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Keeping a spring in their steps

Josephs is a freelance writer.

When asked about his plans for San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson initially sounds like someone recovering from giving an enormous party. “Will there be changes down the road?” he says. “You never know, but I haven’t had a chance this year to sit back and take a look.”

Indeed, the 66-year-old artistic director of the country’s oldest ballet company has been busy with a whirlwind of festivities this year, essentially serving as host of an ambitious, multi-pronged 75th anniversary celebration. The events have included a three-day New Works Festival in the spring that featured 10 world premieres by 10 prominent choreographers, an ongoing four-city U.S. tour, an alumni weekend, several exhibits and a glitzy gala, featuring a formal dinner for 1,375 at San Francisco’s City Hall.

The company certainly has much to celebrate, having been transformed into one of the world’s best by Tomasson, who became its artistic director in 1985. With 73 dancers and a current operating budget of $47 million, it has an international reputation for exquisitely trained dancers and a repertoire devoted equally to preserving the classics and commissioning new works that often stretch the boundaries of the ballet vocabulary. It has reaped the benefits of popular appeal, critical acclaim and sincere admiration from eminent dance makers such as New York choreographer Mark Morris, who observes that “when you’re the only ballet in town, you could become parochial or complacent, but that’s not the case with this company.”

A milestone is reached and they keep on going

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Returning to Southern California for the first time in five years, San Francisco Ballet will appear this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and present two programs that juxtapose some of the New Works choreography with the 1946 George Balanchine classic “The Four Temperaments” and Tomasson’s 2006 ballet “The Fifth Season.” Now on the third leg of its tour, the company received mixed reviews in Chicago and New York, with various critics concluding that some of the participating choreographers from the New Works Festival, who included Morris, Paul Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon and Jorma Elo, could have done better. Most, however, took care to praise the versatility and clarity of the dancing.

Speaking by phone from his office in San Francisco, Tomasson, in his crisp Icelandic accent, displays notable equanimity about critics in general. “I always have to go with my own instincts, and if you chance nothing, you gain nothing,” he says. “Personally, I thought the New Works Festival was quite an achievement. The dancers did extremely well, the choreographers were pleased, and if some people disliked some of the works, well, at least we’re being talked about.”

Not one for resting on his laurels, even after a milestone celebration, Tomasson is now in the midst of preparing for the 2009 season, scheduled to include a new version of “Swan Lake” that he choreographed and an all-Morris program that will pay tribute to 15 years of company collaboration with the choreographer. But ask him about long-term goals and he’ll tell you he doesn’t think that way, preferring “to take things season by season.” He also espouses an it’s-not-broken-so-why-fix-it attitude toward his company, and for good reason.

“It has taken me a long time and a lot of hard work to bring this company to its current level,” he says. “So from my point of view, it makes sense to continue with what I’ve been doing for the last 23 years.”

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They’ve done the work; now, to have it seen

Glen McCoy, San Francisco Ballet’s executive director, echoes Tomasson on the subject of furthering established company practices. “Expect a continued commitment to the creation of new work and touring,” he says. “Touring has given us a lot of international exposure.”

McCoy, however, does think in terms of five-year plans, and his newest initiative involves working on a more “comprehensive approach” to increasing the company’s media visibility. So far, this has included expanding and revamping the company’s website, maintaining a Facebook page and planning a televised special of its “Nutcracker” to air in December on PBS.

Although McCoy views “media as a way of getting beyond our boundaries, you’re only as strong as what you’re offering,” he says. “And what we’re offering is our programming and the quality of the dancing.”

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That quality is arguably the key ingredient in the company’s success, both current and anticipated. Tomasson’s knack for finding and shaping top-notch dancers from all over the world and within the company’s own school has allowed him to create “a remarkably hybrid ballet body,” says Janice Ross, a dance historian and director of the dance program at Stanford University. “By pushing for both a separate voice for each dancer and a common, unified look to the company, he broke new ground. His dancers have a different kind of malleability and fluency than those of the Balanchine or American Ballet Theatre models.”

Ross, who was commissioned by Chronicle Books to write a commemorative book for the 75th anniversary, observes that Tomasson’s previous career as a dancer with New York City Ballet deeply influenced his present one. “As a dancer, Helgi was clean, pure, classical yet distinct, and he was able to parlay this into an aesthetic for his company,” she says.

Katita Waldo, a 40-year-old principal dancer and a company member for 21 years, has always marveled at the way “new dancers come into the company who don’t fit technically or stylistically and yet somehow adapt to our style. I don’t think we’re cookie-cutter dancers, but we still have a unified voice, even though I couldn’t tell you what that is exactly.”

Neither can Tomasson, who selects his dancers “by instinct and without a secret formula.” He does, though, encourage them to behave autonomously when appropriate, which may, in part, explain their collective versatility.

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“Helgi’s always present but never oppressive. He always gives us a lot of space to work things out on our own,” says Waldo, who’s also a teacher both of company classes and at the school. “There’s also a lot of emphasis on mechanics in class. The dancers aren’t just turning their legs out -- they’re trying to understand how this works in their bodies.”

The virtual United Nations atmosphere that prevails when the dancers assemble for daily class most likely also factors into the general aesthetic. “There’re so many dancers from so many different countries, and everyone brings something different,” says Anthony Spaulding, a 22-year-old former member of the corps who was promoted this year to the rank of soloist. “I look at their training and try to incorporate it into my own body.”

Morris, who has created seven dances for the company, sees no reason not to keep working with it indefinitely -- “unless someone replaces Helgi who’s a jerk or the quality of the dancing goes down,” he says. “Because right now, they dance great, they know how to keep the integrity of the work, and they’re not about to kill each other. They’re like human beings, and I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

New work is embraced and classics are revered

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Although no one can predict the next 75-year chapter of San Francisco Ballet, Ross believes its future looks bright, provided that “Helgi keeps choosing rep that highlights [the dancers’] fluency. The dancers are multilingual in the best sense, and the work they perform should highlight that. Also, what can ballet companies like this one do to spark new choreography? Perhaps more formats can be created that will serve as incubators for choreographic talent.”

Tomasson points to his continuing commitment to “challenging choreographers to expand the classical vocabulary.”

“Just because you keep the pointe shoes for the ladies doesn’t mean ballet has to look old-fashioned,” he says. “Yet we never lose sight of the classics. It’s just as important for the dancers to do ‘Swan Lake’ or the work of Balanchine and Robbins.”

It’s telling, however, that the 75th anniversary season, with its New Works Festival, was designed to be a celebration of the future. Speaking about the company’s general philosophy, McCoy observes: “We’re not trying to be something other than a ballet company. But we are trying to be a 21st century ballet company.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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San Francisco Ballet

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Where: Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Price: $20 to $100

Contact: (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org

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