The San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet is said to be the first ballet company in America...why I can't say. Chicago had an opera company early in our history with a ballet company connected to it. San Francisco Ballet started in 1933 and has remained a major ballet company until this day.

I am personally interested in the San Francisco Ballet, because that is where I started my training and it was the first ballet company I was with. My friend Anne Inglis came to the school the same year and we have remained friends ever since. Also Velerie Camille, who teaches at Steps, was at the school when we arrived. She will always have a special place in my heart.

American Ballet - - the Adolph Bolm, born in St. Petersburg in 1884, danced at the Maryinsky Theatre where he met and toured with Pavlova in Eastern Europe. He left the Maryinski in 1911 to dance with Diaghilev. On their second tour to America he stayed and choreographed for the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago Opera. In Hollywood he choreographed many movies and in 1933 helped start the San Francisco Ballet Company. He left San Francisco in 1937 and later joined the newly formed Ballet Theatre in 1939. While there he choreographed Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf".

Serge Oukrainsky, born in Odessa started as a mime at the Paris Theatre du Chatelet. He toured with Pavlova 1913-1915, and became leading dancer, choreographer and director of the Chicago Opera before becoming ballet master an director of the San Francisco Ballet in 1937. He made the ballet company more independent of the Opera. Willam Christensen was the lead dancer. Willam later became the director of the company and his brother Harold became the director of the school. Another brother Lew stayed in New York and was one of Balanchine's first leading male dancers.

The Christensen brothers, Willam (b. 1902), Harold (b. 1904), and Lew (b. 1909) were the real force behind the San Francisco Ballet Company. They all started training with their Uncle Peter Christensen in Salt Lake City. Together they formed an act that toured the vaudeville circuit. Willam had the opportunity to work with Fokine, and the other two brothers studied at the School of American Ballet -- starting a relationship between the San Francisco company and Balanchine's company.

Willam first started a school in Portland, Oregon (1932) before he became the lead dancer with San Francisco Opera Ballet (1937). But within a year (1938) he was director and choreographer. He remained head of the company until 1951. He left to chair the dance department at University of Utah.

Willam also established the Utah Ballet, which is now called Ballet West. While he was still with the San Francisco Ballet, he choreographed America's first full length versions of Coppélia, Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

I had the privilege of dancing in his Coppélia. I was with the company when Lew came to San Francisco and began to take over. I never knew if that was a hostile takeover. Eventually Michael Smuin shared the position with Lew. As the company became larger, the Board of Directors took over. Even Mr. Smuin was asked to leave.

I hate the idea that the board of directors of many companies have the power over the artistic direction that a company should take. All you have to do is see what has happened with every major company in the country. Look what has happened to Virginia William's, of the Boston Ballet, Barbara Weisberger of the Pennsylvania Ballet, and many other regional dance organizations.

Former members of the San Francisco Ballet that we can see every week in my class, or at school: Dick Andros, Velerie Camille Ann Inglis, Michael Rubino, Mimi Wallace and Alexander Filipov.

(First published May 1989)