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Young talent at the center of Ballet West’s 'Nutcracker' as the company prepares to retire current production

On a warm Saturday morning this past September, long before the first snow flurries or twinkle of holiday lights could be glimpsed, the Ballet West facilities erupted with nearly 600 youngsters from around Utah and as far away as Wyoming, Nevada and Idaho to audition for a role in the company’s 2016 production of “The Nutcracker,” which will be at Capitol Theatre Dec. 2-26.

“This is a massive undertaking that starts long before the holiday season,” said Adam Sklute, Ballet West artistic director and CEO. “Every fall, we audition hundreds of kids, all eager to be a part of the production, and we really want the best for all of them.”

During what Sklute described as “an explosion of cuteness,” nearly 600 leotard-clad children as young as 8 years old vied for less than half as many spots during the September audition.

“It’s a daylong process so we can make sure we get the highest caliber of dancers, and I’m proud that it’s open to every student regardless of which school they come from,” Sklute said. “Every year, the quality of students from around the valley consistently goes up. It’s really exciting to see the level of dance training that’s going on throughout the region.”

Ballet West Academy, the company’s training school for young dancers, has grown in recent years to include a Thanksgiving Point location, which opened in 2014, and a Park City location, which opened this year. It might come naturally to suppose, then, that most of “The Nutcracker” dancers are chosen from amongst its ranks, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Of the 274 roles, almost exactly half (135) went to academy students.

A nonacademy ballet student, likewise, may even land the lead child’s role of Clara. This year, for instance, one of the four Claras cast, Mia Tureson, hails from LaRae’s Dance Unlimited in Layton.

“It happens all the time,” said Heather Thackeray, Ballet West’s student ballet mistress, who, as a child performed various roles in “The Nutcracker." “The dancers are not judged by what school they come from, but by the ability and talents required for the role. Some of the judges aren’t even associated with the academy, as we always have an impartial judge from outside our organization.”

Upon arrival, children are categorized by height and given a number. They are taught two or three ballet combinations and given time to rehearse. Finally, they are filed in small groups before five judges — made up from any assortment of artistic staff, former dancers, company teachers and teachers from competing dance schools — to demonstrate their stage presence and technical prowess.

“We are looking for that special something that makes a kid stand out as a performer on the stage,” Sklute said, adding that technical skills are, of course, a must, especially for the more advanced parts.

Selected dancers are then cast as buffoons, baby mice, party boys and girls, soldiers, oriental servants, pages, ladies-in-waiting and the starring roles of Clara, Fritz and the Nephew.

And while some shine, others feel the sting of rejection during that much-dreaded elimination process, which now happens online. Eliminating children, Sklute said, is tough on everyone.

“The most challenging part of show business — auditioning and performing — is having to get used to a degree of rejection,” he said. “It’s still hard on us because they are children, so we try to announce the final results in a sensitive way.”

Ballet West staff members insist this is no ordinary season for "The Nutcracker." Throwing around phrases such as “end of an era” and “retirement party,” the company is now waylaying anxious longtime patrons by promising that, although a new production will be unveiled in 2017, the timeless choreography of founder Willam Christensen (still lovingly referred to within the company as “Mr. C”) will remain completely intact.

So while Ballet West isn’t closing the curtain on “The Nutcracker” after this season, it is saying farewell to the sets, costumes and special effects that date back almost 30 years, according to a news release.

“We feel next year’s new look will really honor Mr. C because it’s going to bring even more brilliance and magic to the production,” said Sklute, who has worked not only with the production team but also with Ballet West archivists and former staff members as well as the founder’s family.

“Mr. C himself tweaked and changed things,” Sklute added. “There were four earlier incarnations. I even looked at earlier ones to see if there were things that might be interesting to bring back.”

Big donors, such as the Eccles Foundation, have paved the way for the update, according to a previous news release from the ballet company. Sklute said the updates will include more lavish and fanciful sets, costumes and special effects from a time period consistent with the lifetime of the fairy tale’s author (E.T.A Hoffmann, 1776-1822).

According to Sklute, few characters will change. Monkeys will replace Oriental servants, and although the choreography won’t change, it will become a role for young male dancers (it is currently a role for young female dancers). There have also been hints, although the details remain uncertain, that the larger-than-life Mother Buffoon, a clownish figure with a massive skirt filled with little children (known as “Buffoons”) may become a “Queen Bee” figure with a beehive skirt (and little “Bees”) in a nod to Utah’s state symbol.

Sklute also noted, however, that some things will stay decisively the same. The sentimentally designed Russian costumes, which are reminiscent of the Christensen brothers’ vaudeville act, won't change much, nor will the cherished 40-year-old grandfather clock set piece from which Herr Drosselmeyer’s face appears during Clara’s troubled sleep.

Sklute says he’s honored to act as a steward over Salt Lake’s beloved production, which is steeped in history and tradition, and feels certain Christensen would have approved of the added “magic” to next year’s new look.

Christensen’s production was the first full-length American version of “The Nutcracker,” according to Ballet West's website. The production has proven to be the longest running “Nutcracker” in America, according to the news release.

“This kind of support for the arts isn’t common in every community,” Sklute said. “We have more support per capita than any community in America that I know of, which, when I came here nine years ago, was such a wonderful surprise. For such a relatively small market, the fact that we can sustain one of the top 10 ballet companies really speaks volumes.”

According to the news release, the ballet company is curating a free exhibit, "Nutcracker Memories," to "celebrate the history of 'The Nutcracker' and give audiences a glimpse at the future production." The exhibit will be on display at the Capitol Room in the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre, which is adjacent to the Capitol Theatre.

Content advisory: The ballet contains some sword play. The party scene includes wine-filled goblets and pipe-smoking.

If you go …

What: Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”

When: Dec. 2-26

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

How much: $20-$88

Phone: 801-869-6900

Web: balletwest.org