Willam Farr Christensen, who became one of the most important figures in American ballet, died Sunday Oct. 14 in his native Utah’s Salt Lake City. He was 99.
Founder of the San Francisco Ballet and Utah’s Ballet West, he was the first person in the United States to choreograph full-length versions of several ballet classics, including “The Nutcracker,” “Coppelia” and “Swan Lake.”
“The man is a legend,” said Ballet West’s artistic director Jonas Kge. “He and his brothers put ballet on the map in America.”
A descendant of Utah pioneers who immigrated from Denmark, he was born into an artistic family in Brigham City and, with his brothers Lew and Harold, toured the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, performing a ballet act at a time when few Americans were familiar with the art.
By 1934, Christensen had quit the circuit to found the first ballet company in Portland, Ore., then left three years later to join the San Francisco Opera Ballet as a principal soloist. Within a year he was named ballet master of the company. It was then that he began choreographing full-length ballets, and in 1941 he founded with his brothers the San Francisco Ballet, the first major ballet company in the West.
Christensen choreographed the country’s first full-length production of “The Nutcracker” in 1944, and today it is a Christmas tradition for nearly every ballet company in the nation.
His brothers preceded him in death. He is survived by his second wife, Florence; a son; a daughter; and nine grandchildren.