Founder of U Ballet Dept Dies

Willam Christensen, the founder of the ballet program at the University of Utah, died Oct. 14. Up until the time of his death, Christensen was heavily involved in ballet in Salt Lake City and at the U.

The ballet program at the U, founded in 1951, was the first ballet department at a U.S. university. The University Ballet Theatre, founded six years later by Christensen, was the first ballet company to be a part of a university.

Christensen also helped found Ballet West, known as Utah Civic Ballet when it was founded in 1963.

“We will really miss him,? said Carol Iwasaki, chair of the ballet department. “He was a wonderful mentor and a wonderful example of a visionary artist. He just had a wonderful sense of humor.”

Iwasaki has memories of Christensen laughing off production problems and joking with the students when he forgot their names.

“We’ll miss that shooting from the hip opinion. He just had a habit of saying what was on his mind and wouldn’t sugarcoat it,” said Bruce Caldwell, a ballet dancer for Ballet West, who danced under Christensen. “His legacy is certainly going to live on.?

Christensen grew up in Brigham City, Utah, and began his involvement with ballet when he was very young. He came from a very musical family, and he began taking lessons from an uncle who was a dancing teacher.

Christensen performed in the vaudeville theater in the 1920s. He toured with members of his family in the Orpheum vaudeville circuit., doing showy steps and complex lifts. The group performed with well-known vaudeville acts until 1934, when Christensen moved to Portland, Oregon, where he helped found a ballet company.

The vaudeville experience influenced Christensen’s artistic opinions throughout his career.

“He always felt that we needed a theatrical presentation,” Caldwell said. “It had to be a total package, he always pulled out of his dancers a dramatic flair.”

After founding the San Francisco Ballet in 1937, Christensen accepted a position at the U where he built up the ballet program.

Christensen had a way of working with students, inspiring them and not making them fearful, according to Barbara Hamblin, a professor in the ballet department who studied under Christensen.

“He was always fun to be around and lively,” she said. “He always had a joke ready and a funny story ready, he was very inspiring as a teacher.”

While Christensen was in San Francisco, he choreographed the first U.S. production of ?The Nutcracker.? Until the time of his death, he served as the artistic adviser for Ballet West’s annual productions of ?The Nutcracker.?

According to Caldwell, the production of ?The Nutcracker? is an institution in Salt Lake?performed since 1954, with some changes.

“The basic core of his nutcracker is there,” Caldwell said. He mentioned the humor, drama and the warm feeling in the ballet?s party scene, as things that still remain in ?The Nutcracker? Christensen choreographed.

Because of his personality and contributions to ballet, Christensen will be missed by those who knew him.

“We will all miss him,” said Jonas Kage, artistic director for Ballet West. “We all love him, there are a lot of dancers that danced with him. We feel a great loss and feel very empty without him here.”

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