Taking a look back at 60 seasons of Ballet West

Apr 23, 2023, 11:15 PM | Updated: 11:29 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Ballet West is preparing to celebrate a milestone — its 60th season.

“I think the magic of Ballet West is that it has such a great and long history,” said Adam Sklute, artistic director for Ballet West.

The celebration was also a reason to look back.

“I think Ballet West has really succeeded all these years because we follow the lead of Willam Christensen.”

It began with Christian Christensen and his brother, Peter, who opened a dance and music center in Brigham City in 1903.

Christian’s sons — Harold, Willam and Lew — studied at the academy.

“And from there, it was a starting place for my grandfather and his brothers,” said Sarah West, Willam’s granddaughter.

The brothers became Vaudeville performers and then founded the Portland Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West.

“I just remember family gatherings in San Francisco, people telling stories and the family danced,” West said.

The year was 1992. Willam retired from Ballet West, and at age 89, was still teaching dance at the University of Utah. With his arm around a young dancer and both swinging in a circle, he exclaimed, “Then you paddle like a son-of-a-gun!”

Tom Michel, vice president of development and marketing for Ballet West in 2016, underscored the importance of the Christensen Academy in Brigham City.

“What happened in this building continues to grow ballet not only in this state, but across the country and across the planet,” he said.

The greatest example of that is “The Nutcracker.” In December of 1945 in San Francisco, Willam choreographed the first American production of that ballet. It was a huge success.

He told KSL’s Carole Mikita in 1988, “It was sold out! We hadn’t even opened yet, so we added another matinee and that was sold out!”

His choreography became a Utah tradition and was the inspiration behind thousands of “ Nutcracker” productions throughout the country.

Former principal dancer, Christopher Ruud, said what so many echo.

“In that way, Nutcracker became Christmas for me. Christmas and Nutcracker are completely inextricable.”

Ruud had a 20-year career with the company, but he said each time he heard that famous Tchaikovsky music, he remembered his own childhood and his parents, who were both Ballet West dancers.

The competitive, exhausting, body-pushing side of the ballet took center stage in a 2012 BBC Worldwide production called “Breaking Point.”

Producers auditioned 20 American dance companies before choosing Ballet West.

“They really wanted to set the record straight about ballet and ballet in America, what a dancer’s life was like, what being a professional ballet company was like,” Sklute said.

Tom Mattingly was a soloist in 2012.

“Most people don’t really understand what it means to be a ballet dancer. They don’t understand that it’s our full-time job.”

Nor did people understand what their lives were like. Cameras followed 10 dancers for six weeks, even to their homes. They looked at the focus, the dedication and the hunt for perfection.

“There’s no end to it. You can always be better,” said Allison DeBona, a demi-soloist in 2012. “We really want to show the world how it is to live the life of a ballet dancer and what we do to give everything we’ve got to become successful.”

Through the decades, Ballet West has produced beloved classics alongside modern works and new works from both well-known and up-and-coming choreographers.

And by invitation, Ballet West will perform next season at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Sklute said the company must continue to evolve.

“I’m always working to keep Ballet West as current as possible while honoring the history and tradition.”

Ballet West’s 60th anniversary — making a statement about its place in our state and its vision for the future.

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Taking a look back at 60 seasons of Ballet West