Ballet West’s beloved ‘Nutcracker’ unveils a $3 million design makeover

Preview • The popular holiday tradition opening Dec. 2 shows off its Utah roots.

(Courtesy photo by Beau Pearson) | Ballet West dancers in newl costumes for the snow scene in "The Nutcracker."

Here’s what fans need to know about Ballet West’s redesigned “Nutcracker”: The namesake doll is just one of hundreds of props, sets and costumes that have received a respectful makeover. And The Nutcracker himself will look familiar to longtime fans, but he’s more handsome.

The classic prop — created via a 3-D printer — is costumed to look more similar to the story’s dream-of-a prince character. It’s just one of scores of cosmetic updates designed to tie together story and design elements, all underscoring the ballet’s storybook feel, says artistic director Adam Sklute.

Fanciful and familiar, but more beautiful: The $3 million makeover aims to maintain the essence of the beloved production created by Ballet West founder Willam Christensen, “while adding greater vibrancy and whimsy,” Sklute says. The 30-year-old production designs were held together by duct tape, officials joke.

(Courtesy image by Beau Pearson) Hand-sewn Sugar Plum tutus, redesigned by David Heuvel for this year's production of "The Nutcracker," feature 16 yards of tulle and Swarovski crystals.

Design changes woven throughout the production are now anchored in the look of the 1820s, the era when E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote the novella that would inspire the world’s most popular story ballet. The scenery, with sets by John Wayne Cook and London’s Dick and Belinda Bird, was inspired by the artistic whimsy of the late Utah artist James Christensen, Sklute says. Massive set canvases were painted by artists on forklifts at Utah Opera Studios.

The most dramatic set change will be the hothouse foliage inside a glass-walled atrium in Act II, adding to the story’s dreamlike atmosphere, says production manager Kimberly Klearman.

Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” <br>When • Dec. 2-30; evening showtimes at 7 p.m., with additional matinees; check balletwest.org/events/nutcracker2017 for showtimes<br> Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $20-$88, at ArtTix outlets, 801-869-6920 or balletwest.org<br> Sugar Plum Party • Dec. 9-30 after most matinee performances; join the Sugar Plum Fairy and friends onstage for cookies and punch, an ornament and photo; $11

The new production elements include a drop curtain, adorned with painted ornaments of the characters who will come alive as the story unfolds. A puppet show featuring the characters of Clara and the Prince will be performed during the overture to the second act. And the costumes for Clara’s doll and the Sugar Plum Fairy will be more closely linked through matching gold capes with butterfly wings.

Longtime “Nutcracker” fans should also look for set paintings that nod to Utah’s history, such as images of the original Salt Palace. Another Beehive State-inspired makeover is a new costume for Mother Buffoon. She’s now a Queen Bee, in a yellow-and-black taffeta skirt, from which eight little bees will appear. “Everywhere people look there is going to be some sort of reference about the ballet, about Ballet West’s history, about Utah,” Klearman says. “It’s just magical.”

It’s the third time around crafting new Ballet West “Nutcracker” costumes for designer David Heuvel.

Changes will be visible immediately in the opening act’s party scene, as the costumes of the girls and women will feature the era’s higher empire waist lines, rather than bustles. Appearing as party guests will be new characters, six boys dressed as monkeys, rather than Asian servants, as in Christensen’s original choreography.

In the second act, new classical tutus for the ballerinas were crafted from 16 yards of tulle, then decorated with 806 hand-sewn Swarovski crystals. “We counted,” Sara M.K. Neal, interim marketing director, says with a laugh. For the snow scene, Romantic-length layered and tiered tutus were made from hand-painted silk organza, the skirts designed to float around like snow, Heuvel says.

The Prince will now be adorned in a blue uniform jacket with tails, as well as trousers and ballet boots, rather than a short gold military jacket and tights. At the end, he and Clara will take flight to the stars in a new sleigh.

For all the changes, there’s this: Longtime “Nutcracker” fans will appreciate a new version of the iconic growing Christmas tree, which will expand, for a 3-D effect, rather than grow taller.

And all of the production’s new design elements will still be anchored in time, thanks to the looming presence of the grandfather clock, an iconic set piece originally built for Ballet West’s first production of “The Nutcracker.”

(Courtesy photo) The Stahlbaums' grandfather clock is believed to be the only set piece still in rotation from Ballet West's original production of "The Nutcracker."