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SALT LAKE CITY — For a young ballet dancer in Utah, it doesn't get any better than this: After years of study, and months of auditions and callbacks, 11-year-old Ella Whitney has won the coveted role of "Clara" in Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker."
For tens of thousands of Utahns, "The Nutcracker" ballet has become a holiday tradition. This year, when Ella takes the stage she will be following in the footsteps of both her mother and grandmother.
"I just went to the audition feeling like I could do it, so then it just happened," Ella said.
The production features dozens of children, but the ballet is truly Clara's story.
Ella's mother, Natalie Whitney, remembers waiting with her mother when they got the news. "We were crying," she said. "Everyone was like, 'What is wrong with those ladies?'"
The familiar steps that Ella makes go back generations in her family.
"Exactly 20 years ago, I was Clara," Natalie said. "You never forget any part of 'The Nutcracker.' When you hear that music, if you've been in it, the choreography comes right back."
With a laugh, Natalie talked of the rehearsals that go on at home. "We do it in the living room together, we do!" she said.
Natalie, who now teaches at the Ballet West Academy, caught "The Nutcracker" bug when she was 9 years old.
"You see the backstage and every part of going into this production, and it's just fun to be part of it," she said.
She followed in her own mother's footsteps as well. Ella's grandmother, Connie Silver, was the first in the family to be part of the iconic ballet.
"My mother loved 'The Nutcracker,'" Natalie said, "and so she encouraged us to dance. She always said to me, 'I want you to be a dance teacher someday, and this would be a good thing for you to do.'"
- What: "The Nutcracker" ballet
- When: Runs through Dec. 27
- Where: Capitol Theater, Salt Lake City
Eventually, Natalie did become a dance teacher, numbering her daughters among her students.
As for Connie, she has never forgotten her time on stage.
"I can lay in bed at night and, in my mind, dance the entire 'Nutcracker.' It takes two hours," she said. "My first 'Nutcracker' was 50 years ago, exactly: 1965.
"When I"m sitting in the audience, all I need to hear are those first couple of notes in the overture; it's like magic! It just takes you right back."
One Utah family's legacy has helped to elevate "The Nutcracker" to a beloved community tradition. Each one — grandmother, mother and daughter — is pleased and grateful.
"I just feel glad that I can be a part of this," Ella said.
"It just brings the spirit of Christmas into your life," Natallie added.
And Connie called it, "The most wonderful feeling. It makes our Christmas!"
Many Utahns echo that sentiment as they watch generations become part of "The Nutcracker" family.
Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker" continues through Dec. 27 at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City. For ticket information, visit www.balletwest.org.