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Posted 22 Oct 2001   For week ended October 19, 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 17Oct01

By Kent Larsen

'Grandfather of American Ballet,' Willam Christensen, 99

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- "The man is a legend," says Ballet West's artistic director Jonas Kage. "He an his brothers put ballet on the map in America." William Farr Christensen, who is credited with founding both the San Francisco Ballet and Utah's Ballet West, died Sunday in Salt Lake City. He was one of three brothers who all loom large in American dance. Willam also started the first University Ballet department and was the first to choreograph a full-length production of "The Nutcracker." He was 99.

Christensen was born August, 27, 1902 in Brigham City, Utah to a Mormon family, descendant of a pioneer grandfather who joined the LDS Church and immigrated to Utah. Both the grandfather and Christensen's father, Chris B. Christensen were musicians, fiddlers, and early on Willam studied in his father's music academy. Those studies led him to form a dixieland jazz band while still a youth. But as Willam got older, he decided to instead study ballet with his uncle, L. Peter Christensen, in Salt Lake City, because, he told the Salt Lake Tribune recently, "I found girls were much better looking than pianos."

Reaching adulthood, Willam moved to New York City where he studied with the dancer Mascano, but soon found a place on the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit where he and his brothers, Harold and Lew, performed a ballet act that introduced the art to many who were unfamiliar with it. Known variously as the Christ Brothers, Le Christs and The Buekoffs, they shared the stage with famous vaudevillians like W.C. Fields, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. A 1931 review of their act said that the "Christensen Brothers are taking a chance in trying to sell an act composed entirely of classical dancing."

Soon after the vaudeville world began to decline amid the onset of the great depression. Willam, who had married his dance partner, Mignon Lee Trieste, in 1929, moved to Portland in 1932 to take over his uncle's ballet school there, and it quickly evolved into the Portland Ballet. His brothers, Lew and Harold, had gone on to New York City to dance with George Balanchine.

In 1937 Willam was asked to come to San Francisco as the principal soloist at the San Francisco Opera Ballet, and within the year he was named ballet master of the company. He also started choreographing full-lenght ballets, resulting in 1938 in the first American "Coppelia" and the first American "Swan Lake" the next year (1939). Willam told Newsweek in 1993 that at the time he choreographed "Swan Lake" he had never seen it, "I'd never seen 'Swan Lake,' only the second act. But there was a big Russian colony here [in San Francisco] and those Russian officers were from old noble families. They remembered everything."

But the San Francisco Opera tired of also owning the Ballet during the beginning of World War II, and in 1942 sold the rights to the company to Willam and his brother Harold, who named their company the San Francisco Ballet, the first major ballet company in the Western U.S. "They were amazing," says Helgi Tomasson, current artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet. "Harold devoted himself to the school, and Lew in the beginning of course danced. But Willam was the driving force behind everything."

Before the end of the War, Willam had again choreographed another first, the first full-length American performance of "The Nutcracker," now a Christmas classic at many U.S. ballet companies. He once said that the secret to choreographing "The Nutcracker" was in the music, "If you just listen, its all there." "The Nutcracker" has now become the most produced ballet in the U.S. In 1978 he told the Salt Lake Tribune, "Someone once asked me how long I thought 'The Nutcracker' would continue. I suppose it will go as long as there are children being born and as long as there's a Santa Claus."

In 1951, Willam was struck when his wife, Mignon was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, leading them to move to Salt Lake City. His brother Lew joined the San Francisco Ballet at that time, and became the sole artistic director that year. Willam started his own studio in Salt Lake City, and was then asked to do another first -- start the first ballet department at an American college or university. Joining the faculty of the University of Utah, Willam brought dance on campus, forming in 1963 the University Theatre Ballet, and, that same year, the Utah Civic Ballet, with the help of arts patron Glen Walker Wallace. Five years later the Civic Ballet changed its name to Ballet West.

At the University of Utah, Willam Christensen had a profound effect on his many students. Kent Stowell, founder of the Pacific Northwest Ballet said Christensen managed to do something remarkable, "to get boys to dance ballet in America." Stowell says. "Bill was always encouraging about male dancers. He'd horse around with us in the studio and generated a sense that to be a ballet dancer was OK." Stowell added that Christensen was also a role model as artistic director, "What Bill did was create in people's minds that in order to establish an [arts] organization, you had to be an enthusiastic spokesperson for your profession. Watching him be a good promoter taught me how to marshal community support."

Willam toured Europe with Ballet West in 1971, gaining critical praise. But that year his wife, Mignon, lost her battle with MS. In 1973 he married Florence Jensen Goeglein, and five years later, in 1978, he retired from Ballet West. His brother Lew died in 1984 and brother Harold in 1989, leaving Willam the last surviving of the brothers.

After his retirement the honors kept coming. He and his brothers shared the Dance Magazine Award in 1973 with Rudolf Nureyev and won a number of teaching awards in the 1960s. He was given the Bay Area Hall of Fame Award by the San Francisco Bay Area Dance Coalition, and was given a Utah Governor's Award in the Arts. In 1989 an auditorium at the University of Utah was named for him an for Elizabeth R. Hayes, and just last year he was given the CORPS de Ballet International Award for lifetime achievement and distinguished service.

And Willam kept busy even after his retirement. He was a teacher and advisor to many ballet students, and took on the position of ballet master of the Ballet West Conservatory in 1998, at the age of 95. And even that late in life, ballet was still in his blood. He told the Salt Lake Tribune in 1997 when the University of Utah revived his version of "Coppelia" that he wished he could dance it again. "My brother, Lew, could do more pirouettes," he said, "but I beat the hell out of him in mime." Stowell says Christensen simply loved life, "He loved to have a good drink, a cigarette, a laugh with people. He was a theater person, an opera and a ballet person. And to live as long as he did, he must have enjoyed a lot of it."


Willam F. Christensen, 99; Ballet Pioneer
Los Angeles Times 16Oct01 P2
By Lewis Segal: Times Dance Critic

Willam Farr Christensen
Salt Lake Tribune 16Oct01 P2

Dance pioneer 'Mr. C' dies
Deseret News 15Oct01 P2
By Scott Iwasaki: Deseret News dance editor

Ballet pioneer Willam F. Christensen
San Francisco Chronicle 16Oct01 P2
By Octavio Roca: Chronicle Dance Critic

W.F. Christensen, major ballet figure
Boston Globe (AP) 16Oct01 P2
Associated Press

Mr. C
Salt Lake Tribune 16Oct01 OP2


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