A History of Firsts

The year was 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been inaugurated. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and the Golden Gate Bridge had yet to be built. But that’s when America got its first ballet company. Until then, ballet in San Francisco meant studio performances and bits and pieces of 19th-century repertoire by visiting European troupes, most notably Anna Pavlova’s.

Few thought that ballet could be contemporary, resident—or American. Yet that’s exactly what choreographer Adolphe Bolm, a former partner of Pavlova and a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, had in mind. The San Francisco Opera had hired him to train dancers for the operas that required them. Within a year, the San Francisco Opera Ballet, as it was known until 1942, when it became an independent entity, gave its first concert. The biggest hit in the all-Bolm program on June 2, 1933, was Ballet mécanique, an avant-garde take on the machine age, originally choreographed for the John Barrymore film The Mad Genius.

After Bolm’s departure, the Opera hired Willam Christensen as a dancer. In 1937, he became the company’s first artistic director, and with that, the Christensen era, which lasted until 1984, started. Willam, the oldest of three Utah-raised dancer brothers, was an ambitious, gifted performer and choreographer. His brother Harold, married to dancer Ruby Asquith, eventually took on administrative duties and directed the San Francisco Ballet School until his retirement in 1975. Youngest brother Lew, married to ballerina Gisella Caccialanza, is considered the first American-born classical male dancer. He pitched in when necessary, but primarily pursued a career with George Balanchine’s various companies. He took over as artistic director in 1951, when Willam moved back to Utah to create Ballet West.

During the early years, SFOB continued its bread-and-butter job with the Opera, for which dancers got paid $25 a week, out of which they had to buy their own pointe shoes. But the company also toured the West Coast with a repertoire that consisted of Willam’s choreography, which favored narrative ballets, often with a comedic intent. When a spot opened up during the Opera season in 1939, he choreographed the company’s first full-length ballet, Coppélia. The following year, he created a full-length Swan Lake, the first ever in the country. He double-cast the Odile/Odette role, explaining later that he hadn’t known that the roles were supposed to be danced by one ballerina.

December 29, 1944—toward the end of World War II—brought another American first, a full-length Nutcracker. Over the years, Willam had heard Russian émigrés reminisce about a wonderful ballet with a growing Christmas tree at the Maryinsky Theater. Disney’s 1940 Fantasia had popularized the music. When Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova came through town with de Basil’s Ballets Russes, they filled in Willam with additional details. Because there was wartime rationing, dancers pitched in with their textile coupons for the costumes. The men wore splendid red jackets—made out of a discarded theater curtain acquired for $10. Caccialanza danced the Sugar Plum Fairy, Harold her cavalier. Nineteen-year old Jocelyn Vollmar, who as a student had also performed in Coppélia and Swan Lake, danced the Snow Queen. “We were blissfully ignorant of making history,” says Vollmar. “All we wanted to do was dance.”

Young dancers’ desire to perform as much as possible would prove a challenge for many years to come. While its reputation grew and its school turned out excellently trained dancers, SFB could not offer them enough employment. Again and again, dancers—Cynthia Gregory, Sean Lavery and Ricardo Bustamante among them—left for opportunities elsewhere. Vollmar did too. Eventually she returned and taught at SFB until retiring in 2003.

During his tenure at SFB, Lew Christensen proved to be a refined and highly musical choreographer of both narrative and abstract ballets. He had brought with him an affinity for and understanding of Balanchine’s choreography. In his first year, he set his own Filling Station, the first classical ballet with an American theme, which Ballet Caravan had premiered in 1938. The following season, in 1952, he introduced Serenade, the first of many Balanchine ballets that SFB was to acquire.

Even though SFB gained international acclaim in State Department–sponsored tours to Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, the financial struggle continued. In 1974, the company faced bankruptcy. It was saved by the dancers; they took their S.O.B. (Save Our Ballet) campaign to the streets. “We danced everywhere and anywhere,” Vollmar recalls.

The energetic and flamboyant Michael Smuin, who had become co-director in 1976, choreographed works that brought in bigger and younger audiences. In 1983, just in time for its 50th birthday, SFB opened a new state-of-the-art facility across the street from the War Memorial Opera House. Lew died in 1984, and the Christensen era ended. The Helgi Tomasson era began in 1985, and initiated a whole new round of firsts, as well as successes.

Rita Felciano is the dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Bay Area correspondent for Dance View Magazine.

Latest Posts

The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Intensive

Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

New Documentary "When I’m Her" Shows How Madame Olga’s Positive Affirmations Can Transform Ballet

Michael "Mikey" Cusumano was a rising star at American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s, joining the company at 15 years old and dancing principal roles by age 16. But the high pressure of ballet proved detrimental to his emotional and mental well-being. "I couldn't find the joy in ballet anymore," says Cusumano.

After 10 years as a professional ballet dancer, Cusumano transitioned to Broadway, where his alter ego, a sparkly-turban–wearing Russian ballet instructor named Madame Olga, was able to fully emerge. In Madame Olga, Cusumano became the ballet teacher he wished he had growing up. While Olga's classes feature the same technical rigor as any other intermediate-advanced ballet class, they also incorporate her signature humor and positive affirmations. It's common for Madame Olga's students to vocalize those affirmations while dancing (for example, saying "love" out loud while doing an adagio combination).

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks