The History of OUR Nutcracker Ballet

by Artistic Director, Sandy Emile

If you had attended the very first performance of the Nutcracker, in St. Petersburg Russia in 1892, you might be amazed to find out it became a ballet which has lasted over 200 years. It was poorly received way back then, and not until it’s American debut in New York City in 1940 did anyone pay much attention to this little ballet. Still more amazing is that the fact that it was a young man from Brigham City that would turn the Nutcracker Ballet into a nation-wide smash hit.

Willam Farr Christensen was born in 1902 in Brigham City, Utah. Willam and his brothers, Harold and Lew, opened the San Francisco Ballet and developed a strong ballet school and company there. On Christmas Eve, 1944, they produced the first full length American version of the Nutcracker with the collaboration of their friend and teacher, George Balanchine. Willam returned to Utah in 1951 for his wife’s health, and in 1963, Ballet West, in Salt Lake City, was begun with Willam Christensen as it’s co-founder and first artistic director. Of course, the Nutcracker became an instant part of the repertoire of this new company, to the delight of Salt Lake City audiences.

In 1982, I moved to Cache Valley and decided it was time to use my background in professional ballet to bring the Nutcracker tradition here. Ours began with an Act II performance presented by the newly established Cache Valley Civic Ballet Company, which I founded. Twenty-one dancers performed at the Whittier Community Center, then known as the AVA. The guns of the soldiers were made of painted broom stick and mop handles. Clara and the Nutcracker Prince arrived in the Land of Sweets in a hand-crafted, gilded walnut shell - a chicken wire and paper-mache creation that rolled around on a borrowed piano dolly. The smoke machine used for fog brought the entire fire department to the first dress rehearsal. That was the last time I was allowed to run tech! 

Approximately 300 people attended three shows. The budget for the entire production was $800 and to everyone’s delight brought in $1500, and so the show continued to grow: it became the full length production in 1983. 

As the show grew in size and quality, so did the audience and the budget. Grants from the Marie Eccles Caine foundation and the Utah Arts Council funded the construction of the costumes. Ballet West’s original Nutcracker backdrops were purchased in 1986. And we’ve constructed 3 growing Christmas trees over the last 30 years. We’ve performed in Logan High, on the Kent Fine Arts stage, and finally at the Ellen Eccles Theater when that was opened. This year we will perform for an average of 4000 people, not to mention our school and library outreach efforts.

Nutcracker has become a wonderful community production, created for Cache Valley and performed by Cache Valley individuals. It represents hours of devotion by the dancers, rehearsal assistants, parent volunteers, board members, and so many others whose work create this lovely holiday gift. I hope we will keep the tradition of giving it, year after year, and for generations to come.