The U Has one of the Oldest University Ballet Programs in the U.S.

September 15 2017

The U has been offering a ballet major since 1951 and was one of the first university ballet programs in the U.S., according to former Ballet Department chairwoman, Barbara Hamblin. Professor Hamblin was a ballet major at the U herself in 1958, and after an illustrious dance career, returned to teach, and eventually became chairwoman in 1988. Hamblin’s first experience dancing in Salt Lake City was as a high schooler. She took ballet lessons one summer through a Division of Continuing Education Program, where she first met Willam Christenson. No account of the U’s Ballet History is complete without mention of the Christenson Brothers, and especially Willam Christenson.

Originally from Utah, the Christenson Brothers performed extensively in New York City, on the Vaudeville Circuit, and formed the San Francisco Ballet Company in the 1940s. Later, Willam relocated back to Salt Lake City, and successfully founded the University Ballet Department in 1951 at the U. He created the performing group known as University Theatre Ballet, which later became the Utah Civic Ballet – the first iteration of what is now Ballet West.

Hamblin says Christenson had a profound influence on her dance career and her decision to attend the U’s Ballet Program. “His wonderful enthusiasm for ballet and his gregarious personality and sense of humor captivated me, and it was then that I decided to attend the U of U” 

It’s not surprising that the first University to offer ballet as a major was in Utah. “Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo, always had a very active arts scene I believe partly due to Mormon cultural attitudes” says Hamblin. “Instead of thinking the arts were suspect, the L.D.S. Church celebrated music and dance as a way to communicate joy, hope and for celebration. I think social dances and music were important to Mormon pioneers. Also, most mothers all over the state wanted their daughters to study ballet in order to improve posture and to teach grace and good decorum.” Still, some did not see a university education as compatible with a dance career.  Many young dancers considered education a waste of time that did not serve the goal of dancing professionally. Hamblin feels differently. “I’m sure coming to the U was the best choice I could make. There is a lot to be said about the necessity to develop yourself not only as a performing artist but also as a more complete human being through studies available in college. Additional courses from dance history to dance psychology and anatomy inform technique and style for a richer experience for both the dancer and the audience.”

The Ballet Program at the U has enjoyed an excellent national and international reputation in the 66 years since its founding. This is due, in part, to the rigorous training and high standards held by the faculty.

Hamblin states: “The freedom to develop the curriculum for ballet majors so that the schedule of training was as intense as that in a professional school was critical.  In many university programs, no pointe technique for women was taught or it was only once a week and technique class were only three days weekly instead of five, which is not rigorous enough.”

Over the years, the Department as well as ballet itself have undergone many changes. In 1989, both Ballet and Modern Dance moved into their current home, The Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance. Hamblin, while chairwoman, developed an on-line course in Ballet History, which is still a required course for Ballet Majors. Most recently, the Ballet Department and the Modern Dance Department have come together to form the new School of Dance. Ballet has become increasingly competitive, and more is required of dancers these days, says Hamblin. “I’m happy that I was able to dance during the time I did. Now, I probably wouldn’t have a chance to compete due to the ever-increasing difficulty of what dancers are asked to do choreographically. In addition to the classical repertory, now ballet demands that dancers need to extend the range of their acting and dance techniques to include the more contemporary styles of today.”

One constant, though, is ballet dancers themselves, who prove to be organized, committed, and motivated to pursue their dreams. “It takes a lot of resilience and careful planning to be able to cope with the demanding schedules of classwork and performances on a regular basis.” Says Hamblin. “Having to learn long sequences of choreography teaches dancers to think on their feet and develop amazing memorization skills. Most dancers will learn another dancer’s parts in the hope that opportunities to perform these might come available from time to time. I knew both female and male dancers at Ballet West who learned everything: both men’s and women’s parts. Dancers also learn to anticipate frequent changes and deal with them positively and creatively.”