When Helgi Tomasson became artistic director of San Francisco Ballet two years ago, everyone settled back to enjoy an era of quiet good taste.
After all, the then-42-year-old Icelandic dancer and budding choreographer was for 15 years one of the noblest of principals at New York City Ballet and had been invited to San Francisco by company co-director Lew Christensen as a corrective to the controversy-plagued regime of the recently deposed Michael Smuin.
Smuin was notorious for taking chances, making headlines, blurring the boundaries between highbrow culture and popular entertainment--but everyone expected Tomasson to change all that.
The anti-Smuin forces were confident: Under Tomasson's guidance, America's oldest ballet company could finally begin acting its age, to serve as a self-effacing Western satellite of the Balanchine Establishment and to become a safe, sane tenant of that great, gray edifice, the War Memorial Opera House.
But never underestimate a Viking out for conquest. After a transitional year marked by the inevitable compromise between old plans in the works and new goals on the drawing board, Tomasson's first real season as artistic director ended earlier this month by making headlines for the risks it had taken and the new audiences it had attracted.
Some of the judgments were positively euphoric. "It was a great season," dance critic Allan Ulrich wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, "a rejuvenating season, the most important the company has enjoyed at least since 1974-75, when the Ballet saved itself from dissolution."
Tomasson had simply confounded expectations, straying outside the Balanchine tradition to recruit major guest choreographers, mounting productions of Balanchine and Robbins ballets that differed markedly from the original New York City Ballet stagings, upgrading the technical standards of the company until it could dance everything from the antique classicism of August Bournonville ("La Sylphide") to the weighty modern-dance of Paul Taylor ("Sunset") with the same authority.
Even the Smuin revivals emerged heightened by the new stylistic priorities and the influx of distinctive dancers attracted to the company by Tomasson's leadership. Indeed, this regional ballet company suddenly began developing an international profile.
From Marseilles came Jean-Charles Gil and, later, Pascale Leroy. From Leningrad (by way of Los Angeles), Ludmila Lopukhova. From Stuttgart (by way of Los Angeles), Christopher Boatwright. From American Ballet Theatre, Lawrence Pech. From Australia, Simon Dow. From the ranks of company stalwarts who had left San Francisco for opportunities elsewhere, Jim Sohm and David McNaughton.
Moreover, a number of popular home-grown principals from the Smuin-Christensen era stayed to glory in adventuresome new repertory and intriguing new partnerships, with Evelyn Cisneros, Wendy Van Dyck and Tracy Kai-Maier especially prominent.
Much of the excitement of the '87 spring season centered on the premieres of works by two maverick North Americans: William Forsythe of New York City and James Kudelka of Newmarket, Ontario--each leaders in the development of new emotional contexts for ballet and each considered to be anti-Balanchine despite their strong formalist tendencies.
Both choreographers have restaged and also created works for the Joffrey Ballet but, significantly, their San Francisco pieces proved far more ambitious in the classical prowess demanded of the ensemble.
Set against a pounding, electronic commissioned score by Tom Willems and violent shifts in lighting (computer-synchronized with the music), Forsythe's "New Sleep" featured a dozen dancers in black unitards surging into furious, intricate counterpoint--their sharp, semaphoric arm motion and hard-driving footwork achieving the power and immediacy of pop dancing without abandoning the classical vocabulary.
Meanwhile other three curious figures in black--a professor, a socialite and a dunce--laboriously studied and measured a small potted plant (the only touch of color on the stage). Eventually, as the dancing (which included sizzling Apache duets for Maier and Dow) grew increasingly torrential, the research into plant-data became progressively desperate.
By contrasting people who analyze the life out of nature with people who dance like a force of nature, Forsythe's ballet dramatized the supposed gulf between empty knowledge and genuine experience. But its satiric content ultimately proved less notable than its movement style: dense, hyperkinetic and cathartic for dancers and audience alike.
Even more group-oriented, Kudelka's "Dreams of Harmony" explored the concept of communal virtuosity by turning the company's most accomplished principals (including Boatwright, Cisneros, Dow, Maier, Sohm, Lopukhova, McNaughton and others) into a stellar corps.
Think of the most difficult showpiece solo or pas de deux you've ever seen and then imagine it simultaneously performed by a dozen dancers of equal quality. That's Kudelka's method: achieving an accord between dancers of similar ability--and then sweeping them up in something larger than themselves.
Set to Schumann's second symphony, the ballet began with an exhausting bravura solo shared, tag-team-style, by a whole platoon of men. Meticulously crafted transitional passages preserved the flow, the sense of choreographic unity and, miraculously no sense of competition intruded.
As the scale of the ballet expanded, Kudelka's structural ideas locked the dancers into increasingly complex group interaction, with the solo dancing eventually emerging from (and always seen in relation to) a nonstop procession across the stage.
Among the other new ballets of the season, one offered a vision exactly opposite to Kudelka's: Where "Dreams of Harmony" reshaped conventional notions of star dancing to emphasize group endeavor, "Narcisse" by San Francisco Ballet staff member Val Caniparoli depicted the estrangement of a glamorous ballet-idol from the world (and dancers) around him.
The best ideas here--the dancer obsessed by his own reflection, human relationships perceived as ornaments to one's image, etc.--came straight from Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," a ballet that, like "Narcisse," is danced to music by Debussy and takes place in a mirrored ballet studio. Even some of Caniparoli's movement ideas (the sensual coiling/stretching on the floor) looked awfully familiar.
This tacky retread found some defenders--especially when danced by the magnetic Gil. But more general admiration greeted the company's productions of Taylor's meditative "Sunset" (both deeper into the psychology of the work and more comfortable with its movement demands than the recent staging for American Ballet Theatre) and Robbins' comic "The Concert" (boasting two sly Edward Gorey act curtains designed for the Royal Ballet restaging).
The company also ventured in the same season the single most- and least accessible masterworks of the Balanchine/Stravinsky canon: "Rubies" (a.k.a. "Capriccio") and "Agon." Both works are packed with thorny inversions of classical placement and technique but where "Rubies" comes on like show biz, "Agon" comes on like New Math.
Ironically, the San Francisco "Agon" featured more incisive dancing, with the cast not just executing the step combinations impassively (City Ballet-style), or adding personality (a la Dance Theatre of Harlem), but setting up the unexpected movement events of the ballet as if they were punch lines.
When, for instance, Marc Spradling suddenly stopped supporting Maier in a deeply cantilevered extension and reclined underneath her (revealing that she'd been supporting herself all along), his action had the flair of a master magician amusing and amazing the audience at the same time.
Next to such panache, "Rubies" looked a bit staid, with Gil working too hard at being playful and Cisneros not quite on top of the showgirlish McBride-isms.
But give them time: Right now, the dancers and audience at San Francisco Ballet are mutually exploring new artistic horizons and, if obvious problems occasionally spoil the view (those Smuin revivals, for starters), the sense of delighted discovery is palpable though all the new repertory.
Plans for 1988 include acquisitions from David Bintley, Peter Martins and Roland Petit, plus a complete "Swan Lake" that Tomasson will stage himself and lots more Balanchine. Pretty conservative on the whole, though not so embalmed by quiet good taste that we need utterly despair. In the afterglow of Tomasson's 1987 season, it would be foolish of us not to expect the unexpected.