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Gisella Caccialanza Christensen; Prima Ballerina

July 21, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gisella Caccialanza Christensen, the prima ballerina who danced the lead role in the first complete American version of "The Nutcracker," has died. She was 83.

Christensen, who also danced in such films as "On Your Toes," died Thursday in Daly City, Calif., after a stroke. She had lived for many years in nearby San Bruno, Calif.

She danced the Sugarplum Fairy role with the San Francisco Ballet when it staged the original American production of "Nutcracker" in 1944. Her partner was her brother-in-law, William Christensen, then the company's director.

Born in San Diego to Italian American parents, Gisella Caccialanza studied with the Italian teacher Giovanni Rosi in Los Angeles.

She continued her work in Milan, Italy, with Enrico Cecchetti, and became his protegee and goddaughter. A collection of their letters to each other was published in 1971, titled "Letters From the Maestro."

The ballerina became a charter member of George Ballanchine's American Ballet company in 1934 and danced in major U.S. cities. Ballanchine choreographed the film "On Your Toes" in 1939 and other films in which Christensen danced, including "The Goldwyn Follies" in 1938.

Among her stage appearances in Los Angeles was with Ballet Caravan in 1939 at the city's old Philharmonic Auditorium on Pershing Square.

She married Lew Christensen, a leading dancer and choreographer for the American Ballet and Ballet Caravan, in 1941, and they made California their home base. Her husband, who succeeded his brother as director of the San Francisco Ballet in 1952, died in 1984.

The ballerina, who later taught ballet with the San Francisco company, is survived by one son, Chris Christensen, of San Bruno.

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