History of San Francisco Ballet

  • History_Christensen.jpg

    Former Artistic Director Willam Christensen observes Company members during rehearsal in 1939 at The Greek Theater in Berkeley, CA.
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    Male dancers of San Francisco Ballet performing Jerome Robbins’ "Glass Pieces" in 2006.
    Photo by Chris Hardy
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    In 2008, Christopher Wheeldon created "Within the Golden Hour" for the New Works Festival celebrating San Francisco Ballet's 75th Anniversary.
    Photo by Erik Tomasson
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    Helgi Tomasson's 2009 production of "Swan Lake" for San Francisco Ballet.
    Photo by Erik Tomasson

A tradition of innovation flows through the history of San Francisco Ballet. Long recognized for pushing boundaries in dance, SF Ballet has always built upon strong classical roots, while continually exploring and redefining where the art form is headed. The San Francisco Opera Ballet was founded in 1933, primarily to prepare dancers to appear in lavish opera productions. In 1942, the ballet officially separated from the opera and was renamed San Francisco Ballet. Headed by brothers Willam, Lew, and Harold Christensen from the late 1930s until the 1970s, the Company staged the first full-length U.S. productions of Swan Lake (1940) and Nutcracker (1944). Under Lew’s direction, the Company made its East Coast debut at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1956 and toured 11 Asian nations the following year. In 1972 the Company settled in the War Memorial Opera House for its annual residency. The following year, Michael Smuin was appointed associate artistic director.

When Helgi Tomasson became artistic director in 1985, it marked the beginning of a new era. Like Lew Christensen, Helgi had been a leading dancer for George Balanchine. Among his many works, Helgi has staged acclaimed full-length productions of many classics, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet, Giselle, and Nutcracker.

SF Ballet’s repertory includes works by many choreographers, including George Balanchine, Lew Christensen, William Forsythe, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Cathy Marston, Agnes de Mille, Mark Morris, Rudolf Nureyev, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Justin Peck, Marius Petipa, Yuri Possokhov, Jerome Robbins, Liam Scarlett, Helgi Tomasson, Paul Taylor, and Christopher Wheeldon.