We're very lucky at Ballet West to have a wonderful costume department.

SALT LAKE CITY — “I can’t see ‘The Nutcracker’ (happening) in unitards,” said David Heuvel, costume production director at Ballet West, following up with a hearty laugh.

In fact, no one at Ballet West can imagine the production that way.

“Part of ‘The Nutcracker’ is how visually arresting it is,” said Christopher Ruud, principal artist with the company. “The choreography is the meat of the performance,” he explained, but "just like any gift, if you wrap it really well, it seems that much more special.”

Artistic Director Adam Sklute called costuming for “The Nutcracker” absolutely essential to the overall performance. Though the costumes do look nice, there’s a little more to their purpose.

“Costuming not only tells the audience that they’re some place else, it tells the dancer,” he said. “It helps us to create the character and who we are.”

The costume staff has created new costumes for the characters of Herr Drosselmeyer and Nephew this year.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve been talking about trying to make Drosselmeyer really stand out as a peculiar character, an eccentric,” Sklute said.

Drosselmeyer’s black cape, a signature look Heuvel introduced in the first place, will receive more flair and color. When Clara enters her exaggerated dream world, it will be reflected in Drosselmeyer’s costume, too.

Heuvel discussed how he’s always trying to stay true to what “Mr. C” — founder Willam Christensen — would want for the characters’ look. He believes the change for Drosselmeyer will be a good one.

“I think this is part of the growth of the production and to make it appeal to the new generation,” Heuvel said.

Other changes were made just last year to the Grand Pas tutus worn by dancers in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

On opening night of this year’s “Nutcracker,” principal artist Christiana Bennett, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, will be paired with Ruud, her Cavalier, who also happens to be Bennett's husband. The couple described Bennett’s current plum costume: frosty pinks and golds, embroidery, impeccable details and accents.

“I feel pretty in it,” Bennett said, laughing after her extensive description.

Heuvel talked about adding another Grand Pas tutu this year. Sklute selected seven different performing casts because he feels they have many strong dancers in the company this year.

The plum role tutus, Heuvel estimates, would cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000. But because Ballet West has its own costume shop, they can make their own for much less. The tutus are hand sewn, covered in more than 200 heat-set jewels.

Heuvel, his assistant, and just a few seamstresses make up the costume staff. They begin work on Nutcracker costumes during the summer. They must also work for the season-opening show in the fall — “Dracula” was this year’s — but the Christmas production becomes priority when that is complete.

Luckily, with the shop, Ballet West has a stock to pull from. They also reuse costumes. The trickiest part is maintaining and refitting so many.

“We’re very lucky at Ballet West to have a wonderful costume department,” Bennett said. “They take such good care of what we have.”

The costume department must also take care of ordering and sewing borders on hundreds of shoes. The shoes are shipped from places like New York, London, Australia, Russia and South America.

As Heuvel detailed the cleaning, repairs and alterations, he emphasized that things actually run quite smoothly. He has been with the company on and off for about 30 years himself. And Ballet West has been performing this production since 1955.

Between changes in costumes and the innovative attitude of dancers and creators, Ballet West has managed to keep the performance fresh for the 50-plus years.

Sklute, Bennett and Ruud all mentioned they try to be mindful of the fact that every performance they do is some audience member’s first experience with “The Nutcracker.”

“That to this day keeps me finding a fresh approach, a bigger, better smile, better technique,” Bennett said. She and Ruud said they’ve danced their respective “Nutcracker” roles hundreds of times now.

But, Ruud said,“Every time we go on stage … it always seems different to me.”

It helps, too, Sklute said, that they have so many different dancers this year.

“A different person in the same role can often make it seem like a completely different role,” he said.

In recent years, Ballet West has found another way to keep things colorful. At the end of “The Nutcracker” run, they perform “The Nutty Nutcracker,” which Sklute said is rapidly gaining popularity.

Ruud was quick to point out that he does not find his job boring or repetitive, but “after a while you get so used to the choreography and music, you just can’t help coming up with funny things.”

Sklute said the company had wanted to do a “Nutty” version for years. Even "Mr. C" had shown interest in the idea. With the blessing of Bene Arnold, former ballet mistress who worked very closely with Christensen for years, Ballet West started the “Nutty” tradition in 2007. The version keeps most of the choreography and music of the original, only making changes that are necessary for the new, wacky theme.

“I would never have tinkered with ‘The Nutcracker’ without respecting its roots,” Sklute said.

He described the process of choosing an original theme for the wacky version — last year’s was a Hollywood theme and this year’s is a sports one. Everyone in the company contributes.

Ruud said the dancers “turn into hams” when they’re coming up with ideas.

“You’d be surprised,” he said. “We’ve got some real characters out there.”

Ruud and Bennett said they very much enjoy performing in “The Nutty Nutcracker,” with Bennett joking that they now find themselves thinking up nutty versions for every performance they do.

Back in costumes, Heuvel says he isn’t even in the “Nutty” frame of mind yet, too busy getting things ready for “The Nutcracker.” He plans to post some costume lists to see what dancers can bring from home. It’s a bit hectic to throw everything together so quickly for the nutty version, he said, but it is fun once they’ve arrived.

Amid all of the company’s imaginative work to make an old production like new every year, the bottom line is that “The Nutcracker” is a staple Christmas tradition nationwide.

So whether a family comes to admire masterfully crafted costumes, gain an appreciation for the art of dance or perhaps see the dancers’ latest goofy take, Sklute believes a trip to Capitol Theatre is a worthwhile Christmas tradition to make.

“It’s such a joyous experience,” he said. “Not only is it about magic and art and the holidays, it’s also about family. ‘The Nutcracker’ is a family ballet.”

Costume Facts:

  • It takes 15 meters of net to make one tutu and all of the net in "The Nutcracker's" tutus would stretch the length of six football fields.
  • Each Grand Pas (Sugar Plum Fairy) tutu is decorated with more than 200 heat-set jewels and is worth $2,500.
  • The costume shop begins preparation of the 250 Nutcracker costumes in July.
  • It takes 40 hours to make each tutu. If the stitchers worked 24 hours a day, it would take more than two straight months to complete all of "The Nutcracker" tutus for one performance.
  • Each pair of handmade pointe shoes costs as much as $90 and is imported from London. Throughout "The Nutcracker" season, 162 pointe shoes will be used, amounting to nearly $150,000.
  • Source: Ballet West

    If you go …

    What: “The Nutcracker,” Ballet West

    When: Dec. 2-28, varying times, “The Nutty Nutcracker,” Dec. 30, 7 p.m. and Dec. 31, 2 p.m.

    Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

    Comment on this story

    Cost: $18-$74

    Phone: 801-355-2787 or 888-451-2787

    Web: www.arttix.org or www.balletwest.org

    Email: hbowler@desnews.com