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Peak performance: Gasper returns as Nutcracker Prince one last time

F-M Ballet artistic director Matt Gasper, 43, will retire from dancing after performing one last time as the Nutcracker Prince. Dan Leeaphon / Special to The Forum1 / 4
F-M Ballet soloist Emma Kulla returns as Clara in this year’s production of "The Classic Nutcracker". Dan Leeaphon / Special to The Forum2 / 4
Local dancer Craig Ellingson returns as funny uncle Drosselmeyer. Dan Leeaphon / Special to The Forum3 / 4
F-M Ballet dancers perform the mesmerizing snow scene in "The Classic Nutcracker." Gwendoline Poyner / Special to The Forum4 / 4

Not many dancers can say they've starred as the Nutcracker Prince in Tchaikovsky's "The Classic Nutcracker" at 43 years old. Even fewer can say they've done it while directing the show.

But Matt Gasper, artistic director of the Fargo-Moorhead Ballet, is one of the few who's taking on the challenge that involves a new diet, plenty of Icy Hot and strict time management between directing and performing.

"Luckily, I have a wonderful dancers and a lovely staff that help me stay on top of everything," Gasper says.

The F-M Ballet performance of the beloved holiday ballet on Dec. 15, 16 and 17 will be Gasper's last performance as the Nutcracker Prince before retiring his white tights for good.

Gasper has performed as the Nutcracker Prince in F-M Ballet's "The Classic Nutcracker" in the past, but decided to take on the role one last time as part of the company's goal to keep the production as local as possible, including the musicians in the live orchestra.

"Almost all of the guest artists (this year) are professional dancers that live right here in Fargo-Moorhead," Gasper says. "We're still educating the community that we have amazing talent and that you don't need to go to a larger city to see a professional ballet."

Other local dancers returning as guest artists in the production include Craig Ellingson as Drosselmeyer and Mikal Kenfield as the Sugarplum Fairy.

As the son of Fargo-Moorhead dance legends Kathy and Eddie Gasper, Matt Gasper says it's always been in his blood to perform. He spent many summers in the studio with his parents and at dance intensives all over the country as a child.

After he graduated high school, Gasper danced with the Cleveland San Jose Company and acted in off-Broadway productions in New York City for many years before returning to Fargo-Moorhead to lead Gasper's School of Dance and the F-M Ballet.

To prepare to play the Nutcracker Prince — a highly physical role in an already athletic art form — Gasper has lost nearly 40 pounds using Profile by Sanford to reach his goal weight. But he says it has nothing to do with body image. It's a matter of physics.

"It's much easier on my old knees to jump and lift at 160 pounds than it is at 190 pounds," Gasper says. "It's really not the body image thing at all. It's really important that people hear that because there's such a stigma about dancers and their body image."

Some of that stigma comes from a misunderstanding about dance.

"Dancing is an art form, so people usually don't see dancers as athletes," he continues. "But like any other athlete, there's a specific (weight) zone we need to be in to reach peak performance."

In addition to directing and performing in the Nutcracker, Gasper created fresh choreography for most of the show. There are also new costumes and a new sleigh the Nutcracker Prince uses to transport Clara (Emma Kulla) to far-off lands like Spain, Russia and Arabia.

The storytelling is a little richer in the FM Ballet's production than other productions to help audiences understand the story better, Gasper explains.

For example, the Arabia scene this year features guest acrobat Marina Petrano, who will entertain audiences with a mesmerizing aerial silk performance.

But even though the F-M Ballet comes up with new ways to perform "The Classic Nutcracker" each year, the cherished story about a girl who dreams of becoming a dancer and meeting a prince remains at the core of the production.

"At the end of the day we are storytellers, and we have to honor the tradition of the story," Gasper says.

Gasper and his team are passionate about raising awareness of the value of local, professional productions — like the F-M Ballet's "The Classic Nutcracker" — to ensure the arts and culture continue to thrive in Fargo-Moorhead.

"Our audience grows every year, and we want to keep it growing because it not only helps fuel the local economy, but also the other arts companies," he says. "If they're successful, we'll end up being successful."

If You Go

What: F-M Ballet's "The Classic Nutcracker"

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16; 2 p.m. Dec. 16 and 17

Where: NDSU Festival Concert Hall

Tickets: $10-40 (tiered seating); fmballet.org

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.

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