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Biography

Courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet with additional information from the Christensen-Caccialanza Papers

Lew Christensen

Lew Christensen was born in Brigham City, Utah on May 9, 1909. Introduced to dance at a very young age, Lew studied dance with his uncle Peter Christensen, Stefano Mascagno, and L. Albertieri. While he was still in his teens, Christensen launched his professional dance career on the vaudeville circuit with his brother Willam, and later Harold (1927-1935). In 1934, while performing in the production The Great Waltz in New York, Lew began taking class at Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine's newly established School of American Ballet. In 1935, Lew joined the Metropolitan Opera's American Ballet where George Balanchine was ballet master. In his two years with American Ballet, Lew was hailed as America's first native premier danseur for his performance in George Balanchine's Orpheus and Eurydice (1936) and Apollon Musegéte (1937). He was also a founding company member of Ballet Caravan (1936-1940), a touring company founded by Lincoln Kirstein to give the dancers of the American Ballet summer employment. For Ballet Caravan, Christensen choreographed his popular ballet, Filling Station (1938), Charade (1939) and Pastorela (1941). These ballets and Jinx (1942), choreographed for Eugene Loring's Dance Players (1941-1942), established Christensen as one of the nation's leading choreographers. Other works choreographed for Ballet Caravan include Encounters (Lew's first piece for the company) and Pocahontas. Lew's works were also featured heavily in the company South American Tour in 1941. 

Like several of his colleagues, Lew's dance career was interrupted by World War II when he was drafted to serve in the United States Army. Upon his return to the United States, he became ballet master for Ballet Society (1946), formed by Balanchine and Kirstein. Ballet Society became known as New York City Ballet in 1948. During this period, Christensen danced lead roles in many of Balanchine's most enduring works, including The Four Temperaments, Divertimento and Symphony in C.  While working as Balanchine's Ballet Master, Lew was named associate director of San Francisco Ballet in 1949, a job he continued through 1950, when he permanently settled in San Francisco. In 1951, Lew became co-director of San Francisco Ballet with brother Willam, and became director shortly thereafter when Willam returned to Salt Lake City to establish a ballet program at the University of Utah.  As a result of the brothers' intimate association with San Francisco Ballet, Lew, Harold, and Willam were cited in the Dictionary of Modern Ballet as the founders of the San Francisco Ballet.

For San Francisco Ballet, Lew choreographed numerous ballets that have been performed multiple times over the years. As an artistic director, Christensen provided San Francisco Ballet with an impressive Balanchine repertory, its first television broadcasts, full-length productions of Nutcracker and his story ballet Beauty and the Beast (1968), and its first national and international exposure including tours to the Far East (1957), New York City (1965) and Edinburgh (1981). He was a prolific choreographer creating over 110 works including ballets, opera divertissements, musical revues and dramatic productions. His works have been presented by numerous dance companies in the United States and abroad. These works include ballets such as  Con Amore, the (full-length) NutcrackerBeauty and the BeastDanses ConcertantesShadowsSinfoniaDivertissement d'Auber among other ballets.

During the 50th Anniversary Gala on January 29, 1983, Christensen was awarded the first Lew Christensen Medal for his extraordinary service to the San Francisco Ballet Association, starting a tradition which continues to present day.  In April 1984, the Christensen brothers received the Capezio Dance Award at a special ceremony in New York City. Other honors include: an appointment as a charter commissioner of the California Arts Council (1964); the Dance Magazine Award (1973); the bronze medal for choreography at the First International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi (1979); and an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California (1982). In July 1984, Christensen was honored in a special tribute by the Archives for the Performing Arts in celebration of his 75th birthday. That birthday ended up being his last as Lew suddenly died in his home on October 9, 1984.