Karl von Rabenau with Rolando Yanes and Mireiile Favarel.
“All good things must come to an end.” It’s an old proverb that reminds us to enjoy the high times, but not to crash too hard when it’s time to face the real world again. Instead, we are meant to look back and enjoy the fact that we were fortunate enough to experience the good times at all. This notion must ring especially true for dancers.
Dance is a notoriously demanding field, and everyone who goes into it knows it can’t last forever. At some point, you will take your final curtain call and move on to the next chapter of your life. However, if Milwaukee Ballet is any example, many of the dancers don’t go too far. The hallways of the Jodi Peck Center are filled with familiar faces. Many stay and teach at Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, like Tatiana Jouravel and Karissa Skiba, and an army of former trainees from the Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program. There’s Douglas McCubbin who is now our Company Manager, and there is Jennifer Miller and Karl von Rabenau.
Jennifer, or Jenny as she’s known here, began dancing at age six and eventually came to Milwaukee Ballet as a trainee in 1991, moving up the ranks to leading artist. Karl joined shortly after in 1993 when he was brought in as a soloist. After dancing for more than 10 years and four artistic directors here, the two are now married with two adorable little girls, and teachers at Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy. I sat down to ask them when they knew it was time to retire and how they managed the transition so smoothly.
In the midst of a successful career, Karl notes he began thinking of retiring when his injuries started to pile up. “When I had come back from my second knee surgery, I started really thinking about how much time I actually had left to dance. I started thinking about how I wanted to remember my career and how I would hope that it would end,” he says. "I had always promised myself that I would walk away from this, not hobble away….well, I almost fulfilled that promise.”
Jenny, on the other hand, left dance to pursue a different career, motherhood. “I never wanted to attempt having a family while I was dancing. I was very aware of the enormous difficulties of that situation by watching some of my friends. Karl and I wanted the freedom to focus on ourselves and our careers completely. I'm very grateful that our life together has blessed us with our two beautiful girls at just the right time!” she says.
“So what do you do with all that extra time and energy?” I asked them. “When you dedicate so many years of blood, sweat and tears to something, can anything really take its place?" Teaching, they both answered, has maintained their passion for the art form.
“Teaching very similar in that you're still performing a bit while you're teaching. There's a high level of energy and charisma required to teach effectively. A teacher must lead by example, showing his/her passion for dance and the arts in all parts of his/her life,” Jenny explains.
Karl expounds with a wonderful story about the impact a teacher can make: “I had a teacher in San Francisco, Larissa Sklyanskya, who was instrumental in my development as a dancer. It was in her class, at age 19, that I had my first ‘Oh my gosh, I really did that pirouette well!!’ moment. We looked at each other and all she did was smile, nod her head in approval and then went on. That feeling of accomplishment was monumental for me. All I could think afterwards was I want to give that moment to as many people as possible. That is when I decided that I wanted to be a teacher.”
While Karl and Jenny stayed in Milwaukee to start their family, some choose to go on a physical and philosophical journey once they hang up their pointe shoes. One such dancer is Jenna Sagraves, a former trainee in the Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program. Jenna, who started dancing when she was seven, did well in the program and even had the chance to perform with the Company in Genesis 2011. But a reoccurring injury sidelined her a few times, and permanently at the age of 22.
“My love for dancing got me through it for a while," she says. "The last time I got injured it was the third stress fracture I’d had in two and a half years. It was getting to be a little too much on my body and I thought that maybe it was time to go another route."
Jenna felt like after 15 years of making dance the center of her life, she wanted to do a little exploring and see what else was out there. She explains, “For the first time in my life, I actually had time to think about the other things that interested me.”
Jenna has now completed her first level of the Masters Sommelier course, and teaches Pilates in Atlanta. She finds teaching Pilates, though it’s not dance, keeps her passionate and fills a bit of the gap dance left in her life. “I’m still working with the body, and I like the kinesiology part, and I get to connect with people like I did in the dance world.”
Now that Jenna has had some time away, she admits she has started to feel the tug on her heart strings and may return to teach dance. “I miss it so much," she says. "Right after I left I needed a little space. I’ve realized in the last year, year and a half that I do want to do something in the field.”
In the end Jenna, like Karl and Jenny and so many others don't stray too far from her roots in dance. How could they? Any dancer who makes it this far in their career has done so with monumental effort in addition to talent, and it must be unimaginable to let that go completely. For the rest of their lives, no matter where their journeys take them out in the real world, some part of them will always call a dance studio home.