Historic building in Brigham City reopens its doors to dance and music performances

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BRIGHAM CITY — A historic building with national significance in northern Utah has once again opened its doors to dance and music performances.

Ballet West dancers stepped back in time a few weeks ago, performing in the same building where their founder learned to dance. The newly renovated Christensen Academy in Brigham City can boast a remarkable legacy.

The Christensen Academy is a birthplace of American classical ballet.

“What happened in this building continues to grow ballet, not only in this state but across the country and across the planet,” said Tom Michel, Ballet West vice president of development and marketing.

Brothers Christian and Peter Christensen opened a dance and music center in Brigham City in 1903. Christian's sons, Harold, Willam and Lew, went on to study at the academy.

Those brothers then became vaudeville performers and founded three ballet companies in the West: the Portland Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West. Their legacy is widely known.

For example, Willam Christensen choreographed the first production of “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco in 1945. It was a huge success. Not too long after, the play came to Utah and now there are thousands of “Nutcracker” performances.

He also started the ballet department at the University of Utah.

Many years later in 1992, Willam Christensen, known as " Mr. C.," was 89 and still teaching. He lived to be 99 and is known in the dance world as a legend.

“It’s really hard to understate how important the impact that the Christensen family had on ballet in America,” said Peter LeBreton Merz, the current director of the Ballet West Academy. “I grew up thousands of miles away, and I knew exactly who the Christensen brothers were from the time I was 12 years old.”

The expression, “if these walls could talk” is quite common. It’s been said many times at the academy that when it comes to classical ballet in America, remarkable as it may seem, this is where it began.

Because of what started in the building, members of the Brigham City community began raising money in 1998 to renovate the old building on Main Street. They began fundraising as soon as they purchased the building.

Once a grant of $1,140,800 was received, through the efforts of Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Rob Bishop in 2005, then private donors, including the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, gave $650,000.

“To think that Mr. Christensen learned how to dance in this space and then brought that knowledge and spread it to me through the Utah Civic Ballet and the University of Utah, is amazing,” Bruce Caldwell, current ballet master and company archivist for Ballet West, said.

Contributing: Carter Williams

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