Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson (© Chris Hardy)
Helgi Tomasson has held the position of artistic director for San Francisco Ballet since July 1985. Since then, the Company has evolved from a respected regional troupe to an international company praised for its broad repertory, dancers of uncommon range and skill, and a vision that continually sets the standard for the international dance world.
San Francisco Ballet is dancing better than it has at any point in its history. As a choreographer, teacher, and coach, Tomasson has fostered an uncompromising classicism that has become the bedrock of the Company’s training. The dancers are energized and inspired by this rigorous training and continue to rise to new heights with each passing year.
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. Over the next six years, he became one of the company’s most celebrated principal dancers.
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.
In 1985, Tomasson accepted the invitation from SF Ballet to become artistic director of America’s oldest professional ballet company, drawing to a close a glorious performing career. Since assuming this role, Tomasson has choreographed over 40 ballets, including stunning full-length productions of Don Quixote (co-staged by Yuri Possokhov), Giselle, Romeo & Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, and two productions of Swan Lake (1988 and 2009). His intricate and varied works, such as 7 for Eight, Chi-Lin, Concerto Grosso, The Fifth Season, Handel—a Celebration, Meistens Mozart, Nanna’s Lied, and Sonata, showcase the unique qualities of individual dancers. Tomasson’s Prism, which debuted in 2000 at New York City Ballet, received rave reviews and was deemed a “triumph” by The New York Times. In 2004, his new production of Nutcracker, created in collaboration with an internationally recognized design team, debuted to enthusiastic critic and audience response. The New York Times proclaimed, “This is a Nutcracker on a grand scale…striking, elegant and beautiful.” On December 17, 2008, Tomasson’s Nutcracker was broadcast nationally on Great Performances on PBS, in partnership with KQED Public Television in San Francisco.
The strong classical base instilled by Tomasson enables the dancers to effortlessly navigate a myriad of styles by a range of internationally distinguished choreographers. Those invited by Tomasson to create works on the Company have included David Bintley, Val Caniparoli, Jorma Elo, William Forsythe, James Kudelka, Lar Lubovitch, Mark Morris, Yuri Possokhov, Alexei Ratmansky, Paul Taylor, Stanton Welch, and Christopher Wheeldon. Tomasson has also continued to expand SF Ballet’s repertory through acquiring works by renowned choreographers such as Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, August Bournonville, Michel Fokine, Hans van Manen, Wayne McGregor, Sir Kenneth McMillan, Agnes de Mille, Nacho Duato, Flemming Flindt, Roland Petit, Jerome Robbins, and Antony Tudor, among others. Tomasson’s own works have been performed by New York City Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Houston Ballet, Alberta Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón, and Asami Maki Ballet. In Denmark, Tomasson’s 1993 staging of The Sleeping Beauty was the most lavish production ever produced in the Royal Danish Ballet’s history and was filmed for Danish public television in April 1995.
Under Tomasson’s direction, SF Ballet has toured the world, receiving praise for its purity and verve. Engagements in China (2009), Copenhagen (1998, 2010), London (1999, 2001, 2004, 2012), Moscow (2012), New York City (1991, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2013), and Paris (1989, 1994, 2001, 2005, 2014) are among the highlights of the Company’s history. For the Company’s 2004 London engagement, SF Ballet won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award, its first, in the category of Outstanding Achievement in Dance. Of the tour, The Guardian (UK) noted, “As director of SF Ballet, Helgi Tomasson has started to acquire an aura of infallibility, his expertise in laying down repertory, and in balancing great evenings of dance, is held in envy by the rest of the profession.”
Tomasson’s vision, commitment, and dedication to the art of classical dance were demonstrated when he conceived UNited We Dance: An International Festival, produced in San Francisco in May 1995. Created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter, it included 12 international companies of the highest caliber that Tomasson had invited to present new works created by native choreographers. Never before had a dance event brought together over 150 artists for an unprecedented two weeks of creative exchange and inspiration. In spring 2008, as part of its yearlong 75th anniversary celebration, SF Ballet presented a New Works Festival of 10 world premieres by 10 of the dance world’s most diverse and acclaimed choreographers. The festival was called “ambitious and unprecedented” by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle hailed it as a “daring onslaught of fresh work… this is what the ballet world needs now.”
Tomasson’s achievements have garnered him numerous awards and honors, and he has participated as a judge for ballet competitions in Italy, Russia, France, Finland, and Japan. During the 1970s in his homeland of Iceland, he was named a Knight of the Order of the Falcon for his achievements as a dancer. In 1989, he received Dance Bay Area’s Isadora Duncan Award for his outstanding choreography of Swan Lake. In June 1990, Tomasson was named Commander of the Order of the Falcon by then-President of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, for his continuous achievements in the arts. In recognition of his artistic excellence, Tomasson received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement in 1992. That same year, he received the Dance Magazine Award in recognition of his contributions to the dance world. In 1995, Tomasson joined the Artistic Advisory Board of The Ballet Theatre in Prague, directed by Jana Kurová. Also in 1995, Tomasson was honored with the Cultural Award of The American-Scandinavian Foundation. In 1996, he was presented with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from Dominican College of San Rafael, in recognition of his value as a role model, his extraordinary career, and his community-service accomplishments. That same year, he was awarded the Isadora Duncan Special Award for UNited We Dance: An International Festival. In 2012, he was named recipient of the Dance/USA Honor, acknowledging individuals’ contributions to dance in America and the role they play in the national dance community.
Currently, Tomasson serves on the Board of Directors of the School of American Ballet and the Artistic Committee for the New York Choreographic Institute, and has served as a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Advisory Panel. In May 2001, Tomasson was granted the rank of Officier in the French Order of Arts and Letters, established in 1957 to recognize those who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. Hugues Gall, then director of the Opéra National de Paris, presented the award in a ceremony attended by the President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, following SF Ballet’s triumphant opening at the Palais Garnier. In spring 2002, the Board of Trustees of New York’s Juilliard School unanimously voted to bestow an honorary doctoral degree upon Tomasson, as one of five doctorates given annually in different artistic disciplines. In 2005, Tomasson was awarded the prestigious Lew Christensen Medal in honor of his 20th anniversary as artistic director of SF Ballet. In spring 2007, Tomasson won a sustained achievement award from the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, also in recognition of his distinguished, ongoing tenure as artistic director. In May of the same year, during a tour to Iceland’s Reykjavik Arts Festival, Grimsson awarded Tomasson the Grand Cross Star of the Order of the Falcon, the country’s most prestigious honor. In 2008, he was awarded the Commonwealth Club of California’s Distinguished Citizen Award. In January 2010, the Company’s Opening Night Gala, Silver Celebration, honored Tomasson’s remarkable achievements to date.
In addition to his role as artistic director and principal choreographer of the Company, Tomasson is the director of the San Francisco Ballet School. For Tomasson, the School is central to the life and development of the Company. Just as he expects the finest dancing and most meticulous attention to detail from his dancers, he demands the highest standards for training the students in the School.
Tomasson lives in San Francisco with his wife, Marlene, who was dancing with The Joffrey Ballet when they met. They have two sons, Erik and Kris.
Choreographed for San Francisco Ballet:
Swan Lake (2009)
On a Theme of Paganini (2008)
On Common Ground (2007)
Blue Rose (2006)
The Fifth Season (2006)
7 for Eight (2004)
Don Quixote (2003)
Concerto Grosso (2003)
Bartok Divertimento (2002)
Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers (1999)
Silver Ladders (1998)
Two Bits (1998)
Pandora Dance (1997)
Soirées Musicales (1996)
Tuning Game (1995)
When We No Longer Touch (1995)
Romeo & Juliet (1994)
Nanna's Lied (1993)
Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) (1992)
Two plus Two (1992)
Aurora Polaris (1991)
Meistens Mozart (1991)
"Haffner" Symphony (1991)
The Sleeping Beauty (1990)
Con Brio (1990)
Valses Poeticos (1990)
Handel—a Celebration (1989)
Swan Lake (1988)
Intimate Voices (1987)
Bizet pas de deux (1987)
Concerto in d: Poulenc (1986)
Prism (2000), choreographed for New York City Ballet
"Much Ado..." (1999), choreographed for Alberta Ballet
Simple Symphony (1996), choreographed for SF Ballet School Showcase.
Beads of Memory (1985), choreographed in 1985 for Houston Ballet
Little Waltz (1985), choreographed for New York City Ballet's Gala on students of School of American Ballet
Menuetto (1984), choreographed for New York City Ballet
Contredanses (1984), choreographed in 1984 for Finis Jhung's Chamber Ballet USA
Ballet d'Isoline (1983), choreographed for School of American Ballet
Giuliani: Variations on a Theme (1982), choreographed for School of American Ballet