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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
The four dancers playing Clara in Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker" this year are Emma Crossett, left, Alex Shaner, Jourdan Jones and Shalese Gallagher.

Fifty years ago, Willam F. Christensen brought "The Nutcracker" to Salt Lake City, and today the show remains both a holiday tradition and an important source of revenue for Ballet West.

"Little did Mr. C know that he created not only an important tradition to families in the community but also a strong financial resource for Ballet West," artistic director Jonas Kage said Friday during a news conference in the Capitol Theatre. "While we rely heavily on donations and tax monies, we can always rely on 'The Nutcracker' to bring in resources that enable us to continue as a first-class, world-renowned dance company."

Then Kage added with a smile, "And just as a reminder, tickets go on sale Saturday at 10 a.m."

Ballet West executive director Johann Jacobs said this version is a "direct descendent of the first American-choreographed 'Nutcracker' in the United States. Mr. C, as we affectionately called him, moved here from San Francisco to join the faculty at the University of Utah. There, he set up the first ballet department in an American university and joined with Maestro Maurice Abravanel to create this wonderful holiday tradition."

Kage and Jacobs were joined by Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson and Christensen's widow, Florence, to pay tribute to Ballet West for "The Nutcracker's" 50th anniversary.

Anderson called the show "an essential thread in Salt Lake City's rich cultural tapestry" as he declared 2005 the year of Ballet West's "The Nutcracker."

"The Nutcracker" has touched the lives of thousands of people, said Florence Christensen, who was married to Mr. C for 28 years, until his death in 2001. "Willam was in a department store in San Francisco when he heard Tchaikovsky's music. He envisioned a ballet for children and families.

"There was never a time when we would go out that someone didn't see us and tell us they were in 'The Nutcracker.' "

She added that on their first date, "He called me up, and here is how the conversation went: 'Hi, this is Christensen. Would you like to go out with me?' I said, 'Sure.' Guess where he took me — to 'The Nutcracker.'

"Willam was charming, witty, delightful and devoted to his art. This, indeed, is a happy day."

To commemorate this year's 50th anniversary, costume designer David Heuvel has created a golden Nutcracker prince costume, which was displayed during the news conference. "He was up until the wee hours in the morning sewing it together," said Jacobs. "He got it to us and then had to go back to his costume shop to work on 'Romeo and Juliet' costumes."

"If Willam was alive to see all this," Florence Christensen told the Deseret Morning News after the press conference, "he would say, 'Hooray!' "

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