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Four Degrees of Connection
An interview with Bené Arnold, former San Francisco Ballet
and Ballet West Balletmistress and Professor of Ballet Emerita of the
University of Utah
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
31 July, 2004 --
Pacific Northwest Ballet studios, Seattle, Washington
of the most respected and distinguished ballet teachers and balletmasters
in the United States attended Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent
Teachers Seminar this Summer. We had the chance to sit down with Bené
Arnold and talk about her career. It was a very engaging, fun, and heartfelt
chat. As her career is so varied, interesting, and somewhat of an episodic
adventure, this will be the first of a series of installments.
Thank you for agreeing to meet with us. Please tell us how you got
started in ballet.
Believe it or not, I was essentially bedridden from the ages of four to
nine with a condition known as scrofula which is a type of tuberculosis
of the glands. They didn’t know how it would affect me mentally
or physically. My grandmother and I were living in Missouri at the time
and the doctor said I should go to a warmer and drier climate, and so
we moved to Los Angeles.
You know dance was often recommended as therapy and this was the case
for me. I couldn’t stand for any length of time but went to Ethel
Medlin’s dance school in LA, where she did this marvelous combination
class. She had been the teacher to many childhood movie stars such as
Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple. She was simply encouraging. When I didn’t
have the endurance to do something, she’d have me sit in a chair
and guided me on how to observe the other students and learn visually,
and also to discern what they did well – the “whys”
and “hows.” I think this is where I first got my ability to
learn others’ parts.
I saw a ballet section in a musical during this time and decided that
that was what I wanted to do. I went on to study with several teachers
in the LA area and went to the summer sessions at San Francisco Ballet
School, first in 1948.
Both Willam and Harold (Christensen) were there. I joined the company
and in one of my first performances, danced behind Lew (Christensen),
who was the Prince in Swan Lake. And not only did his wife, Gisella, dance
in the company too, she also made his costume!
Speaking of costumes, my grandmother, Eloise Arnold, started helping with
costumes for the company and ended up doing that for many years.
I was the first balletmistress of the company. At that early juncture,
it was not a paid position, so in order to earn a living, I taught in
the school after I was through with company duties, and sometimes went
back to work with the company at night when I was through teaching. In
addition to giving the company its class and rehearsing them, I also ordered
their shoes, typed up the schedules, and made programs.
move to Salt Lake?
I decided to move to Salt Lake in 1962 and earned two Master’s degrees
at the University of Utah. One is in special education, as I had in mind
working with children who had had difficulties like me. I ended up working
with deaf children. My other MFA is in choreography. I also have a teaching
certificate (for public schools).
Former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer and balletmaster, Gordon
Paxman, had left San Francisco Ballet and he was the one who first suggested
I come to Salt Lake City. I liked his idea, so I went, as I said, in 1962.
I had also become dissatisfied with the business aspects of how things
were being run at SFB, particularly how this was affecting, as it seemed
to me, the artistic side. I talked to Harold (Christensen) about some
of the things that were happening and he agreed that I might be better
off in Salt Lake.
Bill (Willam Christensen) asked me to help him out with the company he
had started, and so I became balletmistress of Ballet West, which I did
from 1962 to 1975, at which time I joined the faculty of the University
of Utah. One of the first things I did was to set Lew Christiansen’s
"Con Amore." Mr. C (Willam), Gordon, and I discussed building
a professional company.
began performing again…
Yes! Bruce (Marks) and Toni (Lander) wanted me to play a character part
in their revival of the Bournonville ballet, "Abdallah." I said,
“But I haven’t been on stage in years!” They didn’t
give up however. They asked to meet me for breakfast, and I knew something
was up. They told me that they thought I’d be “perfect”
for this part. I said, “Okay” to trying it, but if they weren’t
satisfied, I wouldn’t be unhappy at being replaced. Well, I had
a ball, and this was the start of a new performing career for me in character
parts with the ballet. I got fantastic reviews for my Carabosse in "Sleeping
Beauty" and also did Bertha in "Giselle" and was the nurse
in Michael Smuin’s "Romeo and Juliet." I continued working
with Ballet West and when John Hart became the new Artistic Director,
he asked me to help with children’s parts and "Nutcracker."
I also performed Prudence in the premiere of Val Caniparoli’s "The
Lady of the Camillias" and I was in the Ballet West production of
Cranko’s "The Taming of the Shrew" – I was the fat
broad – it was great fun!
I decided to retire from the University in 2001, after 26 years on the
faculty. Jonas (Kåge) asked me to direct the Ballet West Academy, which I did through the Spring
of this year.
I’m relocating to southern Utah – St. George – and am
looking forward to more sun and to maybe becoming active in the ballet
community there, as there are a couple of very good schools and teachers
I feel so honored and blessed. I’ve been awarded the Distinguished
Professor title, the highest honor bestowed by the University, and it
was at the instigation of the students, so it’s even better! I’ve
also received the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce award as well as the Governor’s
Award for Arts.
One of my best moments was bringing in all of the Christensen brothers
– and their wives (Gisella Caccialanza, Rudy Asquith) – to
teach for one week at the University. This was the first and last time
they had all been together for many years.
Tell us more about your decision to migrate a few hundred miles
Well Lew had worked very hard to build up San Francisco Ballet under difficult
conditions. We had lots of successes including State Department tours.
But some business manager problems arose. A business manager can’t
keep a company in focus and it’s important to never lose sight of
the artistic vision of a company. I talked to Harold about some of the
things that were happening and he suggested that it might be best for
me to leave. Gordon Paxman was leaving for Salt Lake City at this time,
and he suggested that I go there.
At Bill’s request, I had already set Lew’s "Con Amore"
on the University of Utah group and knew that Bill wanted to build a professional
company. Everything started coming around. I agreed to be unpaid Balletmistress
(again!). At one point, I calculated the numbers of hours I was putting
in and realized I was getting the equivalent of 10 cents an hour, but
that was okay as I loved what I was doing.
Lew was never quite as strong (constitutionally) as either Bill or Harold.
When I went back to San Francisco Ballet to help with "Nutcracker"
in 1962, I was shocked to see how Lew had changed as a result of receiving
cancer treatment. It really upset me.
Bill was the best PR person of the three. He could take mediocre dancers
and make them look great. Lew needed better trained dancers. Bill could
move people across the floor and make the audience connect.
I was responsible for the nitty gritty; the “number-two gal.”
I think my reputation for being “mean” or tough was in response
to getting them (the dancers) to work at a professional level; rehearsing
on pointe, for example. Bill didn’t make schedules or decisions
well, so someone (me!) had to do it. I mean, you could sit around for
hours, waiting for him to decide who would do what. You can tell I learned
a lot through observation… (laughs).
We worked hard to build the company (Ballet West), including a European
tour we undertook in 1971. Bill was unable to go because of the health
of his wife. Lew was also to go. He was a wonderful teacher – something
that he never gets credit for.
In looking at Willam Christensen’s choreography, his "Nutcracker"
for example, which I adore, I’ve noticed some changes over the years.
A specific example that I’m thinking about are all of those marvelous
jumps on pointe in Mirlitons. The last time I saw Ballet West do "Nutcracker"
a couple of years ago, I was so looking forward to seeing this choreographic
essay, and they weren’t there. After seeing his version year after
year, I was shocked. What happened?
Well, some changes Bill himself made, such as the addition of the Rose
pas de deux in Flowers. Others were made by those who thought his choreography
too hard. These persons would make changes, and then ask Bill if it was
okay. Of course he said, “yes;” part of this having to do
with his age. With too many changes, I must say, we get away from the
essence of what he had done and what people had done in an earlier time.
Edited by Azlan Ezaddin
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