For six decades, Ballet West’s The Nutcracker has been a centerpiece of Salt Lake’s holiday festivities. Tchaikovsky’s moving score, it’s magical costumes and fairytale sets, are all showcased in the exquisite Capitol Theatre to create one of the most visually stunning productions of The Nutcracker in the world today. While many Utahns consider it a holiday tradition, they may not know how this institution became woven into the fabric of our city, how it helped to save ballet in America, or what extraordinary efforts are being taken to keep The Nutcracker relevant for another six decades.
Even if you have never journeyed to the Capitol Theatre and enjoyed The Nutcracker, almost everyone has been exposed to its music, story, and imagery. The ballet is ubiquitous with Christmas culture, from Fantasia to SpongeBob SquarePants, and Care Bears to Grand Theft Auto; there are literally thousands of references in pop culture to The Nutcracker, making it a timeless piece of art, like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.
It was Ballet West’s founder, Willam Christensen (affectionately known as Mr. C.) who first choreographed a full-length Nutcracker in America, making Ballet West’s production the longest-running in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps the world. The New York Time’s principal dance critic, Alistair MaCaulay, went on a nationwide Nutcracker tour in 2010 and called Ballet West’s version, “one of the best productions I’ve ever seen.”
Earlier this year, Ballet West announced that it has received a grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation to enrich and enhance the physical production of The Nutcracker. (Just like the Mona Lisa, sometimes a great piece of art needs some refurbishing!) Work on the project is well underway, with diagrams being submitted and backdrops being painted at the Utah Opera studios. Over the next year and a half, literally hundreds of Utah artisans will be contracted to build sets, sew costumes, and incorporate special effects into the dazzling new production that will premiere in the winter of 2017.
“During his lifetime, Mr. C. frequently updated The Nutcracker to keep it fresh and alive, but he maintained the framework and charm of the story, that kept audiences coming back every year,” said Ballet West CEO & Artistic Director Adam Sklute. “Our intention with this generous gift from the Eccles Foundation is to keep the choreography exactly the same while updating the physical production.” Sklute recently announced some of the more whimsical embellishments will include elements that fly through the air and an enhanced Christmas tree that will grow much wider, giving it a 3-D effect. “Some of these spectacular effects Mr. C. originally imagined, but did not have the technology or funding to accomplish during his lifetime. This gift will help us honor his vision and move it into the future,” said Sklute. While Ballet West looks to the retirement of the current production’s sets and costumes, the story of how Utah carries the banner of owning the longest running Nutcracker in America is also a timeless story.
In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The story tells of a Christmas party at which little Clara, daughter of the house, receives the gift of a nutcracker from her mysterious uncle, Herr Drosselmeyer. After the party, she falls asleep and dreams of dancing snow, sugarplums, and her nutcracker, which has turned into a handsome prince. The story is filled with magic, wonder, and whimsy. In 1892, the story was used by Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to create the ballet The Nutcracker, which became one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous compositions, and perhaps the most popular ballet in the world.
Surprisingly, the ballet had never been performed in its entirety in the United States until Mr. C., then at the San Francisco Ballet, was looking for a ballet to fill the company’s coffers. It was 1944, and World War II had made money for arts very scarce. Looking for a ballet which would lighten the hearts of a dreary nation, Mr. C. spoke to the great dancer and choreographer, George Balanchine. Over the course of one night, Balanchine and his friend Alexandra Danilova, both of whom had danced The Nutcracker in Russia, recounted the steps and explained the story to Mr. C. He instantly recognized how this ballet could be marketed to both children and adults, and also how it could likely be financially lucrative.
After Mr. C. staged the production, one critic wrote, “We can’t understand why a vehicle of such fantastic beauty and originality could be produced in Europe in 1892 and never be produced in this country until 1944. Perhaps choreographers will make up for lost time from now on.” Not only had Mr. C. choreographed a smashing success, but he had also unknowingly created an American phenomenon, a fact that is said to have surprised and thrilled even Mr. C. Since then, The Nutcracker thrives across the Americas, and is an iconic holiday tradition and a mainstay of countless ballet companies across the country.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Ballet West. The Nutcracker is an audience favorite and continues to break records. Just last year, The Nutcracker broke its long-held revenue record, and the year before that, it sold out every performance during a tour to The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
While the Ballet West production has been watched and beloved by millions, it also holds a special place for dancers. In its 60-year history, it is estimated that more than 100,000 children have learned Mr. C’s choreography and had the opportunity to dance with Ballet West artists. Last year, Ella Whitney, an 11-year-old was cast as Clara, the most coveted role for the children’s cast. What made this especially serendipitous was that Natalie Whitney, her mother, had also played Clara exactly 20 years before. More incredibly, Natalie’s mother, Connie, also had a role in The Nutcracker, and has vivid memories of Mr. C. teaching his choreography. With more Whitney’s on the way, it’s very possible this chain will continue.
On the other side of the stage, audience members regularly come with two, three, and even four generations in tow. Kelli Wood, a local photographer, has purchased grand tier seats with her mother, every year, for 31 years. Now, Kelli’s daughter also comes along for the Christmas tradition. “When I was young, it wasn’t easy for my mom to purchase those tickets, which made it even more magical entering that beautiful theater,” said Kelli. “I know my daughter is loving it just as much as I did, 31 years ago.”
In 2001, when Mr. C passed away at the age of 99, The San Francisco Chronicle called him the grandfather of American ballet, and he is still credited with rejuvenating dance in America. That renaissance is directly credited to his Nutcracker dream which continues to flourish today.
The Nutcracker remains one of the most beloved and enduring masterpieces in all of ballet. This production comes to the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre from December 2-26. Tickets start at just $20 and are available at www.balletwest.org, at all ArtTix locations, or by calling 801-869-6920.