This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Ballet West principal dancer Christopher Ruud is feeling sentimental knowing Utah audiences will be seeing the familiar "Nutcracker" set and costumes for the last time. The physical trappings of the beloved ballet production, seen on the Capitol Theatre stage for decades, will be retired after the 2016 season that runs Friday, Dec. 2, through Dec. 26.
From the Mouse King and Mother Buffoon to the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Stahlbaum family's Christmas tree, all will be getting a makeover for the 2017 production a complicated business considering Ballet West's"Nutcracker," choreographed by company founder Willam F. Christensen, is the longest-running production of the holiday ballet, steeped in regional and international tradition.
"The saddest thing to see go will be the actual Nutcracker doll," said Ruud, the son of two Ballet West dancers who started dancing in "The Nutcracker" as a kid for the San Francisco Ballet. "It's both inconsequential and completely pivotal, but a lot of my life has been tied to that German doll."
The comment brings a warm chuckle from University of Colorado professor emeritus Merrill Lessley, the man who designed and built the Nutcracker doll in the early 1960s from a fiberglass mold in the basement of Daynes Music, then on Main Street. As an undergrad at the University of Utah, Lessley's talents and interests coalesced he had the mind of an engineer, a love of theater, and a need for a student job.
Lessley held just about every backstage job there was at Ballet West doing lighting design, painting scenery, designing sets and making props. He even took a few pas de deux classes, although he never considered himself a dancer.
"It was an exhausting process, loading up the trucks with the props, costumes and lights, and we'd drive to a small town in northern Utah and set it up in the morning and then we'd move backstage and do the production."
Lessley recalled the year he and Ariel Ballif, who later gained a national reputation for theater design, stayed up all night painting the "Nutcracker" backdrop for the opening curtain. In the morning when Christensen arrived at the shop, the drop still wasn't done.
"Bill walked across stage and saw that we were finishing it with chalk since there wasn't time for paint to dry," Lessley said. "Bill looked a little closer and we all burst into laughter. He always made you feel good, and like everything was going to be OK."
The "Nutcracker" redesign will be the fifth incarnation of Christensen's production first staged in 1944 in San Francisco and for Ballet West since 1955 and the first without his oversight. Ballif designed the current sets and costumes in 1991, 10 years before the company founder's death.
While there will be plenty of nostalgia, there's also great anticipation for the new costumes and sets.
Last summer, long before visions of Sugar Plum Fairies were dancing in most heads, Ballet West unveiled shadow-box replicas and sketches of its "21st-century" update of sets, costumes and lighting. The public can view behind-the-scenes sketches for the new production, funded by a $2 million grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, at a free exhibit in the Capitol Room titled "Nutcracker Memories."
Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute said he is "trying to honor Mr. C's vision while paying tribute to the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann as well as the original ballet version produced in 1892." The Imperial Russian Ballet first performed the two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Tchaikovsky.
"I am looking forward to seeing the new show drop that will be seen in the house instead of the usual grand drape," said Bruce Caldwell, the company's ballet master and archivist. "It will have historic ornaments and references, and is a great way of honoring the past and also looking to the future."
Cati Snarr, previously the children's ballet mistress who now heads up the new Ballet West Academy in Park City, said she and the kids are looking forward to new costumes. "With four casts of children each year, the children's costumes have seen almost 100 different children per costume. They're disintegrating."
Ballet West properties master Cory Thorell practically keeps time by the changes in "The Nutcracker."
Thorell told Ballet West's research assistant Amy Falls that he had updated props, such as "the party boys' horns from tin tree ornaments to replicas of World War I trumpets." Thorell noted, "The Stahlbaums' grandfather clock is the only set piece still in rotation from the original 'Nutcracker.' " He is certain that Lessley is the original maker of the standing grandfather clock that remains central to the transition from Act I to Act II, because Lessley's name is signed on the inside.
As it turns out, Lessley's father made a living fixing watches and clocks; his business was called Ed Lessley's Watch and Clock Repair. "He was the best in Salt Lake, and places like Zales would send him the most demanding of work, pricey Rolex watches, among others," Lessley said. "I still have a gold pocket railroad watch that he fixed up for me. It is beautiful."
Sklute has said the grandfather clock set piece will remain in the new production, an announcement that drew cheers and applause from the Ballet West donors and board members gathered at the sneak peek in June.
Though Lessley left to get his master's degree at the University of Minnesota, he returned to Utah for his doctorate in theater history and criticism, becoming a scholar in theater theory, and in his retirement applying mathematical theory to laser art. He looks back with fondness and respect on his days at Ballet West.
"Bill and I were good friends and I actually really enjoyed working with him," Lessley said. "Artistically he was so disciplined and so focused. In all of his works he would come at them with an overall artistic objective. And he was a mentor he modeled the artistic behavior he was hunting for."
Lessley said he worked with almost every dance and theater company in Utah, but at the time, "I never had the level of appreciation for how all that wonderful artistic work was being done in a state like Utah in Western America. It is one of the most amazing phenomena the growth and the prospering of the arts and the development of new artists. It is remarkable and it does have to do with the cultural base of the state and the traditions of the state."
Ballet West's production departments are now constructing 24 new sets, 268 costumes, dozens of props and an array of special effects to keep the "The Nutcracker" up and running for another 60 years. They've even started a "Play a Part in Nutcracker History" campaign for people to sponsor a costume or prop.
It's a very different theatrical world today than when Christensen made a bet with Lessley over whether the cannon would actually fire each night in the mouse battle scene in Salt Lake and while on tour (the cannons fired, Lessley won), or if the side wings could contain the entire Waltz of the Flowers corps.
Lessley said he can't exactly recall what Christensen's guiding idea was for "The Nutcracker," but he guesses "he wanted us to journey into a magical time and place where all things remained possible."
P Ballet West presents "The Nutcracker."
When • Friday through Dec. 26; 7 p.m. on Dec. 2-3, 8-10, 13-17, 20-23 and 26; 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10, 17, 22-23 and 26; noon Dec. 11, 18 and 24; and 5 p.m. Dec. 11 and 18
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19-$102; artsaltlake.org
Sugar Plum Party
P Join the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Clara, the Nutcracker Prince and more for an onstage party immediately after most matinee performances of "The Nutcracker." Tickets include a nutcracker ornament, cookies and punch, and a picture with the Sugar Plum Fairy and fellow cast members.
When • Saturday, 4:15 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 11, 2:15 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, Dec. 22-23, 4:15 p.m.; Monday, Dec. 26, 4:15 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $11; artsaltlake.org
'The Nutcracker' by the numbers
Ballet West offers these stats for its version of "The Nutcracker," considered the world's longest-running production of the Tchaikovsky ballet.
1955 • The year Ballet West started performing "The Nutcracker"; it's the only company still performing this version, known as the first original American full-length "Nutcracker," choreographed in 1944 by founder Willam Christensen.
16-plus yards • Amount of net required to make one tutu for "The Nutcracker"; altogether, the net in the tutus would stretch the length of six football fields.
$2,500 • Value of each Sugar Plum Fairy tutu, which is decorated with more than 200 hand-sewn jewels.
250 • Number of "Nutcracker" costumes; the costume shop begins preparing them in July.
40 • Hours required to make each tutu. If the stitchers worked 24 hours a day, it would take more than two straight months to complete the tutus worn in a single performance.
53 • Company dancers in every performance, along with 75 children's cast members.
8 • Loads of laundry done by the wardrobe department after each performance or 22 after a cast change!
110 pounds • Weight of the dry ice used in each snow scene, amounting to 3,190 pounds during the entire run in Salt Lake City.
$500,000 • Cost of the current "Nutcracker" set and props, which took 3,000 man hours to construct.
100 pounds • Amount of plastic snow used for the first act. If all the snow from the ballet's three-week run fell at once, the stage would be covered in 4 feet of snow.
402 • Number of lighting instruments used during each performance, each averaging 1,000 watts. That is enough light to illuminate a small city.
42 • Number of people required to load the four semi-trucks of "The Nutcracker" set into the theater, a process that takes an entire day. It then takes 23 people to run each performance.
Nearly 1,500 • Performances of "The Nutcracker" by Ballet West since 1955.
2.2 million-plus • Total audience members for Ballet West's "The Nutcracker."
$75 million-plus •Amount "The Nutcracker" has grossed for Ballet West in 61 years.
1 • Number of performances of Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" canceled by snow.