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San Francisco Ballet history

Renee Renouf, our dance critic on the US West Coast, gives the low down on one of America's oldest ballet company's

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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

Avenue opposite San Francisco's City Hall. Bolm presented several programs which included a "Ballet Mecanique" and a "Coq D'Or" before moving on to Southern California. He replaced briefly in 1937 by Serge Oukrainsky, who has been the Opera's maitre de ballet prior to the construction of the Opera House.

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 In 1938 Christensen superseded Oukrainsky as maitre de ballet, started a practice of touring.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.

Following World War II, the company supported assumed the title San Francisco Civic Ballet Association. In 1947 "Giselle" is staged, but insolvency the following year forced dissolution of the Association and the enterprise became known as San Francisco Ballet. Lew Christensen, the third brother, started commuting between New York City and San Francisco in 1949, and in 1951 he shared co-directorship with Willam.

Willam left San Francisco for Salt Lake City in 1952 where he founded the first ballet department in an American university. Lew became sole director, starting the strong Balanchine influence which remains with the company today. The demi-charactere ballet lingered on in some of Lew's more charming ballets, like "Jinx", "Con Amore" and "Filling Station", but abstraction had become the fashion.

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.

Two events provided a marked change in the company's fortunes; the 1956 Jacob's Pillow season, the result of a suggestion by Anatole Chujoy to Ted Shawn. This led to a series of State Department-sponsored tours of South and Southeast Asia; the Middle East and Latin America, 1957-1960. Encouraged, the company started a series of spring seasons, 1960-1972, hopping from venue to venue until the San Francisco Symphony moved into Davies Symphony Hall, across the street from the Opera House.

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 1963, San Francisco Ballet was the recipient of the epoch-making $8 million Ford Foundation grant for seven ballet companies. Ford Foundation scholarships for serious students became one of the marks of the balletic chosen.

In 1972 San Francisco Ballet Association subsumed the School, the Company and the Ballet Guild.

In rapid succession, the next quantum leap for the company was born out of necessity. Michael Smuin's return in 1973 as Associate Artists director with Lew Christensen brought some excellent dancers with him and the return of Betsy Erickson; Paula Tracy; Robert Gladstein.

But post-reorganization deficits had risen to a level that the Ballet Association faced bankruptcy in 1974. Faced with the company's dissolution, the company dancers mobilized took to the streets, to amusement parks, to impromptu gatherings in an historic grass roots manifestation titled " S.O.B." - Save Our Ballet. Michael Smuin remarked to me at the time, "The dancers shamed the Association into making the company continue." Surely, character and conviction marked those dancers and that era when the company made the next spurt forward. In1975, when Richard E. Le Blond, Jr., a sociology professor who had been involved with Pennsylvania Ballet, was enticed to come west to San Francisco to lead the company's administration in its cramped 18th Avenue headquarters, arts administration had become a new field in academe, with internships making possible the training of new professionals. There also prevalent in San Francisco a U.S. Labor Department-funded program called CETA (I have no clue what the initials represent), which was used by non-profit arts organizations to pay entering level individuals in professional tasks. Le Blond took full advantage of the program, and what was once a staff of three rapidly progressed to twenty or more.

The same year, 1975, Richard Cammack succeeded Harold Christensen as Director of the San Francisco Ballet School, and in 1976 Michael Smuin's title was changed to co-director, perhaps induced by his phenomenally popular version of the Prokofieff "Romeo and Juliet.".

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.

In 1981 Robert Gladstein, one of San Francisco's fully trained dancers, save for a relatively brief sojourn with American Ballet Theatre, became Assistant Director in addition to ballet master.

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.

The year 1982 was marked by the ceremonial ground-breaking for the San Francisco Ballet Building, the first such U. S. structure designed and constructed for dance. The building was dedicated the fall of 1983, San Francisco's fiftieth, with the fun and fanfare which characterizes San Francisco party-fund-raising activities.

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.

In 1985 Helgi Tomasson became the artistic director of both company and school, a position he had held with distinction for fifteen years. He introduced the system of principal, soloist and corps de ballet designations, the hiring of dancers from Europe, Asia and Latin America, and the use of international choreographers.

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.

The company's seasons of 1996 and 1997 were spent in three temporary venues in the Bay Area while the Opera House was being seismically renovated, a mean feat. The seasons, miraculously, kept membership subscription at par and the deficit reduced.

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.

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