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Businesses that last 50 years are successes. Dance troupes that do so are minor miracles. Creativity and perseverance help longevity. So does bucking the status quo. These are all elements of Minnesota Dance Theatre's story, which spans three generations of dancers. This week MDT marks its golden moment with four performances of "Carmina Burana" at the Cowles Center.
A statistic shows how rare the MDT story is. Among 299 nonprofit American troupes in the Dance USA directory, MDT joins just 20 others with 50 or more years in operation. The list includes some of dance's best-known names, such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
In 1946, 20-year-old Minnesota native Loyce Houlton went to New York City to study with legends like Martha Graham and George Balanchine. She came home to marry, raise a family and teach. By 1961 she and several colleagues founded a school, the Contemporary Dance Playhouse. In 1962, Loyce launched MDT to combine ballet traditions with emerging movement trends.
"She wanted to be absolutely current, embracing everything at the same time," said daughter Lise Houlton, who became MDT artistic director in 1995 after Loyce died at age 69.
Famous dance students
Out of humble beginnings grew a vital artistic resource. Famous students and protégés included Prince, Toni Pierce-Sands of TU Dance and Charles Askegard (formerly of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet) -- not to mention Lise and her daughters Kaitlyn and Raina Gilliland. Thousands more gripped an MDT ballet barre in various Minneapolis locations over the years. Guest artists forged bonds between dancers locally and New York.
Loyce fostered a populist spirit. MDT opened the Cedar Village Theatre (now the Cedar Cultural Center) for free "People's Concerts" and performed in protests both global (the Vietnam War) and local (the Red Barn development in Dinkytown). "There were so many political arguments at the time," said Lise, 57. "Being a feminist, she was always in the middle of them. I'm very grateful to have had that experience as a teenager. I was dancing to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix."
None of this could have happened without single-minded dedication. Loyce "had her standards," said John Linnerson, a longtime technical director and production manager for MDT. "She was always going around the clock, always collaborating. There was an overwhelming intensity. It was fascinating to watch it grow, it took so many twists and turns." Among them was MDT's near demise in the 1980s due in part to mounting debt and a failed merger with Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Loyce choreographed more than 90 dances, but MDT is best known for her "Nutcracker Fantasy," which premiered in 1964 at the Moppet Playhouse (forerunner to the Children's Theatre Company). The holiday favorite, hailed for its innovative use of the Tchaikovsky score, was performed for two decades at Northrop Auditorium and then revived with a "Skimp" version at the Aveda Institute in 1991 followed by annual seasons at the State Theatre. In 2011 the show moved to the Cowles.
Linnerson notes the production's triumphs and disasters, including when a fog machine spilled water onto the stage, sending the dancers sliding. "It's been great to be a part of it," he said. "I really believe it could outlast other 'Nutcrackers.'"
Such memories stir Raina Gilliland, now an MDT company member. "I was probably 3 when I was an understudy mouse," she said. Last year the 22-year-old shone in the marquee role of Sugar Plum Fairy.
One aspect of MDT's history is family. Loyce inspired Lise into a dance career -- and the two did the same for Raina and Kaitlyn. "As a parent I pushed them with great enthusiasm toward concert piano, basketball, anything but dance," said Lise, who knew the rigors of the profession. "But I think they experienced Loyce at her best and there's something in there that takes hold."
Kaitlyn, 24, a former New York City Ballet dancer who teaches at the School of American Ballet and is enrolled at Columbia University, recalls her grandmother's commitment. "She was always very professional, very demanding, even of students," Kaitlyn said, recalling a stint at age 5 in a circus-themed dance. "In dress rehearsal I tripped on my way up to the stage and fell on my face. I was laying there in my poodle costume, more humiliated than hurt. She swept me off my feet and let me cry in her lap. She was still my Nana."
Looking to the future
Lise returned to MDT after dancing with the Stuttgart Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Seventeen years later she balances the hard work of honoring her mother's legacy while setting the stage for MDT's future, commissioning dances and tending to the day-to-day needs of a five-member company (plus three apprentices) as well as a school with nearly 200 students.
According to Raina, her mother gets the balance right. "She brings the same energy Nana brought, she tries to keep the spirit of Nana in the studio. It's a collective energy." When Lise shouts out reminders like "Bigger, better, more!" or "Magic, magic, magic!" during rehearsal, said Raina, "It's something that everyone can chant together."
"I'm very fortunate to be working with extraordinary dancers," said Lise. "The challenge is supporting the product -- first who's going on stage and then what's going on stage and making sure everyone in the organization remembers that. My great joy is what happens in the studio, and that's what I do best."
Somewhere Loyce is smiling.