A Quiet Manner and a Steady Hand
Lighting Designer James F. Ingalls on Helgi Tomasson
James F. Ingalls has worked with opera, theater, and ballet companies throughout the world; his work can be seen in the repertories of American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Mark Morris Dance Group, The National Ballet of Canada, and Norwedian National Ballet, among others. He first designed for San Francisco Ballet in 1994, and since then he has worked extensively on both story ballets—including Don Quixote, Onegin, Sylvia, and Nutcracker—and the 2008 New Works Festival and 2018 Unbound Festival.
My first three designs for San Francisco Ballet were Mark Morris’ Maelstrom (1994) and Pacific (1995), and Lila York’s El Grito (1997). I don’t remember if I met Helgi during those relatively quick technical rehearsals, but I was completely pleased when, in 1998, he asked if I would design the lighting for his own new piece, Silver Ladders. I do remember that in our first design meeting, he carefully and thoughtfully described what he heard in composer Joan Tower’s score and what he was thinking about doing choreographically. In the technical rehearsals, I was impressed with how calm he was; he preferred to go up onstage to give the dancers notes one-on-one rather than to use the “god mic” from out in the auditorium. He let [scenic and costume designer] Martin Pakledinaz and me get on with it; respectful and well-experienced in the tech process, he only jumped in when he thought we were going in an unhelpful direction, which happily wasn’t often. He was a pleasure to work with.
In 2004, Helgi asked me to design his new Nutcracker. Again, I was thrilled. We worked on it over many months, and I truly appreciated Helgi’s wise and thoughtful approach to design and production. Any Nutcracker is huge, and this San Francisco–based one was no different. Knowing that, Helgi had scheduled time onstage in the summer to work through the piece with all the technical elements and without the dancers. He gave us the necessary time to look, make key design decisions, and create a solid draft of the many scene shifts and transitions to get us more ready for the fall when time would be short.
We returned to the stage in November and ran the big transition of the tree growing through to the beginning of the snow scene as we had planned. Early the next morning, he called and asked if I could come by the theater ahead of rehearsal that day. I found him in the theater office with a video of what we had done, not convinced that we had sequenced the transition in the best way. He proposed his new idea, starting and stopping the video so we could mark key places to change. I could see that the idea had a good chance of working. I was impressed with Helgi’s quiet and careful pursuit of clarity and improvement, even when pressure was high and time was short. In the afternoon, we re-sequenced the shifts onstage and it was immediately better, bringing the audience into Snow in a clearer, stronger, more musical way. It was wonderful work to do and it only happened because Helgi saw the possibility and committed to try it.
In 2008 and 2018, Helgi asked me to design the New Works Festivals. Although he wasn’t choreographing pieces for them, he was certainly the guy in charge, with his quiet manner and steady hand. He was so great with the many choreographers—10 in 2008 and 12 in 2018—calmly offering words of encouragement and support. He started a running joke with me as he checked in at the tech table each day of the three weeks of rehearsals. He would look at me seemingly slightly surprised (and possibly really relieved) and ask, “Are you still here?”
I echo Peter Boal: “‘Bravo, Helgi Tomasson’ and thank you.”
SF Ballet’s 2022 Season is a celebration of Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s legacy. Check out which of his ballets the Company is performing at the War Memorial Opera House soon.
Header Image: Yuan Yuan Tan in Helgi Tomasson’s “Silver Ladders”, circa 1998-1999 // © Lloyd Englert, courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design