Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Taking Ballet into the Twenty-First Century

A profile of Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet

No tribute to George Balanchine’s career is complete without a look at the accomplishments of his dancers. As much as any of the master’s protegés, Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, has carried on the Balanchine legacy with aplomb. On the occasion of Tomasson’s retirement from New York City Ballet, dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the New York Times that Tomasson “enabled Balanchine . . . to show off his choreography for men at its most classical.”

Born in Reykjavik in 1942, Helgi Tomasson left Iceland at the age of fifteen to study at the Tivoli Gardens’ celebrated Pantomime Theatre in Copenhagen. Two years later, he moved to New York City to continue his studies at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Tomasson began his professional career at the Joffrey Ballet in New York, but after only two years moved to the Harkness Ballet, where he became one of the company’s top dancers. In 1969, he won the silver medal at the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow (the gold medal that year was won by Mikhail Baryshnikov), and the following year he joined Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (NYCB) as a principal dancer. Both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins created outstanding roles for him during his fifteen years with the company.

After retiring from the stage in 1985, Tomasson became artistic director of San Francisco Ballet (SFB), one of the premiere ballet companies in the US. For SFB, Tomasson has choreographed original works as well as restaged classics such as Swan Lake, Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty. His choreography does not dominate the repertoire, though. Mindful of a ballet company’s need for artistic growth, Tomasson has brought in the most important choreographers of the day (like James Kudelka, Mark Morris, William Forsythe, Val Caniparoli and David Bintley) and also encouraged new talent (Julia Adam, Yuri Possokhov and Christopher Wheeldon).

In this year of Balanchine’s centennial, SFB pays homage to Tomasson’s old master with two programs of six works. Here in Montreal, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal presents a look at Balanchine’s legacy in America, performing Tomasson’s Prism alongside Balanchine’s Episodes and Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. As part of Maisonneuve’s own celebration of Balanchine’s centennial (in the June/July issue, on newsstands now), our dance critic spoke with Tomasson about his career and about Balanchine’s legacy.


Why did you want to dance with the New York City Ballet?

I wanted to dance there because of the enormous creativity going on in the company. Every year Balanchine would do at least two or more ballets and Jerome Robbins would do one or two. A couple of years after I joined, there was the Stravinsky Festival, which premiered over twenty-two new works in three weeks! . . . I already had had the opportunity at the Joffrey and Harkness Ballet to dance for many modern choreographers--Alvin Ailey, Anna Sokolow, Jack Cole, just to name a few--who were just starting to work with ballet companies, so I had the experience to do a lot of different types of dancing that I hadn’t been trained for as a classical dancer. But in the end, it was that incredible creativity at NYCB, with Balanchine and Robbins at their best, both geniuses, creating works for myself and my fellow dancers . . . like the solo in Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée,” which he [Balanchine] created for me and which has been written about as being one of the most beautiful male solos ever created. He choreographed that in an hour and twenty minutes, which is amazing.

What was Balanchine like as a director?

He was wonderful to work with. Of course he knew what he wanted, but he was soft-spoken. I don’t ever remember him screaming or yelling, but then we all had so much respect for him maybe he didn’t have to! He took you into his company and you became one of his family. If he took you in, it was because he wanted you there for your talent . . .

He really wanted great dancers around him to work with, men as well as women. He wanted us [men] to be strong partners and good technicians, so we could do both. What may be different from other companies is that he didn’t stress the star system. I think we were all equally stars in his eyes, but he didn’t promote us as stars individually. We were there for the art of dance, for his creative process, and we wanted to be a part of that. And yes, we shone in many of the works, but it wasn’t pushed on us.

Which of Balanchine’s ballets had the most impact on you as a dancer and a choreographer?

What’s special for me is Baiser and Symphony in Three Movements [Ed: both have parts created specifically for Tomasson] and a few other ballets. And then there are other works like The Four Temperaments, Agon, Symphony in C and The Prodigal Son, which he taught me himself . . . His range of style is so vast, so enormous, that it is very hard to pick a favourite.

What do you think are some misconceptions about Balanchine?

People tend to say, “Oh, he’s cold,” but look at Serenade. It is beautiful! We don’t know what the story is--you can make up your own--but we know that something is going on, and it is romantic. The adagios in Symphony in Three Movements and Chaconne--I could go through many of his ballets where you know that there is a great romanticism. Maybe he has peeled away the excess, the frills, and has taken it down to the marrow, to the essence of the movement, the music and the dance, but he is never cold.

Why is Balanchine’s work still relevant today?

It’s just so good! Look at Agon, for instance. In a way, it is more contemporary than most things we see today.

What did Balanchine teach you about dance?

What I learned as a dancer, more than anything else, was a sense of a musicality, the feeling of music. When he choreographed, he hardly ever counted the music for you, Stravinsky or not. He said, “Just listen. You will be dancing to live music, and the music will be slightly different from one night to the next because a human person is conducting that orchestra. Sometimes it’ll be a little fast, sometimes a little slow, so you can’t count it because you might not be with the music if you count it your way. Just listen, listen to the music.” And something else I never had stressed to me before: the speed and freedom of movement. All those things I took in as a dancer, and indirectly that has influenced me as a choreographer.


What did Balanchine teach you about being a director?

I have to admit that when I was dancing, I just concentrated on that. Being a principal dancer, staying on top all those years, takes commitment, time and effort, so I never thought, “One day I’ll direct a company and [so I should] watch Balanchine and see what he does.” A lot of things sunk in unconsciously. He was a very logical person in his approach to his own work. When I was first starting here, I would think, “What would Mr. B have done?” And so often I found myself asking, “What is the logical thing to do? What would he have done in this situation?” And then it would become clear to me: “Yes, that’s what I should do. Of course! Why didn’t I think about that before?” So, yes, he was an influence, but I still have to run this company [according to] who I am and what my experiences have been. While I spent fifteen years at NYCB, I also spent six years with Harkness and Joffrey touring all over the world and dancing ballets by many different choreographers . . . Before that I was in Denmark at the Pantomine Theatre, where I learned commedia dell’arte. All this shapes me and makes me who I am. I never set out to make a NYCB copy [in San Francisco]. I knew from the beginning that that would be a bad copy, and I have to do what I think is right for this company. Yes, we do Balanchine ballets, but we do ballets by other choreographers as well.

What do you stress when teaching his ballets?

Of course, the articulation of the movement. Most of all, though, the phrasing, the musicality, how he choreographed to the music, which I feel is not always stressed when I see other companies dance his work. That seems to go the quickest--the phrasing of it. And if you hadn’t worked with Balanchine yourself, you might not look at his work in these ways. I think that dancers sometimes start to infuse their own tempo and way of doing it . . . [At SFB] I have always had a ballet mistress who either worked with me at NYCB or was a dancer at that time and also worked with Balanchine . . . Between the two of us we know very well what he wanted.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal is performing your Prism in May. What can you tell us about the work?

Prism is a big work in the neoclassical style. I choreographed it originally for the NYCB. I had the whole company available to me, and since the music would be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, I felt that the work should have a big cast. When I went to New York to choreograph it, some of the wonderful dancers there were young and up-and-coming, so I used the ballet as an occasion to feature them: it has that element in the structure. Dancers seem to enjoy performing the ballet, both at NYCB and here in San Francisco. It has a beautiful adagio in the centre, but involves several other couples in the beginning, who kind of peel off until you end up with the essence, the lead couple. There is also a great emphasis on male dancing . . . It’s hard to talk about one’s own work; you just have to see it for yourself!

What excites you about your job as a choreographer/director?

I wouldn’t say it’s easy to choreograph; it’s hard work. I really enjoy being in the studio, working with dancers, putting together steps and seeing how they work for them--not according to the way I used to dance, what I would have wanted to do, but what truly looks good on them. I also find it satisfying seeing up-and-coming dancers given a chance and succeeding in it. Just being in the studio, whether to coach a Balanchine ballet, a work of my own or whatever, that’s what I really enjoy about directing.

Some critics have spoken about the death of classical ballet since the influx of contemporary choreography in ballet companies’ repertoires. What are your thoughts on their complaint?

When I think of Christopher Wheeldon, [I feel that] he truly uses the classical vocabulary and it works. His ballets are wonderful. And Yuri Possokhov does the same. When I think of Julia Adam, who was trained as a classical dancer, I find that she has ventured into discovering her own movement, which I would say is more contemporary, but is still based on the classical technique . . . Dance has changed; there is a different way of doing things. But ballet is still very much alive, at least in San Francisco!

For more on Balanchine and his legacy, check out “How to Follow Mr. B?” in the June/July print edition--on newsstands now—as well as Maisonneuve’s interview with Christopher Wheeldon.

“Pureté Balanchine,” presented by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, runs May 20-22, 27 and 29 at Place des Arts’ Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal.