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Minnesota Ballet director plans ambitious season after successful ankle surgery

Robert Gardner leads the Minnesota Ballet in a rehearsal of the “Rite of Spring,” which will be performed Oct. 19-20 in Symphony Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The ballet’s artistic executive director says successful ankle surgery allowed him to plan an ambitious season for his company and himself. Derek Derek Montgomery / Derek Montgomery Photography

By Connie Wirta
The Minnesota Ballet’s artistic executive director is planning an ambitious season for his company — and himself. A recent ankle surgery has Robert Gardner confident he can continue performing as well as rehearsing and staging ballets.

“Dr. Courville can get an old dancer back on his feet,” Gardner said of Dr. Xan Courville, an orthopedic surgeon at the Essentia Health-Duluth Clinic. “I appreciate and admire Dr. Courville for her talents and her caring approach. She’s so involved and willing to understand what unique athletes need in order to do what we do.”

Gardner, who is 60, has had four surgeries since 2001, two on each ankle. Dr. Courville operated on his right ankle last April and his left in 2015.

“I’m amazed after my surgery last April. I have the flexibility of 20 years ago,” said Gardner, who plans to dance his signature roles of Mother Ginger and Uncle Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker” in December and take on the principal role of Dr. Coppelius in “Coppelia” in March.

“Dr. Coppelius is one of the most physical character roles in the comedic ballet and if I hadn’t had the surgery, I would not be able to do it,” Gardner said.

Years of work as a dancer, ballet master and artistic director damaged Gardner’s ankles, creating bone spurs and a growth of bone between the back of his tibia and heel. In each surgery, Dr. Courville expertly shaved away excess bone and removed floating bone fragments that were causing pain and interfering with movement.

Dr. Courville explains dancers often develop extra bone growths, much like calluses, from the irritation caused by the repetitive ways they use their bodies.

“The bones and joints have to move in so many planes,” she said. “All the force of a jump or leap lands on the ankle and foot, which act as a shock absorber. Even for a runner, the ankle has to absorb six times your body weight.”

“As dancers, our feet are our tools of the trade,” said Gardner, who said he became accustomed to the pain that began when he was 20 and dancing in a rigorous program at the School of the American Ballet in New York. He arrived in Duluth in 1992 to begin work as ballet master with the Minnesota Ballet.

Gardner had been receiving care from Dr. Jay Butcher, an Essentia Health sports medicine doctor, as part of a service that Essentia Health provides at no charge to the Minnesota Ballet. When Gardner noticed that he had lost flexibility in his left foot and ankle, Dr. Butcher suggested he consult with Dr. Courville, a foot and ankle specialist. A successful surgery in 2015 led Gardner to return to her in 2018.

As artistic executive director, Gardner stages dances and then teaches and rehearses them with the company. He’s on his feet all the time.

“When I’m working with professional dancers, I don’t have to do huge leaps or jumps because they know what I’m looking for,” he said. “But we do classes for children and I want to be able to show them. With my right foot, I couldn’t point my toes properly. Ballet is all about creating the aesthetic of beautiful lines with your body and I couldn’t do it.”

Gardner isn’t the only dancer who has benefitted from the ballet company’s partnership with Essentia Health’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Department. Like sports teams across the Northland, Essentia Health provides medical care and a dedicated athletic trainer. Each week, Certified Athletic Trainer Devon Soul and Physical Therapist Alex Loch visit the studio to work with dancers one-on-one to treat and prevent injuries.

“As dancers, our bodies are our livelihoods and our partnership with Essentia is vital for our health and well-being,” said Gardner, who believes the partnership also helps him recruit and retain quality dancers.