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Why Ballet West’s ‘Nutcracker’ is so popular — even after 75 years

‘The Nutcracker’ has the unique ability of drawing new people to the world of ballet while, at the same time, keeping it interesting for those who have seen it many times before

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Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” runs through Dec. 26 at the Capitol Theatre.

Beau Pearson, Ballet West

WILLAM CHRISTENSEN’S “THE NUTCRACKER,” through Dec. 26, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City (801-862-6900 or www.balletwest.org); running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes (one intermission)

SALT LAKE CITY — If you’re from Utah and you’ve only attended one professional ballet performance, it was likely Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker.”

By far the company’s most popular program for a whopping 75 years, “The Nutcracker” has the unique ability of drawing new people to the world of ballet while, at the same time, keeping it interesting for those who have seen it many times before.

It’s easy to see why “The Nutcracker” sells more tickets than any other ballet each year. 

With so many kids in the cast, families often attend as cheering squads. Others buy tickets on a festive impulse — it’s one of Salt Lake City’s oldest holiday traditions (and it happens to be the oldest “Nutcracker” in the country). 

But there’s a host of other reasons for “The Nutcracker’s” popularity, as shown in Ballet West’s production Saturday night. The variations are short and sweet. The costumes, special effects and scenery are decadent (enhanced recently thanks to a multimillion dollar design overhaul), and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and gee-whiz stunts that include a gravity defying Chinese Warrior and Russian Trepak as well as an Arabian dance brimming with backbends and rubber band-like limb extensions. 

The attendance of so many children also adds to the delight. Their audible gasps and giggles Saturday night allowed the audience to see the performance as it is meant to be seen: through a child’s eyes. They signaled their approval of moving clocks, growing Christmas trees, shooting cannons, falling snow and especially the giant Mother Buffoon, in whose massive skirt hid little dancing bees. 

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Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” runs through Dec. 26 at the Capitol Theatre.

Beau Pearson, Ballet West

Yet, despite the vaudeville tricks, Ballet West’s “Nutcracker” was and is not mere fluff. Tchaikovsky’s Adagio — the hauntingly beautiful movement in which the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier dance — is surprisingly melancholy. The gorgeous grand pas de deux may well serve as a litmus test for up-and-coming artists frequently selected to dance it.

While some of the children looked restless by this point (one youngster in front of me whispered, “When will the Russians come back on?” to her mother), for most grown-ups, at least, it would have been nearly impossible not to appreciate the glow and finesse of Soloist Jenna Rae Herrera’s steps in her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy, or First Soloist Christopher Sellars’ impressive athleticism, musicality and ability to fill the space as her Cavalier.

Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell as the Snow Queen and King — a favorite couple on and off the stage (they got engaged last January) — danced their roles with expert panache. Sisk’s lines were intensely breathtaking, her technique spot-on, and O’Connell’s leaps soared and suspended, ever the elegant and powerful dancer.

Emily Neale and Tyler Gum danced as the lead couple in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Neale has risen rapidly to the rank of demi-soloist and is certainly seizing her moment, having recently appeared in several lead roles, and Gum was a strong and generous partner throughout the number.

Finally, one must not discount composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s role in ensuring this ballet as a perennial favorite. Having recently interviewed Ballet West Orchestra conductor Jared Oaks about this extraordinary and beloved score, it was noted with greater appreciation the rich layers and context of Tchaikovsky’s immortal music — and Oaks’ intentness on bringing out its color and nuance with his baton.