A bill could designate Utah’s first ‘living historic landmark.’ Here’s what it is.

Sen. Luz Escamilla is looking past state symbols to honor parts of Utah’s cultural scene.

(Beau Pearson | Ballet West) A young dancer portrays Clara in Ballet West's 2018 production of "The Nutcracker." State Sen. Luz Escamilla has introduced a bill in the Utah Legislature to designate Ballet West's production, credited as the first version of "The Nutcracker" in the United States, as an official Utah "living historic landmark."

Utah has a state flower (the sego lily), a state emblem (the beehive), even a state folk dance (the square dance) among its many designated symbols.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, is looking to expand that notion of Utah icons to living humans and their works.

Escamilla, the Senate minority leader, has introduced a bill, SB175, that would create the category of an official Utah “living historic landmark” — defined in the bill as “a significant historic cultural event designated by the state as significant to the history, culture, economy, and character of the state.”

“It’s not uncommon,” Escamilla said, for the Utah Legislature to create such honors for Utah-centric items, but “we’ve never designated something that is part of the arts and culture in this way.” She acknowledged that it took a bit of “outside-the-box thinking” to come up with the “living historic landmark” designation.

The bill — which passed unanimously out of a Senate committee Friday — also designates what would be the first such living landmark: Ballet West’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

“You usually think of a landmark as something that you can see or physically touch,” Escamilla said, “but this is everything that encompasses ballet and the arts, and the fact that they’re here in our backyard is incredible.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, has introduced a bill in the Utah Legislature to create a designation of an official Utah "living historic landmark." The first entity to receive that designation, under Escamilla's bill, is Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker."

Ballet West hails its version of “The Nutcracker,” turning 80 this year, as the first ever produced in the United States. According to Andrew Goldberg, the company’s senior director of external affairs, it “really set off what has become this cascading domino effect of interest, in the ‘Nutcracker’ music by Tchaikovsky and the story, around the country. It’s become a holiday staple in every major city in this country.”

Willam Christensen, who founded Ballet West (originally Utah Civic Ballet) in 1963, is credited with adapting the Russian ballet into the first full-length U.S. production of “The Nutcracker” in 1944 at San Francisco Ballet (which he also founded).

He debuted the show’s choreography in Utah in 1955, at the University of Utah’s ballet theater. (Christensen, a Brigham City native, also founded the U.’s ballet program in 1951.) “The Nutcracker” has been performed in Utah every year since, Goldberg said.

Ballet West, Goldberg said, is “ecstatic” about the possibility of Escamilla’s bill passing the Legislature, creating something that will “bring a lot of attention both locally and nationally.”

The hope, Goldberg said, is “that the country will start to see Salt Lake City as the home of America’s first ‘Nutcracker’ and a place to come visit in December.”

Escamilla said seeing “The Nutcracker” is an annual tradition in her family — and Tchaikovsky’s music is in rotation on their playlists year-round, not just in December.

“My two youngest girls have been dancing ballet since they were four,” she said, adding that they also dance with a ballet folklórico group, learning traditional dances of Mexico and Central and South America.

“You breathe, smell, feel, hear and see ballet,” she said. “It encompasses everything. … When you’ve experienced it, you will understand that it triggers all of your senses.”

Escamilla — who sits on the boards of Hale Centre Theatre and Utah Symphony | Utah Opera — said she got more engaged with Ballet West when the company started work on opening a school in West Valley City, in Escamilla’s district. She said she’s excited to see children on Salt Lake County’s west side have the opportunity to learn dance, and maybe one day become professional dancers.

“As representing the most diverse senate district in the state, and one of the lowest in terms of income, I want to make sure my constituents have every right to access and be participating [in the] incredible arts and culture that we have in the state,” Escamilla said.

Culture is also a driver of tourism, according to the Utah Cultural Alliance, in a study released this month about the state’s cultural industry in 2022. One data point: 13% of Utah visitors in the last five years said they came to the state specifically for cultural offerings.

“It’s important to highlight the economic contributions of arts and culture [organizations], their resiliency during pandemic, thinking outside the box for performances and keeping our community safe while still keeping jobs for many families,” Escamilla said.

Escamilla said her bill is just the first step in recognizing the state’s “living historic landmarks.” The bill would allow future nominations by the Legislature’s Legislative Management Committee.

The designation, Escamilla said, could fit many things in Utah.

“We learn from each other and see each other through arts and culture: music, ballet, dance, any form of art,” she said. “One of the ways you teach history is through arts — and certainly ‘The Nutcracker’ [is] a beautiful piece, an international piece. To say that it happened in Utah first … is pretty unique, and we should embrace that and celebrate that.”