Ballet West’s production of “The Nutcracker” is not only a Utah tradition, it’s the longest-running production of its kind in the United States. Maybe in the world.
First presented by the San Francisco Ballet in 1944, the choreography came to Salt Lake City with its creator, Willam Christensen, when he moved to Utah. He founded the University of Utah’s ballet department in 1951, and Ballet West in 1963.
And, three-quarters of a century after it was first performed, the ballet is celebrated in “75th Anniversary of America’s First Nutcracker,” a commemorative book by Josh Jones and Sara M.K. Neal that’s full of anecdotes, history and gorgeous photography — and more than a few fun facts. Including:
Vaudeville performers • Christensen and his brothers, born and raised in Brigham City, spent several years in the 1920s and 1930s on the Orpheum Circuit of theaters, dancing ballet “sandwiched between animal acts and headliners like W.C. Fields.”
Hard to believe • “Surprisingly, ‘The Nutcracker’ had never been performed in its entirety in the United States before 1944, when Christensen went searching for a ballet to fill the San Francisco Opera Ballet’s coffers.”
Bad reviews • The first ballet iteration of “The Nutcracker” — music by Tchaikovsky, choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov — debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. Critics were not impressed, calling it “lopsided” and “corpulent.”
Inspired by Disney • Christensen was prompted, in part, by overhearing people humming Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” after it was included in Disney’s “Fantasia.”
Cheap threads • For the original production in San Francisco in 1944, the San Francisco Ballet (also founded by Christensen) spent “less than $7 per costume.” The cast’s jackets were made from the red velvet curtain that had hung in a theater that was demolished.
Buy the book
“75th Anniversary of America’s First Nutcracker” costs $30, and is available at Weller Book Works, 607 Trolley Square; balletwest.org; and online at Amazon.
Happy and chubby • According to costume designers, Christensen was very particular about the mice. He wanted them to be “happy, chubby little mice,” David Huevel said. “He didn’t like that some ‘Nutcracker’ productions portrayed them as scary or skinny mice.”
All-male mice • In the early years of the production, both men and women danced inside mouse costumes. Currently, the women “are typically in the basement dressing rooms changing into their tutus for the snow scene” while the mice are dancing above them.
Bear with him • Dancing in the bear costume isn’t easy. “It can be terrifying,” said Ballet West soloist Jordan Veit. “You have no peripheral vision. And, of course, it’s hot in there. As soon as the head comes off, wardrobe is there to give you water and help you out of the suit.”
Cutting edge technology • The current version of the nutcracker doll (there are three for the show) was created on a 3D printer.
Changing the look • The costumes and sets were redesigned in 2018 to reflect the year 1816, when E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was published. The soldiers’ uniforms are inspired by French and Russian soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars of that era.
Grandfatherly • The grandfather clock in the current production was created in the early 1960s and has been in every production since. Originally flat, sides were later added.
In good company • The flying sleigh was created by the same designers who produce flying elements for Katy Perry and Taylor Swift’s tours.
“Nutcracker” on ice? • Olympic figure skater and three-time national champion Nathan Chen trained at the Ballet West Academy for six years and performed in “The Nutcracker” (and “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake”).
Recycled snow • The snowfall in the snow scene is created by two crew members “who gently rock long canvas bags full of shredded plastic.” The plastic snow flakes are swept up and reused.
Rejecting racism • In 2013, Ballet West changed the Chinese dance segment to eliminate the stereotypical costumes, steps and movements. A Chinese warrior fighting a Chinese dragon was substituted. Artistic director Adam Sklute was inspired by (and received permission from) the San Francisco Ballet’s version — which was choreographed by Christensen’s brother, Lew.
Old Russia • The energetic Russian dance is believed to be the oldest choreography in “The Nutcracker” — it was performed by the Christensen brothers on the vaudeville circuit. (William Christensen died in 2001 at the age of 99.)
Buffoonery • The role of Mother Buffoon — two men, one atop the other, in an elaborate, enormous costume — can be “a bit perilous.” The man on the bottom has to push the “massive, steel dress” around the stage, even though he can “barely see” where he’s going. According to former soloist Ed Farley, the entire structure fell over a few times.
More mishaps and miscues • Farley also recalled the time a mouse’s head fell off and a dancer kicked it offstage; the time the nutcracker’s head broke off and went flying toward the audience — only to be caught in midair by the conductor; and the time too much fog from the dry ice made the stage slippery and at least five dancers “decked it.”
When • Dec. 12-15, 18-24 and 26
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
Tickets • $29-124, available at boxoffice.balletwest.org, arttix.org and at the box office
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.