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Ballet approaches traditional 'Nutcracker' with some changes

Many arts organizations face this challenge: balancing beloved tradition with new, groundbreaking art. On the one hand, tradition -- say a symphony concert featuring some of Mozart's greatest hits -- is accessible and enjoyable and thus tends to ...

Many arts organizations face this challenge: balancing beloved tradition with new, groundbreaking art. On the one hand, tradition -- say a symphony concert featuring some of Mozart's greatest hits -- is accessible and enjoyable and thus tends to draw bigger audiences. But the new repertoire is part of the artistic mission of the organization and often the thing the artists themselves hunger for.

While some organizations focus heavily on one side or the other, most try to balance it, hoping that tradition will draw in audiences and convince them to take a chance on the new.

This is even the case on Broadway, says Minnesota Ballet director Allen Fields, who notes that productions like "Oklahoma" and "Urban Cowboy" are re-appearing.

At the Minnesota Ballet, nothing says tradition more than "The Nutcracker." The current version, which features Northland-like scenery, has been around since 1997. Fields says this is common -- the New York City Ballet has been performing the same production of "Nutcracker" for years.

The Minnesota Ballet's promos put it this eay: "'The Nutcracker' is the perfect way for families to get in the holiday spirit with a story that children can follow, humor they can appreciate and a spectacular dance that adults can relish."

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"What keeps it fresh for me is I go in and see these kids," said Fields, who says he's been doing "Nutcracker" seasonally for half his life.

"There's things I still love about it," he added.

He's not the only one. This year, the company will perform the production in four states -- Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- for audiences totalling around 10,000. In other states, tickets are already sold out through 2004. Locally, where tickets are still available, "The Nutcracker" is routinely among the top draws of the year at the DECC. Generations of families attend to share the production fresh with young ones.

And children get involved outside the audience -- casts in addition to the company's dancers are working at each performance location, so nationally, more than 200 kids will take part in the actual production.

Despite ostensibly the same traditional production every year, Fields said there are differences.

"What makes them different every year is the artist," he said.

In that case, there will be some changes at the Minnesota Ballet. Suzanne Kritzberg is returning to a lead role with Rogelio Corrales in the grand pas de deux after an injury hampered her last year, and alternating with the two will be a pair of dancers new to the company, Leah Gallas and Simon Sliva.

Gallas is a classicist, Fields said. "She's beautiful." Sliva is Argentinian.

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"They are very exciting," Fields said of the pair.

Kritzberg said last week that being back healthy is "fabulous."

She said that perfectionism keeps familiar standards like "The Nutcracker" fresh for her. "I always just try to make it better," she said.

Corrales agrees with the constant improvement theme. "We always find something new every year," he said.

Getting to know each other better as dancers is another way they improve, Kritzberg said.

{IMG2}Gallas and Sliva, on the other hand, are just getting to know each other as dancers. So far, it seems to be going well.

"You run into a lot of not-fun male dancers, but he's very understanding," Gallas said.

Sliva says he likes the flexible approach the Minnesota Ballet takes to "The Nutcracker."

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One other significant new element to this year's production is the orchestra. As is traditional for the company, the music will be live. However, this year, the company has a new official orchestra from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. It's the newly formed UMD Festival Orchestra under Jack Bowman.

This orchestra will feature a mix of professionals (some from the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra), professors and UMD students.

"We had been looking at new ways to afford live music," Fields explained. What the company found was a collaboration that will be good for the ballet and an educational opportunity for students, he said.

The Minnesota Ballet has put on several repertoire productions this year, including original works by Fields. "The Passions," put on in the fall, was a major artistic undertaking.

But more balance may be the traditional side. Fields said the company is looking at adding a touring "Cinderella" production and could have an answer within a month.

Fields hopes the idea becomes a reality, giving the Minnesota Ballet a year-round production that can bring in revenue, enhancing the stability of the company and keeping tuition low at the school.

"We look to the future," he said.

News to Use

"The Nutcracker" appears at the DECC next weekend, Dec. 13-15. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7 p.m., and Sunday's matinee begins at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at the DECC ticket office or through TicketMaster, 727-2121. Tickets are also available through the Minnesota Ballet box office on the eighth floor of the Board of Trade Building on First Street or by phone at 529-3742.

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