Return performances

Columbia Dance alumni come back to take part in ‘Nutcracker’

By Elisa Williams, Columbian staff writer

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Columbia Dance’s rehearsals for “The Nutcracker” were particularly harried during the Thanksgiving holidays.

Three of the school’s alumni were back at the Vancouver studio for their only opportunity to practice and get fitted for costumes. Two will play the Sugar Plum Fairy, but in different performances.

It’s the first time three veterans have been brought back to perform in the traditional holiday show, said Columbia Dance Artistic Director Jan Hurst.

“They will enhance the performance,” said Hurst, who added that the lifts and turns have been choreographed to play to dancers’ strengths.

Among those returning is Lia Mrazek, a Prairie High School graduate, who is now serving as an apprentice with the professional Idaho Dance Theatre while attending Boise State University.

Joining her are Gretchen Funk, 18, a Hockinson High School graduate who is now studying biology and dance at Goucher College in Baltimore, Md., and Meridith Mason, 19, a graduate of Skyview High School who also is studying biology and is in the honors program at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Both Funk and Mason plan to eventually go to medical school.

Mason will perform as a Snowflake and in the Waltz of the Flowers for all of the Columbia Dance shows. The Thanksgiving weekend practices were particularly challenging for her because she was rehearsing for group roles on her own. She had to imagine what the other dancers would be doing.

Funk will dance the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Friday performance, the Saturday matinee and on Sunday evening. Mrazek, 18, performs Saturday night and in the Sunday matinee.

Mrazek is one of five Columbia Dance students who has earned a spot with a professional dance company, Hurst said.

That distinction comes with a lot of work.

Mrazek’s Thanksgiving weekend rehearsals for “The Nutcracker” were done on top of a rigorous dance schedule that keeps her in motion from about 9:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday though Thursday, 9:40 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. She attends classes in the evening. Her goal is to become a sign-language interpreter with the hope that she can combine that career with dancing for a professional company.

“I love the joy of performing and being able to give the audience a smile on their face or whatever emotion we’re trying to portray,” Mrazek said.

That love of performing was one of the reasons Mrazek earned a position with Idaho Dance Theatre, explained Marla Brattain Hansen, the group’s co-artistic director.

Mrazek also proved herself to be a strong technician, able to perform a variety of dance styles well, from ballet to contemporary to modern.

“Our choreography is very demanding and we need dancers who are versatile, Hansen said.

Even with her mix of talents, making the transition to apprentice for a professional company has been demanding, Mrazek said.

Rather than working with familiar roles, such as different parts of “The Nutcracker,” she’s now required to constantly learn new parts.

She’s had to learn many parts at a time because, as an understudy, she may be called upon to fill in for any dancer with the company.

“It’s a lot of thinking on your feet,” Mrazek said.

So for Mrazek, the Vancouver shows will be a chance to enjoy the familiar. She has performed as the Sugar Plum Fairy for Columbia Dance twice before.

Returning “is a wonderful experience,” Mrazek said. “Columbia Dance will always be my second home.”

Columbia Dance is the third Clark County group to perform “The Nutcracker” this year. Earlier in the month, Northwest Classical Ballet and Vancouver Dance Theatre also performed the classic.