History

1933

The San Francisco Opera Ballet is founded under the direction of Ballet Master Adolph Bolm becoming the first professional ballet company in America; its primary purpose is to train dancers to appear in lavish, full-length opera productions.

 

That same year, San Francisco Ballet School is established as America’s oldest professional ballet academy. 

1937

Willam Christensen is appointed director of SF Opera Ballet’s Oakland branch and a year later becomes the Company’s ballet master. 

1938

A booking department is created to support extensive tours, a tradition that continues today in venues throughout the world. 

1939

Willam Christensen choreographs the Company’s first full-length production, Coppélia.

1940

Willam Christensen stages the first American full-length production of Swan Lake.

1942

The Company becomes a completely separate entity from the San Francisco Opera and is renamed San Francisco Ballet. Willam Christensen is appointed artistic director, and his brother Harold is appointed director of the SF Ballet School, a position he retains for 33 years. He transforms SF Ballet School into one of the country’s finest academies, initiating scholarship programs and national audition tours.

1943

The Company performs at Stern Grove Festival for the first time. These free, outdoor performances become a beloved summer tradition for SF Ballet fans in the community. 

1944

On Christmas Eve, Willam Christensen launches a national holiday tradition with the American premiere of Nutcracker—the first complete version of the ballet ever staged in the United States.

1949

A third Christensen brother, Lew, working with George Balanchine as ballet master of New York City Ballet, makes the first of several visits to San Francisco to choreograph new works. He is widely considered America’s first premier danseur.

1951

Lew Christensen joins Willam Christensen as co-director. The following year, when Willam moves to Salt Lake City to found the first ballet department in an American university at the University of Utah, Lew takes over as director of SF Ballet.

1956

Under Lew Christensen’s direction, SF Ballet makes its East Coast debut at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

1957

SF Ballet makes its international debut with an 11-nation tour to Asia and the Middle East sponsored by the United States Department of State as an effort to present American culture around the world. The tour is so successful that it is followed by a four-month tour of Latin America in 1958 and a three-month tour of the Middle East in 1959.

“It was the three government-sponsored tours that made it possible to keep the dancers together long enough to build an effective company,” James Ludwig, SF Ballet Guild’s president at the time, said to The New York Times years later in 1963.  

1958

To celebrate the Company’s 25th anniversary, Lew Christensen creates Beauty and the Beast, his second full-length ballet for the Company, which becomes one of the most popular works over the next decade.

The Ford Foundation establishes a scholarship program for promising young dancers to study at one of two nationally-recognized ballet academies: SF Ballet School on the West Coast and School of American Ballet on the East Coast.

1962

SF Ballet serves its last season as the resident dance company for SF Opera.

1965

The Company performs in New York City for the first time, at State Theater in Lincoln Center.

1972

After performing in various San Francisco theaters, the Company settles permanently into the War Memorial Opera House for its annual residency.

The Company is also reorganized under the auspices of a single organization: the San Francisco Ballet Association.

1973

Michael Smuin is appointed associate artistic director and celebrates his new partnership with Lew Christensen by collaborating on a full-length production of Cinderella.

1974

SF Ballet faces bankruptcy, but its supporters and the community respond with an extraordinary grassroots effort called “Save Our Ballet,” which successfully brings the Company back from the brink.

Dr. Richard E. LeBlond, Jr. is appointed president and general manager of SF Ballet. He develops the first long-range plan for an American dance company, and in 18 months the organization is financially solvent.

1975

SF Ballet Orchestra (then called Performing Arts Orchestra of San Francisco) debuts under Music Director Denis de Couteau for Nutcracker. Up until that point, the organization had hired freelance musicians to accompany its performances.

1978

SF Ballet becomes the first American company granted the rights to perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.

Smuin’s Romeo and Juliet becomes 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.

1979

Rooted in its mission to share the joy of dance with the Bay Area community, SF Ballet establishes Dance in Schools and Communities (DISC) in response to an expressed need for arts instruction in public schools. Since then, the DISC program has served as a model for school outreach programs at ballet companies across the nation.

1981

Smuin’s The Tempest—the first ballet broadcast live from the War Memorial Opera House—is nominated for three Emmy Awards. Willa Kim, who designed the ballet’s costumes, receives the award for Outstanding Costume Design.

1984

Smuin receives an Emmy Award for Choreography for the Dance in America national broadcast of A Song for Dead Warriors.

1985

Helgi Tomasson arrives as artistic director in July, marking the beginning of a new era for SF Ballet. Like Lew Christensen, Tomasson was, for many years, a leading dancer for George Balanchine who was acknowledged as the most important ballet choreographer of the 20th century.

1986

The Company unveils its fourth production of Nutcracker in December.

1991

SF Ballet performs in New York City for the first time in 26 years. The Company would return again in 1993, 1995, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2008, and 2013.

Following the initial 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. SF Ballet under Helgi Tomasson’s leadership is one of the spectacular success stories of the arts in America.”

1994

The Company performs in Paris for the first time at the famed Opéra de Paris-Palais Garnier.

1995

SF Ballet hosts 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 at the War Memorial and 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.

1999

The Company performs at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre for the first time, returning in 2004 and 2012.

2005

SF Ballet receives its first Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance, for its 2004 fall season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Of the engagement, London’s Sunday Times proclaimed, “Helgi Tomasson’s outstanding artistic direction…has transformed a regional American troupe into one of the world’s top ballet companies.”

In July, SF Ballet returns to Paris for the inaugural Les Etés de la Danse Festival as the sole dance company performing throughout the three-week celebration.

2006

In a readers’ poll conducted by Dance Europe magazine, SF Ballet becomes the first non-European company to be voted “Company of the Year” by the publication.

2008

The Company celebrates its 75th Anniversary Season, which culminates in 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.

The Company also embarks on a critically acclaimed four-city American tour with engagements at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance, New York City Center, Southern California’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

SF Ballet receives the Jerome Robbins Award for excellence in dance.

2009

SF Ballet makes its first trip to the People’s Republic of China in the fall, with performances in Shanghai and Beijing. 

2011

The American premiere of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, performed by SF Ballet, is broadcast internationally, as well as nationally on PBS’s Great Performances: Dance in America.

2013

In the fall, the Company performs at New York’s David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where The New York Times declared SF Ballet “a national treasure.”

2014

SF Ballet tours to Paris as part of Les Etés de la Danse Festival, marking the 10th anniversary of its inaugural engagement with the festival. The performances are well-received by media and audiences alike during its unprecedented run of over 20 works by 15 choreographers, with the Financial Times proclaiming, “Where ballet goes from here is anyone’s guess, but as dancers and choreographers continue to flock to Tomasson, the tell-tale signs may well be found in California."

Together with The Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and The National Ballet of Canada, SF Ballet hosts the first ever World Ballet Day LIVE, an all-day live streaming event that offers a behind-the-scenes look at five of the world’s leading ballet companies.

2015

Helgi Tomasson celebrates his 30th anniversary as artistic director of the Company. The San Francisco Chronicle notes, “What Tomasson has done here over these three decades is to transform a respected regional American ballet company into an international-caliber organization that commands worldwide respect for the depth of its repertoire and its superb technical standards.”

Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet is shown in movie theaters nationwide as part of the Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance film series.

2016

SF Ballet Orchestra wins two Grammy Awards for their performance on the album, Ask Your Mama, a multimedia recording based on Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name.