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Ballet West's 'The Nutcracker' gets an impressive $3 million makeover

SALT LAKE CITY — With opening night approaching on Dec. 2, Ballet West is wrapping up the final touches to this year’s production of “The Nutcracker” at Capitol Theatre.

Since its first full-length production in 1944, Willam Christensen’s “The Nutcracker” has long been a favorite with Utah audiences. But crowds can anticipate something a little different this time around in the country's longest-running production of this Christmas-time tradition as Ballet West is exchanging its old sets and costumes for bright new ones.

“As beautiful as our old production was, it was nearly 30 years old,” said Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director since 2007. “It took enormous amounts of money and time and energy every year just to make it presentable to the level that we wanted for our audiences.”

Historical accuracy, with plenty of tulle

Going for a more whimsical approach, Sklute and a team of designers decided to set the ballet during E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story, which he wrote in 1816 — a very different setting from Christensen's Victorian era ballet. As the setting moved from the late to the early 19th century — think hoop skirts to delicate empire-waist gowns — the production team had to put in hours of research to ensure the new production was historically accurate.

Over 180 costumes were created for the new production of Ballet West's "The Nutcracker." Courtesy of Ballet West

“That’s a dramatically different look,” said Sklute. “It was the combination of … staying true to Mr. C’s vision, and then moving the time period to almost a more fairy tale time period.”

To make the set as authentic as possible, the director worked on capturing lighting that would accurately represent night, midnight and dawn during 19th century Nuremberg, Germany, saving the more imaginative ideas for the dream world that Clara visits in later scenes.

Now, with 24 monolithic sets, over 180 costumes, nearly 200 props and $3 million later, Ballet West is just about ready to go. Thanks to a lead gift from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the production was built to endure, and the old sets will be loaned to neighboring ballet companies.

“One of the things that we do is often rent out our productions when we’re not using them,” said Sklute. “One of the most requested productions to rent is ‘The Nutcracker.’ It was the one production that we were never able to rent out, because obviously everyone wanted it at the exact same time that we had to use it. So, now we’re able to rent out that production while using our new production.”

New costumes include hand-sewn tutus constructed out of 16 yards of tulle. Decorated with 806 Swarovski crystals, each tutu took 40 hours and approximately $8,000 to make. And finding the perfect fabrics became an international treasure hunt as David Heuvel, director of costume production, traveled from New York, London and Los Angeles in search of unique pieces.

“Packages come from countries all over the world,” said Joshua Jones, associate director of press and social media, recalling some gold lace that recently arrived from Europe. “This is truly a global production.”

Local touches

Sklute and his team of designers also used the new set as a way to pay homage to Utah artist James Christensen, who passed away in January of this year. Influenced by the painter's whimsical style, the designers created a delicate balance between the world of reality and fantasy in their new production.

Adam Sklute, Artistic Director at Ballet West since 2007, poses for a photo in front of a new set for "The Nutcracker." Courtesy of Ballet West

“The paintings on the walls of Clara’s house would later be the inspiration for the Act 2 backdrop,” said Sklute. “It was almost as if her imagination, by seeing these paintings on the wall, would become the Land of the Sweets that they go to.”

Maintaining the magic of the theater while appealing to a more modern audience also posed a challenge while creating the production. To find a balance between the two, Sklute made a few additions to the overture before Act 2 in “The Nutcracker.” Audiences can also look forward to new projections and an airborne sleigh.

“We have flying effects, which again was something Mr. C always wanted, but for both budgetary and technical reasons, could never achieve,” said Sklute. “And now we’re able to achieve that. So I feel like it’s a gift to him and his memory.”

The new production of “The Nutcracker” will also give a nod to Utah’s legacy as a state, with the characters Mother Buffoon and her children dressed up as a queen bee and bumblebees going to a party. But even these changes hearken back to previous versions of the show that Christensen created, Sklute said.

“In the original 1892 production of ‘The Nutcracker,’ it ended with bees buzzing around a hive,” he said. “So, in a funny way I looked to bring it back. And also because we’re the Beehive State, I thought that that would be a cute connection.”

A "sweet" legacy

William Christensen passed away in 2001, so remaining true to the original while adding new elements for current audiences is something Sklute said he takes very seriously.

Adam Sklute Artistic Director of Ballet West works with dancers during Nutcracker rehearsals on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Mr. C changed his production three times in his own lifetime,” he said. “This is the fourth incarnation, and it is actually the first one that we don’t have Mr. C to oversee. So, that’s where I feel a great deal of responsibility in making sure that we stay true to his vision and to stay true to what he wants, while making it a production that can last well into the 21st century.”

As Ballet West wraps up rehearsals over the next two weeks, Sklute said he is looking forward to seeing everything come together at last.

“Two years may sound like a long time," Sklute shared, "but it was a very fast turn around for such a big production. And everybody has been working around the clock to make it happen … . I think everybody has gotten this sense of great pride in this and is very excited about it. Exhausted, yes. But excited and proud of what they’re doing. So, I can’t wait to see the whole thing come together.”

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

Phone: 801-355-2787