In Conversation: Helgi Tomasson on Jerome Robbins

Helgi Tomasson, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein 1974 // © Martha Swope

Why is it important for audiences to see Jerome Robbins’ work?
Jerry was a genius and a major American choreographer, not just in the ballet world, but across genres including film and Broadway. In every ballet there was an element of humanity—this is what makes his work incredibly relatable and relevant today. Even with non-narrative works, like Opus 19/The Dreamer—which I danced—his directions always made me dig a little deeper into my emotions. He wouldn’t just say “put your hands up and off to the side” but “you are pushing against something, like a wall, you don’t want to look at what’s there; it’s painful.” His work was always about feelings and relationships.

Taras Domitro in Robbins' Opus 19/The Dreamer // © Chris Hardy

What was it like working with him?
In the studio, Jerry wasn’t afraid to struggle with the creative process. Sometimes he’d wind up creating many different movement sequences before he’d decide on something, feel satisfied, and move on. You had to be quick and remember all the versions. I was lucky that with his choreography, I seemed to have good muscle memory and could recall them quickly when he asked. Even when progress was slow, we never doubted that he’d create something wonderful—he always did.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Fancy Free // © Erik Tomasson

What was your relationship like?
I feel indebted to him because he discovered me, in a sense, and brought me over here to America. He was my mentor and was always very good to me and to my family. People may not know that he loved children—he always asked after my sons and he had a great relationship with Marlene [Helgi Tomasson’s wife]. We always kept in touch and when I was newly appointed artistic director here [at SF Ballet], I let him know that I’d be asking for some of his ballets. He didn’t hesitate, he just said, “you can have all of them.” He really looked after me.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham rehearsing Robbins' The Cage // © Erik Tomasson

Can you talk about the Robbins’ works that audiences will see on Robbins: Ballet & Broadway (Program 5)?
These works really show the range of Jerry’s talent and are each so unique in their own way. Other Dances is a wonderful showcase for two dancers and is set to the music of Chopin, whose music he just loved and used a lot. Opus 19/The Dreamer has an ethereal, dream-like quality to it and The Cage is a complete departure: it’s primal and raw in some ways—it was very daring for the time. Fancy Free is a wonderful, narrative piece that’s just a lot of fun for both the dancers and the audience.