Christensen Brothers

Former artistic director willam christensen teaching class at san francisco ballet

Former Artistic Director Willam Christensen teaching class at San Francisco Ballet. Photo © Momentum

Willam Christensen

August 27, 1902–October 14, 2001

BALLET MASTER, 1937–1942


America's First Exposure to Ballet

Willam Christensen was born in Brigham City, Utah into a family very active in the arts. He received his early music training from his father and ballet training from his uncle. Later he studied with such famous ballet teachers as Mascagno, Fokine, Mendes and Novikoff. During the 1920s and 1930s, he toured with his brothers Harold and Lew on the famous Orpheum Circuit. For many Americans, the Christensen brothers were their first exposure to ballet.

Dancer and Visionary

In 1932, Willam moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon, where he opened a ballet school and formed a small company, which included ballerina Janet Reed. In 1937 he was engaged as a soloist in the San Francisco Ballet and a year later was appointed ballet master and choreographer. During his fifteen-year tenure with San Francisco Ballet, Mr. Christensen was an indefatigable pioneer, creating the first full-length version of Swan Lake (1940) and the first complete production of Nutcracker (1944) in the Western hemisphere. In 1951, Mr. Christensen accepted a professorship in theatre ballet at the University of Utah, where he established the first school of ballet at an American university. In 1963 he created the Utah Civic Ballet, which in 1968 became Ballet West.

Willam and gisella christensen in nutcracker

Willam and Gisella Christensen in Nutcracker
Photo courtesy of SFPALM

Awards and Honors

In recognition of his "contribution to dance in America," Mr. Christensen and his brothers Harold and Lew were awarded the 1973 Dance Magazine Award. In the Spring of 1974 he was named the recipient of the Honorary Alumnus Award for significant service to the University of Utah. He has also received the honor of Distinguished Teaching and Distinguished Research Professor in Recognition of Creative Achievement from the University. In 1973 he was also given the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from the Utah State University. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Utah in 1982. In 1992, San Francisco Ballet honored Mr. Christensen by dedicating the new School Library in his honor.

Harold Christensen

December 25, 1904–February 20, 1989

DIRECTOR, San Francisco Ballet School

A Ballet Pioneer

A ballet pioneer in America, Harold Christensen served as director of San Francisco Ballet School for thirty-three years. He established not only the primary source of dancers for San Francisco Ballet, but an internationally respected professional training program.

Under his direction, San Francisco Ballet School gained national stature. He instituted audition tours throughout America, and in 1963 the School won a prestigious ten-year Ford Foundation Grant.

Career and Training

Harold christensen circa 1960

Harold Christensen circa 1960.

Like his older brother Willam and younger brother Lew, Harold began his dance training with his Uncle Peter in Brigham City, Utah and continued with Stefano Mascagno in New York. After a one-year sojourn at West Point, he was back at ballet, soon to begin his teaching career.

When Willam left vaudeville in 1932, Harold joined the act along with one of Willam's pupils, Ruby Asquith. Miss Asquith later became Mrs. Harold Christensen.

In 1935 Harold joined George Balanchine's new company, The American Ballet and, as a member of Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, he originated roles in Lew's Filling Station and Charade.


In 1973 the Christensen brothers received the Dance Magazine Award for their contributions to dance. In 1984 they were chosen to receive the Capezio Dance Award, an honor which read:

"...these Western pioneers who grew out of American vernacular dance have made ballet prosper wherever they settled."

Lew christensen

Lew Christensen.
Photo courtesy of SFPALM.

Lew Christensen

May 9, 1909–October 9, 1984

DIRECTOR, 1951–1984

A Rising Star

Lew Christensen's involvement in dance started at the age of 10 when he began to study with his uncle, Peter Christensen. While he was still in his teens, Christensen launched his professional dance career on the vaudeville circuit with his brother Willam, and later Harold (1927-1935). In 1935, Lew joined the Metropolitan Opera's American Ballet where George Balanchine was ballet master. In his two years with American Ballet, Christensen was hailed as America's first native premier danseur for his performance in George Balanchine's Orpheus and Eurydice (1936) and Apollon Musegéte (1937). He left American Ballet to continue with Ballet Caravan (1936-1940), founded by Lincoln Kirstein to give the dancers of the American Ballet summer employment. For Ballet Caravan, Christensen choreographed his popular ballet, Filling Station (1938), Charade (1939) and Pastorela (1941). These ballets and Jinx (1942), choreographed for Dance Players (1941-1942), established Christensen as one of the nation's leading choreographers.

Balanchine's Ballet Master

Christensen's dance career was interrupted by World War II. Upon his return to the United States, he became ballet master for Ballet Society (1946), formed by Balanchine and Kirstein. During this period, Christensen danced lead roles in many of Balanchine's most enduring works, including The Four Temperaments, Divertimento and Symphony in C. Ballet Society became known as New York City Ballet in 1948.

San Francisco Ballet's Associate Director

Christensen was named associate director of San Francisco Ballet in 1949 while still acting as ballet master for New York City Ballet, a job he continued through 1950. In 1951, Christensen became co-director of San Francisco Ballet with brother Willam, and was named director when Willam returned to Salt Lake City to establish a ballet program at the University of Utah.

Lew christensen as apollo

Lew Christensen as Apollo
Photo by Maurice Seymour

Prolific Choreographer

For San Francisco Ballet, Christensen choreographed numerous ballets that are still in the repertory. As an artistic director, Christensen provided San Francisco Ballet with an impressive Balanchine repertory, its first television broadcasts, full-length productions of Nutcracker and Beauty and the Beast (1968), and its first national and international exposure including tours to the Far East (1957), New York City (1965) and Edinburgh (1981). He was a prolific choreographer creating over 110 works including ballets, opera divertissements, musical revues and dramatic productions. His works have been presented by numerous dance companies in the United States and abroad.

Awards and Honors

During the 50th Anniversary Gala on January 29, 1983, Christensen was awarded the first Lew Christensen Medal for his extraordinary service to the San Francisco Ballet Association. In April 1984, the Christensen brothers received the Capezio Dance Award at a special ceremony in New York City. Other honors include: an appointment as a charter commissioner of the California Arts Council (1964); the Dance Magazine Award (1973); the bronze medal for choreography at the First International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi (1979); and an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California (1982). In July 1984, Christensen was honored in a special tribute by the Archives for the Performing Arts in celebration of his 75th birthday.


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