'Nutcracker's' Chinese dance gets a makeover for Ballet West's 50th

By Heather Hayes

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

Logan Martin of Ballet West practices a scene from "The Nutcracker" with a 36-foot dragon in Trolley Square in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Ballet West will be performing "The Nutcracker" at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City from Dec. 6-30.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

For many faithful “Nutcracker” fans, even the smallest change to the annual Ballet West production doesn’t go undetected. So when, after 50 years, a major alteration is made to a variation, it can make waves.

“This ballet is one of founder Willam Christensen’s greatest legacies, so we took great measures to make sure we did this right,” says artistic director Adam Sklute, speaking about modifications made to the Chinese dance that will be unveiled opening night on Dec. 6 at the Capitol Theatre.

In the past, six women and one man have danced the variation during the second act, where the Sugar Plum Fairy entertains Clara and her Prince by inviting subjects from her kingdom to perform.

The original choreography begins with the male dancer soaring onto the stage with his fluttering fan and traditional Chinese attire, spinning and leaping into the splits with jaw-dropping ease. His train of female dancers moves behind him, circling in a submissive fashion, their heads bobbing slightly.

The new take on the Chinese dance involves a colorful, 36-foot-long dragon puppet, carried by seven dancers—men and women. Now the lead male dancer will be wearing Chinese warrior attire and dance with his sword, dazzling audiences with his acrobatics while battling the dragon.

“The choreography is different but will still be full of its trademark high jumps and turns,” says Sklute.

As the first U.S. production of “The Nutcracker,” the ballet and its choreographer have reached iconic status. According to a recent New York Times article, it also has the longest unbroken performance history of any “Nutcracker” production in the world.

Christensen traced his performing roots to the vaudeville stage, where exaggerated ethnic portrayals were commonplace. By today’s standards, however, the variation may be perceived as playing on racial stereotypes common in the 1950s era. Although Ballet West isn’t citing any official reason for the change, speculation swirls.

“These changes are part of living theater,” says Sklute simply, when asked his reasons. “It’s important for these productions to evolve and grow.”

In updating the piece, Sklute and his team looked to the Christensen family history for guidance.

Born and raised in Brigham City, Utah, Willam Christensen choreographed “The Nutcracker” during his tenure as artistic director for San Francisco Ballet. When his brother Lew became his co-director, they continued to refine it jointly. Today, it’s difficult to attribute any part of the choreography to just one brother. Even when Willam moved to Utah and founded what would later become Ballet West, his “Nutcracker” was under constant revision. Likewise, Lew continued to modify the work in San Francisco until the two productions only resembled each other.

“I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with Lew’s production. My first ballet, like many people, was ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” says Sklute. Lew’s production featured the Chinese warrior, so it’s natural for Sklute to more closely identify with it.

But changes to Utah’s “Nutcracker” still require peacekeeping tactics. When, several years ago, the company decided to make changes to the beloved Mother Buffoon character for safety reasons, there was outcry among fans. She continued to be modified until, it seems, a middle ground was reached. When a keyboard in the orchestra pit replaced live female singers a decade ago during the snow scene, it wasn’t long before singers were invited back.

For changes to the Chinese dance, Ballet West has the blessing of the Christensen family and a nod from folks who’ve been tied to the production since its earliest days. Now all the company can do is wait and see how its thousands of “Nutcracker” fans will react to a more politically correct Chinese warrior and his splendid dragon.

If you go …

What: Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”

When: Nov. 29-30 (Ogden) and Dec. 6-29 (Salt Lake City)

Christmas Eve: noon; Saturday matinees: 2 p.m.; evenings: 7 p.m.

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South, Salt Lake City

(Ogden: Val A. Browning Center, 3750 Harrison Blvd)

How much/ticket info: Prices range from $19 to $75 and are available for purchase through ArtTix by calling (801) 355-ARTS or at www.arttix.org

Visit www.balletwest.org for more info.

Nutty Nutcracker:

On Dec. 30 at 7 p.m., Ballet West will present the “Nutty” Nutcracker. This year’s theme salutes reality television and features the same choreography with fun flourishes and whimsical surprises.

Sugar Plum Parties:

Immediately following each matinee (except Dec. 24), Ballet West will host onstage Sugar Plum Parties for children. During the parties, young members of the audience can join the Sugar Plum Fairy and other favorite characters from the ballet for refreshments and a special treat. Tickets are $5 per person and are available at the Capitol Theatre Box Office, or by calling ArtTix at 355-ARTS.

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