‘Songs of the Valley’ is returning to the stage after a long absence. Ballet Master Bruce Caldwell has mounted the entire ballet and Bruce Marks was with us last week to revise certain passages for the current dancers. Bruce Marks will be back to put the ballet on stage but in the mean time Bruce Caldwell has graciously agreed to tell us about ‘Songs of the Valley’.
Songs of the Valley – The Early Years
In 1976 the nation celebrated the Bicentennial of its’ founding. Utah had appointed a commission to oversee the statewide activities, and they had granted Ballet West the funds to create a ballet with our local heritage in mind.
Bruce Marks had recently become Artistic Director, and decided to choreograph a ballet that paid homage to the early settlers of the Salt Lake Valley, their sacrifice, hardships and determined energy. He chose the Old American Songs of Aaron Copland for the music and jumped into the task of choreography.
Even though the ballet does not tell a specific story, its use of gesture, posture, and exuberance make it evident that it is relating to those early days on the frontier.
By adding the use of church benches, that happen to have wheels, he was able to have a movable set, that can be either a church, a park, seats on a shady porch, or even a moving ship on the water.
It took the dancers some time to come to grips with the fact that they have to “drive” these benches to certain spots within the framework of the musical demands, and to stand and dance on top of them. That aspect has not changed in the current production.
I was the soloist in the original cast in The Golden Willow tree segment. It is about a young cabin boy who must sink an enemy ship by swimming under it and boring holes in its hull. Originally Bruce had incorporated a lot a back rolls to shoulder stands, as well as diving and rolling on the stage. I remember showing him the black and blue abrasions I had suffered in rehearsal the previous day, and he said “you’re covered with Bruise Marks” – one of the many puns he would always inject in his language.
In this ballet, once you are onstage, you never leave. This means that you can’t bend over and pant, or get a sip of water, or stretch out a tight muscle. I distinctly remember a few pesky rivulets of sweat that just dripped off my nose and onto the floor, creating an itch that I just couldn’t scratch.
I did enjoy dancing in it. It has a feeling of harmony of the ensemble and group, and a flow to it that is rewarding for all onstage. By the time you are flinging yourself about in Ching-Ring- Chaw, you are really starting to get that pioneer spirit.
In 1997, we were doing bus and truck tours to many small cities in the Western States. Songs of the Valley was always very popular. It was great that we could do it with live music, Piano and solo Baritone. It worked in any venue, small stages, gymnasiums, even outdoor makeshift stages. Of course it was usually the opener, and almost inevitably I would be doing two other ballets that night as well. But, I was young and loved to dance, and we have great memories of those times.