British-born Ballet West artistic director John Hart never aspired to the helm of an American dance company. It just happened.

"It wasn't ever my intention to do so," the soon-to-retire Hart told the Deseret News. "Partly because of the financial situations here in the United States, with the funding problems in the arts. I knew Bob Joffrey and Michael Smuin and watched what they had to do to keep their companies alive. In fact, if Mrs. Wallace (Glenn Walker Wal-lace, Ballet West's co-founder) hadn't have asked me to come to Salt Lake City, I don't think I ever would have done it."Hart, 75, will formally pass the torch to Jonas Kage, former director of Sweden's Malmo Opera Ballet, at the end of Ballet West's 1996-97 season, which concludes with this week's run of "The Dream" - one of the first works Hart staged at Ballet West 12 years ago.

"This position gave me a new lease on my ballet life," Hart said. "I have no regrets. It's been wonderful, worthwhile, and I've made some good and lasting friends."

Hart began as artistic director at Ballet West in 1985. The English dancer was asked to come to Utah as a guest to stage three ballets. Former artistic director Bruce Marks had left the company to fill a position at the Boston Ballet earlier that year.

"Mrs. Wallace asked me to stay on as artistic director," Hart remembered. "It was a special request on her part. She was most influential of my being here."

Hart always felt there was a delicate balance between the Ballet West repertoire and the public's interests, a view that has been reinforced throughout the years.

"The unique aspect of Ballet West is developing a catalog of works that suits the dancers as well as the audience here," Hart said. "The company needed to take special heed to making sure the works were appropriate for the community. And the community here likes the 19th-century classics and immediate-past choreographers such as (George) Balanchine and (Frederick) Ashton.

"At the same time, I wanted Ballet West to become a company of artists, not technicians," Hart said. "I wanted to give the dancers roles for them to dance and play. I also wanted to spread the variety of works in the widest possible ways to bring the maximum amount of people to see the performances. That's why I encouraged three-ballet evening repertories."

Hart, a native of London, was born in 1921. By age 12, he was already on the road to dance as a scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Dancing, where he won the first Adeline Genee Gold Medal. He joined the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1938 and danced as a principal in such productions as "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "The Nutcracker."

He put his dance career on hold during World War II while he served in the Royal Air Force from 1942-1946. After serving in France, Belgium, Germany and Australia, Hart returned to his former dance company, which had been renamed Sadler's Wells Ballet and would later be known as the Royal Ballet.

The dancer was partner to such ballerinas as Margot Fonteyn, Violetta Elvin, Nadia Nerina and Bryl Grey. He also danced "Sleeping Beauty" with Moira Shearer in the 1955 film "The Man Who Loved Redheads."

While he was with the Royal Ballet, Hart was appointed ballet master and then assistant director, where he served with Ninette de Valois and, later, Sir Frederick Ashton.

In 1970, Hart left the company and England to serve as director of South Africa's PACT Ballet before eventually finding his way to the United States. He was named director of dance for the United States International University School of Performing Arts in San Diego.

"I left the Royal Ballet because everyone was leaving," Hart said. "Ashton, Sir Georg Solti and others were among those with whom I had worked who decided to leave."

The strains of the times were closing in on the company, including union and bureaucratic tensions and planning problems as well as financial burdens, Hart said. He did, however, return to the company as artistic administrator in 1975 because he thought he could "pull things together."

By 1971, Hart had toured the globe and staged works for Joffrey Ballet in Chicago and New York, and he had been awarded the RAD Queen Elizabeth Award for Outstanding Achievement in Ballet, which, in a sense, was the precursor to his being honored with the title C.B.E. - Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In the meantime, the dancer free-lanced and set many of Ashton's works for American companies. "The Dream," "La Fille mal Gardee" and "Les Patinerus" are among the well-known works that have been performed by the Ballet West, Joffrey, San Francisco and American Ballet Theatre companies.

Teresa Solorio, the Ballet West director of communications who has worked closely with Hart throughout his tenure with the company, said the retiring artistic director has literally turned the company around. He stabilized finances, brought exciting works and revitalized the dancers with his own style and personality.

"Ballet West was in financial trouble when Mr. Hart arrived," Solorio said. "He understood the budget and was still able to broaden the company's repertoire. He also brought his own wonderful Royal Ballet style to the company, which was vital for some older ballets. But he still pushed to do some contemporary works."

"I have always thought of myself as a builder," Hart said. "But let it be known that I don't work alone. It has been a rewarding challenge to develop Ballet West from where it was when I arrived to where it is now. But a lot of that has to do with the staff.

"Take (music director) Terry Kern, for instance," he said. "He's vital to us because of his relationship to music. While I'm more of a visual artist, I don't hear the music like he does."

His interests include collecting paintings and prints, and he'd like to focus in the future on an old fascination, stamp collecting and trading.

"I've been doing that for 30 years," he said with a smile. "In fact, I have started a company called Empire Philatelics with a stamp specialist. We plan to put out catalogs of material that are of historical significance. It's a new profession that will probably take me to my grave. After 30 years of collecting, it's about time I put it to work."

But Hart said he's not ruling out the possibility of returning to dance.

"I have been asked by another company in the East to go help them as a guest," Hart said. "It's interesting, if you know what I mean."