Tiit Helimets rehearsing Tomasson's On Common Ground. © Erik Tomasson
Principal Dancer Tiit Helimets has been described by San Francisco Chronicle dance critic Rachel Howard as “irrepressibly princely and a perfect partner.” Born and raised in the Baltic Republic of Estonia, Helimets danced with Estonian National Ballet and Britain's Birmingham Royal Ballet. In July 2005, he joined San Francisco Ballet. Helimets has quickly caught the attention of dance critics and audiences alike. In the following interview, he discusses his history with dancing, highlights from his career, and his life in San Francisco.
Listen to a podcast of this interview.
Backstage: Tell us about growing up in Estonia. How has your homeland shaped you as a person and a dancer?
I'm proud to be Estonian and that Estonia stands by itself, apart from the Soviet Union. It is now something very different.
I'm proud of the fact that my mom thought that I had talent, because I don't think I would have ever thought about ballet.
When did you start dancing and where did you receive your training?
I started dancing at the age of 10. I received my training at the Estonian National Ballet School. It's supported by the government, and it runs for eight years. Every year you have exams, and the best students pass to the next level. Because the school is supported by the government, my mom didn't have to pay for my training and all my regular schooling was in the same building.
Do you come from a family of dancers?
There is no dancing in my family. There is no acting. There is nothing. But we are very artistic and good with our hands. My father is an engineer and my grandfather is a carpenter and I like to partner, so working with our hands runs in the family.
You've danced for both the Estonian National Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Tell us about how your career progressed at both of these companies.
I joined the Estonian National Ballet as a soloist. The director was really interested in me because I was someone new and I was Estonian. That was the time when Estonia was free, so it was a big deal to have an Estonian dancer.
They quickly gave me roles and I was promoted to principal. I got lucky. I had very good coaches, and I danced almost the entire classical repertoire. So that was the first thing I got under my belt. I didn't have much exposure to modern dance.
How did Birmingham Royal Ballet come about?
I sent out a bunch of résumés, and they got back to me and told me that they were looking for male dancers and that I fit their criteria. I started there as a soloist.
What was the repertoire like at Birmingham?
It's 50 percent classical and 50 percent modern, but it was very different. I know Vaganova and Petipa classical. The dancing at Birmingham is British classical, which is something totally different. So it was pretty much a period of retraining—changing all of your beliefs and doing something totally different.
How was that experience?
It was weird. They move very quickly. They skim the ground very differently than Russian dancers. They do bigger leaps and bigger preparations. It's really good for the younger dancers. I think it was a really good experience because it taught me that I wasn't using my body to its fullest and that I needed to move as quickly as they do.
How did the opportunity to dance for San Francisco Ballet come about?
I had been at Birmingham for six years, and immediately as a soloist it was clear that I was experienced to the level of principals in that company. So I was immediately put into full-length ballets. I danced the role of Albrecht in Giselle and the Nutcracker Prince—all the principal parts. I had done their entire classical and modern repertoire and it started to repeat after three years and I thought, I can't have another year of the same thing.
There are so many exciting choreographers at San Francisco Ballet and they have had such a huge success, so when they came to England I decided to audition. So I sent in my résumé and came here to audition—and hesitated for a while because it was a big move from England to San Francisco—but I decided to do this, and it's the best choice I've made in my career. I have not been bored yet.
What do you like about dancing for San Francisco Ballet?
The fact that there's something new. There's new choreography, and I feel a lot more exposed to the media. I'm much more in the spotlight, which makes me work much harder. There's constant attention on us as dancers, which puts you on the edge.
There are always new choreographers coming in to create works on the company, and I've been selected to dance roles in their new works. That makes me think that I am worth something.
How would you describe yourself as a dancer? Are there particular roles, styles of dancing that stand out for you?
For the first time, I'm thinking that maybe the style of dancer I was in England, maybe that's not who I am as a dancer. Now that I'm here, I can do new things. I don't even know who I am yet and that's a good thing. I'm still figuring out what is my style because I haven't really explored every dance style.
Of course I enjoy the classics. I love doing Swan Lake. It's the full-length ballet I've done the most. I find that it just flows in my body. I love Sleeping Beauty and Giselle too. The classics were just made for my body. But there are also new ballets that also fit well—Balanchine, Forsythe, McGregor. They're all using tall dancers, so I don't feel like I have to be small in order to be seen.
You have an amazing way of landing jumps in a soundless manner. Is this something that you were trained to do or just an inherent talent?
I never knew that until I came here. It was never pointed out and never anything anyone noticed. I did not know until people started telling me that here.
I try to use my feet. Maybe it's because I have such large feet [laughs].
What are your impressions of living in San Francisco?
I really love the city. I have really become an American. In Estonia we had nothing. Growing up in a poor family, I learned to need very little. Coming here and seeing how much choice I have here is almost overwhelming. I feel very lucky.