San Francisco Ballet -- a homegrown gem
Balloons and confetti rained down upon the stage. A dozen white doves flew from the top balcony across the top of the audience's heads and magically disappeared into a little white box at the front of the stage. Fireworks went off and, if I'm not mistaken, I heard a cannon roar.Skip to next paragraph
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In any other field, a golden anniversary would probably not warrant the hoopla that Michael Smuin conceived for the company he co-directs with Lew Christensen. But 50 years is a long time in American ballet history - East or West. And the San Francisco Ballet is, in fact, the first to reach that landmark in the country - thus this grand finale celebrating its 50th anniversary, held at the War Memorial Opera House, where the troupe performs through May.
As the anniversary program made clear through old movie clips and montages of photographs as well as live performance, the history of the California troupe is not only long but illustrious.
Generally one tends to think of ballet as a phenomenon of the Atlantic seaboard, an extension of European culture. But the San Francisco Ballet experience tells of prominent artists who found themselves in California and stayed there to nurture their craft.
The real core of West Coast ballet is the Christensen brothers. American-born and, like all Americans involved in the arts in the 1920s and '30s, well-seasoned on the vaudeville circuit, the three Christensens eventually buckled down to work in their home turf. In 1938 Willam Christensen became director of the San Francisco Ballet. Among his many ballets were some of the first full-length classics produced by an American company - ''Swan Lake,'' ''Coppelia,'' and ''The Nutcracker.'' Although it was Balanchine's production for the New York City Ballet in 1954 that would make ''The Nutcracker'' a national craze, Willam did it first in 1944, with much information and advice provided by Balanchine.
Willam was leading the company when Harold Christensen took charge of the school in 1942. Lew Christensen, meanwhile, was back East, working with Balanchine - and in the process becoming the first genuine American danseur noble. In 1952 Lew replaced Willam as director of the San Francisco Ballet, when Willam began to sow yet more ballet seeds in Salt Lake City, establishing a school and company that grew into today's Ballet West.
During the '40s and '50s ballet was virtually a Christensen enterprise in the West. They weren't the only teachers by a long shot, but it was they who pioneered ballet as a professional, performance-oriented course of study. A youngster could go to San Francisco knowing that he might eventually be able to work there. Thanks to the Christensens, the West was not a mere stepping-stone to the East.
Today Lew's presence and that of his mentor, George Balanchine, are still deeply felt in the company's repertory. Indeed, one of the most beautiful moments in the retrospective anniversary program was a snippet from Balanchine's ''Serenade''; and one of the funniest was a film clip of Lew as a marvelously deadpan Prince in Balanchine's parody of ''Swan Lake'' for a 1940 movie called ''I Was an Adventuress.''