DEAN OF DANCE
With hard work and dedication, Woodbury's Andrew Rist has built a successful ballet company and academy.
Written by Nancy Eike
"Have a seat," says Andrew Rist, co-founder of Ballet Minnesota, as he offers me a chair with a perfect view of the company of six dancers, who are beautifully performing the jete and releve in a quaint St Paul studio. "We're working on Mozart's 40th Symphony," he says as he heads for the CD player and the dancers take their places.
The music begins. "Up; good! Turn!" shouts Rist as he claps in time with the rhythm, his eyes scanning, his body mimicking some of the movements. "Yes, that's it! Good! 1-2-3!"
The dancers leap and turn. The teacher observes and directs. They are all clearly in their element, one where Rist knew he belonged at a very young age. "I always knewI wanted to teach, and I always knew I wanted to create," he says after the dancers have left and he takes a moment to sit down and chat, a somewhat unusual feat considering he has worked seven days a week for as long as he can remember.
Rist played football and prticipated in gymnastics before he started dancing at the less-than-youthful age of 18. After earning an associate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maine (and turning down an apprenticeship with Eastman Kodak), Rist realized that although he found "the creative process to be the same whether you're in science or art," the latter would be where he wanted to linger.
So, he began dancing professionally and met his wife, Cheryl, also a professional dancer, outside Seattle at a summer dance camp. They moved to Woodbury in 1996 (after 14 years of dancing). Andrew accepted an avocational directorshiop with a Twin Cities dance and theater school, MInnesota Dance Theater in 1986. In 1988, he and Cheryl struck out on their own, launching Classical Ballet Academy; Ballet Minnesota formed in 1990.
The pair knew they needed a cornerstone piece to build their dance company on, something to get their name out there en masse. The Nutcracker was the perfect choice. Their first production in 1987, staged at Galtier Plaza, was performed in front of 200 people. "It was a lecture and a demonstration, and one of the little girls in the first performance is now one of the dancers in our company," Rist says.
For the next 21 years (in addition to working with composers, creating the Youth Concert Series, Minnesota Dance Festival and Ballet Minnesota Fall Concert, and working with some of the best dancers in the world including Oksana Konobeyeva and Dmitri Tubolsev), Andrewchoreographed. Cheryl re-staged the annual performances of The Nutcracker and made
all of the costumes.
It's little wonder, then, with all of the talent, that last year alone more than 10,000 people attended Ballet MInnesota's sold-out Nutcracker performances at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium.
All of those shows need a lot of performers. "Each of the 210 students, from ages 4 to 18, have a role in The Nutcracker if they choose to participate," says Cynthia Betz, Ballet Minnesota executive director.
One of those students anxious to perform again is 14-year-old Sara Ezzell of Woodbury, who's taken classes at Classical Ballet Academy of MInnesota since she was 5. "Last year I was Clara, so this year I know I'll a different role, she says.
"It doesn't really matter which role I get, I'm just happy to be part of such a wonderful production."
Ballet MInnesota has come a long way since its humble beginnings; with six paid dancers in the company and the six-year-old satellite studio in Woodbury, the troupe has had several dancers garner scholarships and professional roles. And Ballet Minnesota recently partnered with MInnesota Public Radio and The Fitzgerald Theater to ensure a permanent venue for all furture performances, The Nutcracker aside.
"Our whole system is designed so that the dancers can experience the life of a professional dancer," says Rist. "We want them to see and feel the creative process here, we want them to see that it's all about opening up their soul, and without any fear, having everyone else peer inside."