A ballet company in Sandy has turned "The Nutcracker" into a community affair, giving families a chance to see an affordable performance starring some familiar faces.
"We're trying to open up opportunities for dancers in the valley and also for the audience," said Jill Mueller, artistic director of Mountain West Ballet's 28th annual staging of "The Nutcracker," which finishes its two-week run this weekend. The company is "semi-professional," Mueller said, featuring advanced dance students and early-career professionals in the solo roles while finding parts for every dancer who auditions.
"The upper-level students are really pursuing professional careers, so they're great dancers; the audience really gets a good show for the price that they're paying," Mueller said.
That is the mission of Mountain West Ballet to offer performances that are bigger in scale than individual studios normally stage, but still accessible for audiences who can't shell out the big bucks to see an elite professional troupe, Mueller said.
It's a mission supported, in part, by taxpayers, who will contribute $18,927 to the organization next year through the Zoo, Arts and Parks program.
Each year, Salt Lake County taxpayers spend millions of dollars on museums, theaters, orchestras, ballet companies and other culturals arts organizations through a voter-approved ZAP tax, which adds a penny to every $10 in sales.
Some attractions receive high-dollar contributions (the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera and Hogle Zoo are the biggest beneficiaries with about $2 million apiece), while others snag considerably smaller sums (four organizations will get less than $1,000 next year including Samoan Youth for Tomorrow, StageRight Theater Company, the Wasatch Symphony and the Western Military History Association).
ZAP funding is expected to reach more than 160 organizations next year, including the Mountain West Ballet.
In addition to affordability, Mountain West gives aspiring dancers a chance to perform principal roles in large productions. For the first time, 15-year-old Morgan Hastings is lacing her shoes below the coveted pink tutu and bejeweled bodice that glitters in the imaginations of every little ballerina who sees "The Nutcracker."
"I always dreamed of being the Sugar Plum Fairy when I got older, but I never thought I'd get that part at this young age," Hastings said before her opening-night debut. A sophomore at Hillcrest High School, Hastings worked her way up the ranks, from "party girl" five years ago, through the snow chorus and soldier dolls, the protagonist Clara and, last year, the Arabian Princess.
"It's really hard to get a larger part in a bigger company like Ballet West, and it's just such a great learning experience to show your progress," Hastings said.
Two casts of principals alternate shows, and the organization's no-cut policy makes room for all 300-plus dancers who audition, mostly children. Six- and 7-year-olds dance under a fabric dragon costume that slithers around the soloist for the Chinese Tea dance in Act II. A lot of children hide below the massive skirt of "Madame Bonbonaire."
"We found cute little places for [young children] to be," Mueller said.
The combination of community fun and professional artistry such as the hand-sewn costumes and yearly-updated sets is what makes the performance special for 18-year-old Alex Johnson, who is playing the Sugar Plum Fairy for her second year and closing the show on Monday night.
"This 'Nutcracker' is really cool because they have different students from all around, all the way from Bountiful to Sandy, and they get great parts," Johnson said.
See 'The Nutcracker'
When • 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday; 2 p.m. matinee Saturday.
Where • Mount Jordan Middle School, 9360 S. 300 East, Sandy
Admission • $8 children, $10 students and seniors, $12 adults for regular seating; $2 more for premium seating.
Tickets are available one hour before performances or in advance at mountainwestballet.org. Add handling fee of 50 cents per ticket for advance purchases.