As a young child, Melanie Watts Robbins spent many rapt hours watching her father conduct the Utah Symphony for Ballet West's "The Nutcracker." Ardean Watts was the Utah Symphony's associate conductor in the 1960s and '70s, and young Melanie loved watching his energetic baton work.
It was the sight of the beautiful ballerinas twirling across the stage that captured her heart, though, making the girl ache to dance, dance, dance.
She longed for lessons, and to one day win the role of Clara, young heroine of "The Nutcracker."
She did that and much more. Dancing Clara led to a ballet life that was bigger than she had ever imagined. And now her three children are dancing in Ballet West's "Nutcracker" a production that has overtaken the holiday season across three generations of the Watts and Robbins families.
The many Utah families who work their holiday schedules around ferrying children to "Nutcracker" rehearsals and performances and the audience members who make attending "Nutcracker" a treasured annual tradition might see a bit of themselves in the Watts/Robbins' story.
Ardean and Elna Watts made sure their eight children had opportunities to attend arts events, and insisted each learn to play the piano and at least one other instrument. Melanie learned to play piano and flute, but music wasn't her destiny. "Melanie chose dancing," Watts said. "It was obvious that she had a body for dancing, and gift for expressing herself."
Melanie began dancing at age 8, and danced in her first "Nutcracker" performance at age 9, with her father at the podium. (He remembers blowing kisses when she danced to the front of the stage.)
At age 12, she won the role of Clara, touring with Ballet West for five weeks throughout the region in the role. At the end of performances, when the conductor joined the dancers onstage for bows, Watts held his daughter's hand as they accepted the applause.
"It was awesome," Robbins recalls. "He knew everybody, and he understood my world like nobody else could do."
During the holidays, life in the Watts home revolved around many weeks of "Nutcracker" performances and rehearsals, shaping and defining the family's traditions. For Melanie, holiday "Nut"-iness continued during an apprenticeship with San Francisco Ballet and a stint at Cincinnati Ballet.
In 1989, Robbins came home to Utah, and danced as a Ballet West artist through 1995. "Nutcracker" still came around every year, and she danced every ballerina role in it multiple times.
Unlike the many dancers who tire of the annual repetition, though, Robbins never lost enthusiasm for the ballet that set her life on its course. "It's such a drill, because there are so many performances every year the same thing over and over," she says. "But I just loved it. It was my childhood."
Her father has counted up more than 800 "Nutcracker" performances he conducted. Watts tried to make each one special and new, and says the innate quality of Tchaikovsky's score helped. He believes it to be equal or superior to any other ballet score. "The score is both challenging and an artistic marvel," he said.
Melanie and husband, Mark Robbins, a restaurateur who owns Ruth's Chris Steak House franchise, determined they wouldn't push their children toward the arts, but would support their interests. Their two daughters and one son have shown varying degrees of interest in dance, and all three are performing in this year's "Nutcracker."
Ian, 8, is in his first "Nutcracker" this year, playing an unruly party boy. So far, dancing in the production with his sisters is the extent of his interest in ballet, but he says he's having fun.
Oldest daughter Elena, 13, danced in the "Nutcracker" two years ago, but took last year off to pursue other interests. "I sat and watched the performance and got really jealous, and regretted not doing it," Elena said. She's back this year, as one of the Sugar Plum Fairy's pages.
Estelle Robbins, 10, echoes her mother in her enthusiasm for "The Nutcracker." She's dancing in her third production, this time as a party girl. In addition, she attends Ballet West Academy five days a week.
Dancing in the show the past two years made Estelle feel "really big and important," and taught her how to follow directions and maintain self-discipline, she said. Estelle knows what she wants: "Just to keep on doing 'Nutcracker' and dancing with Ballet West. I really want to be Clara."
For Grandpa Watts, the reprise of watching his grandchildren dance in "The Nutcracker" again is a sweet experience.
"It's a big deal in my life," said Watts, who at age 84 remains an avid supporter of Utah's artistic culture. "My conducting career has been over for almost 20 years, but I can be lured back to the ballet very easily when my kids are performing. It's not that your children are living your dreams. It's that they are living their dreams, and that is far more important."
The return of 'The Nutcracker'
Ballet West presents Willam Christensen's "The Nutcracker" to music of Tchaikovsky for 25 matinee and evening performances. Terence Kern conducts the live orchestra.
Where • Ballet West at Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
When • Dec. 2-31; nightly at 7 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Dec. 24 and 26. Note: no shows on Sundays and selected Mondays and Tuesdays; check balletwest.org for specific showtimes
Info • $19-$75 (plus service fees) at 801-355-ARTS and arttix.org.
More • Sugar Plum parties for children are an additional $5, and are held after matinees (except Dec. 24 and 31).
Also • "Nutty Nutcracker" performances on Friday, Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. feature whimsical surprises tucked inside the traditional choreography.
In Ogden • "The Nutcracker" will also be performed in Ogden on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. at the Val A. Browning Center, 3750 Harrison Blvd. on the Weber State University campus. For more information, visit symphonyballet.org.