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Christensen Brothers

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Lew Christensen, photograph by George Platt Lynes

About

Born to a family of Mormon dance and music masters in Utah, the three Christensen brothers—Willam (1902-2001), Harold (1904-1989), and Lew (1909-1984)—did more than anyone else to establish ballet in the Western United States. They received their early training from family members in Utah, and began their careers in vaudeville. In 1934, while performing in a Broadway musical, Lew and Harold spent their free time studying with George Balanchine at the new School of American Ballet. In 1937 Lew, the most gifted of the brothers, danced the title role in Balanchine's first American production of Apollo; the following year he choreographed Filling Station, a classic of Americana, for Kirstein's Ballet Caravan. Willam, meanwhile, began an association with the San Francisco Opera Ballet that would last until 1951 and ultimately involve his two brothers—Harold, as director of the San Francisco Ballet School, a post he held from 1942 to 1975; and Lew, as artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1951 to 1984, when he died. In 1951 Willam left California to establish a ballet program at the University of Utah; by 1968 the original student company had become Ballet West. Through the companies they founded and the innumerable dancers they trained, the Christensens gave a powerful impetus to the growth of Americanization of ballet.

Pictured left: Lew Christensen in his work Filling Station (1938). He was the first American-born premier danseur, and fellow dancer Nancy Johnson noted, "He was very American, and that was obvious in his style of dancing, in his elongated lines and a more risky way of moving: jumping higher, spinning faster." (Photograph by George Platt Lynes.)


FURTHER RESEARCH

Read an essay by Sheryl Flatow -- Selected resources  


 

 

 

 

Watch

Excerpts from Filling Station, a seminal ballet with an American theme and setting, choreographed and performed by Lew Christensen with Ballet Caravan (1938). Perhaps the most enduring and popular work by Christensen, the comic ballet combined classical dancing with vaudevillian antics.

Note, film clip is silent.