This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The lights dim. The noisy Capitol Theatre audience grows still. The heavy curtains lift. And Joanne McGillis, a benefactor of Salt Lake City's McGillis School, feels the holiday magic of "The Nutcracker" all over again. Although she has attended Ballet West's annual production close to 20 times, the ballet never grows old.
"I really love it all," she says. "The mice make me laugh, and the classical Sugar Plum Fairy is so exquisite, my heart dances with her. And all the scenes with little children are adorable."
Like McGillis, many Utahns have loved Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker" ever since Willam Christensen first staged it in Salt Lake City in 1955. For many, attending the ballet during the month of December has become an important holiday ritual. What they may not realize is that Willam and his brothers, Harold and Lew, all natives of Brigham City, were the first to introduce the beloved ballet to American audiences as well. This surprising story is the subject of a fine new nonfiction picture book for children by Chris Barton called "The Nutcracker Comes to America."
Barton follows the brothers' adventures from their boyhoods in Brigham City, where the Christensen family ran a dance school, to life on the road as vaudeville artists. (In fact, McGillis wonders if one of the reasons "The Nutcracker" has remained so popular over the years is due to its vaudeville elements i.e., there's a little something for everybody in a given performance.) From there the three Christensen brothers went on to dance, teach and choreograph.
It was while teaching in Portland, Ore., that Willam first heard the story of "The Nutcracker" ballet from his conductor, a Russian immigrant. Intrigued by the tale's possibilities, Christensen created several new dances to a few of Tchaikovsky's melodies for his students to perform. When the curtains closed, the audience went wild.
Christensen would remember that enthusiastic response later when he was teaching ballet in San Francisco during World War II. The company badly needed a hit to stay afloat so Christensen, along with his brother Harold, staged an entire Nutcracker production without ever having seen the original ballet performed.
Once again, the show was a hit. And it has remained one ever since.
Barton came to the story of "The Nutcracker" in America after reading Willam Christensen's obituary in The New York Times. Typically interested in exploring nonfiction topics for young readers, Barton says he was "fascinated by the fact that three brothers from a small Utah town had a big role in shaping ballet in this country." As he learned more about the Christensens, he realized that "even big fans of ballet and 'The Nutcracker' tended to know very little about how this one old Russian ballet became an American holiday tradition, and that's just the sort of cultural awareness that I love filling in my books."
Once his interest was piqued, Barton dove feet first into researching his subject. (When asked if he'd actually tried a few steps for himself, he said his research hadn't taken him that far yet. "But I know that some ballet companies select nondancers of note to play the role of Mother Buffoon for a single performance … so I'm hopeful that my chance hasn't passed me by. Hint, hint."
Meanwhile, Barton learned more about the Christensens by visiting the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco, which houses a treasure trove of artifacts from the original 1940s "Nutcracker" productions. He also watched both live and filmed performances of "The Nutcracker," as well as footage from 1938 of Lew and Harold Christensen's performances in "Filling Station," Lew's original ballet.
The academic biography "The Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic" by Debra Hickenlooper Sowell also provided Barton with crucial information. So did selected readings about "The Nutcracker" in particular and American ballet in general. "And that was just my research," says Barton. "Illustrator Cathy Gendron did her share as well."
During a recent visit to Salt Lake, Barton had the opportunity to experience Ballet West's famed production for himself. "While I'm tempted to say that my favorite part of the evening was when Governor Herbert showed off his copy of 'The Nutcracker Comes to America' onstage before the curtain rose, even that couldn't compete with the overall thrill of watching in person as Willam Christensen's production came to life. The entire production was a tremendous joy."
Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West, is committed to keeping that joy alive. When asked how the company strikes a balance between tradition and innovation when staging the ballet each year, Sklute responded this way: "The wonderful thing about this being the oldest full production of 'The Nutcracker' in America and having a 60-year unbroken run here in Utah is that Mr. C was in charge of it for so many years. As the choreographer, he tinkered with it and adjusted it constantly. Working with individuals such as Bené Arnold and Bruce Caldwell, people who were part of the production since the early days, I have been able to mine details that Mr. C might have done in earlier years, incorporate them into whatever current production we are doing. This is how the ballet stays 'evergreen' and creates new challenges for our artists while giving our audiences something new to enjoy every year."
The ballet's "evergreen" quality has certainly made seeing it a beloved annual tradition for so many people not only here in Salt Lake City but (thanks to the Christensen brothers) throughout the entire country. As Barton notes, "Creating and enjoying and maintaining traditions is part of what makes us human, and I think 'The Nutcracker' taps into that I have friends who have attended with their families every year for decades. For them, seeing a performance is as much a part of the holidays as singing 'Jingle Bells' or lighting a menorah or picking out a Christmas tree."
Sklute agrees. The ballet, he says, is "about family. It's about the holidays. It's about magic. It's about joy. With all the ups and downs we have in this world, Americans' need for those things will never change. Ironically, I believe 'The Nutcracker' grounds us in its fantasy. It reminds us of what's important in life.
"And it strengthens our humanity."
"The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition"
Chris Barton (author) and Cathy Gendron (illustrator)
Millbrook Picture Books
Pages • 36
Cost • $19.99