Youth and Beauty

Innovation is alive and well in Helgi Tomasson's S.F. Ballet

Twyla Tharp started it 28 years ago when she blasted the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" through New York's City Center. Onstage, while Brian Wilson's voice whined sweetly, Tharp's pop spectacle by the Joffrey Ballet got under way. A tall and leggy ballerina performed regal promenades, turning coolly in space, while other dancers raced around her, performing jelly rolls and doing the frug. The contrast was as radical as talking sex in church.

No one rushed to join Tharp in that new land of dance fusion she inaugurated with a work she called, simply, Deuce Coupe. The modernists stayed modern; the classicists clutched their dusty classicism like neocons gripping Adam Smith. Few directors could see exactly what those road signs Tharp seemed to be holding said. But as in most revolutions -- and this show was an aesthetic as well as a social revolution -- it took years before the new became the norm. Even now, when dancegoers have gotten accustomed to seeing prima ballerinas shimmy, daring programming is left to the Europeans.

That includes one European in San Francisco, Iceland-born Helgi Tomasson. Though Tomasson is no rock 'n' roller, his company launches its 2001 season with an astonishing lineup of young talent, some of it renowned, some of it nearly unknown. Without fanfare a Tharpian fusion has become the cornerstone of the San Francisco Ballet, where Tomasson is director; in one season he mixes elegant classics like Sleeping Beauty with the sensual vernacular of such choreographers as Val Caniparoli and Mark Morris. Tomasson has reared a company that can dance almost anything.

First Dance: Tomasson supports the work of untested young choreographers.
Marty Sohl
First Dance: Tomasson supports the work of untested young choreographers.

At one time so could he. In 1985, lured to San Francisco, Tomasson took on the job of elevating a mediocre ballet company. He had the proper pedigree for the multicultural city, but it wasn't clear he had a vision. Widely known as one of the foremost male dancers at New York City Ballet under George Balanchine in the 1970s, Tomasson originally trained in the pristine classicism of the Danes. Dance critic Marcia Siegel described him as a dancer of "inexhaustible excellence and good temper," the truth of which was made swiftly evident in Balanchine's transparent dances, where there was no place for any dancer to hide.

What few people knew then is that between his years at the Copenhagen Tivoli Ballet and NYCB, Tomasson was burnished by American neoclassical experimentalism, both at the Joffrey and Harkness ballets. He may never have performed Deuce Coupe, but he could have -- he danced in work that ran the gamut from the modernism of John Butler and the expressionism of Anna Sokolow to the jazz-inflected work of Alvin Ailey.

Though Tomasson is a model of Northern European reserve -- blushing easily, speaking in a gentle lilt -- he harbors a formidable will beneath his soft features. "I had a vision of making this company an internationally renowned company, touring the world," Tomasson, now 59, said by phone recently. "For a ballet company to be taken seriously you have to do the classics and do them well. At the same time it is important to bring in choreographers from outside. I got to perform work by such artists as Sokolow and Ailey, and had the good fortune to be there when all that was taking place. The feel of a repertory house, where choreographers can come back and work time and again, was something I wanted to bring to the company."

Tomasson developed such a relationship with Mark Morris in the early '90s, although not without effort. "I instantly recognized his talent and thought, "Hey, wait a minute, that's a person who has a lot to offer.' But it took awhile for him to really realize that I was serious, not just wanting a single sensational dance from Mark Morris."

Tomasson's patience clearly paid off. Morris will stage the world premiere of A Garden, to music by Richard Strauss, in the fourth of eight repertory programs, beginning Feb. 23. Then in April, in program seven, his highly regarded Pacific, set to a composition by Lou Harrison, will be reprised.

Last year marked a watershed in Tomasson's commitment to young choreographers. He embarked on the "Discovery Series," showcasing six works by dancers from within the company ranks. "I knew there were dancers who were interested in trying their hand at choreographing," he explained. "And I found it exciting -- and challenging -- to put on six untested young dancemakers."

Opportunity at the ballet, according to principal ballerina Julia Adam, occasionally arose out of hardship. "A lot of our tours had been canceled between May and December of 1993 because of orchestra strikes," she explained. "Most of us thought that we couldn't sustain ourselves as performing artists for that long without dancing, so Helgi gave us permission to work in the Christensen studio [in the Ballet building]." Born from that time was the Dancers' Choreographic Workshop, a chance for the players not only to keep moving but also to choreograph and perform for each other before a small group of friends, funders, and board members. Seven years later, Tomasson let the public in on their discoveries.

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