San Francisco Ballet is back in Paris, for the 10th year anniversary of Les Etés de la Danse. In 2005, the company performed as part of the Festival's inaugural season. While in Paris their artistic director Helgi Tomasson talked to Bachtrack about his choreography, artistic vision, inspirations and aspirations.

Helgi Tomasson © Chris Hardy
Helgi Tomasson
© Chris Hardy

[LM] Why did you accept the invitation, then, to take part in Les Etés de la Danse? What made it interesting for San Francisco Ballet?

[HT] I had brought the company to Paris before. I think the first time, we danced at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. We had also danced at the Opéra Garnier, on the invitation of the Paris Opera Ballet. Before directing the San Francisco Ballet, when I was a dancer [ed: with the New York City Ballet] I had also danced a lot in France. It has always been a very special place for me. So when I was asked to come and do this festival, I didn't even hesitate. I thought “Great, wonderful, I can bring the company!”.

I am always looking for touring opportunities for the San Francisco Ballet and to be asked to come for three weeks, in Paris, how can you say no? (laughter) Even though it was outdoors... and it was a big challenge. The venue was different, it was at the Archives. The setting and ‘ambiance’ around the performances, with those beautiful buildings around... it was really something special, but the weather was not always cooperative; sometimes it got too cold and sometimes it got so hot we worried about the people, especially during the matinées. Sometimes it rained... we weren’t always sure we would be able to dance... would the floor be too slippery? So when Marina de Brantes and Valéry [Colin] asked me to come back and said it was indoors, I said “Ah, yes !” (laughter). I had also danced in this venue [ed: Théâtre du Châtelet] when I was a dancer, so I knew the theatre and thought it was a great idea.

Is it important for San Francisco Ballet to tour?

Yes it is. The main reason for this is because we share the Opera House in San Francisco with the San Francisco Opera, and not in a typical way, like you have in European Opera Houses, performing one night opera and one night dance. The San Francisco Opera has the Opera House from September to mid December. Then we come in for the rest of December, with the Nutcracker, before starting again with our season from the end of January until the first week of May. That is quite intense since we have eight different programmes. But from May to December, there is nowhere else for us to dance in San Francisco. So I need to bring the company to other places, because dancers need to dance. That's why I am always on the lookout. We do a lot of new works, as you probably experienced with the répertoire that I brought, and we also need time in the summer and the fall to create. But still, most of the time, we tour, either in October or in November. 

It’s also important to showcase the company... 


For Les Etés de la Danse, you present a very mixed programme with works from varied international choreographers, and a large array of styles, which demonstrates the versatility of your dancers.

Yes. It is very typical of what we dance. We dance, of course, Giselle, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet... and that's important! But my main emphasis is to look forward, to attract new, upcoming choreographers to come and create for us. 

So you are also coming to showcase these? 

 Yes. I think I represented 15 different choreographers. That is quite something.

Les Etés is a festival that aims to bring, and introduce dance to its audience. With such a wide répertoire of works available,how did you programme the performances for Les Etés?

Programming is difficult. It really is an art in itself. You have to create a programme that looks built, with works which complement each other. I had so many new works that had never been seen here and I wanted to bring those to Paris.

Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in <i>Caprice</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in Caprice
© Erik Tomasson

Is there an open dialogue between the works? The evening with Caprice, your own creation, Balanchine's Agon, and Robbins’ Glass Pieces began with a very classical work and finished on a more modern style. 

Yes, as much as possible. Eighteen ballets is a lot, and I could not have the same programme every night. So I tried to arrange them in such a way that it would build up to something. And, as you said, Caprice was created using a very classical idiom and technique. It makes for a good beginning, the evening then progressing towards a more modern language, with Robbins. So, in general, I always try to mix the works within a programme so that the same evening would not necessarily be the same all the time.

Pascal Molat in Balanchine's <i>Agon</i> © Erik Tomasson
Pascal Molat in Balanchine's Agon
© Erik Tomasson

Three of your creations – Chaconne (1999), The Fifth Season (2005) and Caprice (2014) – are danced in Paris. Why choose these in particular?

Caprice was a new work which I had created for Miss Tan and Miss Kochetkova. Then I looked at the programmes, wondering what could go well together... what could be a good start, and what would finish an evening well. For whatever reason, I ended up choosing these. But my main intention is to show all the choreographers with whom we work and to show what the company is all about. Yes, I choreograph also. But it is not like in some companies that are mainly about the one choreographer throughout. That is not how we work. There are very few choreographers – hardly any – who choreograph in what I call the ‘classical technique’ idiom and I think it is also important for dancers to dance in that way and remember where they come from. It is also important for the audience.. Some people like that and some people are more into contemporary. Again, I like variety.

You created Caprice in 2014. Can you tell us a little bit more about the creative process? You said it was created for Miss Tan and Miss Kochetkova…

 …and of course Davit Karapetyan and Luke Ingham. But I think the other cast that I have is also very interesting because it is very different, with Sarah Van Patten, Mathilde Froustey and their partners. For a choreographer, it is interesting to see different casts because they are not exactly the same and each brings something unique into the ballet.

Why the two couples, sometimes interacting, and sometimes not? 

 I like to showcase my dancers, for their qualities and their strength. Over the years I’ve been thinking that it would be nice to choreograph something to Saint Saëns, and last year I decided to do it. Not because we were going to Paris, that didn’t even enter my mind. I was just looking for music and it was very suited. 

I agree. Saint Saëns’ music is fantastic material to explore choreography.

 Yes. Some of his piano concertos are also very beautiful. I did not choose one because the ballet that I had done before Caprice was to a piano concerto. So I thought best to go with something orchestral. The idea of having two couples came with the adage, [from The Third Symphony] In the middle of it the music changes. And I thought that was the perfect place to bring the other couple and then have them all together. So it was when I heard the music, its structure, that I felt it was suited to have two couples dancing. And there was a very different energy between the couples. Strong characters.. Yes, that is exactly what I was trying to do.

San Francisco Ballet in <i>Caprice</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Caprice
© Erik Tomasson

Dance today interacts with, reacts to and even challenges society. It has also become increasingly popular... But what about tomorrow? How do you see things evolving?

Interesting question. I think dance as an art form, is evolving. And it has to. It has to change with time. What I try to do – and we have been very successful in doing so, in America and on tour – is to show the many faces that dance can have. For me, there is not only ‘modern dance’ or ‘classical ballet’. Dance is so much more than that! Each style has its place... but in between there is what you could call neoclassical. It uses classical vocabulary and technique. And some choreographers still work en pointe. This style of dance is continuously evolving and there are many possibilities there... endless possibilities even! 

Dance also evolves through the dancers…

 Yes. Dancers were very different thirty of forty years ago to how they are today. In some ways, we have been influenced by modern dance, and used it, and that’s what I find interesting. For instance, William Forsythe was very influenced by Balanchine. He took the material, sort of twisted it and out of it came his own, very distinct style. But dancers need to train in ballet, to be able to dance many different styles. Dancers who only train in modern dance cannot move in a classical, or neoclassical style. So I hope the classical technique idiom will stay with us for a long time. It’s almost like a pianist, who needs to practise the scales. You need to do it, in order to play many different things. And I hope in the future, the classical technique will remain. 

How will dance evolve in the future? Of course that will depend on choreographers, on society... on what people want to see more or – less – of. 

Which choreographers really inspire you today?

At the moment, Wheeldon, Ratmansky and also Liam Scarlett, a young upcoming choreographer. I also thought it interesting to have Mark Morris choreographing for us. His work is more modern, but he has so much knowledge about ballet and ethnic dance, as well as modern dance. He can combine all that. And there are always new upcoming talents. There is a young corps de ballet dancer in my company who just started to choreograph and he will create a ballet for us for the next season. Before that, I had him doing two things for the school [San Francisco Ballet School], and these were very good, so let’s see what happens! There is always someone!

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's <i>Hummingbird</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's Hummingbird
© Erik Tomasson

Are there choreographers with whom you have not worked yet that you would like to invite? 

 Yes there are, but I do not want to name names (laughter). It’s also a question of availability. Style-wise, I’m always interested in choreographers who will help our company evolve. Having said that, I always want a choreographer with a very good understanding of the classical technique – ideally with women on pointe. It distinguishes us. We are a neoclassical company. There is nothing wrong with modern dance, do not misunderstand me, but that is just not what we are. Sometimes I see works on flat, find them very interesting, but then I think “That’s good... but maybe not what we need”. It will also be very difficult for the women, who are dancing three ballets in one evening to have to do one barefoot and then have to go back to dancing on pointe. These are also the kind of things I need to think of.

There was very positive energy in the works you showed at the Festival, making dance accessible to all. 

I appreciate you saying this because that is very much what I try to keep in mind. I look for dancers who are absolutely passionate about what they do. And there has to be energy because dance is based on energy! Very often, when I programme bills I think “What can I show of our company to someone who has never seen dance?” I can’t guarantee that they will like all three ballets, but they might like one or two… Most of all, I want them to experience it and say “I had never seen ballet before but I want to come back!” (laughter) That is very important for me. Sometimes I hear people say “Oh, I didn’t know ballet was like that!” They have this preconceived idea that it is old-fashioned. I can’t guarantee people will like everything they see, but, hopefully, enough for them to say “I will come back. I am intrigued.”

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Robbins' <i>Glass Pieces</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Robbins' Glass Pieces
© Erik Tomasson

And you have done so successfully, with San Francisco Ballet...

When I took over, in San Francisco, almost thirty years ago, it was a good regional company, with talented dancers. But I wanted to open up the windows and bring in some fresh air, and new ideas. I had lived and danced in New York where you could go and see the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor… You could see many different styles of dance and companies. And there were also all the companies visiting! In San Francisco, there was only the San Francisco Ballet, and few small modern dance companies. When I came, I tried to show audiences the whole rainbow of what dance can be. And that is why I asked people like William Forsythe to come and create work for us. We also performed Balanchine and Robbins. Then I went to Mark Morris so that it would not only be Swan Lake and La Sylphide, which people sometimes identify ballet with. We want to show what dance can be. We are a very creative neoclassical company!



Helgi Tomasson has held the position of artistic director for San Francisco Ballet since July 1985. Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Tomasson began his early ballet training there with an Icelandic teacher and then joined the National Theatre’s affiliated school, which was led by Danish instructors Erik and Lisa Bidsted. At 15, the emerging dancer began his professional career with the celebrated Pantomime Theatre in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. Two years later, Jerome Robbins met Tomasson and, impressed by his dancing, arranged a scholarship for him to study at the School of American Ballet in New York City. Soon after, Tomasson began his professional career with The Joffrey Ballet and two years later joined The Harkness Ballet.

In 1969, Tomasson entered the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow as a United States representative and returned with the Silver Medal (the Gold Medal was awarded to Mikhail Baryshnikov). The following year, Tomasson joined New York City Ballet as a principal dancer and over the course of his career became one of the finest classical dancers of his era. He was one of the foremost interpreters of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and both men created several roles expressly for him. In 1982, Tomasson choreographed his first ballet for the School of American Ballet Workshop, which elicited encouragement from Balanchine to continue choreographing.