Willam Christensen

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The Independent Online

William (Willam) Farr Christensen, ballet master and choreographer: born Brigham City, Utah 27 August 1902; married first Mignon Lee Trieste (died 1971; one son, one daughter), second 1973 Florence Jensen Goeglein; died Salt Lake City, Utah 14 October 2001.

Willam Christensen was the last of three pioneer brothers in United States ballet. A pre-eminent organiser and ballet master, he founded the important American companies San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West (in Salt Lake City, Utah), as well as an early company in Portland, Oregon. He also choreographed the first full-length US productions of the staples Swan Lake, Coppelia and The Nutcracker, and taught many notable dancers.

Another of the brothers, Lew Christensen, is remembered especially as a dancer (George Balanchine's first American Apollo) and choreographer, and the third, Harold Christensen, as a formidable teacher. The three were feted with the Dance Magazine Award in 1973 and the Capezio Award in 1984.

Born in 1902 into a musically inclined Danish Mormon family in Utah, William Christensen (as he first was) studied music with his father, and then switched to ballet with his uncle Lars Peter Christensen, because, he said, "I found girls were much better-looking than pianos". He also studied ballet in New York with Michel Fokine, Laurent Novikoff and others, and toured the famous Orpheum vaudeville circuit with his brothers and various partners in the Twenties and early Thirties. What was unusual about their athletic dance act was that they used ballet extensively and with success.

In 1937 Christensen was hired as a principal dancer of the San Francisco Opera Association, and he was named ballet master the following year. It was in San Francisco that he staged the first complete US versions of Coppelia (1939), Swan Lake (1940) and The Nutcracker (1944), helping to establish the popularity of the latter in the US (George Balanchine choreographed his version 10 years later). For Swan Lake, Christensen, drew, he said, on the recollections of the Russian expatriate community in California; he had apparently seen only the second act himself. He became artistic director of the newly separate San Francisco Ballet in 1942.

After his wife, Mignon, who had been his partner in vaudeville, contracted multiple sclerosis, they returned to Utah in 1951, hoping the climate would improve her health. He joined the dance program at the University of Utah and founded its ballet department in 1952 (said to be the first such department in the US), from which Ballet West developed. He led the company on a European tour in 1971, and remained its artistic director until 1978. Thereafter he continued teaching for several years.

After giving up performing, he always missed the stage, and later was quoted as saying, "Lew could do more pirouettes, but I beat the hell out of him in mime."

Handsome as a young man, and a born raconteur, Christensen was known as a charmer of ladies, full of bonhomie and enjoyment of life. He was gregarious, affable, and a great promoter of ballet. Kent Stowell, one of his students, who is now co-artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, credited him with encouraging boys to become ballet dancers, "generating the sense that to be a ballet dancer was OK".

In addition to his productions of the classics, Christensen choreographed more than 50 short ballets. Honoured last February with Ballet West's commissioned revival of his 1984 light-hearted Prohibition- era farce, Nothin' Doin' Bar, set to a Milhaud score, he received a standing ovation.

A triple biography of the brothers by Debra Hickenlooper Sowell, The Christensen Brothers: an American dance epic, appeared in 1998.

Marilyn Hunt

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