Mary Wood, dance scholar and moderator of San Francisco Ballet's pointes of view lectures, sat down with artistic director and choreographer Helgi Tomasson and executive director Glenn McCoy to talk about the ballet's landmark 75th anniversary season. These excerpts from the interview touch on some of the highlights of the season.
Mary Wood: Tell us about the New Works Festivalwhich actually comes at the end of the season and your decision to present 10 world premieres.
Helgi Tomasson: Well, a 75th anniversary is quite a milestone for any ballet company in this country, and I felt it would be challenging and very exciting to invite 10 choreographers to create 10 brand-new pieces for us. My idea with the whole thing was to look forward. I think so often when there are anniversaries, people tend to look back. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I just felt that this time, let's look forward and create new things. That was my primary goal.
I chose 10 different choreographers that are very different in their approach to dance, and I wanted to show that diversity and style and how they approach dance and how they work with ballet companies. Some of them are truly modern dance choreographers, like Margaret Jenkins. I thought it would be a wonderful challenge to see what would come out of it.
MW: All 10 of these works are going to be seen in rotation toward the end of the season.
HT: Yes, the [New Works] Festival is over a two-week period, and we will premiere all 10 works the first three days.
MW: Glenn, besides all of the wonderful riches on the stage, what sort of special events are going to be enticing the community during this New Works Festival and the 75th season in general?
Glenn McCoy: In addition to these 10 world premieres, Helgi is doing his own world premiere earlier in the season. That's quite enough already. In terms of the kinds of events we usually do, our opening-night gala on the 23rd of January will be a celebration [of] our diamond anniversary. Then for the opening of the New Works Festival on April 22nd, there will be another very special event with a dinner for that evening. I think that will be in a more contemporary veinreally in the spirit of looking forward, as Helgi pointed out, which is something we've really tried to honor in all the activities that we're planning around the 75th anniversary. In addition to honoring our past, [we're] really trying to give a very beautiful and clear snapshot of the Company today.
But first and I think the most impressive thing we've seen so faris a very special commemorative book entitled San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five, published by Chronicle Books. It's absolutely stunning, beautiful images and it's not organized chronologically; it's organized around themes that we think would make it really interesting in terms of getting to know how we produce the work that we do. You get to learn more about Helgi and about the dancers and all the wonderful people in the community who have supported the Company over so many years and made it what it is. It's available now on the Ballet's website [sfballet.org/thebook].
MW: I'm aware that there are a couple of special events during the premiere week some symposia which will give audiences a chance to hear from the creators, choreographers, and creative teams. Can you say a little more about that?
GM: We knew that this festival that Helgi has come up with would be a magnet for not just dance lovers but dance scholars and, of course, the international dance press. So we expect a lot of visitors because we think this will be the center of the dance universe for a couple of weeks. We felt [it] would be important to provide some sort of educational component. We have a couple of events with panels that include very well-known dance scholars and dance press, people who have worked in technology and using dance in new ways. So in looking forward, we're trying to engage people who know dance in some fruitful conversations about the future of dance.
MW: Helgi, the season actually opens with a revival of Lew Christensen's Filling Station. Talk about the significance of that wonderful piece.
HT: Well, I think it was very appropriate to have one of Lew's works, and this is probably one of his best-known works, and I just thought that was the way to start the year. I'm tipping my hat to him and acknowledging what a tremendous work [Lew, Willam, and Harold Christensen] did under difficult circumstances and what they achieved, and the foundation they built for this company. I'm reaping the harvest of it. It was without question that a Lew Christensen work should be on the program.
MW: Turning back to Glenn, San Francisco Ballet's history began 75 years ago, in 1933. From the vantage point of your 20 years at San Francisco Ballet, comment on the significance of this ballet company in the Western United States.
GM: Well, I think most people are surprised when they learn that San Francisco Ballet is America's oldest professional ballet company. And although Balanchine was beginning to re-create ballet in the neoclassical style in New York [in the early 20th century], most people don't realize that there was something happening all the way out in San Francisco. I think there is something about San Francisco Ballet that is reflective of the pioneering spirit of the West and California.
Although it seems an unlikely place for American ballet to get started, I think it seems awfully appropriate in terms of the way we think about creating the work now. Helgi is always looking to push the envelope. I think he has created a style of programming that is beginning to be emulated by other companies around the world. As we see some of our dancers retiring and going on to lead other companies, I think we'll see more and more of the Helgi Tomasson model. I think that's going to be part of Helgi's great legacy. I find that completely consistent with the same kind of pioneering spirit that the Christensen brothers had that produced Americac's first Swan Lake in San Francisco, America's first Nutcracker in San Francisco, America's first Coppélia.
MW: San Francisco Ballet has a very special relationship with the ballets of Jerome Robbins, and Program 4 is a tribute to that great American choreographer. Helgi, we know that you have had a special relationship with Jerome Robbins. I think the highpoint of that program is going to be West Side Story Suite, and when we were referring to challenges earlier, that presents an absolutely special challenge to the San Francisco Ballet dancers. What is that challenge?
HT: Not only is it a challenge dance-wise in portraying the story that's done in a suite there are some very good singers in this company. I could not sing when I was dancing. I still can't sing. I think that to be in the studio learning the step and character but also to have to be in front of their peers singing was probably quite nerve-racking for them. But I must say that there was tremendous support from all the dancers to whomever was singing. I think it's going to be a wonderful addition to the season.
MW: In the Night shows Robbins in a very different part of his artistic style.
HT: It's what I would call the "real ballet" side of him. He loved ballet. Of course he did things on Broadway and, very successfully, some big shows and plays. Of course Fancy Free was one of the very first ballets he created. And so he shows that part of himthe sort of American side of him. In the Night is the ballet side of him, which he truly loved. West Side Story is out of Broadway, so we see that side of him. For the first time in this city, we're doing West Side Story Suite, so I think that will be very exciting.
MW: Another highlight of the season is what's being called the International Salute to San Francisco Ballet. The companies that are being presented in this international salute are to some extent companies that have some relationship with San Francisco Ballet. For instance, New York City Ballet. What will they be doing?
HT: Duo Concertant, which is a pas de deux that Balanchine created during the Stravinsky Festival. It's a beautiful pas de deux. So [New York City Ballet] are being presented by that particular piece. It's a typical neoclassical work.
MW: And The National Ballet of Canada, which is our immediate international neighbor, and over time we have enjoyed Canadian dancers dancing with our company.
HT: [With former Artistic Director] James Kudelka choreographing for us.
MW: Exactly. I'm aware that the piece that will be presented by them is by a choreographer who was here last season, [Matjash] Mrozewski, whose work A Delicate Battle will be presented.
MW: The third company comes from EuropeLes Ballets de Monte-Carlo. I don't think this is a company that will be familiar to the Bay Area.
HT: Well, that's one of the reasons I asked them to come. It's a wonderful company, very interesting company. The director, Jean-Christophe [Maillot], is a wonderful choreographer and has been there for a while. I just felt that bringing a company that is not familiar with San Franciscothis would be wonderful. And again, they bring a piece [Altro Canto] that would be totally new and a true representation of what that particular company is about.
MW: Every season, it seems, has a great classic ballet, a great classic full-length ballet. This season's representative is going to be the ballet Giselle. Is there any particular reason why that one was chosen?
HT: Well first of all, I have to say that it's very very important to me to have the classics as part of the repertory. I think to be truly judged as a major company on the international level, you have to be able to dance the classics and dance them very well. So that is one part of it. It is also extremely important for the dancers who dance the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht to experience it and learn from it. It's part of their growing as artists to dance those roles. Particularly Giselle. It's very demanding. This year it was an important work to be seen again, and I have the right people for it. So again, it's a very important learning process, and each year there are new corps de ballet members who come up through the [San Francisco Ballet] School, so it's important for them to feed into that particular role in the corps and learn to appreciate that beautiful work of Giselle.
MW: Glenn, there are a few other things going on during this landmark season. Helgi has referenced a tour that will take place this fall. So during the 75th Anniversary Season, the Company will travel throughout America as America's oldest professional ballet company. Where will they be going?
GM: It's kind of perfectas you say, America's oldest professional ballet company to finally get out into America. We have dates planned in Chicago [at Harris Theater]. And we'll be in New York City at City Center, [and] Orange County Performing Arts Center, which is a wonderful venue. Then ending at the [John F.] Kennedy Center [for the Performing Arts] the week of Thanksgiving. We think that it's kind of perfect to end at the nation's capital.
MW: Glenn, Another thing that I think is going to be very interesting is San Franciscans and tourists from around the world are going to be able to indulge in learning about our history through some very special exhibits. Would you mention a couple of those?
GM: We're doing a couple of exhibits that we're very excited about. In partnership with the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, we'll be producing exhibits in the lobby in the [War Memorial] Opera House throughout our season in two phases. The first phase will be more retrospective, historical in nature. The second will be during the New Works Festival, again looking at the company right now with a more forward-looking theme.
MW: I understand that there [are] exhibits at the San Francisco [International] Airport.
GM: Yes, [they] approached us a long time ago when they heard about the 75th. They have a beautiful exhibition space in the international terminal, and they will have nearly 75 bits of memorabilia from our pastcostumes, design sketches, all sorts of things. It should be really, really fascinating.
MW: Some thoughts to just conclude. Perhaps from Glenn, a comment about the community's response to the fact that one of their major art organizations is celebrating an anniversary.
GM: It's been really wonderful to talk with some of my colleagues in the arts community about the anniversary, and everyone is so excited. [In October], we were honored by the San Francisco Historical and Museum Society at a beautiful event at the Fairmont Hotel, also honoring a number of other arts organizations celebrating important anniversaries. We were the oldest.