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After nearly 30 years as artistic director of Minnesota Dance Theatre, Lise Houlton is passing the reins.

And it will be kept in the family. Her daughter Kaitlyn Gilliland will take over as interim artistic director through the 2023-24 season while the company's board of directors conducts a search to fill the position.

Known for its annual production of "Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy," the company was founded by Houlton's mother and choreographer Loyce Houlton in 1962. Lise Houlton, a former member of the Stuttgart Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, took helm of the company in 1995 after her mother died.

"It wasn't a job that I was planning on or interested in at all," she said. "But when my mother passed away, the board said 'Nutcracker' has to go on. We can't let this stop."

Houlton said the timing of her retirement was delayed — she had initially planned to step down in 2020.

"I was going to announce my retirement literally the day everything closed down for COVID," Houlton said. "It just seemed like the right time. There was a certain amount of fatigue, and I felt that maybe there needed to be new energies."

But like other performing arts companies during the pandemic, MDT shut down and the school transitioned to a Zoom model. Houlton found that the company needed her attention and decided to stay on a bit longer.

MDT returned to staging a live performance of its signature "Nutcracker" at Minneapolis' State Theatre in 2021. That was followed by a return of another sort. About a year ago, Gilliland came back to the Twin Cities to serve as associate artistic director after Houlton was diagnosed with cancer. Gilliland had been in New York, working with famed choreographer Twyla Tharp.

"This was precisely the time that I was scheduled for some medical events," Houlton said. "She came home and just jumped into helping on every level, professionally, but also personally. I think it must have been a huge sacrifice for her. But it's just been extraordinary watching all that she can do and all that she does."

Gilliland's presence brought Houlton a peace of mind to move on from her leadership role. "At this point in my life, it's just very joyful and positive, particularly because I see what Kaitlyn brings, which is just extraordinary."

Houlton's history with MDT goes back long before she was artistic director — she performed in the company's very first "Nutcracker."

At 19, she moved to New York to join the Stuttgart Ballet, and later American Ballet Theatre, where she danced principal roles and worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov and other luminaries.

Ballerina Sally Rousse, who co-founded the Minneapolis-based James Sewell Ballet, recalled watching Houlton perform with ABT in New York.

"It was so cathartic and mind-blowing," Rousse said. "She slayed me."

As artistic director, Houlton revived MDT, reimagined the elder Houlton's works and created new ones.

Helen Hatch, who was with MDT from 2011 to 2017, said in an email that she found working with Houlton to be exciting and challenging.

One highlight was working on Loyce Houlton's "Pas de Deux Diabolus." Lise Houlton called Hatch and dancer Jeremy Bensussan into the studio, where they watched a grainy video of the younger Houlton dancing the original MDT production in the 1970s.

"It was magical, it was breathtaking, it was intimidatingly stunning," Hatch said.

Hatch felt she had big shoes to fill but was grateful for the opportunity.

Gilliland said part of Houlton's legacy will be in the many dancers she nurtured as a teacher, director and mentor. When she came back to MDT, she said, she was struck by the environment that her mother had created, encouraging dancers to take pride in the work they do.

"The discipline and the detail that Lise asks her students to bring, and the commitment that Lise asks her students to bring to the work really changes the way that they relate to the world," Gilliland said.

As a tribute to Loyce and Lise, MDT is reviving this past spring's sold-out three-part series, "Honoring Our Past, Celebrating Our Present, Embracing Our Future," which will be performed at Studio 6A at the Hennepin Center for the Arts Oct. 14 through Nov. 11. The signature "Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy" will be at the State Theatre Dec. 16-23.