23 Dec

My Nutcrackerrific trip to Utah

The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed me a couple of weeks ago about ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America, but I’ve done more in Utah this month than just appear in print.

Street sign

Considering that it was dance-loving Utah brothers Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen who made The Nutcracker into a US holiday tradition, what better time and place to share my book than in Salt Lake City as Ballet West began staging its production for the 60th year?

So, I headed west for the week, getting a great view of the Rocky Mountains and Salt Lake City as I flew in on a Sunday afternoon.

Heading west

The next morning, I drove down to Alpine for a school visit at Westfield Elementary. Schools just south of Salt Lake City, I learned, have somewhat different scenery from those in Texas.

First school visit

In the gym at Westfield, I presented to an audience containing around 700 kids grades 1-6 — my single biggest school-visit audience ever.

Outnumbered

On this trip, in between my reading of ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America

George and Shura at Westfield

— and my discussion of how I did my research, I began showing this 1938 clip of two of the Christensen brothers dancing in Filling Station. That visual made for a great addition to my presentation. At Westfield, one of the kids exclaimed, “That’s ballet?” — a perfect response.

Marc Tyler Nobleman — author of the picture book biographies Boys of Steel and Bill the Boy Wonder, about the creators of Superman and Batman, respectively — had visited Westfield previously, though you’d certainly never suspect that from the decor in the library:

Westfield superheroes 4

Westfield superheroes 5

Westfield superheroes 3

Westfield superheroes 2

Afterwards, I had lunch with three of my writer friends who happen to live near the school: Christine Hayes (Mothman’s Curse), Heidi Lewis (I can’t wait for you to read her nonfiction), and Amy Finnegan (Not in the Script).

With EMLAs

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped by King’s English and signed stacks of ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America and Shark Vs. Train. I loved chatting with Whitney Berger and Rob Eckman while I signed — it was my first visit to the store, and they made me feel completely at home.

The day’s last event was a dinner in Park City, where I discussed The Nutcracker alongside Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute and met lots of enthusiastic young dancers, at least a couple of whom I’d see again in my school visits later in the week.

Upon my Tuesday morning arrival at Waterford School in Sandy, I saw perhaps the most impressive sunrise I’d ever witnessed.

Sunrise and Waterford School

Sunrise and mountains

Two other nifty things that came with my presentation to Waterford’s students were 1) a new-to-me trick for displaying my books during my presentation…

Book display genius

…and 2) this most excellent, highly personalized nutcracker (delivered to me by four ballet-dancing students!):

My nutcracker

That afternoon, I went up to Park City with Sarah West, the aptly named development director of Ballet West as well as the granddaughter of Ballet West’s founder, Mr. C himself, Willam Christensen.

Our first stop was the weekly luncheon of the warmly irreverent Park City Rotary Club, where the featured speaker was Sarah Pearce, managing director of the Sundance Institute.

After that, I had the delightful honor of reading ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America to a preschool class where one of the students was one of Mr. C’s great-grandsons. I did my best to explain the concept of great-grandparents, as well as the idiom “knock their socks off” and the point of a standing ovation. I’m pretty sure I got through on at least the last of those, as the kids did provide (with maybe a little encouragement from me) a standing O after my reading.

Sarah showed me around Park City’s Main Street, where I met (and got kinda fresh with) this bear:

Fresh bear

The last event of the day was a reading and discussion of my book at the Kimball Art Center. Beforehand, I got to check out the custom-chairlift charity contest entries outside. These were a couple of my favorites:

Kimball chairlift

Snowbug

Inside, kids did Nutcracker-themed crafts — painting nutcracker statues and wooden cutouts. After my reading, I met Mr. C’s daughter and got a family photo with three generations of Christensens:

With family of Mr C

I arrived back at my hotel just in time to cross the street to the Capitol Theater and watch most of the first half of a Ballet West Nutcracker rehearsal. I didn’t take any photos, but I doubt they would have conveyed how captivating it was to watch dancers in sweatpants and T-shirts and the occasional mask bring the story to life accompanied by a single piano.

The highlight of Wednesday was my school visit to Rowland Hall. One of the students there was a girl I’d met at the Monday dinner. She was very self-possessed, as were all the kids at the school. This audience was kindergartners through second graders, so instead of going into details of my research process, after reading ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America and showing them the Filling Station clip, I read them Shark Vs. Train. That one never grows old for me. Or for them, I’m pleased to say.

The runner-up on Wednesday was this blue macaron (salted caramel, surprisingly) that I bought at Eva’s Bakery with my afternoon coffee:

Blue cookie before

Blue cookie after

Thursday brought three presentations back in Sandy at Grace Lutheran. The first audience consisted of the sixth- through eighth-graders, the oldest student audience I’ve presented my Nutcracker book to so far.

I still did a reading — I don’t think there’s any age where people are too old to be read to — but I prefaced my reading by pointing out several technical things that I wanted them to pay attention to: how I played off readers’ expectations about The Nutcracker, struck a balance among the three Christensen brothers without giving any of them short shrift, kept straight the sequences of events and geographic relocations, and provided an introduction to ballet without a data dump.

That evening, it was showtime. Ballet West executive director Scott Altman provided a backstage tour of the company’s operations — including the costume shop — for an audience that included Utah Governor Gary Herbert and and First Lady Jeanette Herbert. At the beginning of the tour, to my surprise, Sarah West handed the Herberts a signed copy of ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America, which the governor carried throughout the tour.

Herberts backstage 2

Herberts backstage 1

From left to right, Gay Cookson, director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums; Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West; Utah First Lady Jeanette Herbert; Utah Governor Gary Herbert; Scott Altman, executive director of Ballet West; and me.

From left to right, Gay Cookson, director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums; Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West; Utah First Lady Jeanette Herbert; Utah Governor Gary Herbert; Scott Altman, executive director of Ballet West; and me

But an even bigger surprise came when, onstage with Scott Altman and Adam Sklute before the curtain rose, Gov. Herbert showed off and talked up my book before the entire crowd — immediately becoming my second-favorite politician, after John Roy Lynch.

Gov6

During the show, I sat next to Gay Cookson, brand-new in her role as director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. During intermission, we posed with this guy:

With Gay Cookson

The show itself was marvelous. Ballet West still uses the choreography created in the 1950s by Willam Christensen, and so in addition to being highly entertaining (he was a former vaudevillian, after all), it was also extremely meaningful to witness in person the living, breathing, leaping, waltzing work of one of my subjects.

If you’re anywhere near Salt Lake City, there’s still time to go see it. I highly recommend it.

The last bit of business on my Utah trip came on Friday morning, when I headed back to newly snowed-upon Park City with Joshua Jones, Ballet West’s associate director of press and social media. Bookended (for reasons still not clear to me) by Lenny Kravitz songs, KPCW interviewed Josh and me live on the air about the Christensens, The Nutcracker, and Ballet West’s production.

Afterwards, we walked over to Dolly’s Bookstore so that I could sign copies of ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America.

With Sue Fassett at Dolly's Bookstore

With Sue Fassett, manager of Dolly’s Bookstore

I was delighted to see Jennifer’s Revenge of the Angels on prominent display at Dolly’s. It made me miss her all the more. It had been a great week, but I was glad to get home that night.