Ballet West alums share magical 'Nutcracker' memories
What do a 74-year-old Salt Lake City woman, a young ballerina in New York City, a South African singing sensation and close-knit family spread between Utah and Virginia have in common? They are all part of the Ballet West history and tradition of Willam F. Christensen's "The Nutcracker," which will soon make its annual holiday-season run at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City.
Hundreds of performers have been part of this tradition since its debut in Utah in 1955. Some of them will be in the audience this year, while still more will be there in spirit. Each of these dancers has a story to tell. We've chosen just a few here.
The first Clara
Nancy Gold McFall, now 74 of Salt Lake City, was 15 when she debuted the role of Clara in 1955.
"It is so fun to have 'Nutcracker' in my life and in my history," she says. "I was the very first Clara and it was my role for six years. I loved being in it so much that I couldn't go see it for years afterward. 'The Nutcracker' has always been my thing, my show."
McFall came to the attention of Christensen, known as Mr. C, when she started taking ballet technique classes in his Sugar House studio and became his teaching assistant at age 12.
"He was like a second father to me," she says. "I learned so much from him about discipline and the etiquette of the theater. If anyone was two minutes late for class, they weren't allowed to enter, and the rest of my life I've been 15 minutes early for everything."
Her funniest "Nutcracker" experience? "I was two months pregnant the last year I was Clara and they had to alter my costume so I wouldn't show." McFall says she was so "terrified to tell Mr. C" about the pregnancy, she enlisted help from her doctor, Walter Harold Horton (whose sons also were involved in the production and who would go on to deliver all three of her children).
"So he told Mr. C for me and that was my last season as Clara."
McFall later performed and directed regional theater productions in Utah and served on the Arts Council. She continues to serve the arts community as an usher at Abravanel Hall, the Capitol Theater and the JeannÃ© Wagner Theater.
Another memorable "Nutcracker" experience came when her granddaughter Ashley Hansen was cast as Clara in the 1998 Ballet West production. Earlier, one of Horton's sons, Gary Horton, then artistic director of Mountain West Ballet in Sandy, cast Nancy in the role of mother and Ashley as her daughter.
"I'm still doing theater and the things that I love," she says. "I just got back from the Mountain Jubilee Chorus international competition in Hawaii; it's a chapter of the Sweet Adelines International. I love getting the applause and knowing I've touched the audience in some way. I've been doing that ever since I was 5 years old and I don't want to stop now."
From buffoons and baby mice to Balanchine
At 17, Baily Jones is in her third year and in the highest-level ballet class at the prestigious School for American Ballet. (SAB is New York City Ballet's school, established by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934.)
Her "Nutcracker" performances with Ballet West were equally accomplished. Baily was Clara from 2007-09 and was Ballet West's first child to perform the part en pointe. She was on the cover of the program in 2009 with John Frazer as the Prince.
"The first year I went to audition for 'Nutcracker' I was too short for any part and couldn't even audition," she says. "But the following years I got to be a Buffoon, a baby mouse, a party princess, and the next three years I was Clara.
"It was such a good experience and it gave me a warm, wonderful feeling to be part of something so special around Christmas. I remember looking up into the faces of the professional dancers who were all so nice and would smile at me onstage to help me feel more comfortable. One time backstage I was struggling to see and one of the male dancers put me on his shoulders."
Baily says she will be home in Utah for the holidays with her ever-supportive family. She wouldn't miss "The Nutcracker."
"Even though it feels strange not to be onstage myself, there is something about being at 'The Nutcracker,' especially the one I grew up with, that makes it feel like Christmas."
'Catchy' career start
Joseph Clark is an acclaimed singer, actor and dancer who has performed with orchestras across South Africa, Europe and the U.S. for some of the largest audiences in the world, including a turn singing for Nelson Mandela's 85th-birthday celebration.
Who could guess it all started with a high-school production of "The Nutcracker" in a Texas town?
Clark, who danced with Ballet West from 1979-88, became acquainted with "The Nutcracker" as a teenager in Amarillo, Texas, in 1973. His school's drama teacher, Neil Hess, had been a student of Christensen's at the University of Utah and opened a dance studio in Amarillo. In 1972, Hess asked permission to produce "The Nutcracker," and Christensen agreed. (It is the only fully high-school production of the ballet in the United States.)
That year, Clark was a junior in the Tascosa High School choir, singing Christmas carols in the theater foyer when his friend Bill Thorton suggested they take in a sold-out performance of "The Nutcracker" with free tickets from an usher-friend.
"The Tascosa High School Orchestra began to play the overture and I found it rather catchy," Clark recalls. "The curtain rose to reveal the set a grand, turn-of-the century family home. Through the windows you could see a family and servants getting ready for a party. Performers costumed in warm scarves and heavy coats arrived at the party two bumping into each other as they went through the door. The lights shifted, and inside the house we could see a family readying to greet their guests.
"I was enjoying it but finally I turned to Bill and said, 'I think we're sitting too far back because I can't hear a word they're saying!' Bill looked at me, and shaking his head, said, 'It's a ballet! They don't speak, they just dance.' "
Clark planned on slipping out at intermission. "But when the first act ended, I leapt to my feet applauding. ... The next day at the end of drama class I asked Mr. Hess how I could get started doing this 'ballet thing.' "
Several years later, Clark would leave New York City, where he had moved to study at the School for American Ballet, to audition for Ballet West. In his near-decade in Salt Lake City, he says he never grew tired of "The Nutcracker," especially "in the late '70s and early '80s when we were the only ballet company in the U.S. to tour a full-length production. I was only too happy to jump on that bus!"
"The Nutcracker" is a cherished holiday tradition for many families in Utah. The Petersons took that a step further when they moved to Salt Lake City in 1992.
Peterson daughters Beth and Mary Alyssa and son Richard have danced practically every children's part in "The Nutcracker." Parents Lois and Richard are major supporters of Ballet West.
While the family moved back to Virginia recently, they visit Salt Lake City often; son Richard attends the University of Utah, where he is studying engineering.
"On our second date, way back in 1979, Richard took me to the Kennedy Center to see Eliot Feld's ballet company," Lois Peterson recalls. "He didn't know yet that I loved ballet and had studied dance, so I found it particularly charming that he chose it. When we left the performance that night he said he was surprised at how much he liked it, and it became something we have enjoyed together, along with our children, ever since."
The younger Richard Peterson draws comparisons between his ballet experience and his university studies.
"Engineering and the arts are similar in that they both require very structured yet creative thinking. You have to be disciplined but also think outside the box," he says. "I don't think I was quite aware of that, though, when I was 11 and 12 years old and performing in 'The Nutcracker.' "
There were other things on his mind at the time. "All of us younger boys were a little out of control backstage," he says. "We'd start playing with props backstage and the stage crew wouldn't be too happy with us, and the security officer would lean out his door and frown at us.
"Perhaps most interesting at the time was that the dressing rooms were under construction, so the girls and boys dressing rooms were only divided by a wall of stacked-up chairs so there was a little intrigue there, I'm not going to lie."
Beth Peterson, 24, a department manager of accessories at the Nordstrom Rack in Fairfax, Va., recalls the "magic" and "a little bit of fame" being associated with Ballet West's "Nutcracker."
"It's exciting to be onstage with the professional dancers, the costumes, lights, makeup and hair," she says.
"The hair reminds me of a story that makes me laugh, although at the time it didn't seem so funny. The year I was one of the Ladies in Waiting, we had finished dancing and I felt exhilarated exciting the stage when suddenly I was yanked backward in space by my bun! It was BenÃ© Arnold (the children's rehearsal director at the time) who was holding me by my bun and telling me that my bun did not look professional and I should go fix it. BenÃ© and I have laughed about that over the years because although I no longer dance, BenÃ© has asked me to come back and help the children backstage with their makeup and I understand the professional standards she was instilling in us. This will be the first time in 21 years that I will not see it or be in BW's 'Nutcracker.' "
Mary Alyssa Peterson, an eighth-grader in Virginia, earned the coveted part of Clara at Ballet West's Kennedy Center performance last year.
"Often there is a lot of excitement, nerves and confusion in the dressing room and backstage before a performance," she says, "but for me once I get onstage all that goes away and I feel calm and happy."
'Shall we dance?'
Michael and Victoria Lock Bearden both danced with Ballet West, and though they rarely danced together, they each received critical acclaim for featured roles in "The Nutcracker" and many other ballets. Victoria retired after the 2010-11 season, the same year she was cast in the coveted role of Sugar Plum Fairy. Michael retired as a principal dancer in May 2013. He is now faculty in the Department of Ballet at the University of Utah and artistic director of Ballet Arkansas. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
Michael Bearden vividly recalls meeting Victoria on the first day of work of the 1999-2000 season.
"My roommate here in SLC knew Victoria from Houston Ballet Company where she trained. He told me, 'There's this girl named Victoria Lock who just got a job with BW, too, and I think you'd like her.'
"So I thought I'd look out for this girl my first day at work, and sure enough the first day I saw her I thought she was absolutely gorgeous and so we had class but I couldn't really talk to her."
When he noticed that Victoria lacked a partner, he marched up to artistic director Jonas KÃ¥ge and easily wrangled a role with her.
"I walked into rehearsal and walked up to Victoria, and in an attempt to be charming, I said, 'Shall we dance?' We were married in the summer of 2005 in a ceremony up Mill Creek Canyon."
Bearden says he was more nervous watching Victoria perform the Sugar Plum role than being onstage himself. "Of course, she danced it beautifully and I only wish she could have danced more years in the role."
Says Victoria Bearden: "I had a long career, and having the honor of performing Sugar Plum Fairy was a nice finish to my career. It was something I'd always hoped for and it came true. I wish I could have performed it again, but I was ready to move on with my life. I retired in May and was excited to learn I was pregnant in November. Ballet is still very important to me. I love teaching at Ballet West Academy and I love being a mother, so we have a pretty wonderful life together."
Ballet West's 'Nutcracker'
"The Nutcracker" tells of a Christmas party at which little Clara, daughter of the house, receives the gift of a nutcracker from her mysterious uncle. After the party, she falls asleep and dreams of snow castles, sugarplums and her nutcracker, which has turned into a handsome prince.
When • Dec. 6-28; 2 and 7 p.m. performances
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29-$79; arttix.org or at 801-355-ARTS
Sugar Plum Party
The magic of "The Nutcracker" continues after the matinee performances end. Join the Sugar Plum Fairy and her friends onstage for punch, cookies and photos.
When • Saturday, Dec. 7; Sunday, Dec. 15; Friday through Monday, Dec. 20-23; Thursday, Dec. 26; and Saturday, Dec. 28, 4:15 p.m.
Tickets • $7.50; arttix.org
Join Ballet West for its annual spoof on this holiday favorite.
When • Monday, Dec. 30, 7 p.m.
Tickets • $29-$79; arttix.org