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|About the Change|
Renee Renouf, our dance critic on the US West Coast, gives the low down on one of America's oldest ballet company's
The San Francisco Ballet that will arrive at Sadler's Wells later this month dates its official beginnings from 1933 when Adolph Bolm was engaged by Gaetano Merola to direct The San Francisco Opera Ballet in the newly completed War Memorial Opera House on Van Ness
Oukrainsky engaged Willam Christensen, then teaching in Portland, as principal male danseur, and to teach in an Oakland branch of the San Francisco Opera Ballet School. In 1938 Christensen superseded Oukrainsky as maitre de ballet, started a practice of touring. During this time Willam staged "Coppelia" and in 1940 a version of "Swan Lake", based on the recollections of Russian emigres, particularly Prince Vassili Romanoff, in the area. Also that year he was joined by Harold who became director of the San Francisco Opera Ballet School. In 1942 the Opera Association sold the school to the Christensens and the San Francisco Ballet Guild was formed as its support organization. San Francisco Ballet stood alone.
In 1944, Willam Christensen mounted the complete "Nutcracker", proudly touted as the first ever seen in the Western Hemisphere. When one of the Ballets Russes staged it, only Act II was presented.
During this formative period, 1933-1953, both School and Company had provided training for a remarkable group of dancers who, to pursue dancing as a viable livelihood, make their way to American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, to the Grand Ballet de Marquis de Cuevas, later to the Joffrey Ballet. These included Janet Reed; James Starbuck; Harold Lang; Jimmie Hicks (Scott Douglas at ABT); Janet Sassoon; Jocelyn Vollmar; Carlos Carvajal. The latter two returned to assume responsible roles in company and school.
Starting to write professionally during this period, let me say the company's profile was an interesting, often touching mixture of strident correctness owing some to Harold's pride in having attended West Point Military Academy with subsequent blinders to the values of other companies whose touring brought them here with audience sizes which, inevitably, aroused tremendous envy; an engaging, fresh energy and desire to please.
In 1972 San Francisco Ballet Association subsumed the School, the Company and the Ballet Guild.
In rapid succession, the company began to augment its repertoire with works by Bejart, Robbins and Cranko, and in 1978 the roster brought Sir Frederick Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardee" into the list of the company's perennial favorite ballets. The year 1978 also saw "Romeo and Juliet" televised for the PBS "Dance in America" Performance series, the first such full- length work. In 1981 Smuin followed the first full length work with his version of "The Tempest", which was broadcast live from the Opera House for the "Dance in America" series.
It should be mentioned that in the decade of Michael Smuin's direction, Lew Christensen, whose health had faltered, created two memorable works, filled with his inherent musicality, and capacity for fun. One was "Norwegian Moods," a setting to Stravinsky pieces, which was created by Keith Martin and Susan Magno, formerly with the Joffrey Ballet, the original Puck in Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Dream", and "Scarlatti Portfolio," a setting for piano of melodies which Christensen fashioned into a witty little romp. The solo for Harlequin, created on David McNaughton, helped him win the Senior Silver medal for men at the first Jackson International Ballet Competition and the bronze medal for choreography for Lew Christensen. Both works deserve periodic revival and a broad audience.
This best of all possible worlds was not to be sustained in this existing format. When Robert Gladstein assumed the role of Assistant Director in 1981, it also marked lengthy departures from the company by co-director Michael Smuin on motion picture and Broadway assignments. From the vantage point of critics and the National Endowment of the Arts, the caliber of the company had begun to slip. As Dr. Le Blond wrote in his memoir, "From Chaos to Fragility," he was forced to ask the Board of Directors to bite the bullet, either to discipline Smuin or to find a replacement.
When Michael Smuin started to negotiate for his contract renewal, and asked for a salary increase, the Board refused. It is reported that Eric Bruhn had suggested Helgi Tomasson to Lew Christensen as an appropriate candidate to assume the company and school's direction. While the controversy was at its height, Christensen died abruptly of a heart attack. Smuin was retained on an interim basis.
When Dr. Le Blond retired in 1985, he was succeeded by W. MacNeill Lowry as President.(Lowry was the pivotal figure in the Ford Foundation grants for dance in 1963, which included fellowships for writers and critics in the visual and performing arts which enabled the writer literally to travel the world looking at dance.) On his retirement, the Board of Directors reconfigured itself and a clear distinction made between the Chairman of the Board and Executive Directorship.
One of Helgi Tomasson's shining contributions to the 50th year celebrations of the signing of the United Nations Charter was to lead the City's art organizations in a program which brought ensembles of a dozen dancers from Australia; England; Canada; Cuba; Germany; Japan; the Netherlands; Italy; Russia; Venezuela to appear at the Opera House in June, 1995.
When San Francisco Ballet accumulated a sizeable deficit, Chris Hellman, assuming the Chair Directorship in 1992, made it her business not only to reduce the deficit but also mount a campaign roughly titled "Preserve our Jewel", an endowment campaign of some $8 million dollars co-chaired by her husband F. Warren Hellman. Hellman, English-born and a one-time soloist with Festival Ballet, brought great distinction to her task. As a retiring gift to the company, she and her husband underwrote Tomasson's 1999 production of "Giselle," and the story goes the Hellmans bought the opening night house for the San Francisco Ballet and School staff, artistic directors of San Francisco's major companies and the press.
This rather prolonged overview has not included a variety of national and international
venues where the company has appeared since Tomasson has assumed directorship. But it
must be stated that the London engagement at Sadler's Wells marks its first appearance along
the Thames, and I duly hope that Brittania rules waves of applause and appreciation for the
company beside the Golden Gate.