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A Southern Utah Tradition—The Nutcracker

Back stage with Westside Studio and Sheila Bailey

The student dancers whirl across the floor, their movements at once supple and controlled, while their instructors call out the steps—one, two, three—and offer corrections. Dozens of girls look on, perched on their marks, waiting to perform their parts. This is the first joint rehearsal for the opening of Act II in Westside Studio’s 2022 performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet. Previously, each group of dancers practiced their respective parts as sugar fairies, angels, snowflakes and more, led by a dedicated instructor. But with showtime approaching, the disparate elements of the show are coming together.

Sheila Bailey, founder and director of Westside Studio—one of the longest-running dance studios in St. George—has brought “The Nutcracker,” and her love of the community, to southern Utah for the past 28 years.

“There wasn’t a ‘Nutcracker’ established here,” she says. “And then we started little excerpts—and called it ‘Nutcracker Suites’—and did little segments at care centers and parties to entertain the community.” Then, with the help of Bené Arnold, former ballet mistress for the Ballet West dance company in Salt Lake City, Sheila says she finally brought “The Nutcracker” in its entirety to southern Utah.

Many different versions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet have been staged throughout the years. The version Sheila wanted to preserve was staged by Willam Christensen, founder of Ballet West; he is credited with bringing the complete version of “The Nutcracker” to the United States, as well as to Utah.

“What I liked about Willam is he had that childlike view; I wanted to preserve it,” Sheila says. “My whole vision when I’m producing and directing is it’s just like opening up a live storybook—like a storybook come to life.”

But the process of preparing for a professional-level performance takes time, organization and commitment. The audition process, which begins late August, requires dancers to submit headshots and demonstrate proficiency and professionalism. Holding auditions in a professional manner gives the young dancers experience that will boost their confidence when auditioning for other shows in the future, Sheila explains.  

In fact, the development of the students—both in dance and in life—is a key element of Sheila’s vision for the studio. “I want our kids to know that they can accomplish what they want,” she says. “But they have to get there; it’s not going to be given.”

Rehearsals start right after Labor Day, according to Holly Pitcher, director of marketing. “And they work every weekend until showtime in early December. It’s a commitment,” she says.

“It’s amazing how quickly they can put on such a huge production in that short of time,” Wyone Orchard, assistant office manager, adds. “These little kids are so amazing,”

Holly agrees. “They always pull it off.”

Westside Studio’s vision for “The Nutcracker” is to elevate the professionalism of the production and to instill in cast members the professional way of doing things. And that professionalism shows in the quality of the costumes, Sheila says—expensive, high-quality costumes by professional costume designers—and in the sets and props—some hand-painted by a local artist and some acquired from professional dance companies, including Ballet West. Sheila also hires two professional dancers each year for the more technically difficult roles.

But the heart of the ballet will always be the children.

“You just cannot replace the magic of a child,” Sheila says, “and when you see them executing on that level, I think that’s what takes people by surprise.”

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