San Francisco Ballet, the oldest professional ballet company in America, has emerged as a world-class arts organization since it was founded as the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1933. Initially, its primary purpose was to train dancers to appear in lavish, full-length opera productions.
Willam Christensen arrived in 1938 and choreographed the Company's first full-length production, Coppélia, the following year. In 1940, he staged the first American full-length production of Swan Lake. On Christmas Eve 1944, Christensen launched a national holiday tradition with the premiere of Nutcracker, the first complete version of the ballet ever staged in the United States.
In 1942, the Company became a totally separate entity from the opera and was renamed San Francisco Ballet. Willam Christensen was artistic director, and his brother Harold was appointed director of the San Francisco Ballet School, a position he retained for 33 years. Lew Christensen, America's first premier danseur, joined Willam as co-director in 1951 and took over the Company the following year. 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.
In 1972, after performing in various San Francisco theaters, the Company settled permanently in the War Memorial Opera House for its annual residency. The following year, Michael Smuin was appointed associate artistic director and celebrated his new partnership with Lew Christensen by collaborating on a full-length production of Cinderella. In 1976, Smuin's Romeo and Juliet became the first full-length ballet and the first performance by a West Coast company to be shown on the PBS television series "Dance in America." In 1981, Smuin's The Tempest—the first ballet ever broadcast live from the War Memorial Opera House—was nominated for three Emmy Awards (Willa Kim received the award for Outstanding Costume Design). Three years later, Smuin received an Emmy Award for Choreography for the "Great Performances-Dance in America" national broadcast of A Song for Dead Warriors.
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. That same 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.
Helgi Tomasson's arrival as artistic director in July 1985 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 & 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).
In 1991, San Francisco Ballet performed in New York City for the first time in 26 years, returning in 1993, 1995, 1998, 2002, and in 2006 for the Company's first engagement at the Lincoln Center Festival. Following the first tour, The New York Times proclaimed, "Mr. Tomasson has accomplished the unprecedented: He has pulled a so-called regional company into the national ranks, and he has done so by honing the dancers into a classical style of astonishing verve and purity. San Francisco Ballet under Helgi Tomasson's leadership is one of the spectacular success stories of the arts in America."
In May 1995, San Francisco Ballet played host to 12 ballet companies from around the world for UNited We Dance: An International Festival, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter, which took place in the War Memorial Opera House. The festival was held at the Performing Arts Center in San Francisco; never before had a dance event brought together over 150 international artists for two weeks of creative exchange and inspiration.
San Francisco Ballet continues to enrich and expand its repertory and presents approximately 100 performances annually. The Company's vast repertory includes works by Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, August Bournonville, Christopher Bruce, Val Caniparoli, Lew Christensen, Nacho Duato, Flemming Flindt, William Forsythe, James Kudelka, Jirí Kylián, Lar Lubovitch, Wayne McGregor, Agnes de Mille, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Hans van Manen, Peter Martins, Mark Morris, Rudolf Nureyev, Marius Petipa, Roland Petit, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Antony Tudor, and Christopher Wheeldon.
In recent years, the Company's touring program has become increasingly ambitious. In particular, the Company has developed strong relationships with a number of domestic performing arts centers including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; New York City Center; and Southern California's Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
San Francisco Ballet has also enjoyed 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) and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (2002); Athens' Megaron Theatre (2002); the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles (2003); and the Edinburgh International Festival at the Edinburgh Playhouse (1997, 2003). Notably, on the second day of the Company's London engagement in 2004, Sadler's Wells' box office experienced the second-highest single sales day in its history. Of the engagement, David Dougill of The Sunday Times wrote, "Helgi Tomasson's outstanding artistic direction (now in its 20th year)…has transformed a regional American troupe into one of the world's top ballet companies."
In 2005, the Company returned to Paris, participating in a three-week inaugural engagement at Les étés de la danse de Paris, a new outdoor dance festival. In fall 2009, San Francisco Ballet made its first trip to the People's Republic of China, performing Tomasson's 1988 production of Swan Lake, as well as a mixed-repertory program, in Shanghai and Beijing.
In 2004, San Francisco Ballet was the first American ballet company to present the evening-length Sylvia, with all-new choreography by Mark Morris. The Company also performed a two-week Centennial Celebration to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Master Choreographer George Balanchine. In December 2004, San Francisco Ballet debuted Tomasson's critically acclaimed new production of Nutcracker, hailed by The New York Times as "…striking, elegant and beautiful." In 2005, Tomasson was awarded the prestigious Lew Christensen Medal in honor of his 20th anniversary as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, and that same year, the Company won its first Laurence Olivier Award, for its 2004 fall season at Sadler's Wells Theatre. In 2006, in a readers' poll conducted by Dance Europe magazine, San Francisco Ballet was the first non-European company to be voted "Company of the Year" by the publication. In 2008, San Francisco Ballet was one of the recipients of the Jerome Robbins Award for excellence in dance.
2008 marked the Company's 75th Anniversary Season and highlights included the revival of former San Francisco Ballet Director Lew Christensen's Filling Station, one of the oldest American folk ballets; an all-Robbins Program, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the master choreographer's death; the San Francisco Ballet premiere of West Side Story Suite; a tribute to San Francisco Ballet from three international companies (Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, The National Ballet of Canada, and New York City Ballet); and a New Works Festival of 10 world premieres by 10 of the dance world's most diverse and acclaimed choreographers including Julia Adam, Val Caniparoli, Jorma Elo, Margaret Jenkins, James Kudelka, Mark Morris, Yuri Possokhov, Paul Taylor, Stanton Welch, and Christopher Wheeldon. Other anniversary initiatives included a commemorative book, San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five; special exhibitions; an alumni reunion weekend; and the broadcast of Tomasson's Nutcracker in December 2008 on Great Performances' Dance in America series on PBS, produced in partnership with KQED Public Television in San Francisco. In January 2010, the Opening Night Gala, entitled Silver Celebration, honored Tomasson's 25th anniversary as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet.