Diversity Name of Game for San Francisco Ballet : Dance: Long labeled ‘regional,’ the troupe--with artistic director Helgi Tomasson--kicks the stigma with the help of new works and the late George Balanchine.


San Francisco Ballet had a long and illustrious history before Helgi Tomasson took over in troubled times 10 years ago. Founded in 1933, it was the oldest ballet company in the United States, and it was the first in this country to mount a production of the complete “Nutcracker,” a decade before George Balanchine created his justly famous one for New York City Ballet.

But the stigma of being “regional” continued to stick with it, and company morale hit a low in 1985 when Michael Smuin, co-director with Lew Christensen, departed after losing a bitter battle with the board over artistic policies.

Tomasson, a handsome Icelander who trained with Danish teachers and then at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York, took over after 15 years of dancing in New York City Ballet. His arrival sparked fears--and hopes--that he would create a Western contingent of that famed company.

“But I was not trying to make a New York City Ballet here,” Tomasson, now 53, said in a recent interview from his company offices.


“I wanted my dancers to dance in a certain way that I like, and I wanted to build a repertory that included not only full-length ballets--like the classics and some ballets already established, particularly in the Balanchine repertory--but also good new works by up-and-coming choreographers. We’ve got a very wide repertory now.”

The results of his efforts have been paying off for a while now, but the evidence was particularly strong when the company danced in New York earlier this month and New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff erased the word regional permanently. Kisselgoff wrote that Tomasson has “raised [SFB] to international stature.”

A similar mix of repertory will be on view during the company’s engagement Saturday through Dec. 3 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Nestled between seven performances of “Nutcracker” are three days of mixed repertory programs.

“One of the things that seems to have made such an incredible impression on the New York audiences and the critics alike was the creative aspect of the company in the sense of our having so many new works, which were so different,” Tomasson said. “They were not all in the same genre or in the same styles.

“That [diversity] is something I always set out to do. Maybe it had to do with my background even before I went to New York City Ballet. I was in the Harkness and Joffrey ballets. Bob [Joffrey] was the first to bring in choreographers from not only the ballet world, but modern dance choreographers too. I was exposed to that at a very early stage in my career. It was exciting, challenging, difficult. I got a taste for it. Now as a director, I draw on all my experiences.”

Even so, Balanchine, who died in 1983, holds a particular place of reverence for Tomasson.

“I have such respect for Mr. Balanchine,” he said. “The company before I took over had a tradition of having a great deal of Balanchine works, probably more than I have now. I will try to the best of my ability to uphold what I think he had in mind when we do his ballets, to make a real effort to dance them in the spirit of what he intended them to be.

“Having said that, I’m also aware that style does change when a choreographer is no longer there, when he’s not around to have a hand in. But I know that there are people [at City Ballet] who are just as dedicated as I am in upholding what he intended.”

The problem, he said, is homing in on exactly what Balanchine did intend. The choreographer never stopped creating, even when it came to “finished” works. “There were times he would change things slightly. He might say: ‘Helgi and Patty [McBride], why don’t you do this differently? It looks better. What I did for so-and-so doesn’t suit you.’ There was a slight change. That was sometimes done and not announced to everybody, just said in rehearsals. ‘Do it this way. I don’t want that step.’

“We’re not trying to change the ballets, but I think he would be the first one--in fact I know it, because he did say, ‘When I’m gone, my ballets will change'--to recognize that change was inevitable.”

In Costa Mesa, the company will dance Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina” on the mixed repertory program that also includes Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s “Terra Firma” and Tomasson’s own “Sonata.”

“We may be the last ballet company dancing ‘Ballo’ outside of New York City Ballet,” Tomasson said. “We’re doing it to show the versatility of the company and also to say we are a ballet company. This is what we’re training for.”

Kudelka’s work was created for SFB, which danced the premiere in February. “He’s a choreographer I think very highly of,” Tomasson said. “His work is quite challenging to dance. It’s always intriguing and interesting. It’s very hard to describe his style, though.”

Tomasson’s own work, created this year and danced to Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, was inspired by the death of a friend.

“I took certain liberties without telling exactly her story,” he said. “There was a man in her life and a feeling that the family was not accepting him, and the struggle with that. He is basically the outsider.”

The San Franciscans will be outsiders themselves for a while, as the company relocates for two years while the War Memorial Opera House--its home from the beginning--undergoes seismic renovation.

“It will be a long, challenging two years,” Tomasson said. “Financially, it will be a stretch for us. We will be dancing in two small theaters, whose seating capacity combined is 1,700. The Opera House, where we sell out the ‘Nutcracker’ and otherwise average 70% capacity, holds 3,200. But we will deal with it and overcome it.”

* The San Francisco Ballet will dance the “Nutcracker” Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p . m . , next Friday and Dec. 2 at 8 p.m., and Dec. 2 and 3 at 2 p.m., and a program of mixed repertory, Tuesday-Thursday, at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $18-$55. (714) 556-2787.