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In expansive company

Helgi Tomasson's mission: to keep the San Francisco Ballet classic, current and solvent. He's done it by favoring invention.

October 05, 2003|Sara Wolf | Special to The Times

The banners lining boulevards around town say it all. Emblazoned with a photograph of a couple cruising down a nighttime city street in a vintage convertible, they conjure the ultimate ride: Red leather seats. Gleaming chrome tail fins. Her blond curls tossed back midlaugh. His lips meandering down her neck. His hand caressing the long, liquid line of leg she has draped seductively across his lap -- wait a second, are those toe shoes she's wearing?

Designed to provoke a double take, the sly advertising campaign announces San Francisco Ballet's engagement this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The six-day run marks the return of the company to downtown Los Angeles after nine years and inaugurates the Music Center's first full season of dance presentations. More important, in the flash of an eye the banners make clear that this is not your grandmother's classical troupe.

"I just felt that the time had passed where you had to put two dancers in a classical pose -- in an arabesque or whatever," company artistic director Helgi Tomasson said recently at the Music Center. "People don't identify with any of that."

Tomasson doesn't, either. An animated speaker, the native Icelander peppers his conversation with vivid, fleeting gestures as he discusses why dance should matter to the hipoisie.

"I have never met a person who didn't like to dance at one time or another -- in high school, at a club. Everyone likes to swing a little. That's what a dance concert, whether classical or contemporary, is. It's not something people should be afraid of. You listen to music all day long -- do you know how it was put together or what it's about? Probably not, but who cares? The sound is great. Dance is the same. Take it for what it is. Just enjoy it."

Tomasson's enthusiasm pervades every aspect of San Francisco Ballet, from its salesmanship to a repertoire that ranges from 19th century story ballets to the cool, neoclassical works of George Balanchine to world premieres by modern dance choreographer Mark Morris and rising talents such as Christopher Wheeldon, the ballet world's current It boy.

Since taking charge of the company in 1985, Tomasson has given it a distinctive profile by balancing classical virtues with contemporary appeal -- a formula that has proved highly successful. Although it's the nation's oldest professional classical troupe, the message San Francisco Ballet sends is fresh, youthful and stylish.

Under Tomasson's leadership, the company has also risen from the ranks of regional troupes to become a formidable player on the international touring circuit. For more than a decade, critics have regarded it as one of the three best ballet companies in the United States, alongside American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. An appearance it made over the summer at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland prompted British critic Alastair Macauley of the Financial Times to call it "the most present-tense major-league company in the world."

Tomasson's expansive notions about the art of dance are the product of a distinguished performing career that included stints with a broad range of choreographers, from Alvin Ailey to jazz dance showman Jack Cole to the expressionist modernist Anna Sokolow. In the 1960s, he joined the Joffrey Ballet just as founder Robert Joffrey was beginning to bring modern dance choreographers in to experiment on the company. At the time, breaking the invisible dividing line between classical and modern idioms was all but unheard of. Tomasson found the process stimulating.

"Even though I had been trained as a classical dancer," the youthful 60-year-old remembers, "this was fun. When the Joffrey became the Harkness Ballet, for the next six years it was a similar format. Choreographers were brought in from different fields."

A historic time

In 1970, Tomasson joined New York City Ballet, where he remained for 15 years. His eyes light up when he recalls the electric atmosphere in the studio during that time. "It was a golden age for New York City Ballet. Balanchine was at his most creative. He and Jerome Robbins were just turning new ballets out.

"That's my background. So when I came to San Francisco to direct a company, I thought this was what was normal. I think people first thought that I was going to create a second City Ballet, which was the farthest thing from my mind. Balanchine was gone. I could only be a bad copy -- why do that? But it has always been important for me to be part of that kind of creative process."

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