The Choreography Curator

May 15, 2011

It’s not easy to catch artistic director Helgi Tomasson for a chat mid-season at San Francisco Ballet. The company must squeeze eight programs into little more than three months a year at the War Memorial Opera House (the San Francisco Opera is the other principal tenant). Tomasson spends much of that period rushing from studio to studio.

But dealing with that constricted time frame is the only complaint you will hear from Tomasson, and he vents only because of his dancers. “We have a great roster,” he says.

“They must dance; we simply need to have more performance opportunities.”

In other respects, Tomasson, now 68, is satisfied. “If you had asked me 26 years ago if I would still be here, I’d say you were crazy,” confesses the Iceland-born former dancer in his airy office at SFB’s headquarters. “I think I have accomplished a lot by bringing in so many different choreographers to challenge the dancers.”

In his first years helming the company, Tomasson almost gleefully confounded expectations. He came to San Francisco in 1985, after retiring from a distinguished 15-year career dancing at New York City Ballet. But he had choreographed little and his management experience consisted of running a small chamber troupe. Rumors spread about the future identity of the company; Tomasson’s long relationship with Balanchine and Robbins led many to expect a pale imitation of NYCB.

But the cynics underestimated Tomasson’s passion for investigating a wide range of choreography, which was stoked in part by his early stints at the Joffrey and Harkness Ballets. So, while SFB performs Balanchine in exemplary fashion, the company devotes comparable attention to fare from Fokine to Forsythe. Tomasson has invited outstanding modernists, like Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, to make new dances. Christopher Wheeldon is an annual guest. And it was Tomasson who commissioned Alexei Ratmansky’s first American ballet.

“I have tried to show the entire spectrum of dance based on ballet technique,” he explains. When a revival of Forsythe’s blistering Artifact Suite again divided audiences this season, Tomasson was scarcely apologetic: “I loved the response,” he says. “In the second half of Artifact, the influence of Balanchine is unmistakable. Forsythe even acknowledges that debt.”

It is clear that Tomasson’s tenure in San Francisco has eradicated that ancient distinction between a national and regional American ballet company. What strikes you, even on first exposure to SFB, is the sheer stage-worthiness of the dances before you. Everything looks immaculately rehearsed. Revival here usually means rebirth.

Tomasson credits both his years with Balanchine and his SFB staff for that accomplishment: “They are very conscious of how choreographers want their ballets to be danced. We must be true to their visions, to their different characters and styles. The style is part of the meaning.”

To make up for the short season in San Francisco, Tomasson has pushed constantly for an extensive touring schedule, both here and abroad. “It has made us visible and highly respected,” he says. Those tours, which have included several visits to Europe and Asia, have generated interest among dancers worldwide and, no doubt, are partially responsible for SFB’s remarkable international roster. (Ask Tomasson why there are so few American principals at the moment, and he will query you: “Where are they?”)

Hailing from all over, there is no physical prototype for SFB dancers. They flourish in all shapes, heights and sensibilities. What they share, however, is an exceptional speed of articulation. British choreographer Wayne McGregor, who set his Chroma on SFB this season, says that, “after the Paris Opéra Ballet, San Francisco is the fastest ballet company in the world.”

Tomasson receives hundreds of DVDs every year from hopeful dancers. “You can tell a lot about a dancer’s talent from a DVD,” says Tomasson. “What you can’t tell is how a dancer will fit in with everybody else. We have a very high standard here. How do new dancers look in class? Can they keep up with the others?”

Tomasson prefers to see hopefuls try out in company class. “I need to think about whom I can pair them with. Sometimes, in choosing new dancers, I must go with what I need. I may have a lot of short guys in the company at some point, so I would not require too many tall women that season.”

Budget limits play a major role in determining who gets hired. But that situation changes annually and Tomasson’s advice is: “Persevere.”

He does not deny that students at the SFB School have an advantage in the hiring process. “There’s always a need for corps dancers, and there are some very talented people coming out of the program,” says Tomasson. “If we can’t hire them, we try to help them find jobs in other places. The school is very good about opening doors. I have often picked up the phone and asked directors of other companies if they need a dancer with particular qualifications.”

Ask Tomasson if he ever had to audition for Mr. B and he laughs. He had been a student at School of American Ballet for six months, but never made the cut to get into NYCB. A few years later, while dancing with Harkness, he received a telegram from Mr. B’s assistant, Barbara Horgan, urging him to come to New York and take classes with the company for a week.

“One day a dancer congratulated me. ‘Oh,’ I was told, ‘everybody knows you’ve been hired.’

“Was that an audition? You tell me.”

At A Glance
San Francisco Ballet
Founded: 1933
Number of Dancers: 69 company members and 4 apprentices
Contract Length: 42 weeks
Minimum Weekly Starting Salary: Corps: $1,064.78; soloist: $1,478.71; principal: $1,913.47, plus overtime, vacation pay and other benefits.