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Matteah Ojard shows off her ballet skills at her grandparent’s home. She will be performing in “The Nutcracker” at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center for the third time this year. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.

Young dancer's suite role

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Bouncing around her grandparents’ Knife River living room on Monday evening, her waist-length hair flying behind her, Matteah Ojard didn’t express an ounce of nervousness for her upcoming ballet performance in front of 2,000 people.

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“I’m excited,” she said with enthusiasm.

Ojard, 10, will be dancing in the Minnesota Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center Dec. 20-22. It’s her third year in the production. For the past two years, the Lakeview Christian Academy fifth-grader was a caroler, a small part compared to this year’s gingerbread role.

As a gingerbread cookie, Ojard comes onstage during the second act of the ballet. She and nine other dancers are covered by a giant skirt, worn by a dancer on stilts playing the role of Mother Ginger. They emerge from under the skirt, perform a short dance and then exit the stage.

“So, we’re wearing a cookie costume, and we are all under the skirt of Mother Ginger,” Ojard explained, demonstrating how she crouches under the garment. “Then, I pop out of the skirt like this” – here she performs a jump with her arms and legs extended – “and then we jump and then we do grapevines around the dress.”

Ojard attends three practices a week with the Minnesota Ballet throughout the school year. Since October, they’ve had one extra weekly practice to focus specifically on “The Nutcracker.” She already knows the dance by heart, and her grandmother Char said that’s thanks to watching the performance and rehearsals so many times.

“They watch it so much … by the time they are chosen, they know their parts,” Char Ojard said.

The first time she saw “The Nutcracker” was three years ago. Char and her husband Steve brought Matteah to the ballet when she was just seven years old.

“She told us, ‘maybe next year, I can be in it.’ And she was,” Char said.

The Minnesota Ballet began in Duluth in 1965. The company employs 12 full-time dancers and has a regular schedule of more than two dozen dance classes. “The Nutcracker” debuted in 2009 and has become an annual Northland tradition. Students from the ballet classes fill many parts in the production, performing alongside the professional dancers. Mother Ginger is played by the ballet’s

director, Robert Gardner

Ojard said she had some jitters the first year she performed, but the nerves disappeared quickly.

“I was a little nervous but really, really excited when I did it the first year. I think it turned out really good,” she said.

Perched with perfect posture on the edge of an oversized armchair, Ojard said she loves that dancing isn’t just art – it expresses a narrative.

“Dancing is fun because, well, when you dance, it tells a story,” Ojard said, sounding a lot older than her 10 years. “And you get to be with your friends,” she added with a giggle much more reflective of a fifth-grader.

As for her future in ballet, Ojard said she’ll continue dancing at least until seventh grade because that’s the first year she can audition for the part of young Clara, a major role in the production. Her ballet mentor, a junior in high school, played Clara in the first production Ojard saw.

In addition to dance, Ojard has many other interests, including the Korean martial art Hiadong Gumdo, cross country running, track and volleyball. She’s aiming to be the youngest Minnesotan to earn a black belt in Gumdo, an honor her brother Josiah, 13, currently holds. Her younger sister, Rebekah, 7, recently started gymnastics and her ability to do the splits almost rivals Matteah’s.

The driven, athletic kids are encouraged by parents Jacob and Amy and a slew of cousins, aunts and uncles. Many of them attend Matteah’s performance, her grandma said.

“Mattie has a very large, supportive family,” Char said. “She has a following.”

IF YOU GO:

What: The Nutcracker

Where: Symphony Hall, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center

When: Dec. 20-22, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $13-42, www.ticketmaster.com or (218) 722-5573

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