At 75, San Francisco Ballet boasts world-class reputation

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 as well as 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.

Back in 1933 _ when FDR took office, “King Kong” raged onscreen 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). The latter was the first complete U.S. production of the now-classic holiday staple.

Lew Christensen, a choreographer and a 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 officially separated from the opera.

In 1973, Michael Smuin came aboard in an eventual co-director capacity. He was known for choreographing big, showy cinematic pieces and for 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, whose resume included having worked with Balanchine and another choreographic giant, Jerome Robbins. Tomasson has staged classic ballets such as “The Sleeping Beauty” (1990), “Giselle” (1999), and a new “Nutcracker” (2004) for the San Francisco Ballet.

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.”

Under Tomasson's directorship, the San Francisco Ballet has acquired a reputation as a world-class company, receiving critical praise.

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

“He has turned the company into a jewel box of talent,” wrote Deborah Jowitt in the Village Voice in 2002.

Like many an arts institution, the company has experienced a controversy or two. Smuin was criticized by some dance observers as lacking sufficient classical sensibility. In 2000, the San Francisco Ballet School generated headlines when dance artist Krissy Keefer filed a complaint charging that it had rejected her daughter on the basis of body type, and that this was in violation of a law banning height and weight discrimination by organizations receiving city funding.

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

Also noteworthy in is this year’s repertory, Tomasson says, are “a program of performances by three international ballet companies; an additional world-premiere work that I've choreographed; and the company premiere of Jerome Robbins' 'West Side Story Suite,' in which the company members not only dance but also sing.”

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Ballet Gala

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 23

Tickets: $25 to $300 (sold out)

Contact: (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org.

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