For more than 25 years, Peter Christie has been a member of the Ballet West family. He started as a corps dancer and moved up to soloist. Now he's in charge of the dance company's educational and outreach programs, and he teaches company classes.
Audiences have enjoyed Christie's interpretations of such roles as Alfredo in Ronald Hynd's "Rosalinda," Tybalt in Michael Smuin's "Romeo & Juliet," and Dr. Drosselmeyer in the Ballet West perennial "The Nutcracker," to name a few.
Local schools know him from his works with the ICANDO program, which recruits fifth-graders from Utah's schools and helps them create and set dance productions.
"This is my dream job," Christie said during an interview in the Capitol Theatre's Ballet West offices. "I know there are a lot of people in the world who can't say that. I mean, I danced onstage with a great company with great artists, and now, after retiring from dancing, I still can work with dance and still touch lives."
Christie's road to Ballet West was filled with happenstance and some discouraging moments. "I was born in Brooklyn but raised in upstate New York. My family lived on a big farm and struggled to make ends meet. I have an older brother and five sisters. So it was a challenge because we didn't have a lot of money."
Still, Christie's parents were nurturing when it came to the arts. "My older sister wanted to take ballet, and I went with her and my mom to check out the studio. I was 9 at the time and my sister was 8. Anyway, I went along for the ride and met the teacher, Marianne Grey.
"She made a deal with my mother. She said if I would take lessons, my sister and I could take them for free. The reason was because there were no boys in the program. So for the longest time I was the only boy in all the productions."
Through Grey, Christie was introduced to the Syracuse Ballet School, then directed by Anthony and Sirpa Salatino. "The ballet school was an hour away by bus from where I lived. I was in junior high school at the time. So, I would finish school and hop on the bus. After dance class I would take the bus back. I did that every day."
Throughout his dance education, Christie said emphasizing that it was no one's fault but his own he developed some bad habits. "When I was 17, I went into an audition for the School of American Ballet. After I danced, I was told to quit."
However, Christie was still determined to dance. So, while the Syracuse Ballet School went through some changes, he started taking classes at the School of Hartford Ballet. It was there, just before high school, that he decided he wanted to come to Salt Lake City to dance. "I sent off my ACT and SAT scores all over the place and got accepted to the University of Utah.
"I had made dorm arrangements and got my schedule worked out, but the Hartford made me an offer. They made me a company dancer. So, I stayed."
As fate would have it, Christie did get to Utah two years later. "A bunch of us from Hartford would go to auditions held in New York. The auditions were free and we were able to take classes from world-renowned dancers, choreographers and teachers. Usually we would get through a couple of rounds and then they'd tell us we weren't good enough and we'd all go get ice cream. That was our plan."
But a funny thing happened, said Christie. "I made it through a few rounds and wound up the only one in the Hartford group that wasn't let go. I kept looking at the window and saw all my friends looking in impatiently."
It just so happened that the audition Christie was involved in at the time was overseen by Ballet West's then-artistic director Bruce Marks. "He looked at me and said, 'I want you to come to Salt Lake City.' So, as fate would have it, I did get here one way or another."
Christie arrived in Salt Lake City in 1982, and he's still here, to the delight of both Ballet West and the community. "It was a whirlwind when I came, but there were so many things that I loved. I was taking class from Toni Lander and Bruce Marks, and they instilled a strong passion of dance in me because of their love of dance."
After dancing in the corps for nine years, and seeing Marks leave the company and John Hart come on board as artistic director, Christie was promoted to soloist in 1991. "I remember one of the first actual roles I had. It was in 'Don Quixote.' I was old Don Q., and that surprised me because there were other dancers who had seniority. So I just did what I had to do and kept my head down and danced the role."
Throughout Hart's tenure, Christie was cast in some memorable roles that became favorites with Utah audiences Hilarion in "Giselle," Von Rothbart in "Swan Lake," Dr. Coppelius in "Coppelia," and one of the stepsisters in "Cinderella."
"I knew I wasn't as good as the other dancers," said Christie, "so it was good to be able to get into some roles that required characterization. I mean, I never was the prince or cavalier in 'The Nutcracker,' but I was Drosselmeyer and was able to work with the children."
Working with children back then proved to be beneficial for Christie, especially when it came to his future with Ballet West as Jonas Kage replaced Hart as artistic director in 1997. "I shattered some cartilage in my knee a year earlier and had to limit my dancing. Although I healed well and could dance, I wasn't confident enough to continue dancing like I had."
Fortunately, Kage came up with an idea that would secure Christie's place in Ballet West. "I was in Pensacola for a visit when he called. He had an idea to start a children's program, based on a program designed by Jacques d'Amboise. It would require me to go to schools and teach elementary students how to dance and put on an actual production."
After going back to New York and observing d'Amboise, Christie and d'Amboise came back and started the "Feel the Beat" program, which eventually developed into the current ICANDO program.
Named for the acronym for "Inspiring Children About Not Dropping Out," ICANDO is designed around a six-month residency where Christie and his staff go to different elementary schools around the state. "But it's not just about dance. Not only do children learn about movement but they learn how to think critically, learn discipline and self-confidence, and other life-skills."
One of the major rewards is seeing children slowly come out of their shells. "It is a challenge working with fifth-graders. For some reason that age is when they start getting cynical. They don't accept things like kids even a year younger. They start questioning things. They ask why they have to dance, and they start getting self-conscious.
"The trick is to catch them in a roundabout way. I talk to the kids that don't want to dance and tell them to tell me what the ones dancing are doing wrong. They become critics. And when they see something wrong, I ask them what the dancer can do to make it correct. And then I ask them to do the steps to show where the mistakes are. Before they know it, they're dancing and participating."
In addition, Christie also heads the Ballet West Student In-Theater presentations and Ballet West for Children, both part of the dance company's education and outreach program. "They give children a chance to see dance live. We want to touch the lives of children who may not otherwise get a chance to see live dance."
Working with children has been the most rewarding part of Christie's career, he said. And one event will stay in his mind forever. "We were part of the 2002 Winter Games opening and closing ceremonies," he said with a quiet voice. "I remember telling the kids who were participating in ICANDO in 2001 that if they stuck with me I would do my best to see if I could set up an audition for them for the Olympics."
After making the right connections, Olympic representatives came to watch the children take classes from Christie. "They set up an audition for us and asked me to work with them as assistant choreographer."
The audition was set for Sept. 19, 2001. "We were all excited to see what we could do. Then Sept. 11 happened. After that, parents were worried about having their children perform in such a big, international event, which I don't blame them a bit. So, out of the 110 children originally scheduled to participate in the auditions, we had 70 kids show up."
The choreographers, which included Kenny Ortega and Jeff Barrett, chose 40 of Christie's students. "It was the highest point in my life," he said, his voice shaking with emotion. "I was back in the shadows watching the auditions. There were my fifth-grade students auditioning alongside some of the best young dancers in the region and showing what they could do. They held their own.
"As I watched, I saw those kids who never had dance training before, working with our program, doing these fantastic steps. They wouldn't have this wonderful opportunity without Ballet West's outreach programs."And I'm the first to say that the program is much more than me. I have a lot of help. I have a great staff and a lot of support. This is my dream job, and I'm proof that there is a career after the stage."