Ballet West will soon debut its $3 million renovation of “The Nutcracker,” complete with colorful sets, polished props, sparkling costumes and special effects.
All that newness might leave you wondering about old favorites in the holiday classic conceived by Ballet West founder Willam Christensen, aka Mr. C. What will happen to those heartwarming family moments or exciting toe-touch splits in the air?
To answer those questions and more, we asked artistic director Adam Sklute for a sneak peek of what to expect when “The Nutcracker” begins its 2017 run Saturday, Dec. 2. And as an extra bonus, Ballet West historian and ballet master Bruce Caldwell, who has been involved with the production since 1962, agreed to muse and amuse us with “Nutcracker” stories and insights.
Have parts of the story, characters or choreography changed?
Sklute • None of those things are different. We worked hard to honor Mr. C’s legacy and vision while updating and modifying costuming, sets and props to make it all the more spectacular for 21st-century audiences. Clara will still come in at the end of the party scene and fall asleep on the couch and Dr. Drosselmeyer will all of a sudden appear in the clock face and lead the transformation; the set and how it transforms may be different, but the story is exactly the same.
Are children still prominently featured?
Sklute • Of course! It was very important to Mr. C that his “Nutcracker” was for and about families. Hundreds of children are cast as Party Girls, Party Boys, Soldiers, Pages and Ladies in Waiting, although the Servants are now costumed as monkeys. We are dedicated to giving dance students from schools around the valley, the state and the Intermountain West an opportunity to perform. We wish there were enough spots for all the children who audition, but in the last several years we’ve had more boys and girls than we have parts to fill.
Caldwell • In 1962 I became the first and only boy in the children’s cast. The boys’ roles were all danced by girls with their hair pulled up under caps. I began taking ballet classes in 1961 and was asked if I wanted to be in “The Nutcracker.” After a few years, I had done all the boy roles, so they created the character of Nephew for me. The stage direction Mr. C. gave me was something like, “OK Bruce, there’s Dr. Drosselmeyer, just follow him around and do everything he does.” That was pretty much the script, and is the same to date!
Have changes been made to the giant Mice or the Toy Soldiers?
Sklute • The unique thing about Mr. C’s approach to the Mice is that they are funny, which is really wonderful for families and children. The battle between the mice and the soldiers will be as light-hearted and touching as it has always been. The costumes may no longer need to be held together with safety pins like the old ones, but they are still designed to be cute rather than scary, which some productions tend towards a darker depiction of Dr. Drosselmeyer and the Mice.
Caldwell • I give all the credit to Mr. C for choosing to shape Drosselmeyer with eccentric and extraordinary powers rather than sinister traits. The mice started off just bumbling around and that was fun. But Mr. C encouraged creativity. He would say, “Invent! Show me something, make something up!” and if it was good, we’d keep it. So, in setting my mouse solo, I decided to put in classical ballet steps from “Serenade” and Mr. C laughed because he recognized the references — that’s how those things became part of the choreography. His philosophy was you need three elements to please the crowd, “You want to show them something beautiful, something showy and something funny.”
Are there still life-size wind-up toys at the party?
Sklute • Still have the doll and the bear. Bear is a little fatter than he used to be — I always thought he was a little too skinny for a bear, and Doll actually has little joints at her knees and at her wrists and elbows like a porcelain doll from the time period. Her dress is also a replica of the Sugar Plum Fairy costume we will see in Act II. It’s a way to create continuity and suggest Clara’s imagination in her dream foreshadows the action to come.
Caldwell • Bart Cook [who went on to be a New York City Ballet principal] and I were sharing the role of Bear, and Mr. C had told us to be menacing. Bart thought it would be funny after being so scary to end with the Bear waving goodbye, and it got a laugh and so it’s in there still today. And then the doll started waving and it’s just a good example of how Mr. C ran his company. He always wanted a contribution from the dancers.
Dr. Drosselmeyer, his Nephew and the Clock?
Sklute • The grandfather clock is the one set piece that remains the same — that is because the clock comes from one of the very first productions of “The Nutcracker.” The owl wings as hands on the clock are the same and Drosselmeyer suddenly appearing in the clock face will still be something to look for — it’s a surprise every year!
Caldwell • Yep, nothing else we ever tried could live up to that clock.
Does the Christmas Tree still grow?
Sklute • The Tree will still grow, but to a much larger effect than it does in the old production — how else do you fill that incredible music?
Caldwell • For a long time the music for “Nutcracker” was played by the Utah Symphony conducted by [Maurice] Abravanel, and Mr. C felt secure enough in the orchestra that he didn’t have the Drosselmeyer mime in front, he just let the orchestra play while the tree grew. But it was decided that Drosselmeyer needed to be more center of the action so with Mr. C’s blessing, Louie Godfrey [the ballet master under Bruce Marks] had the idea of adding Drosselmeyer leading the transition and its worked out really well.
What changes were made to Snow, Waltz of the Flowers and Mirlitons?
Sklute • Waltz of the Flowers might look different because the costumes are now in groupings of different colors. That will give a different look but the choreography is exactly the same. Audiences will love the costumes and set changes throughout, they are spectacular.
Caldwell • In Waltz of the Flowers, Mr. C wanted to elevate the art form and show the beauty and simplicity of ballet. In all three of these sections he wanted to illustrate the way music and scenery combine with classical dance to create lasting beauty in the mind of the beholder. In the snow scene the corps moves briskly representing the flurry of the season, while giving the soloists bravura steps like leaps and catches that would make the audience gasp. In the Mirliton variation, he gave the dancers reed flutes to hold, again suggesting the relationship with the music. Mr. C’s original Mirlitons choreography had very difficult (and painful) hops en pointe. When we began doing more numerous performances, that movement got changed to a bit more dancer-friendly version. That way the ladies that had to do multiple performances could stay healthy.
Is the Russian Dance as exciting as always?
Sklute • The most important piece of history that we have in the ballet is the Russian divertissement because it is a reproduction of the original dance that the Christensen brothers performed together on the vaudeville circuit.
Caldwell • In some of the earlier versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” different choreographers used the Trepak [traditional Ukrainian folk dance] as one of the divertissements in Act IV. So Mr. C decided to put the Trepak in his “Nutcracker” and use the Cossack-style boots and hats. I told the boys in rehearsal the other day, “Russian is not easy, it’s hard on the knees and exhausting, but it could be worse — at least it’s an audience favorite and you always get an ovation.” … When really young I wanted to be in Russian. I had my eye on getting into Russian from Day One. I had been doing Nephew and Mouse and everything else. I finally got my shot at Russian at 16 – and went bounding onto stage, tripped on a board and fell flat on my face. I’ll never forget it.
Will you still do the full Sugar Plum Grand Pas de Deux?
Sklute • The Sugar Plum Fairy variation is something that has changed a lot throughout the years. All the artistic directors — Bruce Marks, Mr. [John] Hart and Jonas [Kåge] — changed her pas and her variations. Mine is based on a historic Royal Ballet version. I restored the totality of the music, making it a harder pas but more historically accurate.
Caldwell • It’s been changed with each BW artistic director. Some companies only do the pas de deux without the variations or coda, and some move the pas to the beginning of Act II. But Mr. C wanted to keep it whole for a couple reasons; one was to maintain the integrity of the classical ballet tradition and end with a Grand Pas de Deux. Also, it was a way to challenge the men so they had to do the whole tarantella [quick tempo], and the coda with the pirouettes at the end, and the manèges of piqués and big jumps. It’s the only place where men are really challenged classically in “Nutcracker.” In Waltz of the Flowers, the guy gets a couple cabrioles and two pirouettes.
Click here for a video and more on the Sugar Plum Grand Pas de Deux.
Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”
When •Dec. 2-30; evening showtimes at 7 p.m., with additional matinees; check balletwest.org/events/nutcracker2017 for showtimes
Where• Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets• $20-$88, at ArtTix outlets, 801-869-6920 or balletwest.org
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
Mother Buffoon’s nutty debut
Before Willam Christensen came to Salt Lake City in 1951 to found the company that by 1963 would become Ballet West, he and his brothers co-founded San Francisco Ballet and launched the first complete American production of “The Nutcracker” in 1944.
Bené Arnold, whose history also traverses the two companies as ballet mistress, recalls a story that reveals much about the commitment of performers and why costumes sometimes need to be updated.
San Francisco Ballet dancer and costumer designer Russell Hartley (1926-83) was performing the part of Mother Buffoon for Willam Christensen’s early versions of “The Nutcracker,” she explained.
“Bill cast Russell in the part because he was tall and Mother Buffoon’s skirt needed to be big enough for the children to hide under, as they’ve always done and still do to this day. So the skirt, the sleeves, the headpiece and the whole costume was exaggerated in size and when Russell put it on and looked in the mirror, he thought his face looked too small in comparison and began to think of ways to make his head seem larger to balance the costume.
“He got the idea of taking whole, in-the-shell walnuts and putting them in his cheeks to puff them out and make them look fuller. So he did that, and went onstage and did Mother Buffoon, and the Finale and everything, but when he went to take his costume and makeup off, he could not get the walnuts out of his cheeks. On both sides of his mouth, the walnuts had slipped back behind his molars. Even with the help of the crew and cast, no one could get them out.
“At that time, there was a small hospital near the San Francisco Opera House, so they rushed over there and the medical staff used surgical instruments to crack the walnuts and dig them out of his mouth. The story goes that the doctors and nurses had a terrible time trying to keep a straight face because they said they had never had anyone come in with a diagnosis of ‘walnuts stuck in his cheeks.’ ”