Before his final bow at the helm of San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson takes a moment to pause and reflect.From his third-floor office on Franklin Street, past the pink-tutued honey bear artwork by fnnch that graces a window, Helgi Tomasson has a direct view of the War Memorial Opera House (not to mention San Francisco City Hall just beyond it). His balcony overlooks a crosswalk that he has traversed thousands of times over the past three-plus decades, commuting between the building that houses San Francisco Ballet’s administrative facilities as well as dance studios and the 1932 Beaux-Arts landmark venue where he forged his legacy as an innovator.
Tomasson’s 37-year reign as SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer will conclude at the end of the 2021–22 season, appropriately with a revival of his production of Swan Lake. The romantic Tchaikovsky ballet was responsible for one of Tomasson’s most memorable achievements during his tenure and helped transform the company into a world-class institution.
“It took a lot of hard work, but it was my aim from the beginning to create something here that would be truly remarkable.” — Helgi Tomasson
Soon, intensive days filled with casting, classes and rehearsals will give way to a looser, undetermined schedule. “Whatever happens … traveling, I hope,” Tomasson offers when recently asked about post-retirement life. For now, the only concrete plan that he and his wife, Marlene, have entails a trip to Germany to visit their son Kris and two grandchildren, who they haven’t seen in two and a half years. (Another son, Erik, lives locally.)
Tomasson, 79, had already decided to step down from SF Ballet when COVID-19 restrictions halted the season in March 2020, and he unexpectedly found more time for personal pursuits, such as reading books by authors from his native Iceland. While the pandemic may not have prompted his decision, it did cause him to postpone retirement so he could help see the company through the period and provide it more time to find his successor as artistic director, which SF Ballet announced in January would be Spanish ballet star Tamara Rojo.
The pandemic also represented the biggest challenge of his career. “It was horrendous to be off work and sheltered in place all those months, with dancers trying to keep their morale up and stay in shape in their apartments,” Tomasson says. “When they were finally allowed to get together in class in our studios, it was 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 class going on all day, and then the City eased restrictions and we could start rehearsing and creating works. That was a wonderful thing, but we did that in pods, which could not mingle.”
Fortunately, SF Ballet had a long rehearsal period before it returned to live performances at the War Memorial Opera House in December 2021, and it did so with Nutcracker, a work the dancers were extremely familiar with and therefore an ideal opus to reopen with, according to Tomasson.
“To have dancers be off almost two years — that’s a very long time in a dancer’s career, and it’s taken them quite a while 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, during the company’s division of classes into pods, he conceived Harmony, set to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Premiering in April as part of this season’s Program 5, it is the last work Tomasson choreographed during his stewardship of SF Ballet.
“I wanted to think of this work as something coming out of the pandemic, eventually — and harmony was something we needed to be aware of among ourselves and other people,” he explains. “The music inspired me, and as always, there’s an inspiration I get from working with dancers in the studio.”
Harmony is among the 50 ballets Tomasson has choreographed for SF Ballet since joining as its artistic director in July 1985, including full-length stagings of The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Romeo & Juliet, Nutcracker and, above all, Swan Lake, which in 1988 was his first major production for the company. Upon its opening, the New York Times raved that Tomasson’s Swan Lake, “one of the most beautifully designed in recent years, now puts the San Francisco Ballet on the international dance map.” Indeed, the work elevated the company’s global profile and turned it into a touring powerhouse, with performances in ballet hubs such as New York, London, Paris and Copenhagen.
“I just felt and said to the Board [of Trustees] that if you wanted to be taken seriously as a ballet company, you had to be able to do the full-length ballets and do them well — not only the repertory of smaller ballets — and I think the company rose to the occasion and did extremely well, and I’m very proud of that,” Tomasson says of his inaugural endeavor.
Stepping Onto the World Stage
Back when he signed his initial three-year contract with SF Ballet, it was no doubt unimaginable that he would still hold the post 37 years later. San Francisco, though, proved a tremendous fit for his ambitions.
“It took a lot of hard work, but it was my aim from the beginning to create something here that would be truly remarkable. I think with all the new works I have fostered, and getting incredible choreographers to come work with us, that has made the company, to quote others, the envy of the ballet world,” Tomasson says. “It also took some wonderful dancers I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and the board was very supportive of my artistic vision — I always felt I was given leeway and able to pursue it — and I’m grateful for that.”
Tomasson knows from personal experience the pivotal role dancers play in ballet and the inspiration they provide, as he started his career as a dancer in 1957, joining the Pantomime Theatre in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at age 15. He went on to the Joffrey Ballet in 1962 (he met Marlene, a fellow dancer, at the company); then the Harkness Ballet in 1964; and ultimately became a principal dancer at 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 U.S. at the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow — as the three dancers who had the largest impact on his career as a dancer and helped inspire him. “As a young, up-and-coming dancer trying to find my place, the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn was someone I admired a lot,” Tomasson recalls. “Of course, you cannot help but be influenced by Nureyev — not that you try to copy him, but you admire his work ethic and the way he approached the ballets he danced. And Baryshnikov was a fantastic dancer, and I admired him greatly.”
As for the individual who shaped him the most as an artistic director, Tomasson credits Robert Joffrey, who hired him when he was 19 to dance for his then–New York company. “At the time, he was the first director of a ballet company to engage the modern dance community’s choreographers — John Butler, Norman Walker, Anna Sokolow — so I was exposed to a totally different way of moving than I had been trained for, and it was fascinating and challenging,” Tomasson says. “It influenced me as a director of this company to seek new works, new choreographers, respect the old classics.”
Tomasson also has deep respect for Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins — who arranged for him at the age of 17 to receive a scholarship to study at New York’s School of American Ballet — and especially George Balanchine at NYC Ballet as the most important influences on him as a choreographer. Among the framed photos lining his office shelves is a snapshot of Tomasson and Balanchine onstage, with the former among the dancers in the latter’s 1974 production of Coppélia.
“Balanchine was a very logical person, and I realize that now after I started directing here that there were times I questioned myself, ‘Is that logical? Does it make sense to do this or that?’” Tomasson recounts. “He influenced me very much so with the aesthetic of the company; the speed with dancing, which has become normal almost everywhere; and articulation — I got that when I studied in Denmark and with Balanchine — and musicality. Being able to show ballet at its best; if you don’t do that, why watch it?”
Stretching the Limits 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 managed to consistently keep this tradition of making new work, constantly challenging his dancers and pushing them in new directions, and bringing the best from all over the world through these doors,” says Wheeldon, who choreographed Finale Finale as a tribute to Tomasson; it premieres in SF Ballet’s Program 6 this season. “As a choreographer, you become the beneficiary of these experiences, and Helgi was always very encouraging to me, always generous, paternal.”
Marston’s seductive Mrs. Robinson debuted in SF Ballet’s Program 1. She points out several attributes that have stamped Tomasson as a great artistic director — and a joy to work with. “Working with Helgi is very liberating; he trusts you and allows you to come into this company and make what’s in your heart and doesn’t interrupt or question you,” Marston says. “And he’s led the company through the pandemic in a really calm way. He’s given me incredible opportunities to work with San Francisco Ballet. The festivals he’s led and initiated, the wealth of new choreography that San Francisco Ballet has commissioned and created, is astounding.”
Rhoden, whose ballet The Promised Land also premieres in Program 6, expands upon the list of kudos for Tomasson. “I have such respect for what Helgi has done with this company: his choices, his programming, his artists, the festivals,” Rhoden says. “He’s always 10 steps ahead, a pioneer whose vision is always forward-thinking. That’s how he has transformed this company into the major arts institution that it is. I look to him with the greatest reverence for how he is as a leader and artistic director.”
Tomasson, who is confident 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 be involved with the festival in 2023 because I chose those choreographers, and the board would like me to have the same role I had with Unbound [festival of new works], which is to decide who would be in what program and in what order,” Tomasson says. “And if there are going to be ballets by me performed here, Tamara has indicated to me she would very much like me to be involved with 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, opening on April 29 and featuring his 2009 production, which he considers “more contemporary looking” than his earlier one, resonates with Tomasson like no other work. And it is the most fitting artistic flourish for his farewell.
“It is a beautiful ballet. That music is glorious, and the company dances it very well,” Tomasson says with emotion. “I think it’s probably the most favorite ballet around the world, and we accomplished that the first time in 1988. I was just starting then, so why not finish with it?”