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Ballet West: 50 years, five key artistic directors

Published November 7, 2013 5:23 pm

History • Bené Arnold reflects on each leader's contributions.
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When the curtain rises on Ballet West's 50th-anniversary season, the audience will be seeing a timeline that reaches back to its very beginnings — just ask 78-year-old Bené Arnold, who recently was asked to return to coach the revival of Ballet West founder Willam F. Christensen's "The Firebird."

Arnold has such a clear view of the company's history that she was able to trace it using the five artistic directors as touchstones.

"There hasn't been one artistic director that didn't make a significant contribution to this company," she said. "The dancers have gotten better, and 'ballet,' which is the classical foundation under which we can produce multiple stylistic visions, has grown."

The founder • Starting at the beginning, Christensen's charisma "was uncanny the way he could lead people. They just liked to be around him, to hear what he had to say and even just watch him teach. Women were very charmed by him and men respected him — and he had a way of saying things that just made people laugh at difficult situations," Arnold said.

Many arts organization don't survive past the founder's leadership, but BW grew and blossomed under Christensen; the company's successes included a European tour.

Revitalized by Marks • By 1975, the company had reached a plateau. Christensen revitalized the company by inviting Bruce Marks to co-direct, and by 1978, Marks took the helm, moving the company to the next level.

"He made the organizational changes for BW to be recognized as an institution," Arnold said. "Bruce and his dancer-wife, Toni Lander, and their lovely children all suited the position. Most importantly, he raised the technical level of the dancers and added new productions, and at that time it was important for the company to have a director that was also a choreographer."

Under Marks, Ballet West performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and when he left to direct Boston Ballet, John Hart ushered in an era of full-length classics.

Growing with Hart • "Previously," Arnold said, "we would do 'Swan Lake' Act II and Act IV, but under Mr. Hart, we did full-lengths."

Hart was the first director to be more of an administrator, although he came into the studio, made corrections and did casting but didn't choreograph. As an administrator he continued to build the company as an institution.

"He did something that was very courageous," Arnold said. "We were supposed to do 'Giselle' and there were financial problems and we couldn't afford live music. He decided to go ahead and perform without an orchestra to recorded music — which took courage.

"What happened was that people realized how important live music is so it never happened again."

The George S. and Dolores Dore' Eccles Foundation now provides funding for Ballet West's Utah Chamber Orchestra.

Kåge's world view • In 1997, Ballet West chose Hart's successor, Swedish-born Jonas Kåge, one of the great male dancers of our time. Kåge brought a European sensibility to the company, adding 20th-century ballets to the repertoire. He led the company during its 40th anniversary and secured a tour to China, the first since Christensen's tour of Europe.

"Jonas brought in ballet choreography that had not really been done a lot in America," Arnold said. "He showed Salt Lake that there were more facets to ballet than we had seen here before."

Turning 50 with Sklute • Since 2007, Adam Sklute, previously a dancer, ballet master and associate director of The Joffrey Ballet, has stabilized the company financially and waded into new territory using social media and reality television to increase exposure.

"We are seeing larger audiences, a new ballet school and a renovated theater," Arnold said. "It is a great time for ballet here in Salt Lake."

Principal dancer Christopher Ruud is another witness to history. Both of his parents were BW dancers, and he is dancing the role his father, Tomm Ruud, who died in 1994, also performed in "Firebird." This isn't the first time father and son performed the same role.

"When I danced his role in 'Tempest,' it was more grippingly emotional for me because I remember standing backstage as a child and watching him dance," the younger Ruud said. "In this role as Prince Ivan, I just shake my head and grin and bask in taking part in the history of this company."

As Ballet West shakes its collective head at its success while other dance companies around the nation and the world wipe off the sweat and throw in the towel, Sklute said he hopes people will turn out for the 50th celebration "not because it is an anniversary but because it's darn good ballet!" —

At the ballet

Ballet West opens its 50th-anniversary season with "The Firebird," choreographed by company founder Willam F. Christensen to music of Stravinsky; George Balanchine's "Who Cares?," featuring music of Gershwin; and Jiri Kylian's "Petite Mort," set to music of Mozart.

When • Nov. 8, 9 and 13-16, 7:30 p.m. (with a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 16)

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25 to $75 at arttix.org or kingtix.come






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