SF Ballet director's retirement nears with final Swan Lake performance

San Francisco Ballet will present its final program of the 2021-2022 season this week, and it also will mark a page in history as the company's artistic director and choreographer Helgi Tomasson steps down after 37 years.

"I felt I accomplished everything I set out to do," said Tomasson, who initially planned to retire in 2020 before the pandemic. He says the SF Ballet Board asked him to stay on to help shepherd the company through the challenging shutdown.

Tomasson stepped into the role of artistic director back in 1985.

"I came from New York City Ballet. I had been dancing there as a principal for 15 years," said Tomasson, "Working with the best choreographers, Balanchine and Jerome Robbins and a few others. And that was the standard I wanted to achieve."

"I said yes, having no experience. But here I am 37 years later," said Tomasson with a smile.

On Friday through May 8, the San Francisco Ballet is performing the beloved ballet Swan Lake.

It was the first full-length ballet he staged in San Francisco, as he helped the then-regional ballet leap onto the world stage.

"I had that high standard in the back of my head that that's what I wanted to achieve. Not to make a copy of New York City Ballet, but make it on the level that all the top companies were," said Tomasson.

Along the way, Tomasson has taken the company on world tours, showcasing classical work and new pieces by emerging choreographers.

Tomasson, himself a choreographer who got his start under George Balanchine, has created more than 50 original works over the years.

"I would hear music that I really would just fell in love with. I need to choreograph to this, I really see dance in this, more than finding a story and finding music to fit the story," said Tomasson, "And maybe it was the dancer in me. That wanted to dance to the music."

His artistic eye was paired with a generous heart for his dancers.

"I choreographed not how I would have danced. I learned that very quickly. I had to choreograph for those dancers in front of me," said Tomasson, "How they could blossom as dancers so that to me was very important."

He also has been a living link between new generations and a long line of dance legends.

"I think my generation is sort of the last generation that worked with Balanchine and Robbins," said Tomasson. "When I rehearse the Balanchine ballets, for instance, I am so much aware of his musicality and how he wanted to phrase the dance on through the music that he was using. So I feel I have a very good idea of what he wanted, and I can still show that, and hopefully the people who work for me now can absorb that and see what Balanchine really wanted or Robbins for that matter."

When the final curtain comes down on Swan Lake this month, it will be a final swan song from Helgi Tomasson, that will also give him freedom to take flight.

Ahead, he's looking forward to a new life, where Tomassen says his family will take center stage.

"My oldest son lives in Germany and has children there, and we want to see our grandchildren," said Tomasson, "Haven't seen them in two and a half years so that will be the first priority."

And yes he says, he'll still be seeing ballets. It will just be in a different way than before. 

"It would be work, yes. And maybe from now on, it will just be for pleasure," said Tomasson, with a smile.

For more information on SF Ballet's Swan Lake click here.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at jana.katsuyama@fox.com and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.