Four young newcomers to live ballet performance find their own connections to the timeless magic of Ballet West’s historic production of The Nutcracker

For many in Salt Lake City, one of the greatest sources of pride in the local performing arts scene has been Willam Christensen’s efforts to make the first American version of The Nutcracker. As The Utah Review documented recently in a historical feature, he transported this version from its San Francisco premiere in 1944 to the University of Utah in the 1950s and eventually to its permanent spot in the Ballet West repertoire. 

After he retired, he was asked frequently in interviews about how he crafted his version of the holiday classic for its premiere in 1944. He initially built the skeleton for it by cobbling details from recollections of dancers and choreographers as well as an edited version that was performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was George Balanchine who told him about the Mother Buffoon number and the eight young dancers hidden under her skirt. Mr. C (as he was affectionately known) wanted a version closer musically to Tchaikovsky’a scoring:

So most of the steps are mine – my own creation. But musically, it’s absolutely right on the beam. As dancers become better, it gets better. And then, I change some, because I like to keep new vitality. The company is far better now than it used to be. So we can do much better.

Artists of Ballet West in The Nutcracker (2023).
Photo: Beau Pearson.

He talked about walking in downtown San Francisco during the wartime years and hearing a recording of the Dance of the Mirlitons, which was being played in a store window display. He insisted on a strong visualization of Tchaikovsky’s familiar music: “And I thought, well, in the musical play, I used to say, if you could come out singing the tune, it’s a success.” 

He talked to White Russians, including those who were pre-Bolshevik. Russell Hartley, who was then a 19-year-old dancer, created the costumes for the first production. Antonio Sotomayor, a South American artist, designed the backdrops which were covered with images of cupcakes, candy canes, ice cream cones and lollipops. The orchestral score had been obtained from the U.S. Library of Congress. The recording Mr. C was most familiar with came from Leopold Stokowski, the legendary conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

The first Nutcracker was a huge success. A buoyant Mr. C wanted to stage Hansel and Gretel for the San Francisco Opera, as part of the general ballet repertoire. “And a stage hand said, “You’ll lose your shirt. ‘Cause they do it at the Met but out here it hasn’t succeeded.” Mr. C said the stage hand was right: “I personally lost $9,000. In 1944, that was quite a bit of money. And I went back to the Nutcracker and it’s never stopped.” In fact, it would be in 1949 when The Nutcracker came back to San Francisco and it has been presented annually ever since.

Artists of Ballet West in The Nutcracker (2023).
Photo: Beau Pearson.

Perhaps the best explanation of how deeply The Nutcracker has been ingrained in Ballet West’s history from its earliest days came from Michael Onstad, who danced as the Snow Prince in the 1974 production. As a Salt Lake Tribune feature noted at the time, Onstad had danced as “a parent, a mouse, the host, a soloist in the Waltz of the Flowers and Dr. Drosselmeyer. This year [1974], he alternates as the aging doctor, Snow Prince, and in the Arabian and the Waltz of the Flowers segments.” 

Why did The Nutcracker matter every year, even if dancers knew the entirety of it by heart? “Nutcracker is like a report card,” Onstad explained. “It means I’ve grown a year… I’m excited to see what roles I’ll be doing… And I love magic. I read fantasy stories for pleasure… You can feel discouraged, annoyed, upset and you can hurt, physically from pain, but Nutcracker takes that all away.”

I do not review The Nutcracker every year, mainly because it is challenging for a critic to say something new about one of the most familiar works of music and ballet in the global repertoire. Last year, I wrote: “Ballet West’s The Nutcracker is the finest end-of-the-year holiday season production of any kind I have ever seen in Utah and perhaps the entire U.S. It lives up to every letter of its promise and billing as America’s first and longest-running production of The Nutcracker.” And, I am certain that this year’s edition merits a similar assessment.

David Huffmire with Artisfs of Ballet West in The Nutcracker (2023). Photo: Beau Pearson.

However, in chronicling Ballet West’s 60th anniversary season, I realized that documenting the company’s performances during a milestone year requires covering The Nutcracker production, which likely will draw more than 42,000 patrons. Ballet West’s outstanding production is known as well throughout the country as it is in Utah. Last month, all seven performances of the production sold out at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

This year, with the assistance of Plan-B Theatre’s Artistic Director Jerry Rapier (whose son attends the Salt Lake Arts Academy) and Christal Jackson, an English teacher and ELL coordinator at City Academy, we recruited four students, who previously had never seen a live ballet performance in full production. We asked them to review The Nutcracker: Oscar Bateman-Rapier, Karry Fragoso, Savanna Palacios and Luc Vallega. We are pleased to share their reviews, two of which are written in English and the other two in Spanish. As readers will see below, the timeless magic of Christensen’s vision is as strong and vibrant as ever, notably in an age when we immerse ourselves in digital media practically every day. 

In part, I was inspired by a program note last year by Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director, who explained the genius of Christensen’s approach: “By using so many children in the production, he brilliantly created a charming family show and also a built-in audience for it as parents, grandparents, siblings, and whole families would come to see their relative perform in a professional production.” 

Artists of Ballet West in The Nutcracker (2023).
Photo: Beau Pearson.

There are 75 children in each of the four rotating casts for the production run. It struck me as wholly appropriate that a fresh perspective for reviewing this holiday tradition should come from young voices. The elegant parallels are obvious. It has been delightful to observe how these young reviewers have taken the task with professionalism and seriousness.

Each of our four newcomers to a live ballet performance have found their own meaningful connections to the experience. We are proud to present their reviews on the 2023 Ballet West production of The Nutcracker. Take note of what stood out for these astute observers. (Note: the English language translations of the two Spanish reviews are at the bottom of the article.)

Artists of Ballet West in The Nutcracker (2023).
Photo: Beau Pearson.

Oscar Bateman-Rapier 

Before The Nutcracker began, I learned that part of the stage could raise up or drop down so that the musicians were below the stage, and I thought that was pretty cool. I wish they had been on stage so we could’ve seen them more.

When the ballet dancers came on stage I was surprised that there were so many kids. This was my first live ballet (I watched some Ballet West performances online when my school was closed because of Covid) and I was not used to so many kids being on stage at once. I was also not used to there being no dialogue. I have seen 46 plays since January, but only four dance shows, and this is the first one I have ever seen without any dialogue. 

I thought the life-size dolls (Claire Wilson and Victoria Galeana) were really cool when they started to dance.

I thought it was funny when Fritz (Camron Spencer) tried to steal Clara‘s (Sophia Cannella) wooden nutcracker doll.

This was my first Nutcracker, so I was surprised when Fritz broke the nutcracker. I wasn’t sure if Drosselmeyer (Dominic Ballard) could fix him.

I thought the mice costumes (designed by David Heuvel) were cool and when the toy mouse came rolling across the stage, that was also pretty cool.

I thought it was funny that the mouse king (Tyler Gum) started flossing and then dabbed, because I am a kid and that is something that is familiar to me.

I had heard the music (by Tchaikovsky) before, but the song I recognized the most was the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

I thought it was interesting how they made the whole thing Clara’s dream.

I would recommend The Nutcracker to people who love theater.

Oscar Bateman-Rapier is in fifth grade at Salt Lake Arts Academy. He has seen more than 250 plays in his lifetime. He enjoys Dungeons & Dragons, reading, video games, soccer, taekwondo, his chihuahuas Lulu and Gus, and Youth Theatre at the University of Utah.

Robert Fowler in The Nutcracker (2023), Ballet West.
Photo: Beau Pearson.

Luc Vallega

In my honest opinion and my general summary of Ballet West’s The Nutcracker, it was a great experience to me and is the first and only memory of watching a ballet in a theater so far. It was great! Contrary to my past peers’ beliefs that a ballet dance would bore anyone to death, it actually wasn’t what they thought it was (probably because they only saw it on TV and never actually experienced it firsthand). 

The lighting and the stage moving to change scenes was a fantastic idea; it’s nice that it was possible in that theater because of how easy it was to blend through and change the scenes’ background images and mood. It had some great funny scenes too, especially the one where the rat king was on stage and those bright and loud flashes of light in the stage when the whole place was dark was quite shocking. What impressed me the most was the dancers’ whole body coordination on the dances at the kingdom scene; it was a perfect combination of skill and grace that I would not be able to replicate ever, unless as always I would spend an unhealthy amount of time understanding/mastering anything. 

But I digress: the ballet was great and if you’re into understanding how the pros do their full-body coordination I would recommend attending it.

Luc is a student who has recently arrived in the U.S. and is currently studying at City Academy in grade 11. He tends to like video games, specifically the ones with long stories. Overall, he’s an ok guy.

Victoria Vassos and Dominic Ballard in The Nutcracker (2023), Ballet West. Photo: Beau Pearson.

Karry Fragoso

Fue un placer poder atender al Ballet Cascanueces! Cuando empezó todo las escenas eran muy realistas. No hablaban sino que los instrumentos eran las acciones y los gestos. La ropa que se pusieron era muy hermosa, colores brillantes, detalles en la ropa, y las decoraciones de pelo. 

Me sentía con mucha alegría, me encanto como había una parte donde era un baile de Rusia y la audiencia empezó a aplaudir al ritmo de la canción o cuando las abejas estaban bailando! También hubo una parte donde hubo una explocion chica me agarro de sorpresa! Definitivamente iría a otro ballet, verdaderamente fue una hermosa experiencia muy bonito todo. ¡Gracias Ballet West!

Hola! Mi nombre es Karry soy una alumna de City Academy. He vivido en Utah toda mi vida, soy bilingüe, mi primer lenguaje es Español y Inglés es mi segundo. 

Jordan Veit in The Nutcracker (2023), Ballet West.
Photo: Beau Pearson.

Savanna Palacios

Poder ir a ver y experienciar el Ballet del Nutcracker en vivo pone mis expectaciones para cualquier otro ballet muy altas. La música, disfraces, y escenarios del ballet me tienen cautivada desde la primera escena. Poder experienciar algo como esto era mi primera en mi vida, pero después de esto, no será mi última! Lo que hizo todo esta experiencia major fue la música, con música se puede describir y expresar tanto sin decir una palabra. 

Me gusto como la música hizo efecto porque cuando se puso lento la música se sentía el humor. Tengo que decir que la mejor parte para mi fueron los ratones y su humor. En esa escena, todo la audiencia estaba riendo. Eso enseña cómo el humor hizo a todos reír, no importa el lenguaje y edad. Recomiendo que otros vayan a ir al Nutcracker, será una experiencia que nunca vas a olvidar por lo bello y chistoso fue. 

Savanna Palacios goes to City Academy and is in the 10th grade. She is a bilingual student who enjoys doing outside activities and spending time with her friends and family. 

The production run continues through Dec. 27:at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City. For tickets and more information, see the Ballet West website.  

Artists of Ballet West in The Nutcracker (2023).
Photo: Beau Pearson.

English language translations of Karry and Savanna’s reviews (courtesy of Mark Alvarez):

Hi. My name is Karry Fragoso. I am a student at City Academy. I have lived in Utah all my life. I am bilingual. My first language was Spanish. My second was English.

It was a pleasure to see Ballet West perform The Nutcracker. The beginning scenes were very realistic. There were no words so the communication was through actions and gestures. The costumes were beautiful with brilliant colors, impressive detail in the clothes, and hair decorations and styling. I felt delighted. I loved the part with a Russian dance when the audience began to clap the rhythm of the song and when the bees began to dance. Another part with a small explosion caught me by surprise. I would definitely go to another ballet. It truly was a marvelous experience; everything was very pretty. Thank you, Ballet West! 

Savanna Palacios goes to City Academy and is in the 10th grade. She is a bilingual student who enjoys doing outside activities and spending time with her friends and family. 

Going to see and experience Ballet West perform The Nutcracker live, I had high expectations. The music, the costumes, and the scenery of the ballet captured me from the opening scene. This was the first time in my life experiencing something like this, but it will not be my last. 

What made it such a great experience was the music that could describe and express so much without the need of a single spoken word. I loved the use of slow music to create humor. I have to say that the best part involved the rats and their humor. Everybody laughed during that scene. This showed how humor can make everyone laugh, no matter the person’s age or language. I recommend that everyone see The Nutcracker. It will be an experience unforgettable for its beauty and sense of humor.

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