Helgi Tómasson (born October 8, 1942) is a former ballet dancer and current artistic director for the San Francisco Ballet and its ballet school. He is originally from Iceland.
Tomasson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland to Tomas Bergur and Dagmar Helgadottir. He began his ballet training with a local teacher and went on to join the National Theatre’s affiliated school, which at the time was led by Erik and Lisa Bidsted. He has a younger brother, graphic designer Guðjón Ingi Hauksson.
His professional career started at age 15 with the Pantomime Theatre in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. It was two years until he was discovered in his homeland by renowned choreographer Jerome Robbins who was so impressed with young Tomasson that he arranged a scholarship for him to study at the School of American Ballet in New York City when Tomasson was 17 and impoverished. He went on to join the Joffrey Ballet, where he met his wife and fellow dancer Marlene, and two years later The Harkness Ballet, where he stayed for six years, eventually becoming one of the company’s most celebrated principal dancers.
In 1969, Tomasson entered the 1st International Ballet Competition in Moscow representing the United States. He was allowed by Jerome Robbins to dance a solo from his Dances at a Gathering and returned with the Silver Medal (the Gold Medal was awarded to Mikhail Baryshnikov). During the course of the competition, the great ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who was on the jury, whispered to him, "I gave you all my votes."
A year later he joined the New York City Ballet as a principal dancer where he danced for 15 years and reached worldwide recognition. He performed with many of City Ballet's leading ballerinas, including Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, and Gelsey Kirkland. Of this time, Helgi recalls "Living for so long in New York, I grew up with the best, and I was a part of that time.” Both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins created several roles expressly for him.
Balanchine famously created a solo for him in Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, which marks one of the few instances that Balanchine went out of his way to create a major solo for a male dancer. The score contains Stravinsky's most heartfelt tribute to Tchaikovsky. Tomasson went on to perform this piece during his emotional farewell performance in January 1985, at the age of 42 at the New York State Theater with renowned ballerina and long-time partner Patricia McBride. Both received a standing ovation from the audience.
Tragedy stuck the dancer in January 1976, while still dancing for NYCB, when he was wheeled into New York's Roosevelt Hospital with a back injury and told he would never dance again. But his raw determination allowed him to be back onstage by July and remained with the company for nine more years.
In 1982, with the encouragement of Balanchine, Tomasson choreographed his first ballet for the School of American Ballet Workshop, Introduction, Theme with Variations Polonnaise, Op. 65, which was very well received and elicited encouragement for him to continue choreographing. His second work in 1983, Ballet d'Isoline, was taken into the repertory of the New York City Ballet.
Until that point, Tomasson had not considered running a company at the time and was simply considering teaching at the School of American Ballet and developing his choreography further. After a failed attempt at running the Royal Danish Ballet (the offer didn't work out), Lew Christensen, SFB’s director at the time asked him to hold on. After Christensen's death in 1984 the ballet board decided not to renew the contract of co-director Michael Smuin, which resulted in a firestorm of rumours and recriminations. He officially joined the San Francisco Ballet as Artistic Director in 1985.
Despite Tomasson’s success with the company, this has not been without turmoil. During its 1989 tour in Orange County an earthquake struck but the company went on to perform that night. Less dramatic was the crisis prompted by the closing of the War Memorial Opera House, for a whole year, for seismic upgrading in 1996, forcing the company into smaller venues for an entire year. At this point the possibility of as the company reducing its size, due to the lower income generated during that time, was seriously discussed.
During his time with the company he has also staged a multitude of full-length ballets, including Swan Lake in 1988 (his first), The Sleeping Beauty in 1990, Romeo and Juliet in 1994, Giselle in 1999, Don Quixote in 2003 in collaboration with principal dancer Yuri Possokhov and The Nutcracker in 2004, which he claims to be the hardest due to the high expectations of the public after his long career with the company.
Among the list of his achievement, Tomasson lists, being named a Knight of the Order of the Falcon in his homeland during the 70s, the Dance Bay Area’s Isadora Duncan Award for his outstanding choreography in Swan Lake in 1989, Commander of the Order of the Falcon by the president of Iceland in June 1990, the Commonwealth Club of California’s Distinguished Citizen Award in 1991, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and the Dance Magazine Award in 1992. In 1995, Tomasson joined the Artistic Advisory Board of The Ballet Theatre in Prague and was honoured with the Cultural Award of The American-Scandinavian Foundation. He also conceived the UNited We Dance International Festival, in 1995, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. In 1996 he was presented with a Doctorate of Humane Letters, ‘’honoris causa’’, from Dominican College of San Rafael. In May 2001, Tomasson was granted the rank of ‘’Officier’’ in the French Order of Arts and Letters, in 2002, the Board of Trustees of New York’s Juilliard School bestowed an honorary doctoral degree upon Tomasson. Most recently, in May 2007, he was awarded the Order of the Falcon at the Highest Order, Iceland’s most prestigious honour.
Tomasson lives in San Francisco with his wife, Marlene, who was dancing with The Joffrey Ballet when they met. They have two sons.