SALT LAKE CITY — In the corner of Capitol Theatre’s Studio B in Salt Lake City, four ballerinas practice weeping. Holding a ballet shoe to their hearts, each wipes their eyes dramatically to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” which issues from a black upright piano on the opposite side of the room.
“Use your back to sob, so the audience can see you at the very top of the balcony,” says Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director since 2007.
The girls try again, the upper halves of their bodies rocking back and forth. A male dancer travels across the floor and raises his arms, marveling at being transformed from wooden figure to prince, eager to share the good news with his beloved Clara.
This is the third year that 13-year-old Ella Whitney has been cast as Clara in Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker,” which will debut with new sets, costumes and props this year as part of a $3 million renovation. Each time the ballerina takes on the role, she said her movements become more refined and the emotions more natural as she becomes more comfortable with the part.
“When I’m crying after the nutcracker gets broken, I have to pretend like one of my toys or my phone got broken,” she said. “I have to think that it’s not a ballet, or a story or something. It’s real.”
“The Nutcracker” is, in fact, more than just a ballet for Ella, who has been doing pirouettes for almost as long as she can remember. It’s also a family tradition: Ella's mother, Natalie Whitney, played the part of Clara with Ballet West when she was a girl, and her grandmother, Connie Silver, was a Party Girl in 1965.
“It’s our life between September to November,” Whitney said. “'Nutcracker' season is busy, and it can be challenging sometimes to coordinate where everyone has to be at what time, but it’s a lot of fun. And getting to that reward at the end is the performances.”
Leading up to her big moment on stage, Ella attends practices Monday through Friday after school for roughly four hours a day. With less frequent practices beginning as early as August, it’s the kind of schedule that the long line of ballerinas is used to, and skipping a rehearsal has always been out of the question.
According to Silver, being cast as Clara is always an honor, since the children in “The Nutcracker” do not initially try out for the part. Instead, from the children that have auditioned and been cast in roles, only a handful receive callbacks. It is from those numbers that four girls with the right skills are chosen to play Clara.
“This is something that you never expect,” Silver said. “You just have to work hard and earn it. You can’t expect that you’re going to be chosen. You just have to know that you have to work hard to get there. It’s a thrill for us.”
Silver has yet to miss one of her grandchildren's performance of “The Nutcracker.” With three of her granddaughters in the ballet this year in two different casts, though, it’s going to be a little trickier to accomplish. But it’s not just her family that Silver looks forward to seeing at the ballet. The message of diversity also has a major draw.
“It covers every culture. It covers every type of person,” she said. “Everyone can get something out of the story.”
Whitney also anticipates watching the shows, but she can’t help but feel slightly anxious at times. With front row seats, she said she often counts the seconds between costume changes or keeps an eye on her daughter’s props.
“When she does the Clara dance, I’m like, ‘Please don’t drop the nutcracker. Please don’t drop the nutcracker,’” Whitney said. “It’s kind of big and awkward to hold, and she’s never dropped it … but I get nervous.”
She isn’t the only one — with this year bringing new costumes, sets and special effects to the stage, Ella has a fear of her own, although it doesn’t have anything to do with dancing. As it turns out, the flying sleigh she rides with her Prince during the final scene isn’t something she’s exactly looking forward to.
“That is the only thing that I’m scared about this year,” she admitted. “What if it starts shaking?”
Nervous or not, Ella is intent on performing and hopes to one day become a professional dancer. Ever since her first performance in “The Nutcracker” years ago, she's never wanted do anything else.
“Something sparked inside,” Whitney said, recalling when her daughter decided to drop soccer and violin to seriously pursue ballet. “Being backstage … there’s something really unique about it. Once you’ve been through it, you understand. It’s this bond.”Comment on this story
And for Whitney, seeing a cast of professional dancers next to her daughter as they take a bow never fails to be an unforgettable moment.
“I always get teary at the end … when she’s standing there and they just did the coda and the big finale, and they’re all there together,” she said. “There’s Ella and then all these beautiful ballerinas on the stage, dancers, and that’s what she’s aspiring to be. … I just love that moment. I always do.”
If you go ...
What: Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”
When: Dec. 2-30, times vary
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
How much: $20-$88