Willam Farr Christensen, a Utah dancer who started on the vaudeville stage and went on to become one of the most important figures in American ballet, died Sunday, October 14, 2001 in Salt Lake City at age 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 Kage. "He and his brothers put ballet on the map in America."
A descendant of Utah pioneers who immigrated from Denmark, he was born William Christensen on August 27, 1902, in Brigham City, Utah to Chris B. and Isabel Farr Christensen.
(He removed the second "i" from his name at an early age, and he spent his life having it misspelled.)
His father was a violinist and music director who once conducted concerts at Saltair, and Willam studied at his father's music academy in Brigham City. But he later chose to study ballet with his uncle, L. Peter Christensen, in Salt Lake City, because he told The Tribune, "I found girls were much better looking than pianos."
With his brothers Lew and Harold, he toured the famous Orpheum vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, performing a ballet act at a time when few Americans were familiar with the art.
(His oldest brother, Guy, was not a dancer.)
In 1929, he married his pupil and touring partner, Mignon Lee.
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 here that he began choreographing full-length ballets, and in 1941 he founded the San Francisco Ballet, the first major ballet company in the western United States.
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.
"Someone once asked me how long I thought "The Nutcracker" would continue," he told The Tribune in 1978.
"I suppose it will go as long as there are children being born and as long as there's a Santa Claus."
Over his career he was a prolific choreographer, creating more than 50 shorter ballets in addition to the full-length classics.
"What he has done for dance in America is incalculable," said Jacques d'Amboise, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and a longtime friend of Christensen's.
"Had he live in Japan, he would have been named a national treasure."
He taught at his own studio before founding the University of Utah's Department of Ballet, the first such department at an American university.
He later formed the University Theatre Ballet, and in 1963 he and arts patron Glenn Walker Wallace founded the Utah Civic Ballet, which became Ballet West five years later.
He was at the helm when the company had its European tour in 1971, and he took the troupe to performances in New York and at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center.
When asked years later what he would most like to be remembered for, he said, "For starting this ballet company."
His wife, Mignon, died in 1971, and he married Florence Jensen Goeglein in 1973. She survives him.
He retired as artistic director of Ballet West in 1978.
His successor, Bruce Marks, later wrote of the transition: "I always thought it was amazing that he did it so gracefully. He could have fought the transition as do most other directors, but that was not his style. The smooth Mr. C. advised but didn't insist; he suggested but didn't demand. He stood by my side and defended me even when I made mistakes."
Christensen continued on the faculty of the Ballet West Conservatory after his retirement and continued to teach for several years. He attended a Ballet West performance of his piece "Nothin' Doin' Bar" in February, and the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Accolades presented to him include the first individual CORPS de Ballet International Award in 2000 for lifetime achievement and distinguished service, presented by the Council of Organized Researchers of Pedagogical Studies of Ballet. He also received the Bay Area Hall of Fame Award from the San Francisco Bay Area Dance Coalition, the 1973 Dance Magazine Award, which he shared with his brothers, and the Governor's Awards in the Arts.
In 1989, the auditorium in the U.'s Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance was named the Hayes /Christensen Theatre, after Christensen and modern dance pioneer Elizabeth R. Hayes.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Roxanne (Anthony) Lazzara, Park City; son, Lee (Edith) Christensen, Stockton, CA; nine grandchildren; three great-grandsons; four stepchildren, Barbara (John) Marz of Las Vegas, and Bill (Michelle) Goeglein, Linda (Kent) Christensen, and James Goeglein, all of Salt Lake City; and four step grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his three brothers.
Funeral services will be held Friday, Oct. 19, 2001 at the Monument Park 15th Ward, 1320 So. Wasatch Drive, at 12 Noon. Family and friends may call Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at Larkin Sunset Lawn, 2350 E. 1300 So., and Friday from 10:45-11:45 a.m. at the ward. Interment Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
On Fri., November 2, Ballet West will host a public memorial service from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South. That evening, Ballet West's opening night performance of "An Evening of Ballets" will begin promptly at 7:30 p.m. with a special tribute to Mr. Christensen, including students of the Ballet West Academy and University of Utah Dept. of Ballet.
In lieu of flowers the family suggests donations be made to Ballet West, 50 W. 200 S., Salt Lake City, UT 84101.