Lew Christensen’s Legacy

1 Jan

With Virginia “Ginny” Johnson’s death September 21, 2011, Lew Christensen’s
balletic legacy faces an uncertain future.  Ginny was responsible for mounting
his ballets on companies desiring a Christensen work in its repertoire. Christensen’s widow, Gisella Caccialanza, gave San Francisco Ballet permission to accomplish its own revivals so long as there was someone in its ranks who worked with Lew and danced in the ballet.  The last works the company has revived were “Con Amore” and “Filling Station;” outside of “Jinx”, they perhaps are the best known.

Given the Christensen brothers’ background in vaudeville, many of Lew’s works are not only story-based, but filled with business, the business of situational movement. This vaudeville background was first demonstrated in Lew’s 1938 Ballet Caravan choreographic debut, “Filling Station.” Those who have seen it know the horseplay by the truck drivers, the eerie chase with flash lights after the lights have been switched off.  How much of this was the Lincoln Kirstein libretto might be questioned, but Lew knew what caught an audience’s attention.  The same can be said of “Jinx,” created in 1942 while Lew was waiting to be called into the Army.

Vaudeville  manifested itself in “Con Amore,” not only in the plot, but in the fake trees used by the Amazons, their pursuit of the pirate, foot flirtations by the errant wife,  the presence of Cupid and the final aiming of Cupid’s arrow on the student. In Lew’s “Don Juan,” 1975, few who saw it will forget the chase in the nunnery. In “Scarlatti,” Harlequin’s hoop dance earned a bronze medal for choreography at the inaugural international competition in Jackson, Mississippi and helped David MacNaughton to walk away with a senior men’s silver medal.

Given the company’s practice, there may well be archival video footage of other works which could provide guidance in reviving some of the works.  There are additional memorable works, like “Shadows” and “Divertissement d’Auber,” in which every young male dance in the company in the ‘60’s possessed of a  decent jump was cast: Roderick Drew, Michael Smuin, Terry Orr, David Coll all come to mind.  There may have been others created during the summer sessions in the upstairs convertible studio on 18th Avenue.  I believe 18th avenue was the site of the first performances of “Il Distratto,” rendered memorable because it provided disembodied legs as part of its source for chuckles. Ballet San Jose mounted it during this century’s first decade.

“Original Sin” was created during one of the brief spring seasons the company occupied the former Alcazar Theater. I seem to remember two rather witty works for the same venue, one of them “Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes” and another “Pied Piper,” or some such name with lots of green in the costumes and a version of medieval ramparts as part of the scenery.  A more romantic work was “The Lady of Shallott,” an exclusive vehicle for Jocelyn Vollmar with Kent Stowell, retired co-artistic director of  Pacific Northwest Ballet, featured as one of the knights passing through the Lady’s vision. “Norwegian Moods” has to wait about a decade and it formed a pas de deux danced by Susan Magno and Keith Martin, former Joffrey and Royal Ballet soloists,a work both tender and lively.

Lew’s choreography suffered because of the technical level of dancers passing through the school.  The female students seemed a little strident during thebetter part of the ’60’s as Lew strived to stand his company technically that  of New York City Ballet.  While the level of dancing rose markedly when Michael Smuin brought several dancers west with him to share co-artistic direction, Lew’s snow scene in his Nutcracker Act I early distinguished itself for the swirling movement of the dancers, catching the feeling of wind pushing the snowflakes into drifts.

One hopes that a company suddenly will remember several of these ‘oldies
and goodies’ so they won’t get entirely consigned to the written word or
the limited life span of videotape or DVDs.


7 Responses to “Lew Christensen’s Legacy”

  1. Ham Dong January 20, 2012 at 1:11 am #

    On the ballet notice site they mention a book by Robert Gladstein. The thing was to be published 20 years following his dying. Has anyone read it and where can it be got, if it is worth being got?

    • woollywesterneye January 20, 2012 at 2:37 am #

      Thank you for your response Ham Dong. Why it may well be true that he planned to write
      and/or publish posthumously, I am unaware of any current publication of Robert Gladstein’s
      memoirs. If I hear of any, I would be amongst the first to want to review his comments.
      I suspect that his desire to delay publication may have been influenced by some of the
      content and also by AIDS.

      I wish I could be more informative, but I can’t manufacture anything helpful.

  2. Heidi Helene Christensen August 31, 2015 at 1:57 am #

    The Christensen Brothers no longer exist. The Ballet’s of Lew’s that Helgi DOES use are all being changed from Lew’s choreography to Helgi’s! Helgi is bound and determined to obliterate the Christensens and replace them with him!

    • woollywesterneye August 31, 2015 at 3:38 am #

      Heidi Helen Christensen. I have responded to you personally, but I want to go on
      record, first to say that you may be the daughter of Harold and Ruby Christensen.

      Second, the last ballet of Lew’s performed by the company was either Filling Station
      or Con Amore. One part of Con Amore was performed in 2000 as part of a Symposium
      which Joanna Gewertz Harris organized under the title Beyond Isadora and surveyed
      the gamut of dance performed in the Bay Area I think prior to the enabling legislation of the National Endowments. I assisted Joanna, contacting dancers
      who had been active in ballet and some forms of ethnic dance. Students from San
      Francisco Ballet School danced in Lew’s work, and I seem to remember in the final
      performance which was videotaped that Mario Alonso and Michael Lowe danced either
      a part from Filling Station or from Willam Christensen’s rollicking Nothin’ Doing Bar.

      There are still a fair number of people with muscle memory who remember Lew’s work.
      What ideally should happen, of course, is for some multi-millionnaire to endow a
      video series so that we could all enjoy Lew’s dry wit and humor, in some ways quite

      • Heidi Helene Christensen December 30, 2015 at 3:51 am #

        Lew and his ballet’s might as well be forgotten. Hedge is doing his best to wipe out the Christensen name. I AM the daughter of Harold and Ruby and the neice of Lew and Gisella and that is why I know this!

        Helgie hurt them more than I can say!

        BTW what is Jocelyn Vollmar doing with the ballet?

      • Heidi Helene Christensen January 1, 2017 at 3:27 am #

        THAT would be wonderful!

  3. Heidi Helene Christensen January 1, 2017 at 3:25 am #

    Joce is NOT with the ballet! She fell and hit her head and broke her hip and is resting in St. Mary’s!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: