Thursday, October 17, 2019
Helgi Tomasson Talks Balanchine, Baryshnikov and Even Kennedy
Helgi Tomasson, who was born in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, now lives with his wife Marlene—a former dancer with The Joffrey Ballet--on a one-acre vineyard in Napa Valley. PHOTO: Karen Bossick
Sunday, July 7, 2019


He learned the steps to an award-winning performance of “Swan Lake” over breakfast. And, as a dancer, he became privy to George Balanchine’s great test.

Now, at 76, Helgi Tomasson is not only one of the supreme classical dancers of his generation but the man who has taken the San Francisco Ballet to acclaim on the world stage.

Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet for 34 years, recounted some of the highlights of his long career in ballet at the Community Library Saturday morning.

Four members of the San Francisco Ballet performed “Concerto Grosso,” choreographed by Helgi Tomasson. COURTESY San Francisco Ballet copyright by Erik Tomasson

The 10:30 a.m. conversation was relatively early, considering his ballet troupe had performed an exquisite two-hour showcase of modern and classical highlights the evening before. It will perform a different show at 7:30 tonight at the Sun Valley Pavilion.

Tomasson told the audience, which included some of the 130 students attending free dance classes offered by the San Francisco Ballet and its school, that dance appeared on his radar when his parents attended a dance performance on the island on which they lived south of Iceland.

When his aunt opined that 5-year-old Helgi would enjoy the performance, his mother ran home and got him during intermission.

 “After that I started dancing around the living room like crazy-–I wouldn’t stop,” he recounted. “My uncle, who was in soccer, suggested they enroll me in dance school to see if I would get it out of my system. I didn’t and that’s how it started.”

Tomasson’s talents quickly came to the attention of the ballet meister of the Pantomine Theater at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. At 15 he began dancing in two performances a night from May 1 through Sept. 15 while taking classes in the morning with one day off the entire summer for a religious holiday.

Then his dance teacher’s wife encouraged him to audition for Jerome Robbins.

“It was really scary but I got a letter offering me an opportunity to come to New York to study at Balanchine’s school,” said Tomasson, who came to New York at 17. “It was very exciting and lonely. I arrived in New York speaking very little English but it was wonderful to be there.”

Offered a chance to dance with the Joffrey Ballet, Tomasson found himself boarding a bus each morning for 10 weeks to drive between 150 and 200 miles to the next performance where he and his fellow dancers checked into their hotel, rehearsed and performed.

“Then we’d try to find a place to eat—usually a Chinese restaurant because they were the ones that stayed open,” he said.

A seven-week tour through the Soviet Union was not easy, he added because the dancers had no ala carte menu they could choose from. Some audiences booed. And they finished the tour in Moscow in December, which made New York look downright tropical.

Tomasson and his fellow dancers were sitting in a dining room in Kiev when President Kennedy was assassinated. A representative approached the group and said, “I have some very sad news. Your President has been assassinated. But we had nothing to do with it,” Tomasson recounted.

The troupe cancelled the next day’s performance and managed to arrange for a service at a church. Thousands of people showed up at the church, many of them touching his shoulder to express the sadness they felt at what had happened.

Tomasson toured Spain, Syria, Afghanistan and India with the Harkness Ballet before spending nine months in Europe based out of Monte Carlo. The experience gave them a cosmopolitan experience unknown to most American dancers.

It was the company’s founder Rebekah Harkness, who funded the company with her husband’s Standard Oil holdings, who encouraged Tomasson to represent the United States in the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1969.

“It was the Olympics of ballet,” said Tomasson.

He went prepared to dance Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” which had premiered only weeks before. And he was told that with his repertoire, he wasn’t going to get anywhere. But he went into his steely Icelandic don’t-give-up mode.

And, when he learned he needed yet another solo, he asked whether anyone could teach him the moves to “Swan Lake” over breakfast.

“I got a silver medal and Mikhail Baryshnikov got the gold medal so I thought, ‘I’m okay.’ I had big  success maybe because they recognized the music to ‘Swan Lake.’ Everything else I had sounded so foreign to them.”

The competition made Tomasson realize that his strength lay in classical ballet. And he soon found himself dancing as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet—a position he held for 15 years.

George Balanchine stood in the side wings during his first show, his foot forward so Tomasson had to jump over it as he made his way onto stage.

“I discovered later that that was his way of testing dancers. It was his way of saying, ‘If you can’t handle the pressure, don’t waste my time.’ ”

Following his retirement from New York City Ballet in 1985, the Danes tried to recruit him as a ballet master, even though he could not dance for the company as a youth because he was not Danish. The San Francisco Ballet came calling at the same time.

“I said, ‘Sorry, I’m going to Copenhagen, probably to sign a contract.’ They said, ‘Stall them.’ ”

As Tomasson saw the potential of the San Francisco Ballet, which was a regional company at the time, and the commitment from its board, he opted for the Bay area.

Since, he has choreographed more than 50 works, including full-length productions of “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo & Juliet.”

Not bad, he noted, considering he had only choreographed his first piece when approached by ABC to do a pilot program similar to the Ed Sullivan Show.

“I asked, ‘Who’s choreographing this?’  ‘You are,’ ” he recounted.

Intrigued by the process, he began practicing on students.

“If you started out with professional dancers, not only is that intimidating but they would start showing you what they want to do so it would end up being not your own creation.”

Over the years Tomasson has become renowned for picking choreographers who can keep a piece interesting not only at the beginning and end but all the way through.

“I was in an environment that was the best—I was with the New York City Ballet during its golden age. So that set my standard.”

There is no formula when it comes to picking dancers or choreographers, Tomasson said. When he didn’t have a dancer small enough to dance “Swan Lake,” he went out looking for one.

Tomasson said he has to plan a couple years in advance, which is not that easy because most choreographers don’t commit to what they’re going to do until the last minute.

There are so many things to think about, even down to how tall a female dancer is when she goes up en pointe opposite a male dancer.

Tomasson recently raised the bar by inviting 12 choreographers to craft pieces for “Unbound,” which premiered 12 ballets in a week. Three of those will be staged tonight.

It will be a varied program featuring Stanton Welch’s neoclassical “Bespoke,” Trey McIntyre’s reminisces about his grandfather titled “Your Flesh Shall be a Great Power,” and Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” which is set to songs by an electronic band as it takes the audience on a life-cycle journey of dreams songs.

“One thing I said to all the choreographers: Because this is ‘Unbound,’ you can do whatever you want. If there’s something you’ve been wanting to do but have not had the dance to do it, do it,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so successful.”


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