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Ballerina gets dark role after in her final season

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DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — In the second act of the Minnesota Ballet's "Dracula," the once-sweet Lucy rises from the grave. First a hand, fingers bent to a bony claw, shoots up from the ground. Then she oozes to life, slowly and deliberately, shedding the coffin and hungry for the blood of children.

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It's a long-awaited evil role for Suzanne Kritzberg, who has spent her career playing nice and wholesome, the princesses and the fairies. It's the curse of the principal dancer that the principal role is always a good girl. Kritzberg was Giselle, but wanted to be Myrta. She wanted to be the witch, but has been the Sugarplum Fairy.

Artistic director Robert Gardner is unknowingly making good on a promise made by his predecessor Allen Fields: Before she retired, Kritzberg would get to play the dark character. Here, in her final season as a dancer, she is.

"It's really fun," Kritzberg said. "I never get to be the creepy one. It's fun to get down and dirty and be mean to people."

After the 2011-12 season Kritzberg plans to go to law school, but still keep a toe in Duluth. She has a house here and hopes to pick up summer teaching gigs at the School of the Minnesota Ballet.

Kritzberg, 41, said she feels like she is at the right age to start a new career path. It makes it easier that she has confidence in the direction of the Minnesota Ballet.

"The company is in a pretty good place and they don't need me," she said.

Kritzberg, a native of Chicago who once thought she would be the first woman to play for the Cubs, joined the then-Duluth Ballet in 1990. She was recovering from an injury and a friend lured her to town with her depiction of a small company where Kritzberg could heal and gain experience before striking out for a larger market.

Gardner, who came on as ballet master and choreographer in 1992, remembers the first time he saw her dance.

"I couldn't take my eyes off of her," he said. "She was feminine and beautiful with beautiful lines — strong and eager and a willing mind about working."

Almost immediately Kritzberg became the star of the show and decided she was in it for the long haul. She found a fit with the company and opportunities she wouldn't have had in a larger city. Plus she liked Duluth's artistic community.

"I decided I would be a fool to leave," Kritzberg said.

Since then, Gardner has been creating choreography around her. She has been the featured dancer in each of the major works he has created.

"I would call her my muse," he said.

Kritzberg has danced in "Cinderella," and "Sleeping Beauty." She is always the Sugarplum Fairy in "The Nutcracker." She was Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She's performed choreography by Agnes de Mille and once she was a housewife addicted to the Home Shopping Network.

Lucy is ranking among her favorite roles, Kritzberg said. But she's always loved "Swan Lake."

As for where she has been best, Gardner said:

"It's the next thing she does."

Gardner said Kritzberg's 2000 performance in "Coppelia" redefined her as a dancer.

"That's where she became not just a technician, but a dramatic dancer as well," he said.

In 22 seasons Kritzberg has become the face of the company as a dancer, a teacher and representative. It adds up to the kind of Duluth celebrity that makes it tricky to anonymously cruise through a grocery store.

"She's involved with every part of it," said dancer Suzie Baer. "The kids look up to her. She's the ballerina they want to be."

Kritzberg has performed in Duluth Playhouse productions, including "A Chorus Line" in the spring. Recently, she and dancer Reinhard von Rabenau performed in Lyric Opera of the North's production of Mascagni's tragic one-act opera "Cavalleria Rusticana."

And among her ballet peers, she is the one the dancers turn to for a range of answers.

"I remember my first 'Nutcracker,'" Baer said. "She was my go-to person for foot problems. How to tape around a heel blister and how to trick an in-grown toenail to grow right."

Nikolaus Wourms, who plays Dracula, said Kritzberg requires less partnering than most ballerinas he has danced with.

"It's almost like she doesn't need me at all," he said. "She's in control of what she's doing and she's focused."

This is the way of the ballet world, dancers moving on and gaps filled with new dancers. Gardner has known for a while that this would be Kritzberg's final season — though he said that right now she is at the top of her game.

"We'll move on," Gardner said.

He's got a fleet of new dancers this year and some veterans who have the beginnings of roots, including Baer and von Rabenau, who both came up through the school.

But when the 2012-13 season opens, there will be one question for fans of the company's longtime prima ballerina.

"What is the Minnesota Ballet going to be without Suzanne Kritzberg?" Wourms asked.

___

Information from: Duluth News Tribune, http://www.duluthsuperior.com

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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