"A tall, blond Adonis steps onto the stage to go into his amazing leaps and turns with all the vitality of an American athlete and the grace of a Nijinsky. This is Lew Christensen of the American Ballet Caravan, leading dancer and ballet master."
So began a 1939 review by an unknown author in Calgary, Canada of the young star of American Ballet Caravan who, despite his modest beginnings, would one day achieve international acclaim as a dancer, choreographer and director and be recognized as one of the seminal figures in the history of American dance. Photograph: Lew Christensen in Balanchine's Apollon Musagete (1937). Photo by George Platt Lynes.
Lew Christensen's initial involvement with dance began far from the stages of New York. As a youth, growing up in the small, rural town of Brigham City, Utah, he was required to attend classes in social dancing taught by his uncle at the family's school, the Box Elder Academy of Music and Dancing. Dance, as well as music, had always been important to the Christensens. Lew's grandfather, Lars Christensen, an accomplished violinist, had emigrated from Denmark in 1854 and was responsible for teaching music and dance in the new Mormon settlement of Brigham City. Lew Christensen's father and uncles all were active performers and teachers and established important dance and music institutions throughout the West.
Christensen's first professional experiences as a performer came when his brother Willam organized a small dance troupe and booked performances on the vaudeville circuits of the 1920s. Appearing as `Le Christ' and `The Mascagno Four', the brothers toured extensively at a time when there were no resident ballet companies in America and achieved wide acclaim for their sophisticated dance routines. The group performed in many important venues of the day, including the Hippodrome and the Palace Theater in New York, and appeared with well-known entertainers such as Jack Benny, George Burns, and W.C. Fields.
In 1934, while performing in the New York Broadway musical The Great Waltz, Christensen began taking classes at the new School of American Ballet, founded earlier that year by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. Balanchine immediately sensed Christensen's vast potential and began casting him in important roles in the newly established American Ballet. In 1936 he created for Christensen the part of Orpheo in the ballet Orpheus and Eurydice and in 1937 cast Christensen in the title role in Apollon Musagete, the first performance of this role by an American dancer. Today, Christensen's interpretations of these roles are considered definitive. George Amberg, writing in Ballet: The Emergence of an American Art, said, "In Apollon Lew Christensen confirmed what he had promised in Orpheus: that in him America had a magnificent classical dancer, with flawless technique and a sure grasp of noble style."
During his early association with Balanchine, Christensen quickly developed into a dancer of impressive stature, possessing remarkable technical abilities and a unique and noble presence. Christensen is often credited as being America's premier danseur noble. Kirstein wrote of the significance of the Balanchine/Christensen relationship during this period:
"...with Lew Christensen, [Balanchine] found a young man who could be credited as a potential divinity. Praxitelian head and body, imperceptibly musculated but firmly and largely proportioned, blond hair and bland air recalled Greek marbles and a calm inhabitant of Nicholas Poussin's pastorals... such golden grace of person, and extraordinary physical endowment is rare... It was how Lew dances on stage... that signified to me a future, and within it a potential for American male dancers... In his thirties he danced the best Apollo both Balanchine and I had ever seen. His luminous clarity of life, and on stage his apparent separation from mundane consideration-indeed his sober naivete-gave a luster to his performance which was, in the lost accuracy of the word, `divine'... He combined, in one body, beauty, perfect physical endowment, musicality of a high professional level, a developed acrobatic technique, and an elegance of stage manners which was an exact reflection of his inherent morality."
Beginning in the summer of 1936, Christensen assumed the leadership of the newly formed Ballet Caravan, an experimental troupe proposed by Kirstein. It was during this period that Christensen created his first choreographic works beginning with the 1936 ballet Encounters, set to Mozart's "Haffner" Serenade. This was followed in 1939 by Pocahontas, with a commissioned score by Elliot Carter. In 1939 Christensen created his landmark ballet Filling Station, the first ballet by an American choreographer, danced by an American company, based on an American theme, with music and designs by American artists. B. H. Haggin of The Nation called Filling Station "...one of the classics of American Ballet." Anatole Chujoy, writing of the premier performances considered Filling Station "a huge success for the Caravan and a personal triumph for Lew Christensen as choreographer and dancer." Photograph: Lew Christensen as Mac in the 1939 performances of Filling Station. Photo by Martha Swope.
In 1941, with Kirstein present as best man, Christensen married Gisella Caccialanza, a principal dancer with The American Ballet, and the goddaughter of the renowned Italian teacher Enrico Checchetti. Soon afterwards, Christensen was named ballet master of the newly established American Ballet Caravan, and immediately left for an extensive tour of Central and South America. Several Christensen ballets were performed, including, Filling Station and a new work, Pastorela,, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller and set to music by Paul Bowles. During these early and uncertain years of ballet in America Kirstein described Christensen as a "steady arm" and admitted that Christensen's confidence, experience and strength gave him the extra spine he lacked. Balanchine acknowledged that Lew was the man with, and through whom, he could most easily work.
In 1942 Christensen created his other classic work of this period, the dramatic and haunting ballet Jinx. Set to music by the British composer Benjamin Britten, Jinx tells the macabre and melancholy tale of a small circus troupe plagued by misfortune. John Martin, writing in the New York Times, described Jinx as "...curiously powerful and utterly without precedent in the field of ballet... uncannily compelling." Following the success of Jinx, Christensen and Britten began collaborating on a second work. Their plans were cut short, however, by the war in Europe. Photograph: Ludmilla Liashenko as the Strong Lady, Dolores Richardson as the Tattooed Lady, and Alton Basuino as Clown Wirewalker in San Francisco Ballet's 1949 revival of Jinx. Photo: Braun, Childress, Halberstadt.
With America's entrance into World War II, Christensen, at the height of his performing career, was inducted into the military and sent overseas. In 1945 Christensen received a battlefield commission and was posted as an administrator of a small German town. There, near the end of the war, Christensen unexpectedly met Kirstein. Their meeting inspired Kirstein's haunting poem "Vaudeville."
Following the war, Kirstein and Balanchine formed yet another company, Ballet Society, later to become the New York City Ballet, with Balanchine acting as director and Christensen as ballet master. Christensen, at the age of 39, however, was becoming aware of the need to leave the shadow of Balanchine and develop his own career as a choreographer and director. In 1948 he chose to join his brother Willam as co-director of San Francisco Ballet.
Kirstein felt the loss deeply as he still recognized in Christensen the fulfillment of his dream for an American ballet and had hoped that he would remain with the company as ballet master and eventual successor to Balanchine. In the past, Balanchine had relied heavily on Christensen's artistic skills and experience to sustain the company and for Ballet Society's 1949 fall season found it necessary to persuade Christensen to return to New York. For the next several years Christensen would travel regularly between New York and San Francisco.
In 1951, while continuing his association with New York City Ballet, Christensen succeeded his brother Willam as Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet. During his first year he began a unique exchange program with New York City Ballet and brought to San Francisco some of the first performances of works by George Balanchine while a number of important Christensen ballets such as Con Amore, Filling Station and Jinx entered the repertory of New York City Ballet. John Martin, in his review of the 1953 New York City Ballet season praised Christensen highly:
"Christensen's ballets take chief honors. With credit for last night's `Con Amore' added to his smashing success with `Filling Station', Lew Christensen established himself as the brightest and best choreographer of the season. The New York City Ballet should circle the genial brow of Lew Christensen with a laurel, for his two new works are both great fun and unquestionable hits, adding a definite brightness to the season." Photograph: Michael Graham, Paula Tracy, Jerome Weiss, Michael Thomas, and Val Caniparoli in Scene Two of Con Amore (1978). Photo: Beth Witrogen.
NBC later televised the New York City Ballet performances of Filling Station with the young Jacques d'Amboise in the lead role.
The next two decades were a prolific time for Christensen as he endeavored to create a repertory for San Francisco Ballet. In 1954 Christensen choreographed the first of several stagings of the Nutcracker, succeeding his brother Willam's version which had been the first Nutcracker performed by an American company. ABC television filmed Christensen's Nutcracker in 1964 with Cynthia Gregory and David Anderson dancing the lead roles. The program was broadcast worldwide. Nutcracker is Christensen's most enduring ballet and has held a permanent place in San Francisco Ballet's repertory for nearly half a century.
The previous year, Christensen and his wife Gisella Caccialanza celebrated the birth of their son Chris. Named after his grandfather, he would be the only Christensen of his generation to follow in the family's footsteps, studying music and becoming a conductor for San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet.
In 1957, as a result of the critical acclaim San Francisco Ballet received for its performances at Jacob's Pillow, Christensen led the company on the first of three prestigious State Department tours to Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Among the Christensen ballets seen by international audiences were Con Amore, Jinx, Tarot, Dryad and Beauty and the Shepherd.
Christensen choreographed two important works in 1958, Lady of Shalott, based on the Tennyson poem, with a commissioned score by Sir Arthur Bliss, and the widely acclaimed ballet Beauty and the Beast. Created for San Francisco Ballet's 25th anniversary, Beauty and the Beast is the second full-length ballet choreographed by Christensen and has been one of the most popular ballets in San Francisco Ballet's repertory. It was filmed by ABC television and broadcast nation-wide in 1968.
During the 1960s Christensen created some of his most imaginative and original ballets, including: Shadows, Original Sin, Jest of Cards, Variations de Ballet, Fantasma, Divertissement d'Auber, Life: A Do-It-Yourself Disaster, Lucifer and Il Distratto. In a rare Time magazine review, the 1961 hit, Original Sin, was described as "exuberant, emotional, entertaining, and highly successful."
Provocative, and distinctly American in its treatment, Original Sin is choreographed to a commissioned score by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet with a libretto by San Francisco beat poet Kenneth Rexroth. The centerpiece of the company's 1962 season was the premier of Christensen's "existential" ballet Jest of Cards, set to a score by Ernst Krenek. Life magazine, in a two page spread devoted to the ballet named it "one of the two most important ballet events of 1962."
The "go-go" excitement of the 1960s is captured in Life: A Do-It-Yourself Disaster credited as being America's first "pop art" ballet with dazzling sets designed by Cal Anderson in an extravaganza of pop images (a la Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Thiebaud), and a libretto by the late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen. Photograph: Nancy Robinson in the San Francisco Ballet performances of Life:A Do-It-Yourself Disaster (1965). Photo: Baron Wolman.
Il Distratto, created in 1967, continues to be one of Christensen's most popular ballets. Originally choreographed for students of the San Francisco Ballet School it entered the repertory of The Joffrey Ballet the following year.
In May, 1973 Dance Magazine presented its prestigious annual award to the three Christensen brothers. To commemorate the occasion, Olga Maynard wrote a detailed history of the Christensen brothers for Dance Magazine's June issue.
For the 1973 San Francisco Ballet repertory season Christensen created two major ballets. The first was the lavish and fanciful Cinderella, set to the Prokofiev score and co-choreographed with Michael Smuin. This was Christensen's fourth full-length ballet and was the second San Francisco Ballet production televised nation-wide as part of the PBS series "Dance in America." Also that season, Christensen created the dramatic and opulent ballet Don Juan. Set to works for guitar and orchestra by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo with stunning sets by Ming Cho Lee, the ballet received nation-wide acclaim. Both Balanchine and Kirstein attended the opening performances. Paul Hertelendey, writing in the Oakland Tribune, described Don Juan as "nothing short of brilliant."
In 1981 Christensen created Vivaldi Concerto Grosso, his fifty-fifth and final work for San Francisco Ballet. In his last work, Christensen returned to the classical ideal of absolute dance, movement free from associations of plot and manner. Vivaldi Concerto Grosso is one of Christensen's most eloquent and lucid choreographic creations.
The following year, New York City Ballet staged Christensen's Four Norwegian Moods as part of the company's distinguished Stravinsky Centennial Festival. Danced by Helgi Tomasson and Nichole Hinkla, Christensen was the only choreographer outside of New York City Ballet represented at the festival. Four Norwegian Moods was again included in New York City Ballet's 1999 Stravinsky Festival.
In 1984, Christensen watched as San Francisco Ballet became involved in a bitter dispute over the continuation of Michael Smuin as co-director. Only days before his death on October 9th, Christensen, at the advice of Kirstein, discussed with Helgi Tomasson, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, the possibility of replacing Smuin who had recently resigned. The two had met only two years earlier when Tomasson danced in the New York City Ballet performances of Christensen's Four Norwegian Moods. Christensen's concern was finding someone who would continue the tradition of classical ballet that he and his brother Willam had established. Tomasson would replace Smuin in 1985.
Lew Christensen, as a dancer, choreographer, teacher and through his more than three-decade-long leadership of San Francisco Ballet, was one of the leading figures in American dance. Christensen choreographed over one hundred and ten works, fifty five ballets alone for San Francisco Ballet. Many have entered the repertory of distinguished ballet companies around the world and several are recognized as seminal works in the history of American dance.
The eminent dance historian Arlene Croce writing about San Francisco Ballet's 1978 New York performances described the Christensen tradition:
"... it is a choreographic mind of no small distinction. The Christensen ballets hold a provocative secret. They ought to be much better known than they are."
Cobbett Steinberg, in his book San Francisco Ballet: the First Fifty Years described the Christensen legacy:
"As a performer, he was this century's first great American-born danseur, graced with impressive technique, golden good looks, and an innocence of deportment that provocatively suggested untapped bounty. As a teacher, he produced-Balanchine said-some of the best male aspirants in the country. As an artistic director, he provided San Francisco Ballet with its first Balanchine ballets, its first television broadcasts, and its first national and international exposure.
As a choreographer, he has created over 110 works, including ballets, opera divertissements, and dance sequences for musicals, revues, dramatic productions, and television aircasts. These diverse works have been presented by some twenty two ballet companies both here and abroad.
Christensen's dance designs are traditionally acclaimed for their craft, musicality, wit, and utter lack of pretension. His choreography shrewdly yet effortlessly blends the Continental legacy with an innate Western liveliness, giving the academic idiom an intriguing American accent."
Shortly before his death in 1984, Christensen shared the coveted Capezio Dance award with his brothers Willam and Harold. The award's citation read:
"Dancers, choreographers, teachers, and company directors, these Western pioneers, who grew out of American vernacular dance, have made ballet prosper wherever they settled."
Photo: The Choreographer Creating
"The rehearsal was over. The dancers had left.
The theater was silent save for the tones of the tape recorder.
Lew Christensen was working. His fingers like a dancer's toes
were moving with the music's beat."
Photograph of Lew Christensen, Alcazar Theater, San Francisco, 1959.
Photo and text by Henri McDowell, courtesy of the San Francisco Performing
Arts Library and Museum.
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