East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The Girl and The Bear are united in marriage during the final act in East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The Girl and The Bear are united in marriage during the final act in East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Mary McDonough

No amount of snow or frigid temperatures could stop people from being apart of Forest Roberts Theatre history Thursday night, as the curtain went up on the first ever full length ballet to grace the stage. The elegant portrayal of a young girl being guided by the four directional winds through the intricate choreography that flowed so flawlessly with the music, it left the audience raving for more at intermission.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon, tells the story of a poor family who is approached by a large white bear, who offers them money in exchange for their youngest daughter. The girl agrees to go live with the animal. That night the girl, expecting to see that same white bear, is surprised by a handsome prince sleeping on the other side of the bed. A young man cursed to live as a bear by day and regain human form by night. That moment is love at first sight, only for the prince to be torn away from the castle and kidnapped by evil trolls. It is then up to the girl, along with the help of the northern lights, three witches, and four winds, to rescue the prince.

The ballet is an aged Norwegian folktale that caught the eye of creative team who became the show’s driving force. Susan Candey, local dramaturge, or literary editor, worked with the Director of NMU Dance Jill Grundstrom. They adapted the lengthy and rather dark tale to fit the length of the ballet and highlight important scenes without losing the essence of the story. The newly adapted storyline then went to local composer Griffin Candey who crafted original pieces of music specifically for the ballet.

Bringing all those components together for the final product took just over a year. All three felt that the Scandinavian roots would allow the audience to share the same connection to the story, as a large portion of the U.P. has Scandinavian lineage.

“This seems to be a really great connection point,” Grundstrom said. “It seemed like a great fit for our community.”

The search for the award winning Panowski Playwriting contest winner was going on as the creative team brought the story together. The contest happens bi-annually in the spirit of celebrating and producing new theatrical work. When the contest was unable to find a winning show to fill the space, the ballet not only fit the theme but became another way that FRT showcased original work. For Grundstrom, she said the ballet took on a certain level of vulnerability that holds true for the entire team.

“It’s very personal to be doing this because it is putting our artistic chops out there for the world to see,” Grundstrom said.

When it came to the music, a live orchestra playing in the pit of the stage, Candey took the lead from the work that had already been done by the story adaptation. So, every piece had to capture a very specific moment.

“I started writing late spring through the summer and into the fall, once the story was laid out scene by scene I went to work,” Candey said. “Writing a ballet is very much like writing a movie score. I’ve been wanting to write for dance the entire time I’ve been writing.”

To see the show finally come to light is something that Candey is still trying to come to terms with.

“It’s kind of a surreal feeling. It’s a weird process to see and hear something that has been in your head the whole time,” Candey said.

Female lead and senior neuroscience major Sadie Knill finds the moments given on stage as a time to focus on her character and make connections with the rest of the cast when expressions are entirely based on dance, not verbal communication.

“I try to take every moment of it in and try hard to make connections with the other characters because we can’t talk with them,” Knill said. “It’s a lot of eye contact and showing things with your body.”

Knill’s co-lead, Ethan Bott, senior writing major, entered the ballet with a bit of a learning curve compared to many of the cast. With a few ballet classes under his belt, the role of the bear was something that Bott was willing to work for.

“It’s been a good challenge to expand my dance work and to really stretch my limits,” Bott said. “I feel grateful, with me as an inexperienced dancer I could not only get the opportunity but also the training to pull it off.”

In recent years, NMU debated the importance of a dance minor program. Grundstrom is thankful for the minor since it allowed such a large number of students a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be in a world premiere ballet.

“It was a great way to highlight dance. For us to be able to do a world premiere dance event is wonderful,” Grundstrom said. “We have some really talented dancers here in the community and on campus.”

When rehearsals started in mid-October, the company knew that it would be a time crunch since the schedule had to work around not only a week for Thanksgiving break, but the entire month of Christmas break. For Knill, working with Bott was something that came naturally and made the process easier.

“He’s a hard worker and super strong. I just clicked with him,” Knill said. “He could throw me all these different places and I feel totally safe.”

Working with the story for so long, Knill hopes that those who were able to see the show and even just hear the story are able to come away with a life lesson from the journey of the girl.

“Take a risk. Just jump into something and it could pay off. It could be the best thing that ever happens to you,” Knill said. “Accept change and work with it.”