The Origins of California Ballet Company (1968-1971)

Your support has been invaluable to California Ballet Company!
Your continued support is priceless!

Staying updated through our website, Facebook, Blog, Twitter, and emails is a great way to continue to show your support all through the year. After all, the arts aren’t just for the people, they are of the people. We here for you and because of you!

Now, we thought you might like to know a little history about the company for which you’ve been fighting so hard over
the last two weeks!

To take a look at the origins of California Ballet, you’d really have to start forty years before the birth of the company. You need to start with San Diego’s first ballerina, and Director/Founder Maxine Mahon’s mother, Flora Jennings Small.


Flora started dancing at an early age, and her performing credits began in 1927 at the Russ Auditorium, in a special performance for Charles Lindberg. With that impressive start, Flora went on to begin teaching in 1931 – at the age of fourteen – and then to open her own studios in La Mesa and La Jolla. Her studios’ recitals were widely respected, and received critical acclaim for both their creativity and excellent quality.


In 1958, Flora played a pivotal role in the birth of the San Diego Ballet Company – a company that her daughter Maxine would dance with as a soloist and work with as a teacher.


Under Flora’s guidance her two daughters, Maxine and Marlene Jennings, were trained in ballet,  ultimately achieving professional status.

In 1968, Maxine would gather together a group of dancers and found the California Ballet Company, with her mother acting as the first President and founding member of the California Ballet Association.

The fledgling company would have its premiere performance on July 13, 1968. There were twelve performances at San Diego State Amphitheatre with additional shows at the Old Globe Theatre and Chula Vista Memorial Bowl. The artists were gathered from ballet companies around the world, including the Belgrade National Ballet, Australian Ballet Company, Paris Opera Ballet, London Dance Theatre, and more! It’s not surprising that from such origins the California Ballet Company has achieved international renown.


Within the first year, California Ballet initiated their outreach programs, providing lectures in schools. The original program was financed by the Federal Government’s Aid to Education Title III Project, and has since grown to encompass every school district in San Diego Country, as well as provide performances and lectures to underserved, underprivileged, and fatally ill children.


Right away, the young company acted as an international ambassador for ballet, hosting the Bolshoi ballet in a midnight dinner reception. This was a role that the company would continue to fulfill down through the years and even into present day! A fine example of California Ballet’s role as cultural ambassador is the Soviet Arts Festival that occurred in 1989. In 1988 Maxine went overseas to the Soviet Union to pave the way for the Festival, which would occur in San Diego the following year. During that Festival, California Ballet hosted several performances, and California Ballet Company dancers appeared onstage with dancers from the Soviet Union.


The California Ballet Company would spend the first three years of its life dancing pieces pulled from ballets and performed in repertory performances. It wasn’t until 1971 that the young company would finally have the means for Director Maxine Mahon to stage a full-length ballet that would become very near and dear to all of our hearts over the next four decades:
The Nutcracker.

The first year of Nutcracker performances were performed to sold-out performances at the Russ Auditorium. San Diego was permanently changed into a Nutcracker town! Ever proving the star-pulling power that California Ballet would maintain over the decades, the lead roles were performed by NYC Ballet stars Edward Villela and Patricia McBride.


That’s just the beginning of a very rich history! California Ballet has been a cornerstone in the San Diego Arts Community for the last half-century. From humble beginnings to international renown, the company has grown, and continues to grow, to meet the needs of an ever-evolving artistic and cultural center: San Diego, California.



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