Steps in the right direction

San Francisco Ballet may be America’s oldest dance ensemble, founded in 1933, but for the past 27 years its Icelandic-born director Helgi Tomasson has presided over a consistently creative programme.

When he took the job, however, American ballet was still in disarray over the loss of George Balanchine, the Russian-born choreographer who was a founding father for the art form in the US, with several hundred works to his name and a recognisable neo-classical aesthetic embodied in his New York City Ballet. His death in 1983 seemed to leave a gaping hole in the ballet world. There was innovative choreographic US talent, with such figures as William Forsythe and Mark Morris working in and out of ballet, although often focused on their adopted European homes. Moving away from the Balanchine-centric model was an uneasy task for most companies, however, and San Francisco Ballet, which begins a run at Sadler’s Wells in London next week, positioned itself in the forefront under Tomasson’s direction.

Tomasson completed his ballet training in Denmark, but a chance audition with US choreographer Jerome Robbins changed his trajectory: Robbins invited him to study for a year at the School of American Ballet, the school affiliated with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. He wasn’t hired on graduation, though. “It was not the right time for me or them,” the soft-spoken Tomasson says with a shrug as we talk in Hamburg Opera House during SFB’s first tour to the city this summer.

Instead, he spent eight years with two smaller American companies, the Joffrey Ballet and the Harkness Ballet, where he explored a new repertoire. His career soon took off; in 1969, he entered the Moscow International Ballet Competition and came second only to Mikhail Baryshnikov. The next year he was finally welcomed to NYCB as a principal dancer. An integral part of the Balanchine era as it drew to a close, he created a number of roles over 13 years, the most famous being the lead in Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée. He also started to choreograph.

Lew Christensen, SFB’s long-time director, had met Tomasson only once, for a rehearsal in New York, but insisted he was the man to lead SFB after him. After Christensen died, the board turned to Tomasson. “San Francisco Ballet was considered a good regional company, nothing more,” Tomasson explains. “They asked me if I could bring it to an international level, and I said, ‘Yes,’ ” he says, mimicking his own decisiveness with a sly smile.

Helgi Tomasson

Twenty-seven years on, Tomasson has repaid that leap of faith: few artistic directors can boast such longevity, and fewer still his critical hit-rate. As the company rose in prominence, Tomasson also helped shatter the distinction between the US top companies and so-called “regional companies”.

He was determined to open SFB up to outside influences. “I didn’t want to make it a second Balanchine company. He set a standard and a certain look for American ballet, if you think of the women’s high extensions, long lines, speed, but he was gone and it would be a bad imitation. What influenced me a great deal was the Joffrey Ballet when I was there. [Robert] Joffrey was the first one to bring choreographers from the contemporary or modern world into a classical company. I was exposed to a new world of dance.”

One early statement was a commission from William Forsythe in 1987, New Sleep, a radical new perspective on ballet at the time with its extreme shapes. The repertoire has since run the gamut of ballet aesthetics, from Ashton and MacMillan to Bournonville, Antony Tudor and Roland Petit, but Tomasson’s masterstroke lies in his relationships with choreographers, often early in their careers. Alexei Ratmansky, David Bintley and Wayne McGregor worked with SFB before becoming household names; modern dance’s Paul Taylor and Mark Morris are regular fixtures. Tomasson has nurtured choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov, who has produced 15 commissions in 10 years.

The result is a repertoire with fresh ideas. Of 10 short works to be performed at Sadler’s Wells, nine were created in the past five years. Among current trends, Tomasson cites more complex work for the corps de ballet and the increasing cross-pollination with modern dance. “I think the classical vocabulary has many more possibilities than most people think,” he says.

For its first UK tour in eight years, the company is bringing three mixed bills, with works by Possokhov, Morris and up-and-coming choreographer Edwaard Liang, plus three recent creations by Britain’s Christopher Wheeldon, another SFB regular. Tomasson’s own choreography – he has more than 40 works to his name – will be showcased too, in Trio, created last year. That’s not to say Balanchine has been forgotten. In a nod to US ballet’s presiding spirit, Tomasson will open the London season with Balanchine’s Divertimento no 15.

Following in SFB’s footsteps, companies across the US have started to come out of the shadow of the New York-centric ballet world, attracting top talent and collaborating with more diverse choreographers. Is SFB a new American model? “Let me answer,” Tomasson says, “with what those companies have said: ‘We look to you for an idea of what we want to be.’ ”

SFB’s season at Sadler’s Wells, London, runs from September 14-23

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