Ballet, big time

After personal drama, Erik Sanborn is hoping for a fairy-tale ending with a new ballet company and a prima-ballerina fiancée.

Camille Lefevre, Special To The Star Tribune

Tragedy. Romance. Happily ever after. Erik Sanborn's life story reads like a Hollywood treatment of one of the Russian ballets he adores -- with a dash of Diaghilev, the impresario.

The Maple Grove native with chiseled good looks, who describes himself as a writer, piano teacher, dancer, set designer and costumemaker, has also worked as a model and actor. Ten years ago, Sanborn became a single parent to his three young children when his wife left the family. In 2000, his 8-year-old daughter, Anna -- who had studied ballet, piano and violin since age 3 -- died in a boating accident. Sanborn was devastated.

"We would take class together in our house for fun and play duets for piano and violin," he said. "She was the light of my life."

Six months after her death, Sanborn began studying ballet, taking classes at Ballet Arts Minnesota. One day, he saw Mifa Ko dance. "I wondered if I had ever seen anything so beautiful," he wrote of the petite prima ballerina of Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT).

They went sailing. She fell asleep in his lap. He was "whipped." They danced the leads in CAAM Chinese Dance Theater's "Butterfly Lovers." Her dream was to dance "Giselle." In 2002, he decided to create a company for her, the Metropolitan Ballet. Since "Giselle" requires a large corps de ballet, they opted for "Romeo and Juliet" instead.

With Ko and her MDT partner Abdo Sayegh as the leads, the 2004 piece was performed with a live orchestra to sold-out audiences. The next year, Ko performed the "Giselle" Act II Pas de Deux with Ted Sothern in the Metropolitan Ballet's "Classic Gala," which again sold out. When asked at a recent rehearsal why the shows are so popular, Ko gently fluttered her hands, looked at Sanborn and whispered, "magic."

"People really want to see something on a different scale than a chamber group," he said, referring to established Minneapolis dance companies MDT and James Sewell Ballet.

Now, everything's official, with help from Target, which also helped fund the two previous productions: The Metropolitan Ballet opens its first season Oct. 27-28 with "Dracula" at the State Theatre. Ko, who received a 2006 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Dancers, has left MDT to be the company's prima ballerina.

After five years with MDT, Ko explained, "I felt that I'd done everything. I felt ready to move to a bigger scale." Since MDT hired Wynn Fricke as resident choreographer, the work was focusing more on modern dance than ballet, Ko continued, which wasn't to her liking. "I want to explore more ballet, not modern, and get back en pointe."

For the season opener, Polish dancer Norbert Nirewicz plays Dracula to Ko's dual roles as Sylveta and Mina. The cast of 65 also includes the Guthrie's Richard Ooms as Dr. Van Helsing, and Black Label Movement's Eddie Oroyan as Radu and bug-eater Renfield. The Beyond Ballroom Dance Company will perform a key scene.

The choreography is by Jennifer Hart (contemporary ballet), Carl Flink (modern), Risa Cohen (aerial), Mathew Janczewski (modern) and Cheryl Teague (jazz). Sanborn said he took the unusual step of hiring five choreographers because Bram Stoker's novel is a series of journal entries from different characters, and he wanted each scene done in a different voice to reflect that.

The company will continue to perform in the large venues operated by the Hennepin Theatre Trust. The rest of the season includes a revived "Romeo and Juliet" Feb. 9-11 at the State and Agnes De Mille's "Rodeo" on a double bill with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (choreographed by Hart) June 21-24 at the Pantages.

Sanborn and Ko are engaged to be married. "The company gives me a beautiful way to entwine our lives, and our lives with the arts," Sanborn said.

Preview excerpts from "Dracula" will be performed Aug. 17-18, 7 p.m., Studio 2B, Hennepin Center for the Arts, $10-$20 suggested donation. See for ticket and company information.

Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities dance critic.

©2006 Special To The Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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