A CELEBRATION at San Francisco Ballet Was a Night time for Cheers, Tears and Gratitude

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet takes a bow
as artists of the company, both present and past, cheer him on
(photo by Drew Altizer Photography)

“Chance nothing – gain nothing.” So said Helgi Tomasson in his typically succinct fashion as he stood onstage at the War Memorial Opera House surrounded by over a hundred cheering dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, musicians and other artists whose careers he has so profoundly impacted. The man clearly knows whereof he speaks. Way back in 1985, San Francisco Ballet took a huge chance of hiring Tomasson into his very first leadership position as Artistic Director. In turn, Tomasson perhaps took an even greater chance in coming to lead this well-established, if rather scrappy, regional ballet company that was ripe for a new direction. 37 years later, I think it’s safe to say Tomasson and SFB chanced everything and gained everything.

As he steps down as Artistic Director of SFB, Tomasson leaves behind a company of internationally renown. His transformation of the company is truly one of the great success stories in American arts. Back in the mid-80’s, even those of us who enjoyed SFB eagerly awaited the annual visits by American Ballet Theater or whatever Russian company was touring so we that we could get a fix of some “real” ballet. While we loved cheering on our home team, they just didn’t dance with the sophisticated technique of the higher-profile ballet companies. Within a few years of Tomasson’s tenure at SFB, it was clear that this was no longer the case. He had an uncanny knack for attracting promising young dancers from around the world and then developing their individual talents to help them become the supremely distinctive dancers they were meant to be.

On Sunday, April 24th, SFB hosted a gala, “Helgi Tomasson: A Celebration” to honor Tomasson for his astonishingly successful tenure at the helm. It was an evening of gratitude, congratulations, more than a few tears and above all spectacular, spectacular dancing. The program consisted entirely of works choreographed by Tomasson, but the focus throughout was squarely on the remarkable SFB dancers, and I presume this is as Tomasson would have it. While his choreography may indeed live on, his dancers and the immense pleasure they have given audiences around the world are his true legacy.

BWW Feature: HELGI TOMASSON: A CELEBRATION at San Francisco Ballet Was a Night for Cheers, Tears and GratitudeFrances Chung and Wei Wang in Helgi Tomasson’s “Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers”
(photo by Erik Tomasson)

The performances kicked off with Wei Wang moving in spotlight on a darkened stage to some glorious Handel music in “Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers.” Wang is a shining example of a Tomasson discovery, one of so many we’ve been treated to over the years. The Chinese-born and trained dancer was visiting family in Northern California a dozen or so years ago when he auditioned for SFB on a whim and immediately accepted into the school. Wang soon became an apprentice and worked his way up through the company’s ranks to become one of its best all-around dancers. Wang danced the opening solo of “Chaconne” with such clean, unfussy technique and sensitive musicality that it took my breath away. Then the ever-sensational Frances Chung (another Tomasson protégée who rose through the ranks at SFB) took over and possibly raised the bar even higher. As the two danced together in the final section, perfectly matching each other beat for beat and seeming to float across the stage as they responded spontaneously to the music, the effect was heart-stopping. In a nutshell, this is exactly the kind of refined artistry and deep connection to music that Tomasson has brought to SFB for almost four decades.

BWW Feature: HELGI TOMASSON: A CELEBRATION at San Francisco Ballet Was a Night for Cheers, Tears and GratitudeLonnie Weeks in Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso”
(photo by Erik Tomasson)

And from there, the dancing continued at a spectacularly high level. One moment, we had Lonnie Weeks and Mingxuan Wang amazing us with their impeccable line, superior extension and perfect air positions in “Concerto Grosso.” The next, we had a beguilingly rakish Isabella Devivo and Esteban Hernandez romping through the astringently percussive “Two Bits.” And Sasha De Sola and Joseph Walsh saucily tearing through excerpts from “Blue Rose.” Then it was on to Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets breaking our hearts with the sheer beauty of their tender, melancholic pas de deux from “The Fifth Season.” Throughout the evening, every dancer onstage seemed to be performing at the peak of their powers, perhaps not wanting to be the one who might let the proceedings down.

BWW Feature: HELGI TOMASSON: A CELEBRATION at San Francisco Ballet Was a Night for Cheers, Tears and GratitudeTiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan in Helgi Tomasson’s “The Fifth Season”
(photo by Erik Tomasson)

When the dancing was finished, Tomasson was escorted center stage by his senior ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan and then gradually surrounded by the entire company, plus many former SFB dancers who in no small part owe their remarkable careers to him. It was incredibly moving to see the amazing current SFB roster sharing the stage with much-missed stars from the past such as Tina LeBlanc, Gonzalo Garcia, Damian Smith, Joanna Berman and Gennadi Nedvigin. But perhaps the most heartfelt moment came earlier in the evening at the top of the show. Ashley Wheater, an especially gallant former SFB principal dancer who then apprenticed under Tomasson when his dancing career was over and eventually became Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet, broke down in the middle of his spoken tribute to Tomasson and struggled to regain his composure. Those of us in the audience could easily empathize with Wheater’s feeling of emotional overwhelm. After all, how do you adequately thank a person who has had such a profound impact on the trajectory of your life? How can you possibly put that into words? For me as a relative ballet neophyte who has who has come to cherish the artform so dearly, I would just like to say, “Bravo, Mr. Tomasson!” Because of what you brought to SFB, so many of our lives have been made all the richer these past 37 years.

BWW Feature: HELGI TOMASSON: A CELEBRATION at San Francisco Ballet Was a Night for Cheers, Tears and GratitudeSan Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson
(photo by Erik Tomasson)

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