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Dance
 
Bringing Christmas Joy with Mr. C

  Fifty years after the first Ballet West performance of ‘The Nutcracker,’ the original dancers recall their experiences to Karen Anne Webb
   
       
   
Dance Preview:
 
   
'The Nutcracker'
 
   
Ballet West
Capitol Theatre
(50 W. 200 South)
Dec. 9 to 31, 7 p.m. and 2 p.m.
with special 11 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. shows on Christmas Eve.
 
       
   
Tickets cost $17 to $65
via ArtTix or
355-ARTS or 1-888-451-ARTS.
 
       

This year marks the golden anniversary of Ballet West’s annual Christmas treat, “The Nutcracker.” To mark the occasion, the Nutcracker (both the doll and the dancer) will be dressed in gold, and the tree will be larger, more ominous, and more sparkly.

The production will play locally at the Capitol Theatre Dec. 9 through 31. The roots of Ballet West’s “Nutcracker” mesh tightly with the story of late Ballet West founder Willam Christensen. “Mr. C” produced the first full-length “Nutcracker” west of the Atlantic for San Francisco Ballet in 1944. In 1955, he did the same for what was then University Theatre Ballet.

The people who worked on those early “Nutcrackers” may remember the hard work—Clearfield’s Ron Ross, the first Drosselmeyer, remembers that Christensen always choreographed just a little ahead of what his dancers could do at the time—but they also remember Christensen’s energy and enthusiasm for his art.

“He had a marvelous sense of humor,” says Barbara Hamblin, one of the first “home-grown” Sugar Plum Fairies (the company originally imported guest artists for the Fairy and her Cavalier). “He used it to help you understand how you needed to correct your own mistakes and improve your technique.”

“When I was a Buffoon, my first role in the production,” recalls Penny Duddleston, who danced with the company in the ’60s and remembers that Christensen’s confidence in his dancers helped her to become the tallest soloist to work with New York City Ballet (She’s 5’9”). “He once found me in costume in the wings watching a performance. I expected to be chewed out, but instead he just hugged me.

“Later, he created one of the Party Boy parts on me because he said I was always into such mischief—that’s the little boy who crawls between his father’s legs, then gets smacked on the rump and runs around the stage. His direction was always very up and happy and positive.”

“Bill had an infectious personality,” agrees Bene Arnold, the company’s first ballet mistress. “He was always buoyant and energetic in rehearsal. He loved what he was doing, and it showed.”

“The women loved him,” chuckles Ross, “which was hard on a guy like me, who wanted the women to notice him! He taught us an interesting exercise in the mime class where I first encountered him. He was trying to get us to extend our arms, as he called it, ‘from the heart’ rather than ‘from the belly button.’

“Then he had us go out and extend our arm to women we didn’t know around campus. And if you extended your arm from your heart as he wanted, the woman almost always took it. It had a sense of command… I liked the way he set his arms in his choreography: A man’s arms were always very masculine rather than broken at the wrist.”

“One thing he taught the men,” continues Ross, “was that the man’s chief job was to ‘make the woman look lovely.’ When I was dancing the Snow Prince, I once had the ballerina come running toward me for that flying fish dive and jump with so much force, I had to back up about four steps just to have a hope of catching her. I managed and wanted to scream at her, but in my mind I could hear Bill saying, ‘Make her look lovely!’”

Ross points out that, in those early productions, the men learned all the men’s roles. His forays into Nutcracker-land had him dancing Drosselmeyer, the Snow Prince and the Arabian Dance—all on the same night!

“His instruction was less about technique than about that sense of bravura that made dance exciting,” says Duddleston. “He just made dancing an awful lot of fun.”

Karen[at]saltshakermagazine.com
 

 
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