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After 60 Years, Ballet West Envisions A Historically Fresh “Nutcracker”

There are only a handful of performances left for Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker.” As the company begins to wind down this year’s run of the Christmas classic, it’s already preparing for the 2017 production, which includes a complete reboot of sets and costumes. The ballet company is trying to keep things fresh while also preserving the historical nature of its original production.

What makes “The Nutcracker” what it is—the music or the costumes? Tchaikovsky’s famous score, including the fiery “Russian Dance," energizes the crowd, while the shimmering tutus of magical snowflakes and the Sugar Plum Fairy whisks them away to a fantasy land seen in the dreams of young Clara Stahlbaum.

An hour before show time of a recent performance, Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute and costume designer David Huevel are in the basement of the Capitol Theater. They’re in the costume shop, showing off some sketches for next year’s “Nutcracker” revamp to a group of donors.

Credit Courtesy Ballet West
A sketch for the "Snow Queen" costume for Ballet West's 2017 production of "The Nutcracker."

Costume design director David Huevel is hailed as a “master tutu maker” by his colleagues. He tells the group of ballet fans what it takes to build more than 250 costumes for next year’s “Nutcracker” production—which includes 42 hand-made tutus.

“When we build a tutu in house here, it costs between $800-$1,200 a tutu,” Huevel says.

“Which is outrageously cheap,” adds Sklute.

Huevel explains, “if we were to build them in New York, the minimum would be $5,000-$7,000, up to $20,000 for a tutu.”

Adam Sklute just celebrated his tenth year as Ballet West’s artistic director. He says for the 2017 production he’s changing the time period for the extravagant Christmas party in Act I—moving it back almost 100 years to the early 1800s.

“You’ll see the designs, as opposed to, for a lot of the women, very fitted waists, you’ll see more empire waists, and the jackets for the men,” Sklute says. “Just to put it more in the time frame of when the original story was written.”

Longtime fans of the Ballet West production will notice more luxurious themes in the fantasy Land of Sweets in Act II.

“Once Clara’s dream takes hold,” Sklute says, “I really wanted it to be a fanciful and fantastical production, so you’re going to see a lot more fancy throughout.”

Credit Courtesy Ballet West
A backdrop sketch for Ballet West's 2017 production of "The Nutcracker."

Sketches show those changes include flowing skirts for the dancing snowflakes and more vibrant colors during the famous “Waltz of the Flowers.” Sklute also hinted at more spectacular special effects for the transition from reality to a dream world.

But costumer David Huevel says some elements will stay the same.  “I can’t veer very far away from the original concept of Mr. Christensen,” he says. “Mr. C always likes happy, jolly mice. So we’re going to do the same kind of mice.”

“Mr. C” as he is fondly known, is Willam Christensen, the founder of Ballet West. In 1944 he choreographed the first full-length original “Nutcracker” in America. It’s the same version Ballet West has been performing annually for over 60 years now.

It’s a production steeped in history and tradition. Sklute and other members of the company remain adamant about preserving the original choreography as much as possible.

“If I am changing the choreography, it is minor modifications only to accommodate the new sets and costumes, if that makes sense,” Sklute says.

It’s important to everyone at Ballet West that its “Nutcracker” production maintains Willam Christensen’s original vision.  

So for next year, “The steps that people have loved, the way that Mr. C tells his story, doesn’t change at all,” Sklute says.

And Bruce Caldwell is making sure of that. He’s the company’s ballet master and archivist, and he’s the only one left on staff who spent years working one-on-one with Willam Christensen.

“And since it’s his production I’m the thread to that authenticity,” Caldwell says. “That’s an important thing to have.”

He says there are certain elements that are integral to the lighthearted way Christensen wanted to portray the “Nutcracker” story.

Credit Courtesy Ballet West
Courtesy Ballet West
Ballet West founder Willam Christensen.

“He has incorporated the children, and humor, and a warmth, and the characterization, and the beauty that ballet is,” Caldwell explains. The ballet master says even the idea of changing any of that is off limits.

While Christensen updated the costumes and sets of his own production several times during his life, this is the first update since his death in 2001.

So I ask Caldwell, is it a challenge to try to update the beloved production Willam Christensen created with him no longer here?

“I’m not anticipating any great challenges,” Caldwell says. “The designs are built around the existing choreography that we do, so there won’t have to be any major upheaval. I think it’s going to just dovetail together.”

Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” runs through December 26. Tickets for the final shows are going quickly—the Ballet company is reporting record ticket sales this year. And they’re hoping that with a whimsical new production, they’ll break that record again in 2017.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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