Interview: San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson Brings ‘Unbound’ to The Kennedy Center

San Francisco Ballet's East Coast premieres of new works from Unbound: A Festival of New Works run from October 23-28 at The Kennedy Center.

In San Francisco, the Unbound Festival included 12 choreographers and was a massive undertaking filled with phenomenal risks, tremendous creative freedom and the excitement of new territory. For their performance at the Kennedy Center, San Francisco Ballet brings nearly the full company of dancers and six dances from Unbound.

The two programs, from October 23-28, feature works by choreographers Edwaard Liang, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, and Christopher Wheeldon plus Washington, D.C. debuts by Cathy Marston and David Dawson. I had the pleasure of speaking with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson about the vision and passion that brought about a groundbreaking festival in San Francisco and the East Coast premieres selected from Unbound.

San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson. Photo by Erik Tomasson.
San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson.
Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Jane Franklin: What is the process of your decision-making for the programming for the Kennedy Center?

Helgi Tomasson: Programming is never easy to do. I just felt that the way I lined these up they would go well together, one would lead well into the next. Some of it had to do with the casting, who was dancing the ballets. Trying not to burden the principal dancers, that has to come into play. The programming is very diverse in what is seen each evening. That is very much what we did in San Francisco. It is more or less going on with the process I created with the Unbound Festival in San Francisco.

It’s always a pleasure to go back to the Kennedy Center. Even in my old days as a dancer, I loved dancing there. It’s a great theatre to dance in. I take pride in bringing the company back and giving these dancers who are dancing now an opportunity to experience that feeling of dancing at the Kennedy Center for wonderful audiences that see a lot of dance and who are very knowledgeable.

Is there a consideration you had between East Coast-West Coast as far as what might appeal to audiences?

No, I couldn’t bring the whole festival, all 12 works, I could only bring six and it was lining up the pieces that would complement each other while continuing to show the creativity that took place in the Unbound festival as a whole with all 12 choreographers. I just thought this would be good programming and reflect upon what the audience in San Francisco saw and reacted to very strongly. There were ‘standing room’ tickets sold in the big Opera House in San Francisco. I tried to recreate that feeling and represent how different choreographers are approaching dance today.

Do you have a role in the rehearsal process of the pieces?

Not when the dances were being created, that is the choreographer’s role. I would come in and watch sometimes, but I wouldn’t be rehearsing anything. I come into the studio and make sure everything is up to the standard I expect and the way it is danced, and true to the choreographer’s wishes of how the work is being portrayed.

San Francisco Ballet performs Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To. Photo by Erik Tomasson.
San Francisco Ballet performs Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To, one of six new works from the Unbound Festival coming to the Kennedy Center. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

The festival was a major undertaking to get 12 choreographers working here for three months. Also, it was a major undertaking for the dancers. I divided the company down into three groups so each choreographer could have all day long to work with their groups. That means that the dancers had to learn up to six works in three months. They took to the challenge. It was amazing that they could retain all that in their heads and in their bodies. But there was a lot of excitement about the festival not only in the company but by the public and I’m pleased that I can bring part of the festival to D.C.

Do you have an overall vision and does the artistic direction take you mostly into administrative roles?

I am the one who plans everything. It was my idea with this Unbound festival. It was me who got in touch with the choreographers. I gave them the freedom to create anything they wanted. If there was something they had been wanting to do for a long time and had not had the opportunity, this was the opportunity to show what they had in mind. I gave them a free hand. The same thing goes when we go touring. I do all the planning and I have to oversee that the dancers are spread well across the board; that one dancer is not dancing all night long, because some works are taxing and difficult to dance. I can tell you that the process was wonderful and that the choreographers were thrilled with the outcome and the way the dancers took to their ideas. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the way it all turned out.

What do you plan next to build on this Festival?

Well, we got so many wonderful works, we would like to bring them other places to show what we have accomplished and what the choreographers did with my dancers. We will be going to London next May and we will be bringing nine of the 12 dances there. It is giving the audiences an opportunity to see what was accomplished. Then audiences can judge for themselves.

You question yourself, “What can I do next?” That’s part of being an Artistic Director–you have to challenge yourself and the company.

Would you be able to do a Festival like this next year?

It took two and a half years from the planning stages, by the time I came up with the idea, the planning, fundraising, arranging the times the choreographers were available. It’s something you just can’t do from one year to another, not of this magnitude. Let’s see how this goes, and see where it goes and what we do next.

San Francisco Ballet: 2 PROGRAMS of East Coast Premieres from Unbound: A Festival of New Works plays October 23-28, 2018, at Opera House Orchestra performing at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or go online.