Salt Lake City, UT
December 21, 2022, matinee and evening
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Ballet West perform their iconic setting of Willam Christensen’s holiday fare, Nutcracker, since the early ’80s when Francis (Timlin) and I would take the train down from Seattle to Portland, Oregon where Ballet West annually toured and did this ballet over Thanksgiving weekend. It was my first introduction in-person to Ballet West and to meeting its founder/choreographer, “Mr. C.” (who held court following each show at the Marriott near Keller Auditorium, he with this brandy snifter in hand regaling his audience with stories — how wonderful!).
As it had been over 10 years since last visiting Salt Lake City, a quick visit was overdue and most welcome. I was anxious to see the company, its spanking new headquarters adjacent to the Capitol Theatre (their home venue) and to catch up with all things Ballet West.
Having observed Ballet West for over 40 years, it’s been interesting to note some of the changes Mr. C. made to his Nutcracker (first done in San Francisco in 1944). I recall the first year he inserted a pas de deux (giving the male and female principals more to do — smart, in my view, bravo!) in the Act II Waltz of the Flowers, having been all female before; the removal of the hops en pointe (which I thought were too cool) from Mirlitons; and the sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no” to having the Spanish Dance cast play actual castanets themselves and in character shoes (this year, no).
My day began with coffee with Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s Artistic Director, who was not only generous with his time but who also gave me a private backstage tour of both the theatre and of the new and beautiful Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy headquarters. I’m a backstage junkie and was in hog heaven as we went from top to bottom and back again — dye and costume rooms, offices, hallways, corridors, on stage and in the wings of the theatre, to the many Academy studios (all gorgeously outfitted with deep sprung floors, barres, mirrors, pianos, and what I call pas de deux height ceilings) and finally at the Company studios, where I got to observe Company Class, taught by longtime Ballet West staff member and acquaintance, Bruce Caldwell. (For those who were wondering, the Company looked terrific in class and really pulled out all stops as Caldwell gave them a superb, challenging, yet “dancy” class.) The two buildings (they are adjoined) seemed like a bit of a maze to me, with it many hallways, staircases, and security-coded doors. I joked to one staff member that if I got lost, they’d find my remains weeks later in some stairwell. Whew!
While we were on-stage, Sklute pointed out the Grandfather Clock as historic, being the only set piece from the 1955 production. Yes, it plays a very important dramatic plot point in Act 1, as most probably know.
Now on to the shows themselves. I’ve long held the opinion that Mr. C’s Nutracker was one of the best around. It has become one of my favorite versions, if not the favorite, as it marries well all the elements — production values, choreography, music, and dancing that are on par with each other and well-balanced. (In some productions, one or another element sometimes dominates.) Fresh to me were the new scenic designs by John Wayne Cook and costume designs by David Heuvel, truly rich and sumptuous. I’m told that this is the fourth iteration of sets and costumes and the first that Mr. C was not around to approve. The production has great charm and exudes a sense of joy as well as good humor. An example of this is having a dancing bear pair up with the ballerina doll in the Party Scene, rather than the usual Tin Soldier.
Thrilling at the matinee were Jenna Rae Herrera and Jordan Veit as the Snow Queen and King, and Amy Potter and Brian Waldrep as the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier. For the evening show, it was Katlyn Addison as the Sugar Plum and Tyler Gum as her Cavalier. Herrera and Veit did the Flower pas de deux. Mother Buffoon (aka, Mother Ginger) is sometimes played quietly and blandly in some productions (a waste), but here Dominic Ballard at the matinee made for a perfect characterization and rendition, acting up a storm and dancing along with her buffoon children (costumed as bumblebees), doing a fake ballet barre — tendus and all, making rélevé sous-sus — and visual impossibilities such as feet up in the air and held — a total riot and fun.
As many times as I’ve looked for it, and this time I vowed to myself that I’d catch it, I’m always surprised and delighted to see how the Snow couple are re-revealed for one of their subsequent entrances, as if by magic, by the Snow corps as they peel away, showing the couple. Even so, I still missed HOW they did it, and was caught up in the magic too — part of Mr. C’s theatrical genius. Another example of this genius is the Arabian — how at the end she seems to go off on one side of the stage behind a rug (of three), but comes running out from the other side of the stage for her bow (I could tell you how it’s done but then I’d have to surrender my union card).
Russian is especially welcome and is now done by five robust men, bouncing around the stage in deep plie/squat and one leaping over the others for the bows. Wowza! While Mr. C himself was great at character dancing, I believe the expert character teacher Yurek Lazowski (who taught, along with his wife, Galina Razoumova, at the University of Utah) had a hand in setting this, but nevertheless, it was truly exciting. While it might have killed off the dancers, boy, all of us would have loved to have enjoyed an immediate encore. It would have been a sweet death. (Sorry, dancers.)
All too soon, the ballet comes to its conclusion with all on stage for a rousing finale, as they send off Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, who (new to me since last seeing this production) now fly up-and-away in their magical sleigh. (Hooray for “Flying by Foy!”)
I was duly impressed and doubly so as the audience stood and heartily cheered both shows and casts, including the mighty Ballet West Orchestra, conducted by Jared Oaks. The production is a longtime, local tradition (since 1955 in SLC). It’s clear that the populace is justly proud and supportive of what will be, I’m sure, many more performances in the years to come.
Additionally, I’m happy to note that Ballet West just received a huge honor from the Utah governor:
UTAH GOVERNOR COX DECLARES
HOME TO A NATIONAL TREASURE
DECLARATION ISSUED FOR BALLET WEST’S NUTCRACKER DAY
IN UTAH, HOME TO AMERICA’S 1ST
AND LONGEST-RUNNING NUTCRACKER
December 23, 2022
SALT LAKE CITY, UT – The state of Utah will present a declaration at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre on Dec. 24 prior to the 12 p.m. performance of The Nutcracker, marking
December 24, 2022 as Ballet West’s Nutcracker Day in Utah to celebrate the 1st and longest running Nutcracker in America.
“Utah is home to a national treasure that should be experienced and celebrated by locals and tourists alike,” says the declaration, issued by Gov. Spencer J. Cox. “Salt Lake City-based Ballet West annually performs America’s 1st Nutcracker – no other city, state, or company can boast that.”
Seventy-eight years ago, Ballet West’s founder, Willam Christensen, choreographed the first full-length version of The Nutcracker in the United States. It is the only version Ballet West has presented since its founding, also making it the longest-running version of The Nutcracker in the country.
The holiday tradition has become a memorable moment for families and friends every year.
“We recognize the artistic value and deep contribution to community connection, holiday traditions, and memorable moments with families and friends that are created at the ballet,” Cox continues in the declaration. “Whereas, today, we acknowledge, Utah is home to America’s longest-running, due to the creativity and deep passion of Ballet West’s founder Willam Christensen who brought the full-length mastery to life, leaving a legacy in our state.”