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A Retrospective on Willam Christensen
By Karen Webb

There are moments in history when, concerning certain subjects and given certain questions, the least informed and most informed will give exactly the same, correct response; a third segment who in fact does know something about the subject, will fall flat on its face. An easy example: the opera Carmen's male protagonist Don Jose. Someone who knows absolutely nothing about Spanish will pronounce this "Jose;" anyone who knows some Spanish but nothing about opera will pronounce the name "Hose." And anyone fluent in opera knows unequivocally that the pronunciation is "Jose."

American dance pioneer Willam Christensen, who died Oct. 14 at the age of 99, was often referred to in print as Willem or, worse, William. In yet another life-as-art moment, the people who innocently called him "William" – "Willam" just didn't trip off the tongue easily for a lot of folk – were showing no sort of bumptious disrespect. In fact, they may have had one of those flashes of complete clarity and known that "Willam" really was born "William." He assumed the stage name when, while touring, he received some feedback that his "name didn't sound foreign enough." The unfortunate letter jumped ship while Christensen made the transition between the Portland and San Francisco Ballet Companies.

It is tempting to say, "And thus a star was born" or "Thereby hangs the tale." But even before the loss of a letter began to plague journalists in both hemispheres, Christensen and company were making names for themselves in the popular entertainment biz. Christensen was born in Brigham City, the second of four sons. All four began to learn about music and dance in their infancies; in 1903, Dad Christian and uncle Pete opened the Box Elder Academy of Music and Dancing. Although the school's focus was on ballroom and popular social dancing, Pete began teaching the boys classical ballet technique when they reached their teens.

Like Gummo Marx, eldest sibling Frederick proved resistant to the lure of the stage. Willam, Harold, and Lew (born Llewellyn), bitten badly by the bug, pursued professional ballet training in New York. But the open road beckoned. A country falling yearly into more grave economic straits offered few venues for tutus and pointe shoes. But it did need to laugh. Billing themselves as "The Le Christ Brothers," Willam, Harold, and Lew worked up an act and hit the vaudeville circuit.

"You can see the carryover of his vaudeville days in his choreography," comments current Ballet West ballet master Bruce Caldwell, himself a Christensen protege. "Some people look at his work now and find it dated or a little corny, but his time in vaudeville gave him that gift of connecting quickly with an audience. In vaudeville, you had ten minutes for your act – that was it. So he learned what would draw an audience in.

"His time spent touring in vaudeville also allowed him to take what he had in front of him and make it look good. He could literally go down to the gym, grab a guy who'd never had a dance class in his life and was sitting there lifting weights, march him down to the studio, and say, 'Here, lift this ballerina.' And he'd show him what to do and he'd make it look good!"

As the vaudeville circuit glowed with less and less brilliance, the Brothers Christensen connected with the burgeoning ballet movement in this country. Brothers Lew and Harold went East to help launch the companies that would become New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Willam, though, turned his eyes to the Pacific. Another Christensen uncle, Moses, had died, leaving behind as a part of his legacy a small ballet school in Portland, Oregon. But schools touched by the hand of the now-legendary "Mr. C." had a tendency to blossom into much more. That small school laid the foundation of the Portland Ballet; while he was dancing for them, the nascent San Francisco Ballet offered him a contract as a dancer. While still dancing, Christensen also assumed the mantle of artistic director.

Before family responsibilities necessitated a move to Saltier shores [of Salt Lake City], he made a move that was to influence ballet in the Americas beyond the turn of the next millennium: he staged the first home-grown version of The Nutcracker as a family-friendly Christmas production.

"Europe has state funding for its ballet companies," quips Bruce Marks, who followed Christensen as Ballet West's artistic director. "Over here, we have The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker has provided the bread and butter money for ballet companies all over the Western hemisphere for the last 50 years, and it's all because of Bill. He had the vision to try, and he knew when to try and how it would work."

"He was so charismatic!" agrees Bene Arnold, his first ballet mistress and current director of the Ballet West Academy. "He had this fantastic way of being so enthusiastic himself that you immediately saw his vision and wanted to help him achieve it. He created a belief in what he was doing. People – and not just dancers! – wanted to get on board and help him fulfill his dreams."

And yet, say friend and relative alike, he did it all as a gentleman, as an honorable man. "He wasn't promising the wealthy widows he was going to marry them just to get their money," chuckles Kent Stowell, for whom Christensen's training opened up doors at the San Francisco and finally the New York City Ballet.

Mr. C. at Work

Speaking to many who knew Mr. C. and listening to those who commented on his life at his memorial, it becomes difficult to separate out work from play, or from home and family. His work was his play; his family included dancers as well as family members. Like a father teaching his children the family craft, he turned out a veritable brood that took the art of American ballet to the far corners of the hemisphere. It's a bit like hearing the tale of Johnny Appleseed, but Applese-er- Christensen sent out not seeds but proteges bearing seeds – and those seeds were the art of ballet.

"He had this gift," Arnold echoes Caldwell's sentiment, "of being able to put dancers onstage almost immediately, and to make them look good. When he choreographed, he used music that wasn't necessarily popular, but classical music to which people could relate: Handel's "Water Music," or the Tchaikovsky "Romeo and Juliet" overture. I would say the difference between Mr. C. and his brother Lew is right there – that Lew did ballets that appealed to him, while Bill went for operatic story ballets that would have a wider appeal."

"I got to be Fritz the first year University Theatre Ballet staged The Nutcracker," recalls Caldwell. "Gordon Paxman saw me in class and called me over. And I tell you, I thought I was the star! There was no nephew part at that point, so the curtain rose on me and I was in the spotlight.

"But beyond 'knowing' I was the star, Mr. C.'s enthusiasm sold me. In those early rehearsals Bene hadn't even been hired away from San Francisco Ballet at that point – he did everything. And not just the ballet steps. When he was teaching the character roles, he would be right up there onstage with you showing you what he wanted.

"But, for all the way he made it fun, he was not an easy teacher: this was not an exclusively hearts and flowers relationship! But when he corrected you, he did it without discouraging you. When he pushed you, you knew it was because he believed you could do it."

"If Mr. C. did nothing else," comments Derryl Yeager, whose own Odyssey Dance Theatre represents yet another arm of the Christensen legacy, "he made it OK for a guy to take dance in this area. He made it OK to be a guy who was also a dancer."

From this milieu, he had set a full-length Copellia, Swan Lake, Cinderella, and Firebird before he left San Francisco, and his own repertory of short pieces was growing – grew forays into programs on which the graduate students and working dancers could mount their own experimental work. One of those small student rep works has become a classic: "Mobile," by Tomm Rudd, to music from the Gayane Ballet Suite. And – ah, yes – Ruud dropped a second seed in the person of son Chris, recently promoted to soloist with Ballet West.

When the boys finally got their boys' class, it was taught by Arnold. "There we were doing our push-ups and our poor little single tours – that's jumping up and turning around once, if you don't know the term. There's a little more to it than you'd think to get it all right!"

The consensus is that, at that point in time, all a man needed was a warm body and a clean single tour to get him into a company (Stowell says a warm body and a double tour in those days would make you a star).

"Mr. C." did his best to bring the best dancers to the area. "Kingsbury Hall in those days," says Stowell, who now co-directs Pacific Northwest Ballet with his wife Francia Russell. "And we had the Royal Ballet, the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, all of them. And each time we saw something new, we saw a new example or part of an example that might change forever our idea of what ballet was supposed to look like. When I went to San Francisco, I said, `Ah! It looks like that! When I finally went to New York City Ballet, I was able to say, `Oh, that's what we've been trying to look like all those years!"

"You know," comments Arnold, "back at the beginning when Bill and Gordon Paxman were already here, we were happy to have the first university level ballet department the country had ever seen! The company itself was dancer-motivated – they had some skills now, so now they wanted to perform. So when I came out, we started making plans. Could it work if, for instance, I became ballet mistress? And the three of us planned quite a bit. I almost can't tell you how we sacrificed – the pay we made went into getting the productions up and running. What am I saying? I didn't get paid for typing programs, teaching class!

"But if any of us from those early days are asked why we did it, we say we did it because we had a great time doing it! I think of the unions the dancers have now and what some of the rules are and laugh when I think about that time."

As you might expect, the first big project Mr. C. tried to sell in his re-adopted Utah was another full-length Nutcracker. In this, he had the help of another folk figure as far as development of the classics goes. Nutcracker's suite of music had been at the back of the mind of another seminal artistic influence in the area: Maurice Abravanel. Presto! Nutcracker with live music with both incipient symphony and nascent ballet company benefiting.

Onward Mr. C, onward the department, onward its performing arm!

Mr C. At Home

"When I look back," says Mr. C.'s daughter Roxanne Lazzara, "all I remember is dance. I remember my father teaching ballet above a garage. I remember not being born on the road, but being on the road with my father and having amazing experiences. I remember being in the dressing room of Leontyne Pryce, things like that, because he toured quite a bit with the San Francisco Opera and Opera Ballet.

Lazzara recalls her father as an energetic bundle of love. "People ask me if he was religious, and I say he really was. Know what his religion was? 'Love one another and be happy.'"

Mignon Lee, Mr. C.'s first wife and former pupil, contracted that crippler of young adults, Multiple Sclerosis. "But he treated her like a princess," recalls Lazzara. "He treated me like a princess! Mignon got to go to Aspen with the company, she made it to every opening night. Our nanny Urna helped us all, but my dad helped with her care. I've never seen a man so capable of going on so far under such stress – and yet still having that philosophy of loving life so much.

"He was good at making money, and he gave us everything. I had a horse and a pool and, of course, ballet lessons. He saw that I wanted for nothing. And I had him! I couldn't think of a better father, or of a better husband for my mother or, later, for Florence. But he was very generous with what he had. If there was a child or youngster he thought had talent but who couldn't afford the lessons, we'd find the dancer living with us paying for his classes by doing yard work. On the other hand, if he'd had a girl in class and noticed when her mom came to pick her up that she was – well, that she was "wide in the beam," he'd pull the mother aside and tell her not to waste the money. He could be harsh, but never was he less than honest.

"Then all he'd ask for after a hard day of work was a quiet moment to himself out in the garden where he could sip his one cup of bourbon, have a cigarette, and talk to the flowers."

Lazzara, 13 years younger than her brother Lee, felt that she grew up with a much larger family because of her father's open door policy toward the dancers. "Sundays in the summers, he'd have the whole company over to swim in the pool, barbecue, toast marshmallows, and play ball. I really think it was his way of unwinding."

Caldwell recalls that sense of family-ness Mr. C.'s efforts fostered. "I've had times in my life when I was ready to go around the bend, and he saved me. He'd call me in privately and say, 'Bruce, what's going on?' And he'd help me out.

"But it worked both ways, too. I remember when he married his second wife Florence, a bunch of the company men decided he should have a stag party. So we grabbed him and got some skin mags and a bottle of Wild Turkey. He really thought that was great – it showed how much a family we still were, and I can't tell you how he valued that sense."

Mr. C.'s relationship with his second wife Florence had begun in a typically Mr. C.-esque way: their first date had been a performance of Ballet West's Nutcracker.

Moving On

Patron Glenn Walker Wallace made one of her few miscalls when, in the early 70's, she pinned down Mr. C. and insisted he name a successor. He couldn't go on that much longer, right? Well, wrong, but the wake-up call put Mr. C. in touch with a pair of dancers who had come to guest for Utah Civic Ballet and the young Ballet West: Bruce Marks and his wife Toni Lander Marks. Marks had an offer to dance with the Royal Danish Ballet, the first invitation ever extended to an American. "At 34," he quips, "you take a chance like that and run with it. Five years later, at 39, you start to wonder where your career can go next."

A second call told him the job was still open. The pair worked nominally as co-artistic directors for two years, at which time Mr. C. retired – sort of.

"He was so gracious about it," says Marks. "Most artistic directors, especially founding ones, you have to drag kicking and screaming from the building."

Mr. C. continued to coach for the company, and to teach at The Christensen Academy, which then became The Ballet West-Christensen Academy. "He would come in and watch a rehearsal," recalls Marks, "and say ‘Style! Remember, ballet is style!' Or 'bravura' or ‘simply entertainment.’"

Mr. C. was not to hang up his rehearsal stick for good till the very last years of his life. Friend Sharee Lane put it best: "When at the age of 94, he came to teach a class and had to be escorted from his car to the studio and back. While he was moving to and from the car, he was 94, but once he went inside and began teaching, he was not 94."

Lazzara feels she did not see her father truly begin to fail till, a year or two later, he finally did hang up his rehearsal stick. He departed this life in the company of family and friends and the realization that the time had come to take the long sleep.

Epilogue

One can understand intuitively how ballet took root on the East Coast and, to a lesser extent, the West. But in America's heartland? "When we think of the iconography of the West," says Dance Magazine General Editor Richard Philp, "we think of cows and guns and spurs. It's so amazing that Bill made dance bloom here in the 50's in the American West. He fought an uphill battle to prove to the post-war government that art was not superfluous."

"I think it was a matter of the gods of dance smiling on the area," adds Stowell, who headed to Salt Lake City from St. George to find a place to study – and this in an era before it was considered okay for a man to don slippers. "But it was also a matter of Bill having the sense to give the community a sense of partnership with the company from the very beginning."

Artistic director emeritus Sir John Hart notes that the Nutcracker that became the shot heard around the ballet world was a production Christensen himself had never seen. "The ballet as performed in Russia and taken to the West by Sergueyev was not a particularly successful piece. What I think Mr. C did was to listen to the music, was to see the story from within, through the eyes of a child who had gentle, loving parents."

It may be Lazzara who sums it up best though, by saying her father was a charming man who did everything he did disparaging none, remembering all, and executing his tasks with finesse, honesty, and complete honor.

 

Please join a discussion on this topic in our forum.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.

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