Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, is celebrating his 35th year with the company, while the group is also celebrating the 75th year of staging Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Reykjavik native and George Balanchine protégé discusses his role.
What brought you to the San Francisco Ballet?
It was unexpected. At the time (1985), I was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet. Lew Christensen (who founded the San Francisco Ballet in 1933) asked me to take a look. I had not planned to be a director; but I thought it was a wonderful fit.
How do you keep ballet fresh for both new fans and fans who have been coming to the ballet for years?
Dance and form changes so I have to be on top of that and move along with the times, not creating museum pieces. I danced when George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were choreographing everything. Robert Joffrey was the first to approach the modern dance community (Alvin Ailey and others) and I grew up with that. In San Francisco, I sought to bring in choreographers from outside and train dancers a bit differently for what was important for me in their dancing. You must know classical technique but challenge the form and make some inroads to have a more contemporary way of looking at ballet.
How has Nutcracker changed during your tenure?
Choreographers all use the same vocabulary, the same keyboard. I interpret the keyboard or the vocabulary a bit differently with my own style or feeling. When I arrived, Lew was already in the process of changing his previous production. When he passed away, I had to figure out how to work within that structure. I then worked together with the production team on a concept with a different look for the 1986 premiere, which was staged yearly until we changed it again in 2004. The production changes but the story stays the same.
What is a highlight from your years with the company?
A very important milestone was when I staged Swan Lake in 1988. People took notice of the company around the country.That production made a big difference in how we were perceived and written about. We took it to the East Coast, Europe and China. We staged it again in 2009 with the same choreography but in a different production.
What should fans of Nutcracker look for this year?
We’ve invited former “Claras” and student performers from the past 75 years to fill the hall on opening night; there will be free commemorative program books; and we are setting up snowfalls and twinkling lights outside of the Opera House.
What should fans look forward to as we move into 2020?
We brought Romeo and Juliet to Copenhagen earlier this year. Then a beautiful production of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and new works from choreographers who were introduced at the Unbound Festival a few years ago, then Jewels from Balanchine before wrapping up the season with Romeo and Juliet.
Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her childrens’ schools, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.