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 purpose was to train dancers to appear in opera productions, but it separated from the opera in 1942 and was renamed SF Ballet. Headed by brothers Willam, Lew, and Harold Christensen from the late ’30s until the ’70s, it made its mark early on by staging the first full-length American productions of Swan Lake (1940) and Nutcracker (1944). 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 the Company settled in the War Memorial Opera House for its annual residency. The following year, Michael Smuin was appointed associate artistic director; in 1981, his The Tempest was nominated for three Emmy Awards (Willa Kim received the award for Outstanding Costume Design), and in 1984 Smuin received an Emmy Award for Choreography for the “Great Performances—Dance in America” national broadcast of A Song for Dead Warriors.
Helgi Tomasson’s arrival as artistic director in 1985 marked the beginning of a new era. Like Lew Christensen, Tomasson had been a leading dancer for the most important ballet choreographer of the 20th century, George Balanchine. He has since staged acclaimed full-length productions of many classics, including Swan Lake (1988); The Sleeping Beauty (1990); Romeo & Juliet (1994); Giselle (1999); and a new Nutcracker (2004). In 1991, SF Ballet performed in New York City for the first time in 26 years, to broad critical acclaim. In May 1995, the Ballet played host to 12 ballet companies for UNited We Dance: An International Festival, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter.
SF Ballet’s repertory includes works by George Balanchine, Lew Christensen, William Forsythe, Agnes de Mille, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Mark Morris, Rudolf Nureyev, Marius Petipa, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon, and many others. In recent years, the Company’s touring programs have become increasingly ambitious, with engagements at venues including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; New York City Center; the Opéra de Paris-Palais Garnier in Paris; London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden; and Athens’ Megaron Theatre. The San Francisco Ballet School, overseen by Tomasson, attracts students from around the world, training approximately 350 annually. In addition to filling the ranks of SF Ballet, graduates have gone on to join distinguished ballet companies throughout the world.
In December 2004, SF Ballet debuted Tomasson’s critically acclaimed new production of Nutcracker. The following year, Tomasson was awarded the prestigious Lew Christensen Medal in honor of his 20th anniversary as artistic director of SF Ballet, and that year the Company won its first Laurence Olivier Award, for its 2004 fall season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. A readers’ poll conducted in 2006 by Dance Europe magazine named SF Ballet “Company of the Year,” marking the first time a non-European company took that honor. In 2008, SF Ballet and the SF Ballet School celebrated their 75th anniversary. In 2012, SF Ballet embarked on an ambitious tour schedule that included engagements in London and Washington, D.C., as well as first time visits to Hamburg, Moscow, and Sun Valley, Idaho. In October 2013, the Company performed at New York’s David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where The New York Times declared SF Ballet “a national treasure.” 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Helgi Tomasson’s tenure as artistic director of SF Ballet.