A Talent for Seeing Talent
Ballet Master Anita Paciotti on Helgi Tomasson
Bay Area native Anita Paciotti joined SF Ballet in 1968, working with Lew Christensen, Michael Smuin, and Helgi Tomasson until she retired in 1986 to become a ballet master. In that role, she has been part of the creation of ballets by choreographers David Bintley, Val Caniparoli, James Kudelka, Edwaard Liang, Lar Lubovich, Cathy Marston, Yuri Possokhov, Stanton Welch, Christopher Wheeldon, and Lila York. Other works she has assisted on include Robbins’ In the Night, The Concert, and Dances at a Gathering; Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Serenade; Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid; Cranko’s Onegin; Bournonville’s La Sylphide; and many of Tomasson’s works, including On a Theme of Paganini, 7 for Eight, and his full-length ballets. Tomasson based the role of Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty and the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet on her. 2018 marked Paciotti’s 50th year with SF Ballet.
I was a San Francisco Ballet member for 18 years when Helgi became director. We came from very different backgrounds and I felt fortunate to be asked to be a part of this new company. Of course, there was a whirlwind of change. He created a new group of dancers, many from the former company, and many from incredibly diverse backgrounds and from all over the world. He also invited new choreographers whose work had never been seen here. As a rehearsal assistant, the learning curve was very quick. I was suddenly exposed to new styles, new concepts of movement, even new methods of training from the teachers he brought in. It has often been said that Helgi has a talent for seeing talent, but I witnessed this firsthand. When I reflect upon the last 37 years, I am simply awed by his accomplishments and his continued commitment to San Francisco Ballet.
At the recent ceremony to award Helgi the Arts Medallion from the St. Joseph’s Society, he brought together a superb trio of his works, the pas de deux from 7 for Eight and The Fifth Season, and his Concerto Grosso. These pieces perfectly encapsulated what Helgi has always brought to his choreography—original and sensitive musicality combined with his ability to showcase individual dancers’ talents with choreography tailor made for each one.
Even in his final season, Helgi continues to be involved in the studio. Among his many responsibilities, he knows that his presence in the studio is of paramount importance. He recently came into my rehearsal of Jerome Robbins’ In the Night and immediately spotted the problem a dancer was having with partnering. His insight was one I had never seen myself, and the problem was immediately resolved. Helgi is always seeking to making things better, in every aspect of his job. He never stops trying.
Helgi’s scope of vision has influenced the entire world of dance. His example of how to take risks, be willing to try new things even though not all of them would be successful, gave choreographers and dancers alike the freedom to experiment and grow. His commitment to touring, particularly internationally, made SFB respected and admired worldwide. This also helped him to attract the very best dancers because they often saw what the company was doing in person. While a very high standard of classical ballet in the full lengths was always maintained, the mixed programs were always considered of equal importance artistically. His legacy is very deep, and I believe, long lasting.
We must all tip our hats and raise our glasses to this remarkable man, my friend, Helgi Tomasson.
Header Image: Anita Paciotti, Dores André, and Joan Boada in rehearsal while on tour in Shanghai, China // © Erik Tomasson