Zoo provides inspiration for ballet choreographerWhen ballet choreographer Andrew Rist was looking for inspiration this summer, he turned to a rather unusual source: The zoo.
By: Amber Kispert-Smith, Woodbury Bulletin
When ballet choreographer Andrew Rist was looking for inspiration this summer, he turned to a rather unusual source: The zoo.
Almost every other day over the summer, Rist could be found up at Como Zoo and Conservatory, headphones on, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as he watched the lions and tigers pace around.
Rist, a Woodbury resident of 15 years, says his obsession with Como while contemplating the choreography for Ballet Minnesota’s free public fall production even led to a few concerned phone calls from his daughter.
“My daughter would call me and say, ‘My friends are saying they keep seeing you there at the zoo, Dad,’” he said, smiling at the memory.
“I would sit and watch the tigers — I would just sit and listen to the symphony through two or three times. It’s one hour and four minutes long.
“You would see the animals move, or the way the trees were blowing in the wind, and an image would come into your mind.
“There’s one image in the fourth movement [of the symphony] that I call the flock of birds, and it’s totally based on being at the zoo and seeing the movement happen.”
Rist founded Ballet Minnesota with his wife, Cheryl, 21 years ago. Cheryl Rist does all the costume design for performances and has put together a wardrobe of long tuxedos, “Lord of the Rings”-style elf dresses, empire dresses and monks’ robe-style garments for the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The couple operate their own studio, Classic Ballet Academy, out of their home on Chamberlain Road in Woodbury, from which many of the dancers of Ballet Minnesota have graduated.
As well as animal-watching at Como, Rist said he also did plenty of people-watching, as well as a considerable amount of contemplation.
“The animals just exist; they don’t have to buy clothes or anything — I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. They just exist,” he said.
“All these things you thought as a child, all these hopes and dreams come back to you there (at the zoo).
“Just sitting and watching people — which you can go to the Mall of America and do, too — but you just watch how people interact.
“That actually helped me in one of the scenes in the first movement.”
Rist says the approach taken in the dance company’s fall production is a departure from the regular performances of the crowd-pleasing favorites: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, for example.
Those, he explained, are choreographed in a more traditional way — call it safer, if you will — guaranteed to be popular with the audience and so bring in a more predictable cash flow for Ballet Minnesota.
The fall performance is a somewhat different beast.
“This is the longest I’ve ever worked on a piece,” said Rist, explaining he started choreographing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in July.
“This is the concert I’ve been waiting for, for 20 years… Now we’re doing experimental choreography… Before, we’ve had to focus on presenting good art that we know people will like.”
Julia Heggernes, one of the company dancers who is also a Woodbury resident and 2004 graduate of Woodbury High School, says the experimental choreography of the Beethoven’s Ninth performance is fun to work with.
“It’s really great, actually,” she said. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s so much fun because you get to really experiment with the movement and how much you can do, and we don’t have to stay so closely perfect, which is a very hard thing to do in ballet.
“[Andrew Rist] has been so encouraging, saying, ‘Just feel it, just have fun with it.’
“For many years, I have been so particular — it’s like, you can only move your foot at this time, but this is more about dancing to the music.”
Heggernes, who will be performing as one of the “notes” of the symphony and as one of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” lives in the Colby Lake neighborhood of Woodbury.
She started dancing at the age of eight, starting ballet classes because her mother thought it would teach her sometimes flighty daughter some discipline.
She said her love of the art form grew over the years, taking a real hold over her when she reached 15 or 16 and would practice for hours every night, even negotiating with Woodbury High School principal Linda Plante to leave school early (after completing the necessary credits) to get in adequate rest before her rigorous nightly rehearsal schedule.
Now, Heggernes says she spends 30-40 hours a week rehearsing at the Ballet Minnesota studio on East Fourth Street in St. Paul, a place which has become her second home since she started at the company in 2006.
“The rehearsals are grueling and they can be tiresome, but I think it’s so much fun to be here every day and have great minds working together like this,” she said.
“Andrew and Cheryl are like my second parents. They see me as much as my parents do, if not more.
“I think of all these people as family; we cry together and laugh together.”
The Ballet Minnesota performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are free to the public and will be held on Friday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., at the Fitzgerald Theater, 10 East Exchange Street, St. Paul.
To reserve tickets, call (651) 290-1221.