Guest ballet superstars make the country’s oldest ‘Nutcracker’ even more special in SLC

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Harper Watters and Yuriko Kajiya, photo courtesy of Harper Watters

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Although The Nutcracker is a special Christmas tradition for the entire country, the classic ballet holds a special place in the hearts of Utahns. Ballet West, Utah’s premier ballet company, is home to the country’s oldest Nutcracker. In fact, Utah native and Ballet West founder, William Christensen, was the first choreographer to stage a complete production of the hallmark holiday ballet in the United States. He is widely credited with reviving the production  – which was originally panned by critics – and creating the Christmas tradition that many of us hold near and dear.

And this weekend, Ballet West’s Nutcracker is about to get even more special. The company is welcoming two superstar ballet artists, Harper Watters and Yuriko Kajiya from the Houston Ballet, to perform on Friday and Saturday.

“Coming to Ballet West and working with Adam Sklute, the artistic director, and the coaches here has been so special because it really feels like we’re a part of history,” Watters tells “Knowing what Nutcracker means to the Salt Lake City community and to the ballet community, we’re so honored to be a part of history.”

Both dancers, of course, are deeply familiar with the Nutcracker’s history, not only in the dance world, but also with Utah’s place in the ballet’s background. However, neither of them had been to Salt Lake before this guest opportunity with Ballet West.

“I feel like I got the formal Salt Lake City welcome from the snow,” Kajiya says with a laugh.

Kajiya and Watters will be dancing the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, respectively.

And although Houston Ballet will surely miss their dancers, Texas audiences are in for a treat, too. Ballet West’s Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell will be gracing the stage in Houston this weekend, also as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier.

Because each ballet company has slight variations on their Nutcracker – Houston Ballet performs choreography by their artistic director, Stanton Welch – the couples have been in cahoots to learn the ins and outs of each version of the classic.

“We got to talk with the other couple and we were picking their brains, asking them questions about ‘How do you walk like this?’ and ‘What count is this on?’” Watters recounts.

Watters says dancing with Ballet West has given him the opportunity to reconnect with old friends from his ballet school days, too. These friendships have helped him transition to dancing a new version of Nutcracker.

“There are dancers in Ballet West who I trained with at the Houston Ballet Academy who I haven’t seen in 10 plus years,” he says. “So if I do have any questions, I’m lucky to have people here that I can count on.”  

But even though they’ve been thrown into a new situation, the dancers have trained for this their entire lives, developing their bodies and minds to learn new choreography at a moments notice. For Kajiya, she’s hasn’t felt much stress surrounding dancing a new-to-her rendition of Nutcracker, rather, she’s simply excited to see how the show unfolds.

“There is no right and wrong, it’s just every production is very unique and has an interesting take on ways to share music or steps and how the audience reacts in different parts, so I’m very curious to see.”

Kajiya was born in Japan and moved to China at age 10 to study at the Shanghai Ballet School. She also studied at the National Ballet of Canada School before joining one of America’s top ballet companies, American Ballet Theatre, where she danced for 15 years. She joined Houston Ballet in 2014.

Though Watters has also had an illustrious performing career – he’s been a member of Houston Ballet since 2012, has danced in works by the world’s leading choreographers, and skyrocketed to internet fame after a video of himself and fellow dancer Rhys Kosakowski strutting on treadmills in hot pink stilettos went viral – his performance with Ballet West marks his first guesting opportunity.

“Houston Ballet and Ballet West are some of the best ballet companies in the US and even the world, and so to have a guesting opportunity like this be my first, I’m very excited,” he says.

In addition to both dancers, the entire cast of Ballet West’s Nutcracker, as well as every single member of the audience, is sure to be excited, too.

 “I think it’s so special that this country has this tradition of Nutcracker for this Christmas season because ballet may not be the most well-known art form in this country, but if you say Nutcracker, everyone knows what that is,” Kajiya says.

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