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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield

Tiit Helimets, Principal Soloist - Radiance at the San Francisco Ballet

By Seán Martinfield

March 5, 2006

Tiit Helimets is an extraordinary leading man. Bearing somewhat of a resemblance to the young David Bowie, his versatility has been wisely exploited within the first three Programs this season at the San Francisco Ballet. He has appeared as "Apollo", as the summer afternoon lover in QUARTERNARY, and the central figure in the surrealistic dreamscape, MAGRITTOMANIA. Each role is distinct in its movement, look, and What or Who it requires the leading man to be. In some ways, a dancer in a repertory ballet company is similar to the contracted player in the Studio System of early Hollywood film. The fascination for the Big Name or featured player (and the subsequent development of their Image) came about gradually and grew from a variety of teamings with fellow players. In retrospect, fans and historians can see where other actors with similar traits (or reputations) might have substituted and done equal justice to the roles. At the SF Ballet, where multiple-castings define the term "repertory", Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has a keen eye towards Tiit Helimets.

For composer Igor Stravinsky's APOLLO and AS the "Apollo" of its original choreographer, George Balanchine, whoever dances the role, must measure up to the success and legends of his predecessors. A friend's eyes lit up in his reminiscence of a performance by dancer Jacques d'Amboise. How doubly-fascinating to then watch Tiit Helimets in the role, as coached by d'Amboise. And since first impressions inform everything else, mine of Mr. Helimets is of the Leading Man who must conform to Tradition, enliven a time-honored manner of being, and exude fresh energy with an already-proven success.


Three Muses come to call on the newly-emerged, strikingly beautiful and gleaming young god. At this performance, it is the Estonian-born Tiit Helimets in the title role. The mission of these Goddesses of the Arts is to recognize and validate the God of Light and Son of Zeus by honoring him with special gifts - those being the attributes and responsibilities of Poetry, Music and Dance. Having been thus endowed, one of them returns, "Terpsichore" (exquisitely rendered by Sarah Van Patten). Evidently, among the Divine Trio, she enjoys a bit of the Magdalene. Without having much adjusted his attitude, nor rectifying a placid and pleasant expression, it soon becomes apparent that it is Mr. Helimets' own remarkable energy extending out to the Last Row. With one look, the goddess beholds the effects that come with having made him more than he was before … and the duet begins. First lesson learned by this son of the Father God? And what projects so powerfully from Tiit? It's all about time, the place, and whoever happens by.

The Stravinsky/Balanchine "Apollo" is the unfolding of a series of Olympian concepts rather than a plot-driven tale of the god's later and Earthly interactions noted by Bulfinch and scripted into Spaghetti Westerns. For this season's staging, it is Choreographer Jacques d'Amboise and Ballet Mistress Sandra Jennings who have served the long-ago Inspirations of George Balanchine, calling back into being his original dance as set in 1928. This story of Apollo does not require the fleshing-out of a "character" nor does it necessarily invite the dancer's personality. It is more of a slideshow on the making of a god - one embodying enviable gifts and, as Legend will have it, how they are then conferred upon those who seek. Tiit Helimets is the prime candidate for this "Tonight At The Apollo". He un-erringly sustains the role's inherent vision of objectivity while artfully displaying the beauty of a disciplined and classically sculptured athlete. With re-created and treasured ballet comes the rare opportunity which only Theatre can provide. Specifically, we can suspend disbelief, just long enough, and gaze through the eyes of Balanchine. We participate in his collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky and perceive the kind of "Apollo" chosen for the World Premiere at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in downtown Paris. Standing beside THE PRODIGAL SON, another of the Stravinsky/Balanchine collaborations, the role of "Apollo" is widely recognized as being among the best ever created for the exceptional Leading Men of Ballet. Mr. Helimets is the perfect choice for such enigmatic imagery. He IS "Apollo".


Later that same night, another erotic duet for Helimets, this time with the ever-passionate Muriel Maffre. It is the "Summer" episode from QUARTERNARY, ironically the fourth creation of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon - yet one more of those four-season-things, imposed upon the works of four un-related composers, everything in search of some degree of link. For this audition notice, the description of the Male Lead needs only one word: Stud. In what could be anyone's Garden of Eden, Helimets brings all the aforementioned gifts from the divine to his latest squeeze and, for her - it's just too darn hot. There they are - a pair of lovers out in a secluded grove somewhere - Helimets seems ready to get on with it, Maffre is akimbo on her back, and we are more than primed for a great shot of voyeurism.

Even with pianist Michael McGraw's warm rendering of Arvo Pärt's "Fur Alina" penetrating through what must be a dripping humidity, the choreographer chooses to frustrate Tiit's and Muriel's consummation, keeping us out here in the bushes in a state of - well, yes - titillation. Since unrequited endings are not altogether unfamiliar, I am not persuaded that our sustained interests are due to the hunches of Mr. Wheeldon. Here is a classic example where a 4-star Principal Dancer rises above the material and stimulates its production because he IS that degree of Leading Man noted in the 4-letter description: [see above].


"Ladies and gentlemen," - oh, here we go, the now Standard Warning to those who just don't get it. But, no, it's about Tiit Helimets substituting for the injured Damian Smith. I learned a long time ago to remain open and receptive about last-minute replacements. Still on high from Mr. Helimets' performances the previous Thursday (and with true compassion for whatever Mr. Smith might be suffering), I had to stifle a cheer. Because? Seated next to me is someone's dubious date and (these days, anyway) it doesn't help that the final selection is all about the All-American cowboys of Agnes de Mille's RODEO.

Most definitions of the term, "Leading Man", are heavily weighted in the area of "appealing to women". Way over in the margins, between the lines and in the midrash, however, are inferences to the peculiar phenomena about such men not being a disturbance to other men. Simply stated, the kind of Leading Man who is: a great dancer, but just a Guy; a bit of a non-conformist, but a neighborhood Hero; a reluctant Role Model with a pretty and satisfied looking girl on his arm. Gene Kelly was such a performer. Move over, Gene - Tiit Helimets is all that too. The guy can dance in pants.

Belgian painter René Magritte's surrealistic paintings have been blown into three-dimension. The score is extremely familiar music by Beethoven - inventively arranged by Yuri Krasavin and slapped around with Looney Tunes-type zingers. The choreography by Yuri Possokhov is magical, geometrical, fantastical. It's raining men. We have stepped way beyond the looking glass and into a dream with regular guys in black suits and bowler hats and Tiit Helimets is the reluctant Leader of the Pack and non-conforming "Son of Man" and - see that girl with the red dress on? - she (Katita Waldo) can float those apples all night long … and no one can hear if you scream.

Some did scream at the Curtain Call. Many of us stood and cheered. During Mr. Helimets' final bow, the guy next to me had to admit - "THAT was the BEST!"
I'll say.

TIIT HELIMETS: definitive Leading Man; the apple of our eye.
Helgi Tomasson sure can pick 'em.

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