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Chester Fritz hosts 'A Russian Holiday'

It was late October when Emily Grizzell, a former Royal Winnipeg Ballet soloist, flew in from Washington state for an intense weekend workshop with the dancers of the North Dakota Ballet Company.

Aliya Grindstaff is the Chinese soloist for "The Best of the Nutcracker,"
Aliya Grindstaff is the Chinese soloist for "The Best of the Nutcracker," which will be performed Saturday in Chester Fritz Auditorium, Grand Forks. Photo by Jasmine Maki, Accent staff.

It was late October when Emily Grizzell, a former Royal Winnipeg Ballet soloist, flew in from Washington state for an intense weekend workshop with the dancers of the North Dakota Ballet Company.

Dressed in black leotards and white tights, nearly two dozen dancers sat on the floor stretching while Grizzell -- seven months pregnant at the time -- started the music.

"1, 2, 3, 4," Grizzell counted as the "Spanish Dance" from "The Nutcracker" began to play, and Erin Porter took the dance floor to rehearse her solo.

"Just watching them and hearing that music just gets you in the holiday spirit," said Laura Dvorak, executive director of the North Dakota Ballet Company.

Now, two months later, holiday lights are hung above the roads downtown; Santa Claus and his elves await photos in the mall; the ground is blanketed in snow. And, it's finally time for Clara's wooden doll to come to life in the magical Land of the Sweets.

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The North Dakota Ballet Company and Academy will present "The Best of the Nutcracker," as part of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra's "A Russian Holiday," at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Chester Fritz Auditorium at UND.

A holiday favorite

Although Grand Forks' has had a "Nutcracker" each year, this is the first year in about a decade that the show will be performed by the North Dakota Ballet Company.

In past years, the Moscow Ballet would perform with the help from local dancers, but North Dakota isn't on their tour this year. Instead, about 60 dancers ages 3 to 30 from the North Dakota Ballet Company and Academy will perform the holiday favorite.

Although most of the dancers have performed the classical ballet multiple times with other dance companies throughout their lives, they said they still love "The Nutcracker."

Emily Theurer had her first "Nutcracker" appearance when she was only 5.

She danced several different roles, but she said her favorite part is the Spanish dance because there's so much flair and sass. This year, Theurer is the flower soloist, which she said is a familiar role because she performed it as a high school junior. But, Theurer said she never tires of the dancing because the choreography is always different.

"The music gets in my head very easily now; and, sometimes I'm like 'No!'" Theurer said, with a laugh. "But, it's still some of my favorite music ever heard."

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Even Grizzell, who performed "The Nutcracker" for 26 consecutive years, said she still loves it.

"Every year, you're kind of like 'Ugh, the Nutcracker,'" she said. "But, then you start getting into it, and you're like, 'No, there's a reason it's so popular with people."

"The Nutcracker" will be missing some familiar scenes this year though; in fact, it'll be missing the entire first act.

Grizzell, who choreographed much of the performance, said it's just too much to learn in such a short amount of time. After all, she was only in town for about three days.

Their performance will start at the top of act two.

"It is the act that contains all the familiar music that everyone knows and loves because it's all the music that went into the Nutcracker Suite," said Alexander Platt, conductor of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra.

The act begins when Clara, played by Meghan Hartje, enters the Land of the Sweets and is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. She's taken to the Candy Castle, where she is treated like royalty and presented a show of dancers from around the world.

"It really lends itself well to being done separately," Grizzell said. "It's kind of its own sort of world."

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Dvorak said it also makes it easier for the dancers because while act one has many ensemble pieces, act two is broken up into many smaller solos.

"They really only have their own sections that they have to concentrate on," she said.

Choreography, rehearsals

As they ran through the solo pieces, along with the Waltz of the Flowers, during the weekend workshop in October, the dancers stumbled through the routines trying to recall the choreography they had learned mostly just the previous day. Grizzell watched and made notes, indicating where routines should be changed or tweaked.

"I don't want to see the tops of your backs," she said as they bowed.

Being seven months pregnant, she said it was more challenging for her to come up with choreography on the spot because she couldn't perform the moves herself.

"It's nice to work with the older dancers because they can give a lot of input," she said.

Dvorak added that they're all pretty collaborative in helping come up with choreography.

"I think 'Waltz of the Flowers' is one of the hardest to put together because it's one of the bigger group pieces," Grizzell said.

But, after just a day of rehearsals, Grizzell said she felt confident the dancers would be ready for the performance. When she finished the weekend workshop, she headed back to Washington state.

When the choreographer leaves, the dancers continue rehearsals as usual working to perfect their routines. Dvorak said the preprofessional division rehearsed for about five hours a week starting in October.

Then, the first week in December, they rehearsed as a full cast for the first time.

Leigha Wallin, one of two Russian soloists, said it was difficult to fit all 70 dancers in the studio, but it went very smoothly considering.

The only ones missing from full-cast rehearsals were two featured guest soloists from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Adrienne Bot will perform the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Ryan Vetter will be the cavalier.

"We're really excited to have that caliber of artists come here for our show," Dvorak said.

They've been working on their solos in Winnipeg and have been in weekly communication about their sections, she said. They'll be added into the character work with the company Saturday.

'Breathtaking' combination

And hours before Sunday's performance, the company will add the final element to their show: live music.

Wallin said they'll rehearse for the first time with the orchestra at noon Sunday.

Grizzell said for most of the dancers it will probably be the only opportunity they have to dance to live music.

"Dancing to live music compared to tape music is a whole other world," she said. "It's got its own challenges because tempos change, and there's that aspect of it being live."

Emilie Clifford, the Mirliton soloist, has danced to live music a few times before, but she said you can never know what to expect.

"It keeps you on your toes because you never know if they're going to go faster than you practiced or slower, and it can change every show," she said.

Wallin said she's a little nervous because she hasn't danced to live music since she was a kid, but she's heard only good things about the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra.

In Theurer's experience, she said the orchestra has been very receptive to tempo markings and the needs of the dancers.

Although Platt has extensive experience conducting various productions, he said ballet conducting is the most difficult.

"You have to be totally synchronized with the dancers, and it's all purely visual," he said. "You can't hear them singing while you're looking at your score, as in opera."

Despite the challenges, Dvorak said combining classical ballet with the symphony orchestra "creates this synergy that's just breathtaking."

Platt added that the dancers of the North Dakota Ballet Company could not be more congenial.

"I'm truly looking forward to another happy collaboration on this eternally magical work called 'The Nutcracker," he said.

By the numbers

• 1: Number of "Nutcracker" ballets in North Dakota being performed with a live orchestra.

• 2: Number of singers and number of guest performers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

• 3: Age of the youngest performer.

• 5: Number of hours spent rehearsing "The Nutcracker" in the dance studio each week.

• 8: Number of featured soloists in the performance.

• 25: Number of hours the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra rehearsed for "A Russian Holiday."

• 26: Number of consecutive years that choreographer Emily Grizzell performed "The Nutcracker."

• 30: Number of string instruments.

• 54: Number of musicians in the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra.

• 70: Number of dancers in the performance.

• 1892: The year "The Nutcracker" premiered in Moscow, Russia.

• 1944: The year "The Nutcracker" was first performed in the United States.

If you go:

• What: The Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra presents "A Russian Holiday" with the North Dakota Ballet Company and Academy.

• When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: The Chester Fritz Auditorium at UND, 3475 University Ave, Grand Forks.

• Cost: $20 for adults; $15 with military ID.

• Info: (701) 777-2170.

• Note: Dancers from the North Dakota Ballet Company and Academy will be available for pictures at 2:15 p.m. in the Mezzanine of the Chester Fritz Auditorium before the performance.

Maki covers arts and entertainment and life and style. Call her at (701) 780-1122, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1122 or send e-mail to jmaki@gfherald.com , follow her on Twitter at @jasminemaki23 or see her blog at jasminemaki.wordpress.com.

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