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San Francisco Ballet

By Dr. Janice L. Ross

San Francisco Ballet, the oldest ballet company in America, pioneered both an American identity for ballet and the cultivation of dancers, as well as audiences, necessary to sustain it. When the company began in 1933, as a facet of the San Francisco Opera, the coastal city was a cultural outpost – a difficult but also safe locale from which to launch this experiment. By building a school in tandem with the performing ensemble, the trio of Utah-born Christensen brothers – Harold, Willam, and Lew, who led the school and company for more than fifty years – also created a civic presence for this new American-inflected hybrid of Russian classical ballet.

From these earliest years, the company’s aesthetic was a blend of classical training and a popularizing impulse. This resolved with the appointment in 1985 of the celebrated New York City Ballet dancer and classical purist, Helgi Tomasson, as San Francisco Ballet’s fourth director. Tomasson brought a new sophistication, technical brilliance and internationalism to the company. He expanded its profile with the addition of dancers from more than 17 nations, commissioned works from leading international choreographers, and initiated frequent overseas tours, including engagements at prestigious venues such as the famed Opéra de Paris-Palais Garnier in Paris (1994, 2001); London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre (1999, 2004), the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (2002), and China (2009).

The origins of San Francisco Ballet begin with an Italian opera director, Gaetano Merola. A Naples-born conductor and the San Francisco Opera’s general director, Merola was the first visionary force behind the creation of San Francisco Ballet. On June 2, 1933, Merola decided he needed a resident Opera Ballet company to properly display his grand new opera house and the San Francisco Opera’s growing professionalism. Eleven years earlier, the popular and charismatic Merola had convinced a group of San Francisco’s music-loving philanthropists that the city could support its own opera company. He was determined to create that company on a world-class scale. The new opera house, which opened in October, 1932, had been an important step. With this grand new stage for dancing came a mandate for musically and theatrically captivating ballet performances.

Merola, who had directed the San Francisco Opera since 1923, had a good eye for dance. Ballet had been part of his earliest opera productions. Even before he formally established The Opera Ballet, Merola had already sought out a respected professional Russian dancer, Serge Oukrainsky, as ballet master in San Francisco for the 1928-1930 seasons.  Oukrainsky, who was of Hungarian descent, had been a soloist with Anna Pavlova, and he and fellow dancer, Andreas Pavley, had both been principal dancers and ballet masters for the Chicago Grand Opera from 1917 to 1922.

The early worlds of opera and ballet in America were small and closely connected. For a time, it was the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet that was the first American ballet company, having been founded in 1922. But when it disbanded in 1931, after the 39-year-old Pavley died in a mysterious fall, it lost that claim. San Francisco Ballet would step into the title in 1933.

Merola hired Adolph Bolm in 1933 as the first director of the new San Francisco Opera Ballet. Bolm brought his popularity in the world of dance and his boundless energy to San Francisco. It was Bolm who founded and directed the San Francisco Opera Ballet School in addition to serving as ballet master, teaching and rehearsing the dancers. Although the Opera Ballet’s primary purpose was to train dancers for the operas, from the start the opera ballet was also permitted to present independent dance programs. On June 2, 1933, a capacity crowd turned out to see the first of these at the Opera House. This inaugural “all-dance” program, as it was called, was also “all-Bolm,” since he choreographed the eleven dances on the program, staged and costumed the majority of them, and danced in four of the ballets.

The biggest hit of the evening was Bolm’s experimental factory fantasy, Le Ballet Mechanique, which he choreographed to a pounding score by Alexander Mosolov, for a cast of fifty dancers who moved with mechanistic precision like parts of a huge machine.  Film fragments from those first years of the opera ballet show a remarkably crisp ensemble dancing with a full orchestra, and before an audience that gives tumultuous applause to each demonstration of mastery of difficult footwork and speeding turns. The dancing was serious and demanding.

The legacy of Willam, Harold and Lew Christensen marked the next and critical phase of the development of the San Francisco Opera Ballet and its eventual transition into The San Francisco Ballet. With this ascension of the Christensen brothers into leadership roles with the San Francisco Opera Ballet and School, Merola’s troupe became the first opera ballet headed by dancers born and trained in America. By the start of the fall 1938 season, the Christensen legacy at San Francisco Opera Ballet had officially begun. Willam would direct the ballet for the next fourteen years, initiating active touring and a vastly expanded repertoire, while his brother Harold ran the school and tightened finances. In May, 1942, Willam and Harold purchased the ballet school and company from the San Francisco Opera for $900. Geraldine McDonald, the opera board member most sympathetic to the ballet, arranged the meeting with the brothers and representatives of the Opera. Just as the opera was about to discontinue the ballet as a wartime cost-saving measure, this purchase meant instead that the name “opera” disappeared, and the San Francisco Ballet and School was launched.

Merola’s successor, the Austrian conductor Kurt Herbert Adler, who led San Francisco Opera until 1988, displayed little regard for ballet, often cutting choreography in last minute rehearsals and prompting the ballet to look elsewhere for paid performances. In 1942, the opera and ballet formally separated and the opera created its own opera ballet, a seasonal pick-up company of mostly local dancers and commissioned choreography.

Willam immediately began what would come to be known as a series of ballet “firsts”: in 1939, he choreographed Coppélia; in 1940, he staged the first American full-length production of Swan Lake, with Lew dancing the male lead of Prince Siegfried; and on Christmas Eve, 1944, Christensen launched a new national holiday tradition with the premiere of Nutcracker, the first complete version of the ballet ever staged in the United States, inaugurating the ubiquity of this ballet at the holiday season.

Lew, a rural Utah Mormon youth, would become not only the first great American male ballet dancer, but also, by the 1950s, the man central to building San Francisco Ballet’s reputation. George Balanchine said of Lew, during the years he performed as principal dancer with Balanchine’s early companies, that no male performer outside of Russia could match him as a premiere dancer in the classical style, as a danseur noble.

Over the next few years, Lew began the first of several visits as a guest choreographer and dancer for San Francisco Ballet while serving as ballet master of New York City Ballet with Balanchine. Harold directed the school until he was pressured to retire in 1975, as his failing health slowed him. In 1952, when Willam moved with his family back to Utah, Lew assumed the full directorship of the company, spending the next 33 years working for its growth and, at times, survival, throughout a rapidly changing landscape for dance in America. Under Lew’s direction, the Company made its East Coast debut at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1956 and toured 11 Asian nations the following year, marking the first performances of an American ballet company in the Far East.

San Francisco Ballet was twenty-four years old when it left home for the first time. Invited by the United States Department of State to spend ten weeks in the Far East, the company departed in January, 1957, becoming the first American ballet company ever to perform in eleven countries: Taiwan, China, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan. It seems like an odd itinerary for an American ballet company, until one looks at the sponsor and the year. This was the height of the Cold War, and culture -- the more youthful, American and accessible the better -- was a weapon.  These cities were strategic frontlines for cultural diplomacy against the specter of Soviet influence. Suddenly the American style that San Francisco Ballet had been quietly nurturing had become a potential bulwark against Communism.

Lew had been looking for a partner to share the directorship of the company, and early in 1973 he flew to New York to audition new dancers and confer with Michael Smuin, who had trained with Willam, danced with SFB in the 1950s, and was now a principal dancer and choreographer with American Ballet Theatre. Smuin, 34, who also had experience with popular dancing, having toured in a nightclub act with his wife, Paula Tracy, agreed to become SFB’s new associate director, bringing with him several soloists from ABT. As Lew’s health declined, Smuin was appointed his co-director in 1973.

In 1974, San Francisco Ballet faced bankruptcy, but its supporters and the community responded with an extraordinary grassroots effort called “Save Our Ballet,” which successfully brought the Company back from the brink. The following year, Dr. Richard E. LeBlond, Jr., was appointed president and general manager of the San Francisco Ballet Association. He developed the first long-range plan for an American dance company, and in 18 months San Francisco Ballet was in the black financially.

The Christensen era ended with the sudden death of Lew from a heart attack in October, 1984. A few months later, Smuin’s tenure with the ballet would also end, after a contentious and protracted public battle over the future direction of the company and the suitability of his showy and crowd-pleasing choreography.

On July 1, 1985, Tomasson began his directorship of San Francisco Ballet with a three-year contract, capping months of an international search by SFB for a new director and the screening of more than seventy-five applicants. By the end of his first two years as SFB’s new artistic director, Tomasson had made more than space, he had turned around the artistic fortunes of the company, and the years of accumulated deficits were rapidly shrinking.

Helgi Tomasson’s arrival as artistic director marked the beginning of a new era for San Francisco Ballet. Like Lew Christensen, Tomasson had been for many years a leading dancer for the most important ballet choreographer of the 20th century, George Balanchine. Less than two years after Tomasson’s arrival, San Francisco Ballet unveiled its fourth production of Nutcracker during the Company’s 54th Repertory Season. Tomasson has since staged acclaimed full-length productions of many classics, including Swan Lake (1988); The Sleeping Beauty (1990); Romeo and Juliet (1994); Giselle (1999); Don Quixote, co-staged with former Principal Dancer and current Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov (2003); and a new Nutcracker (2004). Today, seven decades after the company’s beginning, Tomasson has created a new company identity that fuses the American attributes of speed and energized attack with the elegance and technical purity of older European ballet traditions.  In the 21st century, Americanization in ballet is about hybrids.  In place of a fiercely defined and defended American style, an extraordinary variety of classical ballet traditions mix in the studios and stages of San Francisco Ballet.

As he stripped away the last vestiges of San Francisco Ballet’s regionalism, he propelled it into position as a major international dance power. In May, 1995, he presented UNited We Dance, an international festival that brought together 150 artists and 12 international companies, performing new works over two weeks of creative exchange. In spring, 2008, as part of its yearlong 75th anniversary celebration, San Francisco Ballet presented a New Works Festival of 10 world premieres by 10 diverse choreographers. The festival was called “ambitious and unprecedented” by The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle hailed it as a “daring onslaught of fresh work… what the ballet world needs now.” On the cusp of its 80th year, San Francisco Ballet’s longevity stands as a strong individual and national testament to ballet’s place in American culture.

Janice Ross, Professor, Drama Department, and Director, Dance Division, at Stanford University, is the author of Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (UC Press 2007),winner of a de la Torre Bueno Award 2008 Special Citation, San Francisco Ballet at 75 (Chronicle Books 2007) and Moving Lessons: Margaret H’Doubler and The Beginning of Dance in American Education (University of Wisconsin 2001). Her awards include Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships. For ten years she was the staff dance critic for The Oakland Tribune and for twenty years a contributing editor to Dance Magazine. Her articles on dance have appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times among other publications. She is past president of the Society of Dance History Scholars.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Frankenstein, Alfred. “The San Francisco Ballet,” Dance Magazine, April, 1955:16-21.

Hickenlooper Sowell, Debra. The Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic. Psychology Press, 1998.

LeBlond, Richard. From Chaos to Fragility. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt, 1988.

Maynard, Olga. The American Ballet. Philadelphia: McRae-Smith, 1959.

Parish, Paul, “Swan’s New Way.” Ballet Review 19, Spring 1988.

Ross, Janice, San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007.

Ross, Janice. “The California Dream at Sixty,” Dance Magazine, February, 1993: 56-61.

Steinberg, Cobbett, San Francisco Ballet: The First Fifty Years. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983.

Von Buchau, Stephanie. “A Bold New Face: San Francisco Ballet,” Dance Magazine, September 1977: 38-41.


The archives of San Francisco Ballet are held by the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco: http://www.mpdsf.org/performing-arts-library/library.html