Helgi Tomasson, who transformed SF Ballet into a world-class institution, begins her long goodbye
From her office on the third floor of Franklin Street, in front of fnnch’s pink tutued bear artwork that adorns a window, Helgi Tomasson has a direct view of the War Memorial Opera House (not to mention City Hall in San Francisco just beyond). His balcony overlooks a crosswalk he has traversed thousands of times over the past three decades, shuttling between the building that houses the administrative facilities of the San Francisco Ballet as well as dance studios and the iconic venue for the Beaux-Arts from 1932 where he forged his legacy as an innovator.
Tomasson’s 37-year reign as SF Ballet’s Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer will come to an end at the end of the 2021-22 season, fittingly with a revival of his production of “Swan Lake.” The romantic ballet Tchaikovsky was responsible for one of Tomasson’s most memorable achievements during his tenure and helped transform the company into a world-class institution.
Soon, the intensive days filled with casting, lessons and rehearsals will give way to a more flexible and indeterminate schedule. “Whatever happens… travel, I hope,” Tomasson said when asked recently about life after retirement. So far, the only concrete plan he and his wife, Marlene, have is a trip to Germany to visit their son Kris and their two grandchildren, whom they haven’t seen in two years and half. (Another son, Erik, lives there.)
Tomasson, 79, had already decided to leave SF Ballet when COVID-19 restrictions halted the season in March 2020, and he unexpectedly found more time for personal activities, such as reading art books. authors from his native Iceland. While the pandemic may not have prompted his decision, it did cause him to postpone his retirement so he could help the company through the period and give him more time to find his successor as director. artistically, what SF Ballet announced in January would be Spanish Ballet. starring Tamara Rojo.
The pandemic has also been the biggest challenge of his career. “It was awful being off work and sheltering in place all those months, with dancers trying to keep their spirits up and stay in shape in their apartments,” Tomasson says. “When they were finally allowed to meet in class in our studios, there were only six dancers at a time, masked and 10 to 12 feet apart. It was a logistical nightmare, but we managed to do it. We had classes all day and then The City eased the restrictions and we were able to start rehearsing and creating works. It was a wonderful thing, but we did it in groups, which couldn’t mix.
Fortunately, the SF Ballet had a long period of rehearsals before resuming live performances at the War Memorial Opera House in December 2021, and it did so with “The Nutcracker”, a work that the dancers were familiar with and therefore an ideal opus to reopen with, according to Tomasson.
“Having dancers away for almost two years is a very long time in a dancer’s career, and it’s taken a long time for them to come back,” Tomasson says. “Right now the company is dancing very, very well and I’m happy about that.”
Tomasson found creative opportunity out of the crisis the pandemic brought when, while dividing the company’s classes into modules, he devised “Harmony,” set to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Premiering in April as part of this season’s Program 5, it was the last piece Tomasson choreographed during his tenure at SF Ballet.
“I wanted to think of this work as something coming out of the pandemic, eventually – and harmony was something we had to be aware of between ourselves and each other,” he explains. “Music has inspired me, and as always, there’s an inspiration I get from working with dancers in the studio.”
“Harmony” is one of 50 ballets Tomasson has choreographed for SF Ballet since taking over as Artistic Director in July 1985, including full-length stagings of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Don Quixote,” Romeo and Juliet”, “The Nutcracker”. and, above all, “Swan Lake”, which in 1988 was his first major production for the company. Upon its opening, The New York Times gloated that Tomasson’s “Swan Lake,” “one of the most beautifully designed in recent years, now places the San Francisco Ballet on the international dance map.” . Indeed, the work raised the company’s global profile and made it a touring powerhouse, with performances in ballet hubs such as New York, London, Paris and Copenhagen.
Stepping onto the world stage
Back when he signed his first three-year contract with SF Ballet, it was arguably unimaginable that he would still hold the position 37 years later. San Francisco, however, proved to be an excellent choice for his ambitions.
“It took a lot of work, but my goal from the start was to create something really remarkable here. made the company, to name others, the envy of the ballet world,” says Tomasson. “It also took wonderful dancers that I had the opportunity to work with, and the board of directors was very supportive of my artistic vision – I always felt I was given leeway and could pursue it – and I’m grateful for that.”
Tomasson knows from personal experience the central role dancers play in ballet and the inspiration they provide, as he began his career as a dancer in 1957, joining the Pantomime Theater in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at the 15 years old. He went to the Joffrey Ballet in 1962. (he met Marlene, another dancer, at the company); then the Harkness Ballet in 1964; and eventually became a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet in 1970 (he retired in 1985).
Tomasson cites Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov – the last of whom in 1969 won gold for Russia to Tomasson’s silver for the United States at the first international ballet competition in Moscow – as the three dancers who have had the most impact on his career as a dancer and helped inspire him.
As for who shaped him the most as artistic director, Tomasson credits Robert Joffrey, who hired him at age 19 to dance for his then-New York company. “At the time he was the first director of a ballet company to engage the choreographers of the modern dance community – John Butler, Norman Walker, Anna Sokolow – so I was exposed to a way of moving totally different from the one I had been trained for, and it was fascinating and challenging,” says Tomasson. “It influenced me as the director of this company to look for new works, new choreographers, to respect the old classics.”
Pushing the boundaries of choreography
Tomasson has collaborated with and commissioned works from several renowned choreographers, including Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, Cathy Marston and Dwight Rhoden.
“Helgi has been able to consistently uphold this tradition of creating new work, constantly challenging his dancers and pushing them in new directions, and bringing the best of the world through those doors,” says Wheeldon, who choreographed “Finale Finale” as a tribute to Tomasson; it will premiere in SF Ballet’s Program 6 this season.
The seductive “Mrs. Robinson” debuted in SF Ballet’s Program 1. She points out several attributes that have made Tomasson a great art director – and a joy to work with. “Working with Helgi is very liberating; it trusts you and lets you come into this business and do what you care about and doesn’t interrupt or question you,” Marston says.
Rhoden, whose ballet “The Promised Land” also premieres in Program 6, extends the list of congratulations for Tomasson. “He’s always 10 steps ahead, a trailblazer whose vision is always looking to the future – thinking,” says Rhoden. “That’s how he transformed this company into the great artistic institution that it is. I look at him with the greatest reverence for who he is as a leader and artistic director.
Tomasson, who is convinced that SF Ballet made the right choice in Rojo as its next artistic director, will continue to contribute to the company in a few key ways. “I will get involved in the [San Francisco Ballet School Spring] Festival in 2023 because I chose these choreographers, and the board would like me to have the same role I had with Unbound [festival of new works], which is deciding who would be in which program and in which order,” says Tomasson. “And if there are going to be any ballets of my own performed here, Tamara has indicated to me that she would very much like me to be involved in that.”
On April 24, Helgi Tomasson: A Celebration will commemorate his career with performances of ballets he choreographed – and handpicked for the special occasion. But “Swan Lake,” which opens April 29 and features his 2009 production, which he considers “more contemporary” than the previous one, resonates with Tomasson like no other work. And it is the most appropriate artistic fulfillment for his farewell.
“It’s a beautiful ballet. This music is beautiful and the company dances it very well,” Tomasson says with emotion. “I think it’s probably the most beloved ballet in the world, and we performed it the first times in 1988. I was just getting started then, so why not finish?
A longer version of this article appeared in the April 2022 issue of the Nob Hill Gazette.