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An Interview with Helgi Tomasson
Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet

by Art Priromprintr

September 2003 – In mid-September, Helgi Tomasson, the San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director, met with members of the Los Angeles area press as part of publicity for the company’s performances at L.A.’s Music Center from October 7 to 12.   The company will give five performances of Don Quixoteat the Music Center, and sandwiched in between is a mixed repertory program featuring George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso, Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, and Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations.

I sat down with Tomasson in a small group of journalists, and our interview unfolded like as a group conversation, our questions overlapping and expanding upon each other. The conversation wandered from basic questions about the company’s Los Angeles repertoire to Tomasson’s reflections on classical dance in today’s world.   He discussed why he’s interested in bringing in very different choreographers, such as Mark Morris, to create works for the company, and he also talked about his own life as a dancer and artistic director.   It turned out to be a very interesting conversation indeed.

Below are the main excerpts from the conversation.

Every time your company dances, it seems to have this sort of energy to it.   It’s a different energy that really makes the dancing come out at the audience.   Where would you say that energy comes from?

It’s an important energy I think, to some to degree. I think maybe it has something to do with my own background.   I danced as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, with Balanchine, for 15 years, and Mr. Balanchine always expressed fluidity of movement, speed, articulation, musicality.  I think that sort of carried over.

And I also think that a lot of the choreographers that I have engaged to come and create works for us tend to work in that idiom, or sort of like that.   That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t have mature, established dancers; it’s just the way the company dances.   Freedom of movement for me, it’s always been very, very important.  And, of course, the joy of dance.

Did you feel that kind of freedom of movement was something you wanted to portray with the ads you are using in the L.A. run?   Where did those ads originally come from?

We got together a couple of years ago and I said that the ad for typical ballet company work [is] very static or posed or studio photographed.   It just had, what I think younger people would say, it had a boring look to it.   They just didn’t identify with that, and I wanted to get out the energy and the vitality of the company. And we do so many different works.

The main emphasis in the San Francisco Ballet is to create new works.   So we do dance the classics, being Swan Lake or Giselle or Don Quixote, but my emphasis for the last 18 years as a director has been to create new works.

So this kind of photograph ties into that – to blend the new with the classical technique.   But I engage choreographers that have a different slant on that, and say well where can you take that classical technique that we are working?  How can you make it challenging – and challenge it and stretch it and pull it and see what comes out?  That is what San Francisco Ballet is all about.

The Don Quixote that you are performing here in Los Angeles, is that more traditional?

It’s more traditional, yes, but we did add some choreography and things that I wanted to change – sometimes the order of the scenes ... for example, I put the tavern at the end of the second act instead of the beginning because it made more sense to me...and I choreographed some additions to that ... There is a little bit of additional music, but it’s still mostly Minkus.

Has casting been determined yet for this run, since it is only a few weeks before the run?

Not really (laughs).   Honestly, it’s something that I have to do probably next week.

Talking about your own choreography for a moment, you are bringing Concerto Grosso as part of the mixed repertory.   How did that work come about, and where did you get the idea for that?

Every year we have a fundraising gala in San Francisco, and I have usually tried to create something new for it, a small piece.   Could be for two people, could be for five people, whatever.

So before last year’s February gala, I decided to create a piece for five men.   We have terrific male dancers in the company, and I had my artistic director’s hat on, and I had to look and say What do these guys need.  They’re sort of young, unknown dancers – they’re not the top dancers of the company, and I choreographed a piece for the five men.   And it was only meant to be for that one time only, but it was such a huge success that everybody said, You must bring it back for the rest of the season, so I found a place on the program to bring it on.

And I bring it here [to Los Angeles] because, again, it shows off fantastic male dancing, from many different aspects, from the athletic strength to the poetic side of a male dancer.

What is the rest of the mixed program like?

[I chose] the rest of the [repertory] program, kind of a little bit for name recognition for people who might not know what mixed repertory program is.

I think anybody who has any interest in dance will probably know about Balanchine.   So, I chose to open the program with a wonderful Balanchine piece [Allegro Brillante] that is, maybe not seen that often because people tend to think more of the very abstract pieces he did with Stravinsky music – this is Tchaikovsky music.   [That is] followed by Concerto Grosso, which I’ve just talked about, for five men.

Then, Polyphonia was created for New York City Ballet by Christopher Wheeldon.   Christopher Wheeldon is a young choreographer, really one of the hottest names in choreograhy, in dance today.   He has choreographed several pieces for us, and this particular one, even though it was created for New York City Ballet and he later staged it for us, it won the very prestigious Laurence Oliver Award in London.   It is very contemporary, in a sort of neo-classic style.   The women are in pointe shoes ... it’s very beautiful, it’s very, very interesting, and it’s a very big contrast to the other two pieces that I have talked about.

And then you have MacMillan, who is one of the most famous British choreographers.   You have his Elite Syncopations, which again, is sort of a theater dance.   It’s fun, it’s great music – Scott Joplin – and people just walk out of the theater on a high, and they’re humming the music, and they feel like they could have gone up on the stage – it’s a bare stage with the little orchestra on the back – and it’s absolutely delightful.

So the program I chose is a very typical mixed repertory program that you would see if you were to come to San Francisco and see the company perform at the opera house.

When you choose the repertoire for tour, do you put the audience there in mind for that repertoire?

I take [the city] into account, definitely.   Certain areas, certain cities have had a lot of dance, have been exposed to a lot more dance, so you say, Ok, I can really bring that very far out work, and that might not be the right thing to bring to Walla Walla, Washington or whatever.   But still bring them something that – it’s not down on their level – but something that will challenge them.   So, yes, we put a lot of thought into programming.   I mean, the Parisian audience is different from the London audience.   You might bring some of the same work, but not entirely.

You mentioned a bit about what is normal to see at the Opera House in San Francisco.   What is that normal?

There are also about 40 performances of Nutcracker a year at the opera house. That’s a lot.   It’s a money making thing and it helps us do other things throughout the year.   Then, there are maybe 65 rep performances, plus touring.

... It’s normal to have six repertory programs and only two full-length ballets in the whole season, which is very different from most other companies, except for New York City Ballet.   ... A lot more companies are doing a lot more full evening [ballets], and I find that mixed repertory programs, with all these new creations, are very interesting.

Why are the mixed repertory programs and new creations interesting to you?

[For the audience], if there’s someone in there who is traditionalist, then they are going to be exposed to something that is a little more contemporary, where they might not have gone to see a contemporary program, thinking Oh, no I wouldn’t like that.  So you kind of slip it in there and you expose them to it...and so often people say, You know I didn’t know you could do that; I really like that – I want to come back and see that!

And it also can work in reverse.   We have all of the contemporary programs and all of a sudden I slip in just a little number of more traditional.  [Audiences more accustomed to contemporary work] say, Oh, gee I didn’t think I liked classical.  So it’s educational. But making programs is not easy.

Do you make an effort to program a lot of the mixed programs, as opposed to a lot of story ballets like you’ve said other companies do over and over?   Do you make an effort to do a lot of contemporary work, and do you think that sets the company apart from other companies?

Yes, I think it sets the company apart with the amount of – we commission anywhere from three to six new works a year, and there are times that I have, like last season we had three new commissioned works in one program, so it wasn’t like I slipped one commissioned work into two to anchor them.   I like that, I like taking chances.

That’s the one thing I keep hearing all the time, being in this country or in Europe, that the repertory is what is so interesting about this company.   And that’s what dancers come for – they come to dance interesting repertory with people that they believe in. ... That is also what makes the company special, that you have all of those wonderful, wonderful dancers.   And I truly enjoy and seek individuality in dancers.

You have engaged a number of different choreographers to work with San Francisco, namely Christopher Wheeldon – you just did a program of only his works at the Edinburgh Festival over the summer – as well as Mark Morris and others.   What is your relationship with Wheeldon and with other choreographers?

[The company’s relationship with Wheeldon is an ongoing one.   He loves working with the company.   He is officially listed as choreographer in residence with the New York City Ballet, but he came to us before that.   It’s something I’d like to keep going. I think we would all like to keep going, also with Mark Morris.

Mark Morris has created a lot of work for us and is currently, right now, working as we speak, on a full evening work for us.   Those two choreographers are some of the most sought-after choreographers for any company, and they both work with San Francisco Ballet on a regular basis, which is nice.

My primary criteria for choreographers to come to work with San Francisco Ballet has always been: I want them to have a good understanding and knowledge of the classical vocabulary.   Meaning, preferably have the women in pointe shoes, but what you do with that vocabulary, how you stretch it and how you pull it, and try to expand it – that’s up to them.   I give them free reign for that.

I also give them the freedom to choose the dancers they want.   If they want to choose someone from the corps de ballet instead of the soloists, you know, they have the freedom to do that.

Why this emphasis within the company and for your dancers to be adept at so many different styles of classical dance, from the most classical, as exemplified with Don Quixote to very contemporary, with choreographers like Wheeldon and Morris?

Dance, the way we are experiencing dance today, dancers are required to be able to dance in many different styles.   The time is gone when you only danced the classic ballets, like the Russian classic or, to that point where I danced with New York City Ballet, it was either Balanchine or Robbins.   That was what you danced: his choreography and his style of dancing.   Today, dancers need to be able to dance everything from Balanchine to Mark Morris to Merce Cunningham to Paul Taylor.

So, versatility.   You have to be a versatile dancer.   If not, there are so many dancers out there – wonderful dancers, and talented – and maybe not enough companies and not enough dancers in companies, in particular this economic situation where companies have to cut back either on dancers or orchestra or new productions or whatever.   It means that it really is a challenge to find a job.   You have to be able to dance many different styles.

[Within the company], that has been something that I always stressed with them.   You have to really work at it to find what the choreographer wants stylistically, so if it’s Macmillan or it’s Mark Morris, Robbins or Balanchine, or whoever, they can change keys that fast.   They have to.   And I think that’s one of the challenges of dancing, and one of the more fun challenges of dancing, because it keeps also your own interest as a dancer up because it’s not all the same anymore.   Every [choreographer] is different.

Why do the have to be able to change – is that because of the demands within your company or is it something in the greater dance world that necessitates that versatility?

It’s becoming that in the greater dance world.

What is driving that – is it because we are moving farther and farther away from when the classics were created, or are the other influences having a very strong effect on classical dance as we knew it before?

I think it has more to do with what has been brought in to the ballet companies, and the influence of modern dance.   And it’s been good for both [ballet and modern dance].   It has broadened the classical ballet companies, and I think it has also helped modern dance to get more recognition for what they do.   They’re not only just in the colleges anymore.  I mean their work is being seen in the big opera houses, or the dance houses of the world.

It’s very hard – it’s very difficult to choreograph in the classical idiom and make it look like what we think of as classical.   It’s no different from music – you ask somebody to write new music and make it sound like Mozart.   Well, first of all, why are you trying to sound like Mozart when you are not Mozart, and just times are different.   So I think dance is reflecting society and how we are changing.   It doesn’t mean that classical ballet as we have seen it is bad; it’s just our eye is different.   We are exposed to so many different things – through theater, through television, through music through everything – that it’s a natural change .

You guys are already working on Sylvia for the spring season...could we get a hint maybe of what that will be like?

Like I do with all choreographers who come and work with me, I do not go into the studio to watch what they’re doing (chuckles) – at least not at the beginning.   And, they don’t need me in there looking over their shoulder.   Somewhere along the way when my curiosity can’t stand it anymore I might just go to him and say, Gee, let me know when you would like me to come take a look.  I’m dying to see what you’re doing.  And sometimes they say, Well wait a little bit.  I’m not quite ready to show you, and sometimes they say Gee, come tomorrow.  We’d love to have you come tomorrow. But each one is different, and I sort of know them.   I know Mark, and he doesn’t want anyone to watch from the outside what he is choreographing.(Laughs) But pretty soon I’m going to be saying I want to see what you’re doing!

 

On being an Artistic Director

 

What are you most proud of having done with San Francisco Ballet?

I’ve staged Swan Lake,Sleeping Beauty,Giselle,Don Quixote,Romeo & Juliet.  Each one of them is very different and each one of them has brought a lot of satisfaction, joy in what I did with them.

Then when I have choreographed ballets just from scratch, that’s also wonderful because you’re choreographing, creating something that was not there before, and you’re able to put it on the stage, and people come and see it and they say, Wow.

... I would almost turn around and say, at this point, that my biggest accomplishment has [been] to bring the San Francisco Ballet, which I took over 18 years ago when it was a regional company, to have brought it up to considered now one of the top companies in the world.   That’s been very satisfying – it’s been hard work, but it’s been very satisfying.

With all the choreographing and the restaging of the classics that you do for the company, what has been the most challenging for you to do?

In a way, Swan Lake.

Partly because it’s so well known ... and to re-choreograph, completely, the first and last act was very challenging... I re-choreographed [those two acts] because I felt the first and last act of ‘Swan Lake’ were not really that great.   I mean, dance has changed; it has evolved, has gotten better.  Choreographically [Acts 1 and 4] were the least interesting.

So to bring it up and yet make it look like it was part of this Swan Lake, which was created so long ago, and make it look like it was part of it was very difficult.

How has your background influenced your work?

[My background] was in classical.   But I was exposed to contemporary.   I danced at one time with the Joffrey Ballet, when I was just starting out, and Robert Joffrey was the first director of a ballet company to engage contemporary choreographers like Alvin Ailey and Anna Sokolow.   He was really the first person to engage what we call modern dance choreographers to do something for a [classical] ballet company.   That had a great influence on me as a young dancer, and I enjoyed it very much even though I had been trained as a classical dancer.

And then going into the Balanchine company [New York City Ballet], where Balanchine was neoclassic but creating all the time, and Jerome Robbins was also a choreographer there...

So it was part of me, as a dancer.   There were always new things being created.   So I ended up dancing in a lot of contemporary works even though I had been trained classically.   And classically trained dancers can do that – modern trained dancers cannot do classical.

What do you think you would attribute your longevity, as a director, to?

I think it has to do with several things.   I seem to have a knack to attract wonderful dancers, a knack to bring choreographers to this company to create works that are interesting for the dancers and for the audience.

I like what I do.   I feel, with my experience as a dancer, I have so much to give and pass on to other dancers.   I love teaching, and I teach company classes, now maybe once a week, twice a week ... I think I have an ability, for whatever reason, and I don’t know where it comes from, to be able to pick out a talent of a dancer – male or female – at an early age in the school.

Dancers say to me that I’m honest with them, and fair.   As a director I don’t lie to them.  I tell them what has to be said, and they respect that ... its better to just be up front in the beginning with regards to why you can or cannot be in that role, or why you should not dance anymore, whatever it may be.   So I think it’s a combination of a lot of things:  my experience as a dancer, first with the Joffrey Ballet where I was exposed to a lot of contemporary choreographers...and dancing for 15 years with the NYCB.   I’m able to pick up the phone and call whomever I need to talk to and get through to them, be it a choreographer in Europe or an artistic director: they all know me; they all know what I stand for and what I stood for as a dancer.   So it’s that also – it’s part of it.   That’s very important, for someone who is directing a company, that you have that channel and that respect at the same time.

 

On family and on being a dancer

 

Are you the only one in your family who danced, do you have offspring who are dancers?

No, my two sons, both grown up, neither of them dance.   One became a cinema-tographer, and the other one is an automotive designer for BMW in Munich for seven years.  He’s now in London working for Ford, and he does all sorts of product design.   Neither of them ever danced.

I think in my case they just saw the discipline and hard work [involved in dance].   They were not just exposed to what they saw on the stage, you know – Here is papa dancing; it looks great; it looks easy – they saw the hard work.

There wasn’t any, kind of, requirement within the family that they had to take dancing?

No, no if anything I was kind of worried about it at one point.  I said to my wife Marlene, Gee what if they come to me at 16 and say I want to dance, and now its too late.   So at one point they were about 12, I think it was, 11 or 12, and I said why don’t you come in, you know, I’ll give you some lessons, and they said no.   They enjoyed [ballet], they come to the ballet, and they’re quite knowledgeable about dance, but no [they did not want to dance themselves].

Did you come from a line of dancers yourself?

No, I’m born and raised in Iceland, so I’m one of the first male dancers ever [to come from there].   I started to dance with 200 girls in the class, and I thought it was great!   I was the only guy.   But I think my family, my mother’s uncle – they were sort of artistic; they painted and did some sculpture – nothing on a big scale but something.   So maybe there was some artistic vein there, but not dancing.

Who did you dance with when you were a dancer, and who did you enjoy dancing with the most?

It’s just, they’re individuals, so it depends on what you’re dancing and what roles you are dancing with them.   I danced a great deal with Patricia McBride at New York City Ballet – great dancer, wonderful to dance with – I danced with Gelsey Kirkland a lot, um, but it very much depended on the ballet.   There were different ballets that they were suited to, or whatever, or that I was suited to.

 

On dancers and dance training

 

What about today’s dancers themselves?   You mentioned earlier, when you were talking about Concerto Grosso, that there is a large amount of male talent in your company.

I think, what’s different today, we don’t have the individual names of a male dancer out there, like it was before, particularly the Russians that defected – Nureyev, Baryishnikov.   Because of the situation that they defected – they were great dancers – but it was news; it was in the papers all the time.   Nobody’s defecting right now – they don’t have to.   But you know, that doesn’t mean you don’t have wonderful, great dancers today.

Traditionally, we have thought the Russian male dancers were the guys to dance.   Danish dancers, [also].   Right now we are in a period where you have the Spanish dancers and the Latinos – Cuban, South Americans – they make great dancers, because it has to do with passion.

And in Spain and in Cuba and in Latin America, it’s macho to dance; it’s just accepted – its wonderful, and they are creating great, great male dancers.   And I’m lucky to say I have quite a few of them.   Unfortunately, there is not really an outlet in Spain for classically trained dancers, so they are going here and there and all over.   For about ten years I had a Spanish lady who was the associate director of our school, and she was wonderful.   She’s gone back to Spain now because her mother’s not well and her daughters are there and her grandchildren, so she wants to spend more time with them.   But through her quite a few Spanish dancers came to our school and come through the school and into the company.

I have two Cuban dancers.   And I mean, they’re just wonderful dancers.   It just seems to be the era of Spanish, Latino artists. [American] Ballet Theatre has many Spanish dancers, and they have Cuban dancers [also].   This is what’s happening – can you name somebody who’s really outstanding?   They are just all so good, and we don’t have now that because they’ve defected they’re going to be up there.   And there’s not just one; there are many.   And, it seems to be right now, the male dancers are much more dominant than the women.

Do you find that dance training around the country has become too diversified, e.g. focusing too much on hip-hop, jazz over classical training?

Well I can only speak for our own school that we have in San Francisco.  Part of the company, we train children in classical because it sets a solid base and proven, like you said, that if they are not going to go into classical dance later on that base will help them tremendously to go into modern dance or contemporary or whatever they want later on.   So we think from that.

What happens when dancers retire?

There are very, very few, extremely few, who will choreograph, and who have the talent to choreograph.   I have two principal dancers now who have started to choreograph, and both of them have talent, so I’m encouraging that.   Some go into teaching, but how many?

What is happening now is the dancers can get their education, their college education, through special programs, where as when I was [dancing], that was not available.   It was just either you want college or you want to dance, one or the other.   Now, we have programs in San Francisco associated with the college – so they have something to fall upon when they finish dancing, and I’m all for that.  And that’s something that’s really taking off, not only in San Francisco but also in New York.

... And I think that’s very important for dancers because dance is so – it’s a very risky business.   I mean, you can get one injury and that’s it.   You might have studied for eight years and then you go out two years later, *snap* that’s it.

I encourage them to do that.   But having said that, dancers have, they need and have a lot of discipline to dance, and dedication.   And, so after they have danced – I keep hearing this – people who hire them, in whatever capacity, always find them wonderful because they are so into that discipline and what they have to do.  I think they’re sought after.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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