“THE NUTCRACKER,” Ballet West, through Dec. 27, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6900 or balletwest.org)
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s that festive time of year again when the Capitol Theatre bustles with fans young and old, dressed in their holiday finery, filling their December calendars with traditions that date back generations. For many, that includes an evening at Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker,” as was evidenced by a nearly full house opening night.
Set to Tchaikovsky’s unparalleled score, Willam Christensen’s iconic choreography continues to endure with freshness thanks to skillful dancers, elaborate set designs by Ariel Ballif, and David Heuvel’s stunning costumes. At the helm, artistic director Adam Sklute often introduces new flourishes to keep things current, yet his deep interest in restoring elements that make the ballet both nostalgic and historically important is evident as well.
Some of Sklute’s restorations on full display included the re-incorporation of the male role in the Spanish dance. Chase O’Connell’s execution of the role opening night abounded with impressive high jumps and precise turns. The male dancer in the forefront during this scene certainly added a wow factor, although the females tended to fall to the background.
Also reintroduced were five — instead of three — Russian dancers. The dance is a consistent audience favorite with its acrobatic feats, and while Joshua Whitehead led the troupe, newly hired 6-foot-8 Zeek Wright garnered most of the attention. A collective sigh of relief could be heard when Whitehead cleared Wright during a simple leapfrog. Wright, for all his height, is astonishingly graceful and nimble — good things are in store with this bright new dancer.
Subtle details left intact, like actual snow flurries or live singers during the snow scene, are an acknowledgment that some newer, more frugal stage effects don’t create quite the same atmosphere as the original ones. Bravo to Ballet West for recognizing the magnitude of the finer points.
Celebrating its 60th season, the company’s annual production summons four generations in some families. Common are parents whose own parents toted them along as children. Young dancers in the production trade memories of the stage with grown-ups who still remember the same steps required of a party boy or lady-in-waiting.
Such was the case with Eva Thompson, Jessica Harston Thompson’s daughter, who danced the central child’s role of Clara with precision, grace and a wide smile. Her mother danced the lead role of the Sugar Plum Fairy just over a decade ago, often partnering with Christopher Ruud.
Ruud still dances gallantly as the Sugar Plum Cavalier. He is the only dancer left from Harston’s tenure, yet he is better at his job now than ever before — which is saying a great deal in the ballet world, where retirement is whispered about from the time one hits 30. The years have been kind to Ruud; he looks every bit as young and agile, and he steps with more grace than ever during his 18-year tenure with the company. He flung and lifted Beckanne Sisk, 2015’s Sugar Plum Fairy, with ease — complementing her lilting, dazzling femininity with powerful leaps and turns.
Sisk’s performance attests that one of the true keys to keeping “The Nutcracker” fresh for audiences is finding new wrinkles in the old favorite — new nuances and discoveries to point out to the audience. Her expressions, extension and fluidity within the strict parameters of the art form make her a force of nature.
Together, she and Ruud created soft, lingering phrases with sharp moments of execution for a beautiful, balanced portrait of a fairy-tale sugarplum couple.