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Bruce Caldwell, Balletmaster, Ballet West

44 Years of 'Nutcracker' and Counting...

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Salt Lake City, Utah

We met up with the affable Bruce Caldwell in the over-the-foyer office of Jonas Käge on the second floor of the historic and fabled Capitol Theatre, home to Ballet West, on opening night – one hour prior to the curtain going up on Ballet West’s beloved production of Willam Christensen’s “Nutcracker.” Mr. Caldwell’s career covers a period that includes each of Ballet West’s Artistic Directors – from its founder, Mr. Christensen, to its current director, Mr. Käge. What follows is an edited version of our conversion.

DS/FT:  How did you get started in ballet?

BC:  I was born and raised in Salt Lake City and I’m fortunate to have had my entire career here. Growing up, I was more into sports and baseball. My older sister took ballet and at age 10. I wanted to broaden my range of skills for sports and I decided to give ballet a try, thinking it might help. I found ballet to be more challenging and rewarding than sports. I enjoyed the relationship to music and the discipline.

I took [classes] at a neighborhood school – the School of Ballet Arts, which was originally directed by Gordon Paxman and later by Bené Arnold, who took over the school. It was a unique dance school in that it offered only ballet and no other dance forms. Bené asked me to be in “Nutcracker” and Mr. C. created the role of the Nephew for me. I felt like a star in my first role. When the curtain went up, the spotlight was on me. It was great, let me tell you! [Laughs.]

This is my 44th consecutive “Nutcracker”! From Nephew, I moved to Fritz, then to Mouse for two to three years. In high school, I was used for Russian, a part that gets the most applause and is flashy. Then things started happening quickly. I skipped over some of the other variations, such as Chinese and Arabian and went directly to Flowers, Snow, and the Grand Pas de Deux. While still in high school, I was made an apprentice and then joined the Company in 1968 as a corps member and became a Principal in 1971. The Company became Ballet West in 1968 and we had a European tour in 1971.

I’ve had many opportunities to go to other companies, but always enjoyed a good relationship with the directors and [with] my dance partner of 8 years, Lee Provancha Day.

Oh, yes! I remember the first time I saw you perform. It was with Ms. Day in the Grand Pas de Deux in Portland , Oregon . Absolutely glorious! Just the best. I talked about it for years with my students.

I was relatively injury-free during my performing career but at about 38, my legs started talking back!

I cut back on the number of performances and then Artistic Director John Hart moved me to character roles, then teaching and rehearsing until I became too busy to perform. Sort of a natural evolution.

How was your transition from peer to “supervisor”?

I’ve had no problems with the dancers, and it’s worked smoothly. I think it’s partly that the dancers knew me and had seen me pay my dues. I found that I did miss performing and it’s been as if blinders have been taken off. My perspective of what it takes to do this job has become wider, and this can be something of a shock – rehearsing 6 hours straight, long hours – early to late.

I’m very happy to have managed to stay on with the same company and I guess I’m its unofficial historian! I have lots of personal archives – videos, clippings, programs, especially for the earlier years. My mother saved everything! [Laughs.] Staff come to me with questions about details such as identifying people in pictures and verifying membership in the Company.

Tell us about your Ballet Master duties.

I work with Jonas and Pam (Pamela Robinson-Harris, Ballet Mistress) on casting. In “Nutcracker,” I try to spread parts around, especially to the younger dancers. We have 5 to 6 casts, which requires more rehearsal but is needed for company development.

How big is the Company?

There are 39 dancers in the regular company and 7 in our new, second company. We are looking at having to reduce by two next year. We put out an $8 million dollar product on a $6 million dollar budget. I know that even in these tougher times, our history and heritage will help maintain our standards.

Could you please give us a “snapshot” of each Artistic Director? What they were like and to summarize what the Company was like under each?

Mr. C.’s eye and taste were formed partly, I think, by his years as a vaudevillian. Ballet was important, but so was show business. His work was serious but fun. He used the classics a lot and we were a bit light on cutting edge and contemporary works. For example, we did get John Butler’s wonderful version of “Carmina Burana” but 10 years after its premiere! Mr. C’s works were audience-friendly.

Bruce Marks wanted to choreograph and he made “Don Quixote,” “Don Juan,” and “African Sanctus.” I enjoyed working with Bruce, especially having roles created on me. The touring endowment was still good then and this brought energy and increased visibility to the Company.

Louis Godfrey and Denise Schultze were responsible for “ Swan Lake ” and the classics and wanted to take over as Artistic Directors, but the board was not comfortable with naming them and decided upon a national search.

John Hart first came into the picture because of an Ashton program and had wanted to continue with Louis and Denise but they quickly clashed and they soon departed. John started bringing in more Royal Ballet repertory. “Pineapple Poll,” “Rake’s Progress.” He also brought in Val Caniparoli whose first work was “Ophelia Pas de Deux,” which was later expanded into a full work – “White Mourning” which was to a transcription of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden Quartet.” We had new productions of “Coppélia,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Cinderella” all by Ben Stevenson, plus Paul Taylor’s “Company B,” and a ballet that was humorous and very popular with audiences, Peter Anastos’ “The Gilded Bat” with sets and costumes by Edward Gorey and John himself narrating with that wonderful British accent. We did Michael Smuin’s “Romeo and Juliet.” John’s artistic vision was partly all about “getting a performance.” The theatre or theatrical side was important.

During this period, dance touring programs ceased so we were touring less, though still getting excellent press. We used to do over 50 “Nutcrackers” in the region – Phoenix , Denver , Long Beach , Portland , for example. Many places now have their own regional ballet companies and their own versions of “Nutcracker,” so it’s been hard getting touring dates. We are good at keeping our product at a high level.

Jonas has excellent credentials and artistic vision. He’s brought in more European repertory – Hans van Manen, Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and “Artifact II,” “Miss Julie,” Tudor works. Next is Tudor’s “Echoing of Trumpets.” We will be working with Christopher Bruce on his “Ghost Dances” and Jonas has also brought back some of the Balanchine that used to be in our repertoire. We did do some Balanchine during John’s tenure, such as “Bugaku,” “Theme and Variations,” “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” and “Divertimento #15” but I think he only really liked “Divertimento,” which I believe he could relate to the most. Audiences are enjoying the neoclassic and abstract works here, such as Richard Tanner’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.”

Am I correct in remembering you have a degree from the University of Utah ?

I almost have my B.F.A. degree in Ballet but didn’t complete it. I’m technically a senior so perhaps someday I’ll go back like Bené and get many degrees! [Laughs.]. I’m an adjunct professor and teach some of the Company dancers who are enrolled at the University and I choreograph for Utah Ballet (the University’s student performing company) almost on a yearly basis, and teach and coach there as often as my Ballet West schedule will allow.

Any personal anecdotes or tidbits you’d like to pass along?

I come from a Mormon background and I think my father thought I was never going to start a family. My brothers have been rather prolific. [Laughs.] My wife and I – we were married nearly two years ago – have welcomed into our lives, our beautiful baby daughter Zoe who is now 6 months old!

Edited by Holly Messitt.

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