ARTS + ENTERTAINMENT

Ballet West, Willam Christensen and the history of ballet in America

Nov 8, 2023, 10:00 AM | Updated: 12:43 pm

Willam Christensen, the founder of Ballet West and The San Francisco Ballet, holds a Nutcracker. (B...

Willam Christensen, the founder of Ballet West and The San Francisco Ballet, holds a Nutcracker. (Ballet West)

(Ballet West)

SALT LAKE CITY — Ballet West celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Willam Christensen, the founder of the ballet company, played a pivotal role in bringing ballet to the United States. 

According to Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s current artistic director, ballet didn’t begin its rise to popularity in the U.S. until the 1930s. 

“A full decade or more before [ballet rose to popularity,] the Christensen family was actually bringing ballet and developing ballet here in Utah,” said Sklute. 

Christensen was born and raised with two brothers in Brigham City, Utah. 

He studied with two famed choreographers; Michel Fokine, the original choreographer of The Firebird, and George Balanchine, who choreographed several significant works for the New York City Ballet. 

Vaudeville & the San Francisco Ballet

“[The brothers] then went on to travel the country with their wives in the vaudeville circuit, where they performed vaudeville shows across the country,” Sklute said. 

Christensen then joined the San Francisco Opera Ballet as a soloist in 1937, according to Britannica

According to Sklute, Christensen went on to found the first full ballet company in the United States, the San Francisco Ballet. The S.F. Ballet’s website says the company is the oldest in the United States. 

During his time in San Francisco, Christensen staged the first full-length ballet productions. According to the S. F. Ballet’s website, they were the first full-length ballet productions in the United States. They were Coppélia in 1938, Swan Lake in 1940, and the Nutcracker in 1944. 

Christensen’s production of The Nutcracker premiered in 1944. After a brief hiatus, it returned in 1949. It has been an American holiday tradition ever since, according to the San Francisco Ballet. 

The Corps de Ballet International website said Christensen “[based] his versions on historical research and the reminiscences of older dancers who had performed those works in Europe.”

Photos from the Ballet West’s history. (Ballet West)

Christensen’s return to Utah and the foundation of Ballet West

Christensen returned to Utah in the early 1950s, Sklute said.

Christensen founded the first fully accredited university ballet department.

“That is the University of Utah’s ballet department. Before that, ballet had just been part of the PE department and such like that,” Sklute said. 

A student ballet group affiliated with the University of Utah’s dance program became a professional company in 1963. At the time, it was known as the Utah Civic Ballet. The name was changed to Ballet West “so that we could represent the entire Intermountain Region,” said Sklute. 

“Utah and Ballet West have a great history as part of the fabric of American Ballet,” said Sklute. 

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Ballet West, Willam Christensen and the history of ballet in America