Pointe caught up with San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson backstage at the New York State Theater in NYC, where the company was performing as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in July 2006.
Tomasson, who lit up the stage of the State Theater as a principal with New York City Ballet in the 1970s and ‘80s, ruminated on his 21 years directing SFB, what he looks for in dancers and choreographers, and what it takes to be a success.
POINTE: Is it as fulfilling personally and artistically to be an artistic director as it is to be a dancer?
Tomasson: It’s very different. As a dancer, you have a great performance one night and then the next day, it’s over. It’s another day, and you start again. As a director of a company, seeing it grow and be recognized, and watching talent grow and blossom—that’s very satisfying.
POINTE: Is it still important to you that San Francisco Ballet be recognized for excellence in Balanchine works?
Tomasson: Absolutely. I think many of Mr. B’s ballets are as contemporary or more so than some things that we see today by young choreographers. I spent a lot of time here in this theater, and I would not trade anything for those years. Ballets were created on me by Balanchine and Robbins, so that’s a very important part of how I see dance. But I also feel that we have to find our own voice and do our own thing besides having Balanchine ballets and Robbins ballets in the repertoire.
POINTE: What do you look for in choreographers?
Tomasson: I like them to have basic knowledge of classical technique and vocabulary. I prefer that they choreograph for women in pointe shoes, but how they use pointe and what they do with the movement—that’s up to them. I’m interested in how they challenge classical technique. How can they stretch it and twist it and make it more than it is now? I think that there are a lot of possibilities in classical technique. With such a wonderful base, how can we enhance it and make it move with the times?
POINTE: Your own choreography has evolved over the years. How do you continue to develop as a choreographer?
Tomasson: Like anything else, you work at it and stay with it. It’s not easy to direct a company and choreograph at the same time; being torn by so many different aspects of directing doesn’t leave a lot of time to choreograph. But I truly love working with dancers, teaching in the classroom, looking over rehearsal and choreographing. And as I’ve done more things, I’ve learned from them. That’s been part of a process.
POINTE: With several principal dancers approaching retirement age, San Francisco Ballet seems to be in a period of transition. How do you encourage the next generation to make the leap to principal caliber performance?
Tomasson: Well, there is always some kind of transition in any company—people come and people go. You have to give young dancers opportunities, challenge them—see what they’re made of. That’s my job. You don’t become an instant principal dancer or a great dancer overnight. It takes time, even for someone like Muriel Maffre, who is a great, great dancer and has a wonderful following in San Francisco and here, too. But it wasn’t always like that. When she first came, people were not as taken with her as they are now. Dancers have to be given opportunities. That’s the only way that they develop. If the talent is there, and the will, and they get the opportunity to be challenged by many different types of works by different choreographers, that’s what’s going to make them great dancers.
POINTE: What lessons from your own career do you try to impart to dancers?
Tomasson: Enjoy the moment. Dancers’ careers are not long. You spend up to 10 years training and by the time you start coming into a company at roughly age 18, it’s probably only going to be a 12- or 15-year career if you’re lucky and free of injuries. Enjoy it, and get the most out of it that you can. Don’t hold back—there’s nothing to save for.
POINTE: Aside from technique, what qualities are important to you in dancers?
Tomasson: A passion for dance and musicality. Passion is very important for me. But sometimes it just has to do with what I need that year. Am I looking for a tall ballerina because I have tall guys or am I looking for a small girl? It’s not a formula. I just tend to go by my instinct—when I see it, I know it’s right.