A New Old Friend

You can probably guess the most important prop in The Nutcracker.

What you’d never guess is the amount of time that went into designing, scrutinizing, even agonizing over this iconic doll. A team of designers started working on the look and feel almost two years ago in order to get this central cast member perfect. Property Manager Cory Thorell was integral to this process, here he recalls the journey.

Q: Takes us back to the beginning. What were the first steps to bringing The Nutcracker to life?

A: You really have to go back to February of 2015. That is when the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation gave Ballet West $2 million to re-conceive the costumes, sets, and special effects for The Nutcracker. Spencer and Lisa Eccles, Trustees of the Foundation toured the 30-year old sets and saw first-hand the duct-taped scenery and faded tutus. Their generosity started this remarkable process.

From there, every decision was based on Adam’s edict that we would remain true to Mr. C’s choreography. We looked at the current nutcracker and asked what is choreographically valuable. We came up with a list: the height, weight, impact resistance, the open mouth mechanism, and the detachable head were all values of the doll. It would not cross most people minds, but changing any of these small details would end up changing the choreography. For instance, the legs have to be thin enough for a child to wrap their hands around, and light enough to raise above their heads. Any small changes would mean deviating from a time-tested and beloved choreography.

So how will the new nutcracker be different?

While the choreography does not change, Adam did want to take the production to a more authentic period, to the early 19th century. That is when E.T.A. Hoffmann actually wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

David Heuvel contracted Logan Long Creative Works, a local company specializing in special effects, make-up, and masks to build the Nutcracker Prince’s head. Keep in mind that this will be iconic, used in marketing and advertising. It will be the face of this mammoth production, so the stakes are high. From Logan’s concepts for the head, we had him build a model for the doll. The doll needed to resemble the headpiece he had built and we knew it needed to be 23” tall, just like the current doll. Adam also liked the idea of making its legs resemble a furniture leg, which is more period correct. Out of oil-based artistic clay, he started to shape and refine it, he would sent pictures several times a day which we’d review and give feedback.

So how do you go from a clay model to the finished product?

Technology and time. Initially we were going to have the Utah Opera Studios, who is painting all of our sets, build the nutcracker doll as well. It would have been carved in wood by a computer-controlled router. Then, Logan had an innovative idea: 3-D printing. He introduced us to another local company, MK1 Studios. They were able to quickly scan the clay doll using 3-D technology. Then using computer models, they had to engineer several pieces: the moving mouth, placement of magnets so the head could detach, and weights in the bottom so that it stood upright. This process took more than 60 hours.

The actual printing took about four hours. Afterwards, another machine sanded and smoothed the impact-resistant acrylic plastic.

Finally, the prototype and three new dolls came back to their new home, the Ballet West warehouse on 600 South. There, Lilly Smith, a scenic painter for Salt Lake Acting Company began the arduous task of painting the dolls. It took her two weeks.

Redesigning the The Nutcracker doll is a huge responsibility, how does it make you feel to be a part of this project?

It is a point of huge personal pride. Growing up, my family had a Nutcracker tradition: every year on Christmas Eve we’d watch it together. I have not missed a year. Now, I get to be a part of that tradition, I’ve built the Chestnut Roaster, the horns, sofa, and helped maintain the clock… all props that will continue into the new production. For me, this is a role of a lifetime.