A diamond in The City

As it celebrates its diamond anniversary, the San Francisco Ballet embraces its classical nature and a sense of adventure — qualities that have defined the renowned troupe since it became the nation’s first professional ballet company 75 years ago.

The months-long birthday festivities begin with a gala Wednesday and continue Jan. 29 with the first program of the 2008 repertory season featuring choreography by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, Lew Christensen and George Balanchine. A “New Works Festival” will feature 10 world premieres over three days.

“San Francisco Ballet is unique because it is the oldest professional ballet company in America, so the 75th anniversary is not just a milestone for the company, but also for the history of dance in America,” says Tomasson.

In 1933 — when FDR took office, “King Kong” raged on screen and professional ballet companies were strictly foreign phenomena — the San Francisco Ballet, then known as the San Francisco Opera Ballet, performed its first concert. The bill included “Ballet mecanique,” a factory-themed avant-garde piece choreographed by the company’s Russia-trained ballet master, Adolph Bolm.

A pivotal part of that history is the Utah-bred brother act that gave the San Francisco company legs, soul and an impressive repertory.

Choreographer and director Willam Christensen, a guiding force from the 1930s into the early 1950s, staged the ballet’s first full-length productions: “Coppelia” (1939), “Swan Lake” (1940) and “Nutcracker” (1944).

Lew Christensen, a choreographer and renowned dancer who had worked with master choreographer Balanchine, was director from 1951 to 1984; during that time, he added Balanchine works to the repertory.

Harold Christensen ran the San Francisco Ballet School, a top source of company dancers, for 33 years, beginning in 1942, when the ballet separated from the opera.

In 1973, Michael Smuin came aboard in an eventual co-director capacity. His contributions included choreographing big, showy cinematic pieces and making ballet accessible to the public via PBS programs.

In 1974, the company experienced near-bankruptcy but was saved by a grassroots campaign called SOB — Save Our Ballet.

In 1985, a new era began with the arrival of Tomasson, who staged classics such as “The Sleeping Beauty” (1990), “Giselle” (1999) and a new “Nutcracker” (2004).

He describes his personal focus as a mix of roots and discovery: “Having worked closely with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins during my career at New York City Ballet, it was important for me to continue the artistic legacy of these men, and you will find many of their works in the company’s repertory,” Tomasson says. “In addition, we are continually introducing new works by some of the most remarkable choreographers working in the world today.”

The “San Francisco Ballet under Helgi Tomasson’s leadership is one of the spectacular success stories of the arts in America,” wroteNew York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff in 1991.

Currently the third-largest ballet company in the nation, the San Francisco Ballet presents about 100 performances annually.

Also noteworthy in this year’s repertory is the company premiere of Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite,” in which the company members sing and dance.

Key dates in S.F. Ballet history

» 1933: The San Francisco Opera Ballet is established. Its first performance, choreographed by Adolph Bolm, takes place.

» 1938: Willam Christensen arrives.

» 1939: The ballet company presents Willam Christensen’s “Coppelia,” its first full-length ballet.

» 1940: The company presents the first full-length U.S. production of “Swan Lake.”

» 1944: The company presents nation's first full-length “Nutcracker.”

» 1951: Lew Christensen is named director.

» 1957: The company tours the Far East, the Middle East and South America.

» 1972: The War Memorial Opera House becomes the company’s official permanent home.

» 1974: The company faces bankruptcy, but a grassroots fundraising effort saves the day.

» 1983: The San Francisco Ballet Building became the first facility in the U.S. created expressly to house a major ballet company and its school.

» 1985: Helgi Tomasson becomes artistic director.

» 2006: The San Francisco Ballet is the first non-European company elected “Company of the Year” in Dance Europe magazine's annual reader poll.

» 2007: The San Francisco Ballet celebrates its 75th anniversary.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Ballet Gala

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $25 to $300 (sold out)

Contact: (415) 865-2000

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