the Milwaukee Ballet.
He said, “I spent the final ten years of my performing career with Milwaukee Ballet after which I retired from performing and transitioned into teaching which is something I had wanted to pursue from the age of 19.”
Karl cites many memorable dancing roles in his career including a dance called “Tarantella” which he learned from James Capp at the Boston Ballet School and danced that pas de deux at the Pittsburgh Ballet theater.
Other roles and teachers included working with Choo San Goh, and with his mentor Bruce Wells dancing Benvolio in his Romeo and Juliet, both while in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.
“In dance, Bruce Wells has been weaving through my career and guiding me since we first met at Boston Ballet many years ago,” Karl stated. “His advice and guidance ability to see what is the right path has been a cornerstone of my professional career.”
“My parents have also been incredible mentors. Both of my parents are immensely gifted artists in their own right. My mother, Cecilia Lieder, is one of the finest printmakers I have ever seen, and my dad, Stephen Williams, is an incredible potter. From both of them I learned what a passion for art requires of you and what it will take if you are willing to commit to your chosen art form. If you are committed enough, you will surpass the farthest aspirations one can have.”
“My wife of 20 years, Jennifer Miller and I met through our time working together at Milwaukee Ballet. We have two daughters, Adelaide and Kadence,” Karl said. Seven years ago, our daughters broke us down and we adopted two tabby cats from the Humane Society in Milwaukee. We adore them!”
In his spare time, he enjoys working on old houses. “There is something about bringing life back into something that has been neglected for a long time that is truly satisfying.”
The Rewarding Lake Arts Project
Prior to accepting the position of Artistic Director here at Minnesota Ballet, he and his wife, began a small non-profit company, Lake Arts Project in Milwaukee, WI. The original mission was to bring together high school artists from different disciplines to create art and dance together. The goal was to show young artists how their artwork affects the world around them.
Over the years, they transitioned to working with a local group in Milwaukee that works with veterans called Feast of Crispian who according to Karl “does amazing work using Shakespeare to help veterans with issues they may have transitioning from active duty to civilian life.”
Together with Feast of Crispian, Lake Arts Project sought out schools and organizations that worked with at-risk youth. Veterans and students would workshop together doing Shakespeare, then Karl and Jennifer had them also work with another of their collaborators, DNAWorks. Adam McKinney, the co-director, would do a movement workshop with the students and veterans showing them how movement can be a healing modality.
From there Lake Arts Project hired professional choreographers and dancers to work with student dancers and veterans to create dances based off of their stories. All of this culminated in live performances.
“For me, there are very few things in life that match watching the courage of the veterans we have had the honor to work with step out on stage, perform a dance and then we get to witness through watching them or through their own testimony how transformative that experience is for them. It is amazing to behold and humbling to be a part of.”
Letting Poe Guide Him
With his next project at the Minnesota Ballet, Karl is excited to share all the thrills and chills of several Edgar Allan Poe tales in “POE,” with an intertwining of The Purloined Letter, The Tell Tale Heart and The Raven, and The Death of the Red Mask and The Pit and the Pendulum.
“When creating new works, I often think of the stories I was raised on. My grandmother was a school teacher on the frontiers of Minnesota, so my family has a strong affection for American stories. Edgar Allan Poe is such an incredible, hair raising and visual storyteller, that it seems like a good fit for the stage.”
Karl added, “Because we have the great fortune to perform this program in our Studio 4 theater space, the audience will be closer to us than they normally would be at the DECC. This presents an opportunity to make this a visual and auditory experience. I am hoping to create a performance that will also allow the audience to smell and feel things as the performance progresses.”
“The greatest challenge is to bring all the imaginable possibilities to the stage,” explained Karl. “Each story is so vivid that the possibilities are expansive. Distilling it down for an evening of dance while maintaining the integrity of the work has been challenging and exciting all at the same time.”
He noted, “There have been so many very memorable productions of Dracula done in the recent past, that I wanted to find something unique for our Halloween season. Though there have been pieces created around work by Poe in the past, I think having an entire evening dedicated to him is unique.”
“POE is a world premiere event retelling selected works by America’s preeminent author of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe,” added Karl. “What better way to enjoy the spirit of Halloween than with this spine-tingling production presented in our own Studio Four, where you feel like you can almost reach out and touch the action!”
POE - The Ballet will be presented at The Depot Stage Four Theatre, Oct 20-22, and 26-29. For info and tickets, go here
About Sheryl Jensen - Arts & Entertainment Editor
A retired educator with the Duluth Public Schools, Sheryl Jensen has been a theater director of over 60 school and community productions. Her production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at East High School won the National High School Theater award from the BRAVO television network.
Having written theater, music, dance, and opera reviews for the Duluth News Tribune for many years, she now is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Destination Duluth.