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Lew Christensen's "Con Amore"


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Last night I had the pleasure of attending a program put on by the Barnard College Department of Dance.

Specifically, I wanted to ask about both Lew Christensen and his "Con Amore" - and say from the outset that not only I, but the whole audience, really enjoyed this performance last night. It was staged by Virginia Johnson and the Rehearsal Director was Barbara Sandonato. Music by Gioacchhino Rossini; libretto by James Graham-Lujan. In this case the costumes and background were courtesy of Boca Raton Ballet.

If you're not familiar with this ballet - it's really a slap stick comedy with classical dancing. Very funny and apaprently "patterned after the Opera Buffa made popular by Rossini" - is this ever performed anywhere anymore? It should be - it's a fantastic introduction to the nonballet audience because it's fast moving, both witty and funny, pokes fun at itself (ballet in general) and has great dancing. Very entertaining.

The cast last night did a great job - all but two dancers were Barnard dance students. Guests were Ted Thomas, currently one of their Artists in Residence and Michael Patterson an apprentice with Pennsylvania Ballet.

The program's notes about Mr. Christensen were a really well done. What an interesting and impressive background Christensen had. Are other works of his performed, if not this one?

Mel, and others, I'm counting on you for some comments here! :(

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I know that the New York City Ballet performed it in the 1950s, and the last time I saw it was in 1986 with the San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove, which was the first performance the company did under Helgi Tomasson. It's very very funny, did you see the whole thing? - Pirate and Amazons in the first section, the unfaithful wife and her suitors (I think it was a student, a sailor and another one?) and the whole cast including Cupid at the end. And it's got that little bit of a set that turns around and changes, if I remember correctly. You're right, it's really cute.

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Yes, they did the whole thing - the Amazons (dressed as female soldiers, romantic tutu with green and gold soldier jackets, guns, swords, and a pistol or two), the attractive young thief - everyone's heart throb... Scene II The unfaithful "Mistress" her husband and the three suitors and finally Scene III with Cupid and the whole cast.

Thanks Mme. Hermine, I bet the performances you saw were great, too.

I wonder why it's not performed more often?

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Just have to add that Lew Christensen was one of my teachers when I took ballet at San Francisco Ballet (I was lousy). He was wonderful; I'll never forget him. He may not have made a dancer out of this clutz but he sure taught me a lot about ballet; I'll be forever indebted.


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NYCB did "Con Amore" well into the late sixties, and so did Joffrey. Gloria Govrin was a scream as the Amazon Chieftain. The three suitors are a sailor, a dirty old man (played outrageously by Shaun O'Brien), and a student (played most hilariously by Paul Mejia). This whole act is almost replicated in the musical The Pajama Game as a dream ballet.

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BW, I started ballet at the San Francisco Ballet School, and loved Christensen's Beauty and the Beast. The music was a compilation of Tchaikovsky works, largely taken from his orchestral suites. (Many ballet audiences are familiar with Balanchine's Theme and Variations, which uses music from the 3rd suite.) The wonderful costumes and sets were by Tony Duquette.

It was a full-evening ballet, very much in the style of the classic 19th-century ballets, but with Christensen's style of choreography, of course. There were opportunities for students to perform. Before I left SFB, I was in the class below the one which supplied the dancing marmosets. I longed to be one of those, even though I knew that I was already too tall to be chosen.

My favorite part of the ballet was the scene in which Beauty and her father are lost in the forest. There were stags (a great part for men), butterflies, fireflies and giant beetles (a part the male students generally loathed being cast in).

My favorites in the role of Beauty were long-time SFB principal Lynda Meyer, who had the most perfectly placed turns I can remember seeing, and Cynthia Gregory, who appeared in the televised performance in the '60s.

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Occasionally Christensen works are still performed by the San Francisco Ballet. And the SFB Nutcracker still uses large chunks of his choreography, among them the snow scene, the Waltz of the Flowers and the Grand Pas de Deux.

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Thanks Alexandra - what a great site! I didn't even think of looking on the Internet. :rolleyes:

sandik, if you go to the site Alexandra posted, you'll find a wealth of information along with some great photos.

I have to say that the more I read, the more interested I'm becoming. There is a listing of recent performances and some billed as "upcoming" ...perhaps we'll see some performed over here on the East coast sometime in the future.

Alexandra, why did Christensen become a "lost choreographer"? When I read his biography on that site, I can't understand it. Kirstein apparently envisioned Christensen as taking over NYCB after Balanchine...but, of course, Christensen had moved to SFB by then... Hmm, I wonder if there's a book about him - or if there will be?

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There's a biography of the Christensen brothers (again, check the Christensen site). I think there's another one in the works as well. They were very important in forming American ballet.

Christensen's ballets became out of fashion -- like Fokine's, Massine's, de Mille's, and a whole list of lesser lights. Too demicaractere, too concrete, not abstract (mostly; there are exceptions). Also, when you don't direct a company, it's harder to keep your ballets in repertory, and during Christensen's day, companies tried to maintain unique repertories and were less likely to be interested in a work done elsewhere. Hard to believe now, but there was a time within living memory when good choreographers found it hard to get work!

djb, I think the Oakland Ballet performs some of Christensen's works as well? If I'm remembering correctly, last season, both SFB and OB did "Jinx."

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True, Alexandra. I forgot to mention Oakland Ballet. I'm sure Ballet West had Christensen ballets in its repertory when Willem Christensen was the director, but I don't know whether it still does. There may be other companies that perform Christensen's ballets that I'm not aware of.

At SFB's gala last season, some Christensen works were performed. A lot of people were pleased to see this, but many people thought that those ballets were not the best choices.

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Yes, it's difficult. The ballets are out of fashion and the dancers aren't used to the kind of dance acting that they require -- so they often look silly or slight to contemporary audiences. And then you get into the question -- is it because they are inferior choreography, or because the dancers aren't accustomed to performing them, and the "just do the steps" approach doesn't work. I've read passionate arguments by people who insist that Christensen was at least a second-tier choreographer, and equally decided opinions to the contrary.

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djb, I'm sorry I hadn't seen your earlier post about being a student at SFB and Christensen's "Beauty and the Beast" :wink::blushing:. Your description of the ballet makes me really wish I could see it - preferably in real life, as opposed to a video tape. And, by the way, I don't blame you for wanting to be a marmoset as I'm sure they were very cute.

The website Alexandra posted has quite a bit of information on it. I plan to go back to it and to try to find out about the books that you mentioned Alexandra. The pile by my bedside is growing ever taller.

Christensen was obviously highly favored for much of his life, if not all of it. Do you ever think of choreographers to be like fashion designers - in the sense that what was once in, goes out and then comes back in again?

It really is too bad that we can't have an online Ballet Alert! History of Ballet class - for a fee of course. It really would be something I'd love to take. I know we've had a thread or two about this sort of thing... I think I'll be putting in on my Christmas Wish List. :yes:

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I wasn't quite clear in my last post -- it could be interpreted that many people didn't think that it was a wise choice to include Christensen's ballet (probably some people did think that), but what I meant was that even among those who did appreciate the inclusion of Christensen ballets, there were some who thought there were others of his ballets that would have been better choices.

I agree, Alexandra, about the acting problem.

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djb, I defer to your knowledge -- I'm really kinda envious that you had some actual experience of Christensen -- I agree that Christensen's snow dance in Nutcracker is wonderful, I just love it.

I've seen several of Christensen's ballets revived over hte last decade -- and IMO probably con Amore fared the best of them.

I know that Virginia johnson has not been involved in the stagings at SFB, not for a while -- and hte problem maybe starts there -- because they just look like they've been set by people who know the performance style. Filling Station they're not dancing at all idiomatically -- well, I didn't see it when it was new, but it MUSt have been more fun than this. And you can look at it and see that the dancers now are square on hte beat when it does not make sense to be -- exspecially in the mime passages. the drunken debutante ballerina is sure-fire comedy, but hers is the only rolethat's getting done with any moxie.

And Oakland Ballet, hte year Joral Schmalle was interim director, did Jinx superlatively well, better I think than SFB did it last year -- I think VIrginia Johnson DID have somehing to do with that. But they danced it like a Ballets Russes company (Oakland, I mean -- the dancers looked a little stiff, old-fashioned -- they looked convincingly like a down-on-their-luck ratty little circus (like those in hte early Fellini movies); At SFB Katherine Winfield was extraordinarily good at catching that old-fashioned look, with a high fifth that looked like Markova's, "peek-a-boo" -- and Yuri Possokhov was marvellous as hte jester. But in Oakland's staging, EVERYBODY was right -- the guy with the whip really LOST it, the taattoed lady was really grotesque AND grief-stricken. At SFB, Katita Waldo looked way too much like someone who could dance "The Vertiginous THrill of Exactitude" without breaking her neck for me to believe she was the tattoed lady; she needed to change her whole way of moving to be convincing in that role, as Nijinsky did when he played Petroushka.

SFB also do the Vivaldi Concerto Grosso well, but again, too square; and a novelty with black lighting and fluorescent body parts came off well a few years ago, esp with Paul Gibson as hte guy who gets left holding hte leg; you need a dead-pan comedian like Gibson to make it work, but he was a scream.

But "con amore" had LOTs going for it, every time I saw it -- in retrospect the BEST thing was elizabeth Miner as Cupid. SHE WAS PERFECT.

I hear she's going to be one of the Sylvias next year. Very promising.

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In my opinion The Nutcracker at SFB has not looked as good as when the late Bob Gladstein and Virginia Johnson were involved in it's staging/rehearsal process. Helgi has managed to alter the current production in ways that make it just like so many others. Too fast and too square.

Paul, Il Distratto is the "blacklight" ballet.



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I recently purchased the February 1966 issue of Dance Magazine from eBay and I was intrigued by the listing in the 'News' section describing the San Francisco Ballet's Winter- Spring season for 1966 (weekends, February12-April 24). Almost the entire repertory was by Lew Christensen: Filling Station, Balletino,, Divertissement d'Auber, Sinfonia, Concert Music for Strings and Brass Instruments, Life, Shadows, Original Sin and Beauty and the Beast. (Also scheduled were Scotch Symphony by George Balanchine and Variations de Ballet (1960) by Balanchine and Christensen.)


It might be very interesting to see some of this stuff now but, alas, it would appear that Christensen's entire repertory is lost. Maybe now is the time to try reviving Beauty and the Beast given how well the current movie version is doing!

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On 4/1/2017 at 5:03 PM, miliosr said:

... San Francisco Ballet's Winter- Spring season for 1966 (weekends, February12-April 24). Almost the entire repertory was by Lew Christensen: Filling Station, Balletino,, Divertissement d'Auber, Sinfonia, Concert Music for Strings and Brass Instruments, Life, Shadows, Original Sin and Beauty and the Beast. (Also scheduled were Scotch Symphony by George Balanchine and Variations de Ballet (1960) by Balanchine and Christensen.)


It might be very interesting to see some of this stuff now but, alas, it would appear that Christensen's entire repertory is lost. Maybe now is the time to try reviving Beauty and the Beast given how well the current movie version is doing!


PNB did Filling Station many years ago, when Janet Reed was ballet mistress here (she was the original Drunk Girl) -- I would love to see it again.  Has anyone here seen Beauty and the Beast?

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