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