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Ballet West alumni remember 75 years of ‘The Nutcracker’

By Carole Mikita, KSL TV | Posted - Dec. 25, 2019 at 12:11 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — With this 75th anniversary of Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker,” many families and dancers are remembering experiences with the beloved production. One group of dancing alumni has particularly fond memories.

As the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s music fills the Capitol Theatre in downtown Salt Lake and the curtain rises, several generations in the audience remember together.

This year, another group gathered — behind the scenes. It was Saturday, Dec. 14, in an upstairs rehearsal studio and Ballet West’s Ballet Master Bruce Caldwell addresses his former colleagues. “Don’t do anything that’s going to hurt yourselves!” And they all laughed! Because of the big anniversary, many alums came to be part of a special weekend.

Bruce offered to teach class, the way they used to do it as dancers. From age 31 to 81, they each introduced themselves, detailing the years they danced and what roles they performed in "The Nutcracker." One of them said to Bruce, “I was standing off stage, and as you exited as the Prince, you literally picked me up and moved me out of the way! It was so exciting!” Again, they laughed!

So, they began with a stretch and then went on to recreate those iconic ballet positions and turns. Some were quickly out of breath, others beautifully agile after decades away from the art form.

Watching from the front near the pianist was former principal ballerina Lee Provancha Day. She and Bruce each fell in love with dance performing as children in “The Nutcracker.” He danced with Ballet West, she with Washington National Ballet. She paid tribute to her mother and other parents who drive their children to and from rehearsals and performances.

“I was a mouse, that was my first part, “ she said.

Bruce Caldwell had just started studying dance six months before Willem Christensen, the founder of Ballet West, came to his class as asked if he wanted to perform.

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“That first night when the curtain went up and I was center stage, with the spotlight on me, at the beginning of the ballet, it clicked in my mind, this is it for me!” And 57 years later, it still is.

From 1976 to 1986, Bruce and Lee performed every pas-de-deux in the ballet repertoire and were Ballet West’s “it” couple — the superstars of Utah dance.

“We just had a sympatico relationship,” Bruce said, “we were both thinking the same things at the same time and that’s rare in the ballet world and I think we put it to good use!” Lee responded, “Yes, we did!”

Over the years, we at KSL-TV News captured the dancing duo who were considered by artistic directors, colleagues and audiences as perfect partners.

During this Christmas season, when we are all thinking about friends and colleagues, that’s what happened on this day for the alums of "The Nutcracker." But for Bruce and Lee, it’s even more. They are to one another like family. Lee said, ”Camaraderie is felt and the uniqueness of what we do and what we’ve been through together.”

”Just being able to enjoy the art of performance and to bring the audience in with us to share our talents with them, it was wonderfully special,” Bruce added.

Seventy-five years ago, Utahn Willem Christensen created the first Nutcracker ballet in America. Now, there are thousands of productions throughout the world. Lee Provancha Day says she has been to many and none measures up to the feel of Ballet West’s.

Bruce and Lee are grateful to be part of a legacy that unites a community. Lee describes the feeling. “As we are giving to them, they are giving back to us,” she said. Bruce agrees. “It makes me feel good, like I’ve contributed to society, in a way.”

There is something magical, they say, in what brought them together, and brings them back to the fondest of memories. At the end of class, they struck a familiar pose together and everyone applauded. Performances of Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” continue at the Capitol Theatre through Thursday.

Carole Mikita

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