Explore our history
Did you know that San Francisco Ballet was the first professional ballet company in America? That its founder, Willam Christensen, staged the first full-length American productions of Coppélia (1938), Swan Lake (1940), and Nutcracker (1944)?
If you didn’t know any of this, you’re not alone. Many people assume these accolades might be attributed to New York City Ballet or perhaps American Ballet Theatre. But no. It all happened right here in San Francisco.
And now, more than 85 years later, San Francisco Ballet is one of the most preeminent ballet companies in the world.
Intrigued? Discover even more milestones in San Francisco Ballet’s rich history.
Willam Christensen is appointed director of San Francisco Opera Ballet’s Oakland branch and a year later becomes the Company’s ballet master.
Willam Christensen and members of San Francisco Ballet at The Greek Theatre, Berkeley (1939)
San Francisco Ballet creates a booking department to support extensive tours, a tradition that continues today in venues throughout the world.
Members of San Francisco Ballet pose in front of The Sphinx while on tour in Egypt (1959)
The Company becomes a completely separate entity from San Francisco Opera and is renamed San Francisco Ballet. Willam Christensen is appointed artistic director, and his brother Harold is appointed director of the San Francisco Ballet School, a position he retains for 33 years. He transforms the School into one of the country’s finest academies, initiating scholarship programs and national audition tours.
Harold Christensen (1940)
The Company performs at Stern Grove Festival for the first time. These free, outdoor performances become a beloved summer tradition for San Francisco Ballet fans in the community.
San Francisco Ballet performs Willam Christensen's Nutcracker at the Stern Grove Festival (1945)
On Christmas Eve, Willam Christensen launches a national holiday tradition with the American premiere of Nutcracker—the first complete version of the ballet ever staged in the United States.
San Francisco Ballet in Willam Christensen's Nutcracker (1944)
A third Christensen brother, Lew, working with George Balanchine as ballet master of New York City Ballet, makes the first of several visits to San Francisco to choreograph new works. He is widely considered America’s first premier danseur.
Jocelyn Vollmar and Lew Christensen in rehearsal (date unknown)
Lew Christensen joins Willam Christensen as co-director. The following year, when Willam moves to Salt Lake City to found the first ballet department in an American university at the University of Utah, Lew takes over as director of SF Ballet.
Left to right: Lew, Willam, and Harold Christensen (circa 1940s)
The Company makes its international debut with an 11-nation tour to Asia and the Middle East sponsored by the U.S. Department of State as an effort to present American culture around the world. The tour is so successful that it is followed by a four-month tour of Latin America in 1958 and a three-month tour of the Middle East in 1959.
San Francisco Ballet dancers pose in Cairo, Egypt while on the Company's Middle East Tour (1959)
To celebrate the Company’s 25th anniversary, Lew Christensen creates Beauty and the Beast, his second full-length ballet for San Francisco Ballet, which becomes one of the most popular works over the next decade.
The Ford Foundation establishes a scholarship program for promising young dancers to study at one of two nationally-recognized ballet academies: San Francisco Ballet School on the West Coast and School of American Ballet on the East Coast.
Promotional poster for San Francisco Ballet's 1958 Christmas Festival featuring Nutcracker and Beauty and the Beast
San Francisco Ballet serves its last season as the resident dance company for San Francisco Opera.
After performing in various San Francisco theaters, the Company settles permanently into the War Memorial Opera House for its annual residency.
The Company is also reorganized under the auspices of a single organization: the San Francisco Ballet Association.
Michael Smuin is appointed associate artistic director and celebrates his new partnership with Lew Christensen by collaborating on a full-length production of Cinderella.
Tomm Ruud and Vane Vest as the Stepsisters in Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin's Cinderella (1984)
San Francisco Ballet faces bankruptcy, but its supporters and the community respond with an extraordinary grassroots effort, Save Our Ballet, which brings the Company back from the brink.
Dr. Richard E. LeBlond, Jr. is appointed president and general manager of SF Ballet. He develops the first long-range plan for an American dance company, and in 18 months the organization is financially solvent.
Laurie Cowden and Jerome Weiss (as bear) during the Save Our Ballet campaign (1974)
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra (then called Performing Arts Orchestra of San Francisco) debuts under Music Director Denis de Couteau for Nutcracker. Up until that point, the organization had hired freelance musicians to accompany its performances.
Music Director Denis de Couteau (circa 1970s)
San Francisco Ballet becomes the first American company granted the rights to perform Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.
Michael Smuin’s Romeo and Juliet becomes both the first full-length ballet and performance by a West Coast company to be shown on the PBS television series, Great Performances: Dance in America.
San Francisco Ballet in Michael Smuin's Romeo and Juliet (circa 1977)
Rooted in its mission to share the joy of dance with the Bay Area community, San Francisco Ballet establishes Dance in Schools and Communities (DISC) in response to an expressed need for arts instruction in public schools. Since then, the DISC program has served as a model for school outreach programs at ballet companies across the nation.
Dance in Schools at John Swett Elementary School, San Francisco (1981)
Michael Smuin receives an Emmy Award for Choreography for the Dance in America national broadcast of A Song for Dead Warriors.
Evelyn Cisneros and Antonio Lopez in Smuin's A Song For Dead Warriors (circa 1982)
Helgi Tomasson arrives as artistic director in July, marking the beginning of a new era for San Francisco Ballet. Like Lew Christensen, Tomasson was, for many years, a leading dancer for George Balanchine who was acknowledged as the most important ballet choreographer of the 20th century.
San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Choreographer Helgi Tomasson works in the studio (circa 1980s)
The Company unveils its fourth production of Nutcracker in December.
San Francisco Ballet in Christensen and Lew Tomasson's Nutcracker (circa 1986-1987)
San Francisco Ballet performs in New York City for the first time in 26 years. The Company would return again in 1993, 1995, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2008, and 2013.
Following the initial tour, The New York Times proclaimed, “Mr. Tomasson has accomplished the unprecedented: He has pulled a so-called regional company into the national ranks, and he has done so by honing the dancers into a classical style of astonishing verve and purity. San Francisco Ballet under Helgi Tomasson’s leadership is one of the spectacular success stories of the arts in America.”
Elizabeth Loscavio and Paul Gibson in Tomasson's Haffner Symphony (1991)
San Francisco Ballet hosts 12 ballet companies from around the world for UNited We Dance: An International Festival, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter, which took place at the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center in San Francisco. Never before had a dance event brought together over 150 international artists for two weeks of creative exchange and inspiration.
UNited We Dance promotional poster, with illustration by Keith Anderson and design by Emma Rose by Golly! 1995
San Francisco Ballet receives its first Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance, for its 2004 fall season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Of the engagement, London’s The Observer proclaimed, “Helgi Tomasson’s outstanding artistic direction…has transformed a regional American troupe into one of the world’s top ballet companies.”
In July, the Company returns to Paris for the inaugural Les Etés de la Danse Festival as the sole dance company performing throughout the three-week celebration.
Muriel Maffre and Yuri Possokhov in Wheeldon's Continuum (2004)
In a readers’ poll conducted by Dance Europe magazine, San Francisco Ballet becomes the first non-European company to be voted “Company of the Year.”
San Francisco Ballet in Robbin's Glass Pieces (2006)
San Francisco Ballet, America’s oldest ballet company, celebrates its 75th Anniversary Season, which culminates in a New Works Festival of 10 world premieres by 10 of the dance world’s most diverse and acclaimed choreographers including Julia Adam, Val Caniparoli, Jorma Elo, Margaret Jenkins, James Kudelka, Mark Morris, Yuri Possokhov, Paul Taylor, Stanton Welch, and Christopher Wheeldon.
The Company also embarks on a critically acclaimed four-city American tour with engagements at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance, New York City Center, Southern California’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
San Francisco Ballet receives the Jerome Robbins Award for excellence in dance.
Sarah Van Patten and Gennadi Nedvigen in the world premiere of Morris' Joyride during the New Works Festival (2008)
The Company makes its first trip to the People’s Republic of China in the fall, with performances in Shanghai and Beijing.
San Francisco Ballet visits the Forbidden City while on tour in China
In the fall, the Company performs at New York’s David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where The New York Times declared San Francisco Ballet “a national treasure.”
San Francisco Ballet in McGregor's Borderlands, performed at David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (2013)
San Francisco Ballet tours to Paris as part of Les Etés de la Danse Festival, marking the 10th anniversary of its inaugural engagement with the festival. The Financial Times proclaims, “Where ballet goes from here is anyone’s guess, but as dancers and choreographers continue to flock to Tomasson, the tell-tale signs may well be found in California."
Together with The Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and The National Ballet of Canada, San Francisco Ballet hosts the first ever World Ballet Day LIVE, an all-day live streaming event that offers a behind-the-scenes look at five of the world’s leading ballet companies.
San Francisco Ballet in the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris (2014)
Helgi Tomasson celebrates his 30th anniversary as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. The San Francisco Chronicle notes, “What Tomasson has done here over these three decades is to transform a respected regional American ballet company into an international-caliber organization that commands worldwide respect for the depth of its repertoire and its superb technical standards.”
Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet is shown in movie theaters nationwide as part of the Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance film series.
Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet (2015)
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra wins two Grammy Awards for their performance on the album, Ask Your Mama, a multimedia recording based on Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name.
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra—permanently organized in 1975—celebrates its 40th anniversary.
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra performs for their 40th Anniversary celebration (2016)
Over 17 days, San Francisco Ballet presents Unbound, a festival of all new work by12 choreographers, including: David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch, and Christopher Wheeldon.
Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Pita's Björk Ballet (2018)
San Francisco Ballet celebrates the 75th anniversary of America’s first full-length Nutcracker.
San Francisco Ballet Executive Director Glen McCoy retires after a 32-year career with the Company. Kelly Tweeddale is announced as the organization's new executive director.