Washington • It’s America’s stage, but this week, it belonged to a Utah ballet company.
Ballet West swooped into Washington this week to perform “The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center, one of the most sought-after and prestigious venues in the nation.
And in their third return to the center in six years, the dancers awed the crowd in a vivid presentation of William Christensen’s version of the Russian ballet.
“This is not only a beautifully danced and gorgeously designed production,” wrote The Washington Post’s dance critic, Sarah L. Kaufman, “it’s also historic.”
Ballet West holds the record for America’s first and longest-running performance of “The Nutcracker,” which Christensen created in 1944 based on a Russian version. Christensen first produced “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco after learning from the Russian dancers about the 19th-century ballet and later brought it to Salt Lake City in 1951.
It's been re-adapted since, including a $3 million upgrade last year.
Lighting effects now create magic, costumes bring oohs and aahs and intricate set designs transport the audience inside the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Mother Buffoon, played Thursday by Beau Pearson, was so engaging, the audience clapped along and the little bee-costumed buffoons hiding under the skirt were so adorable, they returned to the stage for a second bow. The Mouse King, played Thursday by Tyler Gum, had patrons roiling with laughter in his over-dramatic death. A standing ovation at the end lasted several minutes.
For Ballet West, the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center was too big to pass up, even if it meant pausing their Utah shows for a week to transport all the sets, costumes and dancers to the nation's capital.
“It is an enormous honor for a Utah company to be performing on America’s stage,” said Ballet West’s artistic director Adam Sklute. “I mean, think about it: We are representing our state but we’re also representing our art form and representing arts in America. I think of Ballet West as one of the primary arts ambassadors to the state of Utah. And we are very, very proud to hold that mantle.”
Sklute, who was one of the first artists to sign on to a movement to drop a scene in “The Nutcracker” that used tired and insulting Chinese culture references, including the use of yellowface and pointy hats, said one of the big changes he made in Ballet West’s production was to make that part in Act II more of a “celebration, not a mockery.”
“What might have been acceptable as a representation of Chinese culture in 1944 is simply not so anymore,” Sklute said. “And we have to look at how we approach presenting these representations.”
This year’s performance included a Chinese warrior fighting a dragon, a move Sklute says, “shows off a strength and a glamour” of Chinese culture.
Several of Ballet West’s seven shows at the Kennedy Center have sold out. At one of the lowest-selling shows, if you can call it that, more than 90 percent of seats were filled. On Thursday, no empty seats could be spotted.
For some of the dancers, it was also a coming home of sorts since they grew up in the Washington region and had played roles at the Kennedy Center as children.
“It's really the feeling that you've accomplished your dream, which is so special because every little girl wants to do this and then you get to actually perform on a stage where so many of your idols have performed ... to be here is such an honor,” said Lillian Casscells, who grew up in the District of Columbia.
Chase O’Connell, who is from a Washington suburb, said the chance to perform as a principal dancer at the Kennedy Center was amazing for him and for Ballet West.
“I kind of grew up on this stage,” he said, adding that while Utah may not be well known on the East Coast for its ballet, that’s changing.
“It’s great to get our name out there," he said, “and for them to see us and realize that we are top in the nation, one of the best.”