Not wanting to let another year go by without performing The Nutcracker live, the Saint Paul Ballet will present Best of the Nutcracker! on December 10 and 11 in the O’Shaughnessy at Saint Catherine University.
 
“This year is unique,” said Helen Hatch, resident choreographer and instructor for the ballet. “In the early planning, we knew COVID was unpredictable and that any live production could be risky. Best of the Nutcracker! is an attempt to keep our students and audiences as safe as possible while getting back in the theater and keeping a tradition alive.”
 
The production does not tell the whole story of the Nutcracker. “We’ll do that again soon,” Hatch said. Instead, it features highlights from the full-length production while incorporating new choreography and festive live music.
 
“This format allows us to keep our dancers in pods during rehearsal and in performance while giving audiences the chance to experience ballet in under an hour,” Hatch said. “It gives us the freedom to move in and out of different styles, but include plenty of the classical orchestration of a traditional Nutcracker.”
 
The production includes a new dance by Saint Paul Ballet instructor Da’Rius Malone set to the music of the Ukrainian folk quartet DakhaBrakha, as well as Hatch’s joyous and celebratory “Skating,” set to the music of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
St. Paul Ballet
Jonette Knatterud, 14, takes a turn in the costume she will wear as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Saint Paul Ballet's performance of "Best of the Nutcracker!" Photo by Brad Stauffer

Nutcracker is an important entry point to ballet in this country,” Hatch said. “It’s almost always the first ballet one sees. And since the production involves so many children, it gives young dancers an opportunity to perform in front of an audience and move up through the different roles. When you’re in level one and you see the level six dancers in the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes,’ you understand what all the hard work is going toward.

Saint Paul Ballet has a long history. It got its start in 1949 as the Andahazy Ballet, founded by former Ballet Russe dancers Lorand and Anna Andaházy, who immigrated to the United States after World War II. Originally above the Grand Avenue (now Frattalone’s) Ace Hardware store at Grand Avenue and Cambridge Street, the ballet moved it studios several years ago to 655 N. Fairview Ave.

The Nutcracker has been performed by the Saint Paul Ballet since 2013. It usually has about 90 students in the show, but this year due to COVID there are only 33 students taking part. “To see these kids, who have been through so much over the past two years, be able to express joy through their art brings tears to my eyes,” Hatch said.

St. Paul Ballet
In the Fairview Avenue studio of the Saint Paul Ballet, Sophia Rasmussen (center), 15, and her fellow dancers rehearse for their upcoming performances of "Best of the Nutcracker!" Photo by Brad Stauffer

Jonette Knatterud, 14, of Summit Hill has been dancing with Saint Paul Ballet since she was 4. “This year will be my seventh year being part of an in-person performance of The Nutcracker, and I’m extremely excited,” she said. Knatterud will be dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and as a lead in the flower sequence and snow segment. “Nutcracker is a great way to show your individuality as a dancer and as a developing artist,” she added.

Bailey McManimon, 16, of Merriam Park has been with Saint Paul Ballet for nine years and has been a level six dancer for three years. She, too, will be dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy and in the snow, flower and Spanish dances as well as the new dances. “Nutcracker is an important piece to dance because it can always be improved from the year before,” she said. “This is my fourth and fifth time doing some of the dances in Nutcracker, and I feel like every year I get better at them.”

Both Knatterud and McManimon are happy to be performing in front of a live audience again. “While I enjoyed having the opportunity to record Nutcracker last year, it’s more fulfilling to be able to perform live,” McManimon said. “Dancing is an art form that is best enjoyed in person, and performing live, I feel like I can dance in the moment, rather than anticipate what it will look like on film.”

“It can be challenging to think about performing for a live audience after not doing it for so long,” Knatterud said. “But then I remember how encouraging it is to have the support that you need and then accomplish the turn or whatever it may be and to show your passion and individuality for the movement that you love so much.”

 

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Best of the Nutcracker! will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $15-$30. For reservations or information on COVID protocol, visit spballet.org.

— Anne Murphy

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