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New dance school partnership emerges in Lake Placid

Young dancers, professionals practice for newly adapted ‘Nutcracker in a Nutshell’ ballet

Students at the Lake Placid School of Dance practice in their studio at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. (Photo provided)

LAKE PLACID — When the North Country Ballet Ensemble disbanded last summer, the North Country’s annual performance of “The Nutcracker” was without a host company. Tiffany Rea-Fisher, artistic director for the Lake Placid School of Dance and New York City’s EMERGE125 company, said she was “already in the wings” when she was asked to revive “The Nutcracker” at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts this year.

The dance school, based at the LPCA, recently partnered with EMERGE125, formerly called Elisa Monte Dance, a company from New York City that’s been visiting the area for around 30 years. Rea-Fisher has been coming to the area for 18 years, occasionally teaching at the dance school, and when she was named the EMERGE125 artistic director several years ago, she reached out to LPCA Executive Director James Lemons to talk about changes.

Rea-Fisher and Lemons became “fast friends” with a shared interest of setting up a long-term vision for the Lake Placid School of Dance and its connection with EMERGE125. Shortly after, she was asked to head the dance school.

“Tiffany was the right person to partner with as she has a vested interest in our community and improving the lives and training of our students,” Lemons wrote in an email on Monday, Nov. 15. “It really did feel like a win-win situation. It was important for us to also provide a platform for a female BIPOC artist to lead and grow one of our signature programs.”

Rea-Fisher is in her fourth year as artistic director of the Lake Placid School of Dance, and she said she’s formed a strong working relationship with Lemons and former North Country Ballet Ensemble Director Alice Schonbek, who still teaches at the dance school. When talk surfaced about reimagining the traditional North Country performance of “The Nutcracker,” Rea-Fisher said she thinks her love for the Adirondacks was clear to Schonbek and Lemons, and they trusted her with the show.

Past performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts (Photo provided)

When she was asked to head the revamp, now called “Nutcracker in a Nutshell,” Rea-Fisher said she was “here for it.”

“Any type of dance in the North Country, I’m like, ‘Sign me up, like let’s do it,'” she said.

“Nutcracker in a Nutshell” is an abridged adaptation of “The Nutcracker” and is the first reimagining of the classic ballet in 10 years, according to Rea-Fisher, who abridged and choreographed the show. She said it’s a “huge deal” to be in the original cast for a ballet — that title is something a dancer puts on their resume. And she created the show especially for dancers in the North Country.

Dancing through COVID

Three days after the nation shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Rea-Fisher said the Lake Placid School of Dance went completely virtual. And registration numbers went up during the pandemic; students realized they could work with professional dancers with the click of a button, without travel or risk of getting COVID-19.

The school welcomed students back to in-person classes at a limited capacity of six students in October. It also kept the digital training component so students wouldn’t be turned away. The school has a Zoom teacher in addition to the in-person teacher for every class. Therefore, students tuning in online can receive corrections in real time instead of feeling like they’re pushed to the wayside.

Rea-Fisher said the school was careful to take the community’s comfort level into account, as some people have responded differently to the pandemic, both socially and emotionally.

The North Country went without a performance of “The Nutcracker” last year, and Rea-Fisher said, at first, they weren’t sure if it would happen this year. With the limited number of students allowed back in the studio, she didn’t know if they’d have enough cast members for a show. But because of the strength of Rea-Fisher’s partnership with Lemons and Schonbeck, she said the team was able to move quickly to make sure the tradition could continue, even when COVID-19 made day-to-day life uncertain.

“The pandemic has definitely taught us that flexibility is so important to our students, parents and teachers,” Lemons wrote in an email. “It has also underscored the value in coming together again when we can do so safely. Balancing those two needs — a need for more flexibility and a need for community — will continue to be our primary challenge as we navigate the upcoming months.”

Rea-Fisher said the pandemic provided the school with a special opportunity, because they’d considered reimagining “The Nutcracker” for some time. Factors of social distancing and cast numbers came into play, and the final cast of “Nutcracker in a Nutshell” has about 20 to 30 fewer people than the original production.

“We’re gonna make sure we continue to serve the kids of the North Country and do it to the best of our ability and get them back on stage,” she said.

Centering joy and community

“Nutcracker in a Nutshell” is like a holiday present for the 52 local dancers who will perform. Not only is this the first time dancers will return to the stage since before the pandemic, “It’s a brand new production made basically for them,” Rea-Fisher said.

There were no auditions for this year’s show. Rea-Fisher wanted to give young dancers a chance to share the stage with professional dancers, and she wanted everyone to feel welcome to perform, even if they’d never danced a day in their lives. The 63-member cast includes a 3-year-old performer, local dance school students and veteran dancers, parents of students and 11 professionals from New York City’s EMERGE125 and Dance Theatre of Harlem companies, and Rea-Fisher shaped the roles around every individual.

“I really wanted it to feel community-centered and available to anyone that was missing the stage, because that’s such a sacred place for us and we haven’t been able to be on stage the last two years the way that we normally would,” she said.

The opening scene is on a street — with kids throwing snowballs, carolers singing, street vendors peddling goods, and more — where Rea-Fisher said she could place people who’d never danced before or had watched “The Nutcracker” from the audience for years and wanted to “give it a shot.”

“It was really fun to just imagine what it could be because we had an opportunity to start from scratch, and that also is rare within (ballet) tradition,” she said.

Rea-Fisher worked with a sound designer to consolidate the classic two-act production into a one-act show, holding on to the most beloved parts of the original production and pushing to get more creative and adventurous in other areas.

When rehearsals began at the end of September, Rea-Fisher said the cast came in hesitantly because everything was new — the show, the choreography and the cast dynamic — but it didn’t take long for everyone to start buzzing with excitement.

Rea-Fisher centers joy within her artistic practice, and she said rehearsals have been a laughter-filled “blast.” And because some of the show is split into segments, with certain groups of dancers performing together, the whole cast didn’t have to be together to rehearse every weekend.

The cast embraced digital platforms to keep them united. Rehearsals were taking place in Lake Placid, Malone, Plattsburgh and New York City from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekend. When the professional dancers were practicing in the city, students from the Lake Placid School of Dance could Zoom into the session to see what they were up to, and vice versa, so everyone could “get excited about sharing the stage.” If a cast member was exposed to COVID-19 or felt ill and couldn’t attend rehearsal in person, they could still be a part of the process.

This weekend, the complete cast will rehearse together for the first time.

Performances of “Nutcracker in a Nutshell” are at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28 at the Strand Theatre in Plattsburgh; and 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at the LPCA. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and children under 18. Links to buy tickets online are available at www.northcountrynutcracker.org.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story spelled the last name of Tiffany Rea-Fisher incorrectly. The News regrets the error.)