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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


One 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.

And your 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.


You 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 there.

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 east…

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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