A Diamond's New Settings

March 23, 2008

“We know we have very high standards here. But sometimes you just have to remind people how good you are. We don’t want to be taken for granted.”


Helgi Tomasson has never been one to brag about his accomplishments during the 24 years he has run the San Francisco Ballet. But this morning as he decompresses in his sunny office during a grueling rehearsal schedule, he just can’t resist boasting a bit about the most daring project of his directorship.


The New Works Festival, which winds up SFB’s 75th anniversary season this month, will unveil 10 ballets over the space of three days. Eight of those premieres will add up to a kinetic history of Tomasson’s tenure. Their choreographers will include renowned dancemakers like Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, and James Kudelka, all of whom have contributed over the past quarter century to the company’s eclectic profile. However, four additional ballets will come from Julia Adam, Val Caniparoli, Yuri Possokhov, and Stanton Welch, former dancers whose flourishing choreographic careers have been nurtured at SFB. The debuting dancemakers are the Finnish iconoclast Jorma Elo and, an intriguing choice, pioneering Bay Area postmodernist Margaret Jenkins.


The New Works Festival was inspired by New York City Ballet’s historic 1972 Stravinsky Festival in which Tomasson danced so memorably. But this one, he says, will be even more demanding for the dancers. “At City Ballet, all the works were basically in-house. They all had a certain look and presupposed a certain training,” he notes. “Here, I’m bringing in so many different movement styles.”


For Tomasson, this festival seemed the ideal way to celebrate the 75th birthday of the oldest professional ballet organization in the U.S. The celebration would not have been possible without the SFB Association’s top administrative staff and a supportive board of directors. According to Tomasson, the board responded to his scheme with a single word, “Wow,” and went out to raise the money.


The logistics for the festival have been complex. He requested that the choreographers stay away from piano and chamber accompaniments, “so that we can show off our wonderful orchestra.” There were a few ground rules: no pas de deux, running times between 15 and 30 minutes, and casts that ranged between 7 and 16 dancers.


Further, the choreographers were encouraged to use commissioned scores. Three (Jenkins, Morris, and Kudelka) accepted the challenge. All the choreographers hewed to a rehearsal schedule that found them traipsing through the building, one or two at a time, from midsummer to early spring. Because the preparations in the weeks before the festival will strain the troupe to the utmost, for six days the stage will be turned over to three visiting companies—New York City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in its local debut.


Tomasson refused to assign or even suggest music to his visiting choreographers, a policy that dates from his early dancemaking efforts at NYCB. He recalls that Balanchine once gave him a particular score to work with. When Tomasson told his mentor that this music didn’t speak to him and proposed another composer, there was a long, ominous silence at the other end of the phone. “I thought that was the end of me,” Tomasson relates. “But Mr. B said, ‘Wonderful, he’s a very underrated composer,’ and he gave me a great piece of advice: ‘Don’t ever let anybody ever tell you what music to use.’”


Kudelka was an early beneficiary of that philosophy. The Canadian choreographer, then almost unknown in this country, bowed at SFB in 1987 with Dreams of Harmony, a surging company piece set to a Schumann symphony. It became a defining moment in SFB’s evolving aesthetic.


Kudelka, whose festival contribution will be The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful (to Rodney Sharman’s orchestrations of César Franck keyboard pieces), believes that Tomasson’s approach generates a healthy energy among the performers. “I think his dancers have become more and more open to working with choreographers. There is still the part of the dancer’s psyche that is impossible to remove, the part that will always consider Odette or Giselle ahead of a newly created role. But, on the whole, I have found the company increasingly open to new approaches and new ways of seeing themselves within dance.”


Artistic freedom for choreographers has been part of SFB’s policy since the more freewheeling Lew Christensen era. Caniparoli, who remains on the roster as principal character dancer, arrived at the SFB School in 1972 and a year later was yanked out of it by Christensen and moved into the company.


“Lew tried to groom me for the cavalier roles. I could lift and partner well, but I did not have a natural physique for ballet,” says Caniparoli. A decade later, he choreographed his first piece for SFB, as part of a Stravinsky festival. He flourished when, in 1985, Tomasson succeeded Christensen after his death.


“Fortunately, I thought positively. Helgi programmed my Hamlet and Ophelia, pas de deux,” says Caniparoli. “Lew had recommended me for the transition team, and I’m still here.” Since then, Caniparoli has made more than 60 ballets for companies from Seattle to West Palm Beach. His greatest success, Lambarena, premiered here in 1994 and has since entered the repertoires of 16 companies here and abroad. The work’s fusion of the ballet lexicon and traditional African dance was potentially inflammatory.


“Audiences go crazy over it everywhere,” says Caniparoli. “Yet a lot of people have decided that Lambarena is politically incorrect. Still, Helgi allowed it to happen. However, I must say now that I have been influenced more by Lew than I ever thought back then, though his work is not in vogue.”


Caniparoli may be alluding to Christensen’s favorable attitude towards narrative. His upcoming premiere, set to a Dvorák quintet, will be a meditation on the strong-minded heroines of Henrik Ibsen’s plays and will incorporate narrative elements.


So, too, will Julia Adam’s new ballet, which offers an irreverent gloss on Sleeping Beauty, accompanied by orchestrations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She describes it as “a little Rubik’s cube.” Adam came to San Francisco in 1988 from the National Ballet of Canada. Her “goofy, eccentric” sensibility served her well when it came both to performing and making dances. She honed her craft in workshops. In 2000 Adam said, “Helgi gave me an amazing opportunity and it sent me into a good place.”


The result was Night, a disarming, semi-satirical dreamscape, and it proved both a hit and career triumph for principal dancer Tina LeBlanc. “The applause that evening was like a wave of wind,” says Adam, who retired from performing in 2002. “That’s the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like Mick Jagger.”


Stanton Welch, artistic director of the Houston Ballet, was anything but a rock star when, fresh from Australia, he enrolled at the SFB School in 1988. Eight years later, he made his first (of five ballets) for the company. “Helgi is adventurous in his musical interests,” says Welch. “He’s very brave and you really want to feel that, if you fail, the company will stand behind you.”


Welch’s festival contribution will unite five couples with Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. “I thought of doing a tutu piece for a change. SFB’s dancers are so fast and stylistically versatile. You can get this wonderful rhythm going choreographically, then go back, add details, and they pick them up.”


The New Works Festival has kept the company’s 82 dancers hopping since last August. Soloist Frances Chung will dance in the Welch, Kudelka, and Jenkins pieces. She has also rehearsed the Morris and Elo. Kudelka, she says, demands “very slow dancing from me, something I never get the opportunity to do.” Welch arrived at the rehearsals knowing exactly what he wanted from his cast. “He was just on top of it.”


By contrast, the preparations for the Jenkins were something else: “Her process was so different from anything I had experienced before and so rewarding,” says Chung. “For four weeks we collaborated with Margey and the eight dancers from her company. She taught us how to work by using our breath. I’m not afraid of improvisation any more.”


Morris’ score, John Adams’ new Son of Chamber Symphony, declares Chung, is the toughest music she has ever danced to. “It worked our brains.”


All in all, the New Works Festival has been inspirational. “I’ve grown a lot,” says Chung. “It’s always great to have a ballet created on you.”


Will all these choreographers’ contributions to the New Works Festival add up to a recognizable SFB style?


“I think that style lies in our musicality and respect for the art form,” says Tomasson. “We use the classical vocabulary, but we never want to use it to the point where it looks rigid or academically correct. We must breathe life into it.


“I tell that to the dancers. I keep reminding them that their careers are so short and that they have nothing to save it for. Do it now. Get the experience. Enjoy. Enjoy.”


Allan Ulrich is a
DM senior advising editor and a contributor to publications here and abroad.


Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.