Carlos Carvajal



Family Background and Introduction

The son of a Filipino immigrant, folk and ballet dancer/choreographer Carlos Carvajal has been recognized as one of the leaders of San Francisco Bay Area's dance. Carvajal was born in San Francisco on June 3, 1931 and has spent most of his life in the city.

On his father’s side, Carvajal is part of the third generation of a famous and much honored Filipino theatrical family. His paternal grandfather, Don Jose Carvajal was the director and actor of the Compania Carvajal of Spanish Operettas and Zarzuelas (zarzuelas are a form of operetta that was brought over to the Philippines from Spain).  His paternal grandmother, “La Tagaroma”, was the Compania’s prima donna. Don Jose was also referenced in José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), published in 1897, which played a crucial role in the political history of the Philippines, as the controversial novel indirectly influenced the Phillipine Revolution for Independence from Spain in 1898. The following generation was also heavily involved in performance. Carvajal’s uncle Eliseo (Cheong) Carvajal, worked as an actor and starred in the first Filipino film in the Spanish language, Secreto de confesión in 1939. His father (also named Carlos), performed as a stage magician and hypnotist, and his aunt Patring (Monang) Carvajal became famous, first as an expressive dancer, then later as the first Aswang [vampire] in the new talking movies, and was later heralded as the “Queen of Horror Pictures” by the press for her versatility of roles and make up, some created by her own son Ernesto.

Beginning as a folk dancer, Carlos went on to join San Francisco Ballet (SF Ballet), then the Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas, Opera of Bremen, Opera of Bordeaux and Ballet Nacional of Venezuela as soloist, principal dancer, and choreographer. He created more than twenty works for the San Francisco Ballet as its ballet master and associate choreographer. He founded San Francisco Dance Spectrum, creating over fifty works during its ten year existence. He has also choreographed for the San Francisco Opera, Oakland Ballet Company, and Peninsula Ballet Theatre, among others.  Carvajal was named co-Artistic Director for World Arts West's Ethnic Dance Festival in 2005. He held the role until 2017 and was named Artistic Director Emeritus in 2018. Other honors/grants/awards include five from the National Endowment for the Arts, the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Critics’ Circle and an Isadora Duncan Lifetime Achievement Award.

This exhibit follows the trajectory Carvajal's career as a dancer and choreographer. Images were curated with his help and only represent an overview of the materials found in his collection.




Photo by Seth Ligon


Following his time in Europe and South America, Carvajal returned to SF Ballet as Ballet Master and Assistant Choreographer. Carvajal worked with dancers on annual works such as Nutcracker, taught company class, and choreographed new works for the company's repertory and summer workshop series. Influenced by his time in Europe, his background with folk dance, and involvement with the artists in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury, Carvajal sought to push boundaries with his choreography. Examples of this included using projections, motion picture, images, and unconventional music in his works.

One such example was his work Genesis 70, set to Terry Riley's In C (Carvajal leading a rehearsal at the San Francisco Ballet studio on 18th Avenue, left).  The work used mylar, projections, colors and patterns on stage in a way that had not been done before. The audience reaction was heavily mixed, with some critics and audience members loving the work, and others finding it too chaotic and felt in brought in the "wrong audience". This led to SF Ballet management turning away from venues such as City College and eventually led to Carvajal leaving the company in 1970.

Almost immediately after, Carvajal founded Dance Spectrum in 1971. The company came together quickly as talent Carvajal worked closely with at SF Ballet, including dancers and production staff, joined the company. The critics who had also enjoyed Carvajal's works followed as well, wanting to see what the new company would do. Full length ballets that premiered during this time included Crystal Slipper, Carvajal's adaptation of Cinderella, Wintermas, and Carmina Burana. During the company's tenure, Carvajal choreographed ballets that explored religion, mythology and eastern philosophies, as well as folk dance from around the world, creating over fifty works during the company's ten year existence.

The images below represent a small sample of Carvajal's choreography for SF Ballet and Dance Spectrum:



Carvajal choreographed a full-length Nutcracker in 1994, which Peninsula Ballet Theatre performed annually until 2010. Carvajal served as the Artistic Director for Peninsula Ballet Theatre from 1992 through 2010 before being named Director Emeritus. This production was also presented by Oakland Ballet Company.  

Featured below is an excerpt from the December 16, 2000 performance from Peninsula Ballet Theatre, shot by Carvajal. Excerpt includes part of Scene 2 (Battle with the Mouse King) and Scene 3 (Land of Snow). Featured performers include Tara Laidlaw as Clara, Gustavo Llamas as the Nutcracker Prince, Dudley Brooks as the Mouse King, Brittney Wirth as the Snow Queen and David Henry as the Snow King. 


The Carlos Carvajal Papers contain paper, photographic, and video documentation of his early career as a dancer/choreographer, his career with San Francisco Ballet, materials related to his company, Dance Spectrum, performances of his works by groups such as Oakland Ballet Company and Peninsula Ballet Theatre (where Carvajal served as Artistic Director then Director Emeritus), as well as materials related to the Worlds Arts West/Ethnic Dance Festival. The papers include programs, pre-performance press and subsequent reviews, flyers, promotional collateral, posters, and videos of various performances of Carvajal's works. The collection also includes several photographs in print featuring key performers and works. The collection also features several scrapbooks from Carvajal's career at San Francisco Ballet and Dance Spectrum, featuring press reviews and interviews.

Original order was mostly maintained, with items being physically stored by medium. The collection is arranged in the following series: I. Personal; II: Photographs; III: Choreographic Works; IV: Dance Spectrum; V: San Francisco Ballet; VI: Other Companies and Professional Work; VII: World Arts West/Ethnic Dance Festival;  VIII: Zarzuela Festival; IX: Posters; and X: Audiovisual materials.

To access the finding aid, please click here.

Through California Revealed, a California State Library initiative that helps public libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other heritage groups digitize, preserve, and provide online access to materials documenting the state’s history, art, and cultures, MP+D has been able to digitize and share online selected original recordings featuring some Carvajal's choreography in California-based performances. These can accessed by clicking here.

Carlos Carvajal