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Meet the man keeping alive Utah’s ‘The Nutcracker’ obsession

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SALT LAKE CITY — America has an obsession with “The Nutcracker.”

Nearly every ballet company in the country performs it over the holidays, and scores of films, including Disney’s latest big-budget incarnation, attest to its appeal. For Ballet West ballet master and company archivist Bruce Caldwell, the imprint of three Utah brothers who brought it to America looms large.

“I consider Bruce a keeper of the 'Nutcracker' flame,” said Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute in a recent interview.

Caldwell worked for decades with the oldest of the Christensen brothers, Willam (his brothers Lew and Harold formed the trio), who founded Ballet West and created America’s first “Nutcracker.” Now Caldwell endeavors to preserve their legacy.

Building America’s “Nutcracker”

The party scene in Ballet West's "The Nutcracker."

The party scene in Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker.”

Luke Isley

While the Christensen brothers have rightly earned their place in dance history for founding major ballet companies and schools, their best-known achievement continues to take the form of giant mice, snow queens, candy fairies, Russian trepaks and a dashing toy nutcracker come-to-life.

Having never seen the rather obscure and unpopular 1892 Russian “Nutcracker” set to Tchaikovsky’s better-known score, the three Brigham City natives borrowed from both their ballet training under the likes of George Balanchine and their years on the vaudeville circuit to piece together what they hoped would be a hit for American audiences.

And it was.

Soon, other artistic directors (including Balanchine) stood up and took notice, and Willam Christensen's original 1944 production for the San Francisco Ballet paved the way for thousands of others in the U.S. and abroad, according to Nutcracker.com.

Today, only Ballet West continues to perform its founder’s original version. The company recently toured it at the Kennedy Center to nearly sold-out audiences and will bring it back home for its local holiday run at Salt Lake’s Capitol Theatre Dec. 14-29.

A 1964 production of Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" with Victoria Morgan, Barbra Mcklusky, Kenneth Mitchell and Bruce Caldwell.

A 1964 production of Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” with Victoria Morgan, Barbra Mcklusky, Kenneth Mitchell and Bruce Caldwell.

Robert Clayton, Ballet West

‘Give them a show’

While preserving the legacy doesn’t fall squarely on one set of shoulders, many look to Caldwell, longtime ballet master and company archivist for Ballet West, as a guardian of the nostalgic ballet.

“While the whole artistic staff stages different pieces, Bruce oversees the entire shape and arc or the production each year,” Sklute said. “He has worked with ‘Mr. C’ (as he is affectionately known) since his childhood in the ‘60s, then as a principal dancer with the company until the '80s, and finally as Mr. C’s ballet master. He understands his mentor’s movement quality and theatricality — those things that make our 'Nutcracker' so charming and memorable.”

It might have been the Christensen brothers’ enhanced sense of theatricality that gave wings to the poorly received Russian version. Caldwell pointed out that for a classical ballet, the light-hearted style and clipped pace influenced by vaudeville gave this “Nutcracker” — and America — something uniquely its own.

“I think his 'Nutcracker' worked so well because it has something for everyone. It has kids, humor, pathos and art,” said Caldwell, who celebrates 50 years with Ballet West this season.

“Mr. C always reminded us to ‘give them a show,’” he added.

Tinkering with a classic

On Nov. 3 of this year, Mayor Jackie Biskupski declared it “Bruce Caldwell Golden Anniversary Day” in a ceremony honoring him before Ballet West’s season-opening show.

“Salt Lake City is extremely proud of this native son for advancing and elevating the arts in Utah,” Biskupski said in her speech.

Bruce Caldwell.

Bruce Caldwell.

Ballet West

Elevating “The Nutcracker” has always been Caldwell’s end goal when he and the company consider any modifications to the ballet, which has become all the more sacrosanct with the passing of Willam Christensen in 2001. Lew Christensen passed in 1984 and Harold Christensen died in 1989.

“Mr. C adjusted and changed it from time to time,” Caldwell said. “He was always wanting to ‘improve the product’ as we went along — that was always the aim. Be cleaner, make good lines, wow the audience. So when we’ve felt a need for some minor change to update it or make it work better with our current size or strengths, we do it — but we’re careful.”

Sklute said when he sees a need to tinker with the ballet, he often mines Caldwell’s memory, talks to the company’s first ballet mistress, Bené Arnold, and searches old film — which Caldwell has meticulously archived. Together they look for past versions that may better suit the company’s needs today.

“For example, with such a strong corps of men now, I wanted to create more men’s roles in the production,” Sklute said. “It was Bruce and Bené who remembered that once upon a time, Mr. C had a male lead in the Spanish dance. So we watched old film and reincorporated that.”

Sklute also discovered from his conversations with Caldwell and Arnold that the Christensen brothers often borrowed elements from each other’s productions (Lew Christensen had created a similar production for the San Francisco Ballet some years after Willam).

“Learning that,” said Sklute, “we felt comfortable introducing Lew’s choreography with a stronger male role in the Chinese dance.”

‘This is great!’

Katlyn Addison in Ballet West's "The Nutcracker."

Katlyn Addison in Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker.”

Beau Pearson

Other revisions include five set and costume redesigns over the past 74 years. Mother Buffoon has been revamped several times for safety reasons, increased sensitivity to racial stereotyping has led to the elimination of certain makeup, and even the Nutcracker doll itself has had several makeovers.

Choreographic changes have been minimal, but the most extraordinary — because of the company’s ever-growing technical prowess — has included adjustments to the grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier.

“We felt we had some wiggle room with that because it is considered a public domain classic,” said Sklute, who pointed out that “even in Mr. C’s time, Marius Petipa’s original Sugar Plum choreography was part of the classic pantheon that all dancers learned and performed even if the ballet as a whole was relatively unknown.”

Most of the technicalities occur under the audience’s radar, but of course, those who have worked in and with the production recognize even the slightest modifications. Caldwell said when such adjustments have been made, he’s tried to live inside the mind of his mentor.

“Mr. C would have loved the fact that we have such a large company now. He would have wanted to involve everyone — and he would have loved to have the money to create more special effects on the stage,” Caldwell said. “The images of falling snow during the opening scene or the flying sleigh at the end — I can almost see his face and hear him saying, ‘This is great!’”

If you go …

What: Ballet West's “The Nutcracker”

When: December 14-29, times vary

Where: J. Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

How much: $44-$125

Phone: 801-869-6900

Web: balletwest.org