Stepping into plum roles
Never mind that "The Nutcracker" is a Russian ballet about a German family. "The Nutcracker" is better known throughout the United States than anywhere in Europe - a gigantic phenomenon for which Utah's own Willam F. Christensen can be thanked.
The ballet premiered at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre in 1892, but didn't catch on in the Eastern Hemisphere and soon was forgotten. In 1944, the Brigham City-born Christensen, then director of the San Francisco Ballet, began researching P.I. Tchaikovsky's charming "Nutcracker" score. When the Ballets Russes visited San Francisco on tour, Christensen asked ballet-master George Balanchine to share his childhood memories of the Maryinska production.
From those descriptions came the first "Nutcracker" in America, choreographed by Christensen and premiered by the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. When Christensen came to Salt Lake City in 1952 to form the company that would become Ballet West, he brought his "Nutcracker" along, starting a treasured Utah tradition. Later, Balanchine immigrated to New York and created his own version of "The Nutcracker" for the New York City Ballet.
Though the sugary ballet had been deemed "unsophisticated" in 19th-century Russia, it delighted 20th-century Americans. "The Nutcracker's" family Christmas celebration - complete with squabbling children - resonated here. Its fantasy battle of good and evil between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King echoed the stories Americans buy into time and again through comic books and movies. "Nutcracker" was a ballet all wrong for the European elite, but perfectly suited for mass audiences of the American middle class.
After the New York City Ballet version of "The Nutcracker" premiered in 1954, versions began springing up in professional companies, schools and communities all over the United States. Before long, strains of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" music were wafting through shopping malls and underscoring television commercials. Families began planning their holiday celebrations around trips to see "The Nutcracker." A tradition was born.
These days, many American ballet companies balance their annual budgets through the Christmas bonus provided by "Nutcracker" productions. Young dancers in the United States measure their progress as they grow from role to role in the ballet. In Utah, children who perform as young guests at the Stahlbaums' Christmas Eve party hope for future roles as mice or soldiers. Corps dancers in ballet companies dream of featured roles in the ballet's second-act divertissements, and of someday dancing the grand pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
This year at Ballet West, two visitors from the Old World are experiencing the "Nutcracker" phenomenon in the New World. Kate Lyons and Edward Anderson are in Salt Lake City for a three-month apprenticeship in the Ballet West II program through a grant from Scottish Power (whose local arm is PacifiCorp/Utah Power).
Lyons recently graduated from London's Central School of Ballet, and Anderson is still a student there. Both are 20 years old. The two won their apprenticeships when members of Ballet West's artistic staff did a workshop at the school after the company's appearance at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland this fall.
"In England, 'The Nutcracker' is definitely not done on this kind of scale," Lyons said. "I had only done it once, at age 4, so this is quite a new experience for me. Schools don't do it in the UK, as they do here."
Lyons' baptism into "Nutcracker" frenzy was by immersion: She is dancing with Ballet West's corps in "Dance of the Snowflakes" and "Waltz of the Flowers" and performing as an Arabian dancer, a Chinese dancer and a mother in the Act One party scene. Anderson is performing as a father, mouse, Russian dancer and Mother Buffoon.
"There is no Mother Buffoon in the versions done in England," Lyons said when Anderson mentioned the cross-dressed character with a bevy of tiny dancers under her skirt. "I have no idea what that part's about, really."
As temporary members of Ballet West II, Lyons and Anderson are part of a new program at Ballet West to provide a training ground for pre-professional dancers. Five other dancers have paid contracts through the program, which is open to dancers 18-20 years of age who have never had a professional contract. Ballet West II dancers gain experience through dancing with the Ballet West company in large productions and by giving presentations in schools throughout Utah. The performance segment of the school programs is based around - no surprise - a mini-version of "The Nutcracker."
"If [Lyons and Anderson] are going to work in America, that's going to be a major factor in their careers," said Peter Christie, Ballet West's education director.
Christie said Lyons and Anderson have developed rapidly through doing "Nutcracker" roles in Utah's schools.
"Anderson has really loosened up, and now we can see his sense of humor coming out, and he's been really challenging himself in partnering," Christie said. "Lyons had a bit more maturity coming in, and we gave her some challenges. She's been doing the Sugar Plum Fairy variation, which is tough in any situation. In front of 500 elementary students, it requires a commanding presence onstage to keep those kids in tow."
Who's this Mother Buffoon?
Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker" opens Friday at 7 p.m., featuring music by Tchaikovsky played by the Utah Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Terence Kern. Choreography is by Willam F. Christensen. Evening shows are Friday and Saturday, Dec. 9 to 12; 14 to 19 21 to 23; and 28 to 30. Matinees are Saturday, Dec. 11, 12, 18, 19, 23, 26 and 31 at 2 p.m. with a special holiday matinee on Christmas Eve at noon.
Immediately after matinees (except on Dec. 24 and 31) Ballet West Guild hosts onstage Sugar Plum Parties where children from the audience can join the Sugar Plum Fairy and other characters from the ballet for refreshments and a special treat.
Tickets are $10 to $60; Sugar Plum Party tickets are $5. Call 801-355-ARTS.