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What's old is new in Ballet West's 'The Nutcracker'

By Heather Hayes

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Dec. 3 2012 5:15 p.m. MST

Ballet West's "The Nutcracker": Nov. 30-Dec.28 at the Capitol Theatre

What always takes me by surprise during “The Nutcracker” is how fresh Ballet West makes it appear year after year. Friday’s opening night was no exception.

I figure I’ve seen this production close to 40 times. I know that doesn’t give me bragging rights in a city where thousands of folks have ritualized Willam Christensen’s legendary holiday ballet like rumless eggnog and lights at Temple Square.

Still, I know my way around the ballet a little.

I know, for instance, that the dancers will do 32 shows during this single month. I also realize that while Christensen’s choreography is timeless, it spotlights a mere handful of talent each night — relegating the majority to what might be considered less stimulating character and corps roles.

I’ve discovered that, as true professionals often do, many dancers come up with a strategy for combatting back-to-back-show blues. In a 2010 interview with Haley Henderson-Smith, she told me that before she steps onto the stage as the snow queen, flower No. 8, Spanish dancer or party parent, she imagines a person in the audience who’s seeing “The Nutcracker” for the first time, and dances just for him.

If that’s still her method, she may well have been imagining the family behind me, who gasped and guffawed, oohed and awed with every glorious throw — and nearly every nuance as well. They weren’t the only ones delighted. With the entire cast putting their hearts into each step — magic was afoot everywhere.

Take soloist Sayaka Ohtaki, who danced as Dr. Drosselmeyer’s mechanical doll in the first act. The part is short, sweet, and one she might define as uncomplicated. However, Ohtaki’s expertise translates into a character so convincing as a wind-up toy, it’s breathtaking.

The same goes for the partygoers, who give new meaning to being an “extra” on stage. Each one carries with him a story subtly played out as the merrymaking advances — those intricacies create a dynamic tapestry on the stage where even veteran audience members can make new discoveries.

I’ve learned that being in the corps might feel anonymous for a dancer, but a good corps is at the heart of a good ballet company. During the snow scene, not only was Henderson-Smith and her husband Easton Smith a flawless duo, so too were the lovely snowflakes, crisscrossing with precision — and pleasure in their eyes.

The second act was bursting with sky-high jumps, loaded turns and extraordinary extension. Beau Pearson led a festive Spanish-flavored pas de trois, Jacqueline Straughan and Ronnie Underwood were a supple pair in the Arabian dance, Christopher Sellars took his men to new heights during the Russian piece and Tom Mattingly led a delightful Chinese dance.

Also noteworthy was a very lyrical Arolyn Williams as lead Mirliton and Emily Adams and Rex Tilton as lead couple in “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Finally, Ballet West pulled out all the stops with prima Christiana Bennett and Christopher Ruud (another married couple) as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, who, having both danced the role more times than I've seen the production, set the bar higher each time.

The children too, were an impressive lot. Although “The Nutcracker” features hundreds of children, it never feels amateurish. Rylee Rogers was the embodiment of Clara — a truly talented youngster.

Nothing is left to chance during Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker.” With so many shows to put on in so little time, it takes a special brand of performer to keep it fresh. Ballet West has such performers in spades.

I might as well be that “newcomer” who Henderson imagines performing for when she steps out onto the stage. Each time I watch Ballet West’s grand-scale production complete with live orchestra, lavish sets and costumes, stage effects, comical antics, delightful child-performers and above all — dancers that love doing what they do (and do it so well) — it feels like the first time for me.

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