William Christensen: Mormon Dancer

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William Christensen Mormon Dancer

William F. Christensen, known professionally as Willam, was a ballet dancer, ballet master, artistic director, and professor of theatre ballet. He created what is known today as Ballet West.

Christensen was born on August 27, 1902, in Brigham City, Utah. His grandfather Lars Christensen taught Danish folk dances and social dances to the youth in Brigham City. From both his grandfather Lars and his father, Christian, he learned a love of music. He was taught ballet from his uncle Peter. He later studied in New York with Stefano Mascagno, Michel Fokine, and Ivan Novikoff. For a time he danced with his brothers Harold and Lew in various vaudeville troupes. He left vaudeville in 1932 and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he taught at his uncle Moses’s dancing school until he opened a ballet school. In 1937, he became a soloist in the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now known as San Francisco Ballet) and within a year was appointed ballet master and choreographer. While there, he created the first full-length version of Swan Lake (1940) and the first complete production of Nutcracker (1944) in the Western hemisphere. Chris Barton wrote a book entitled The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition. His ballet was created a decade before George Balanchine's production and helped establish the tradition of presenting this Tchaikovsky ballet as part of the Christmas celebration.

In 1951, Christensen left San Francisco Ballet under the direction of his brothers Harold and Lew and became a professor of theatre ballet at the University of Utah, where he established the first school of ballet at an American university. He created the Utah Civic Ballet in 1963, which became Ballet West five years later. He retired as director in 1978 and then directed his own Christensen Ballet Academy.

Christensen and his brothers Harold and Lew are credited with helping ballet flourish in the United States. They received the Dance Magazine Award in 1973 and the Capezio Dance Award in 1984. William also received the honor of Distinguished Teaching and Distinguished Research Professor in Recognition of Creative Achievement from the University of Utah. In 1973 he was given the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from the Utah State University. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Utah in 1982. In 1992, San Francisco Ballet honored him by dedicating the new school library in his honor.

Christensen was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was married twice (he married Florence Goeglein after his first wife, Mignon Lee, passed away) and was father to two children. He died on October 14, 2001.