By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
San Francisco Ballet’s hottest ticket of 2010 was its final program, choreographer John Neumeier’s THE LITTLE MERMAID. It is being given an encore presentation of nine performances beginning April 30th. The ballet emerged as a full-fledged Modern Classic. It is a spectacular blending of Classical expectation and Contemporary expression. And with its mature themes, this Little Mermaid is definitely not for younger children. I had the opportunity recently of speaking with Principal Dancer Tiit Helimets about his role as “Prince Edward” – the unavailable love interest of the determined Mermaid. I count myself among his international list of dedicated fans.
TIIT HELIMETS. Photo, Erik Tomasson
Sean: The first role I saw you dance was “Apollo”. This morning on the Classic Arts Showcase I caught a segment featuring Jacques D’Amboise in Apollo, a pas de deux from a 1960 television production. I was struck by how similar my reactions were to what I vividly remember about watching your own performance. That was in 2006, the same time I became the Fine Arts Editor for SanFranciscoSentinel.com. I published an article where I just took off about your stunning performance. I also have to admit to being star-struck. I’m one of those people whose knowledge of music, dance, film, the fine arts and more – is sparked through Celebrity. I will latch onto an Artist because of their work in a particular performance and then get supercharged to learn more about their repertoire and, consequently, become more enthused about the composers, the choreographers, the history behind the productions, etc. You are that kind of inspiration for me. Following the Apollo, you were featured in Magrittomania – a completely other experience. I was overwhelmed by your versatility. By the end of that performance, it was clear you are an equally amazing actor.
Tiit: Thank you, it’s wonderful to hear when someone really appreciates your hard work.
Sean: I sang professionally for 20 years and have been a private vocal coach to working singers here in the Bay Area for as long. So, I know that the life of a disciplined singer is not much different from that of a dancer.
Tiit: Oh, absolutely! It’s a full-time commitment. This art form never stops improving. That’s the great thing about it. So, we always just improve. You get older – some things, maybe, don’t work as well as they used to but certain things improve. Usually it’s the acting, the personality. It overshadows the traits that might not be there anymore, like the flexibility and what-not. But it’s usually the acting that improves.
Sean: Help me out here. Are there questions you get tired of being asked?
Tiit: I’m not tired of being asked anything. It’s interesting to revisit those questions because I’ve grown as an artist and my point of view is changing all the time.
Sean: When I first started paying attention to you, I was fascinated by the fact you come from Estonia. I know three strategic things about Estonia. First, it gave us you. The other points come from a wonderful documentary that aired on RTV International, the Russian news network carried here on Channel 32. Estonia has the most pristine bodies of water on the planet and there is a huge beekeeping and honey industry.
Tiit: My father keeps bees.
Sean: I’m a frustrated beekeeper. I want to spend my retirement tending the hives.
Tiit: My father is doing that right now. It’s a hobby. He has six beehives. It’s for him and the family. He’s very successful at it.
Sean: I’m a native San Franciscan. When I was at St. Monica’s elementary school we lived a block away from the San Francisco Ballet School. Across the street was the Alexandria Theatre. There were many Saturday afternoons when I would be standing in line for the matinee and suddenly the kids from the ballet school would come outside to take a break. Once in a while there was some name-calling. It was embarassing. I had gained a smattering of knowledge about Ballet, mostly from watching the classic films of MGM and broadcasts such as the Bell Telephone Hour. So, I was secretly envious of the ballet students and very curious about how they wound up there in the first place. How did you as a kid come to be encouraged to dance, to enter Ballet School and to develop those passions?
Tiit: It’s very different in Estonia. You have to take into consideration it was part of the Soviet Union back then. The Soviet Union is basically Russia just implementing their interests on all the other countries and Russia is a big-big lover of Ballet and Opera. So, because their passion was passed onto us, to Estonia, there was a very big influence on the performing arts. The shows were on TV everyday. It was very prestigious to be a trained dancer, a trained opera singer. It was a huge deal. Every week they would be running TV shows featuring a leading singer of the company, an “Evening with” the leading dancer of the company. It was a vast exposure to ballet. My mother thought I had talent.
Sean: How did she know that? Were you running around the house, bouncing off the walls like some kids do?
Tiit: Maybe. I loved music and would watch those shows. I would stop my play and sit down and watch that opera show, that ballet show. So, one day there were two consecutive auditions – one was ballet, the other was opera. My mother decided to take me to the capitol city and try to get in.
Sean: How old were you then?
Tiit: Ten. Ballet happened to be the first audition, so that’s where we went. Since I got in right away, she thought – “OK, we’ll stick with that.”
Sean: What did they have you do at the audition?
Tiit: It was a very interesting experience. I didn’t know what I was getting into. She just took me there and said, “These are the clothes you will have to wear.” I put the clothes on and she just shoved me into the studio. We had three different rounds. The first was musical rhythm – can you keep the rhythm? – we had to march in rhythm. Then the pianist played faster – we had to run, then slow down, then run. We had to be able to tap the rhythm. I passed all of that. Then there was a medical exam – just to go through your measurement and stuff – and then a flexibility/co-ordination exam. There were three exams the dancer had to pass. I actually got pulled out of the crowd as they explained to the mothers why their sons didn’t cut into the ballet school. This teacher, who later on became my teacher, said, “This is what we are looking for – long arms, small head, short torso, long legs, flexible feet. This is our prototype. If your sons don’t fit this prototype we cannot accept them into ballet school.” Out of 120 kids, only eight got in.
Sean: Were the boys and girls being tested at the same time?
Tiit: Absolutely. It’s only by selection that you enter into the school and then you get a full scholarship.
Sean: That is amazing. And up to this point you’ve only had a visual exposure to ballet. You must have had a concept of what training would lead to.
Tiit: Yes, I had a concept, but I can’t say I loved ballet that much. I was drawn more to opera. For some reason, as a kid, I was able to engage a lot quicker. And often with the ballet, they were showing too much modern and not so many story ballets. So, I didn’t get as interested because there was no narrative to follow. The classic operas, like Rigoletto, were easy to follow because there was a storyline. Even if I didn’t understand the Italian – they were interacting, they were doing something. Whereas in the ballet, the relationships were often just superficial.
Sean: I understand. I spent ten years pursuing opera – studying the Bel Canto method, learning the languages, and performing the repertoire. But by “not knowing what you were getting into”, are you referring to the discipline and training?
SF Ballet rehearsal room. Photo, Erik Tomasson
Tiit: That was the other thing. I was not a very good student in school prior to that. I would call my mom from school and say, “It’s really hard here!” And she’d say, “Well, yes! Because you have to train.” Then I’d say, “And it hurts. You have to hold these positions for a really long time, and you have to do it everyday….” It was very interesting. I was a very active kid, so I enjoyed that kind of challenge. But to put me in one spot and have me hold my leg up for eight counts – and then lower it – and then hold it to the front for eight counts. That’s really hard for an energetic boy to handle.
Sean: How often were you able to go home?
Tiit: Every weekend.
Sean: Was the school very far from home?
Tiit: Roughly 200 kilometers. They requested that you live near the facilities.
Sean: Throughout this period did you have a Hero in the ballet world? Someone you could watch and say, “I could grow up to be like this person.”
Tiit: There were dancers I loved, but not because of their technique – which I didn’t understand. There was nothing that got me excited about dancing. It was always about how they portrayed their character. There were a few dancers who I really believed when they were on stage. Nothing was forced. It was well thought-out and very natural. I was charmed by their acting. That’s what I liked. So, I had my few favorites.
Sean: Was there anyone we would recognize today?
Tiit: There was Meelis Pakri. He was principal dancer with Colorado Ballet for years. Right now he’s a teacher at the Royal Ballet School. There was a Latvian principal dancer, Viesturs Jansons, who came in and danced with our company for fifteen years or so. He was an absolutely phenomenal actor. If I could be like him, that would be my dream.
Sean: What was the essential element he had that you’re still working on?
Tiit: When he was “the Prince”, he was completely noble, so believable, very humble to the peasants. There was warmth running out of this aristocrat. When he danced “Don Juan” and flirted with the women – it was like watching a child at play, very realistic. I just loved it – that he was able to translate that kind of energy every time. As “Jose” in Carmen he could show this demented passionate love and at other times be just goofy. Those are the kind of qualities I really enjoy seeing. Actually, Damian Smith inspires me as an actor.
Sean: Yes, I agree with you and I really appreciate the way SF Ballet uses him. I believe he is always shown to his best advantage.
Tiit: I think so too. He is an exceptional actor and very diverse. I always believe him, every time.
Sean: What company were you training with at that time?
Tiit: The school was the National Ballet School. If you pass through the eight levels of school you are almost guaranteed to become part of the Estonian National Ballet.
Sean: How long were you with the company?
Tiit: I stayed two and a half years. I made my first debut as “Prince Siegried”.
Sean: That’s quite a leap, isn’t it? Had you been placed in smaller roles prior to that?
Tiit: I had gotten a couple of soloist parts. I got to do Daphnis and Chloé, one of my first premieres. It’s a one act ballet. I created a ballet called El Sombrero de Tres Picos, music by Manuel de Falla. I played the lead and we got to travel to Spain. I was 18. Then I did the pas de trois in Swan Lake, the “Bluebird” in Sleeping Beauty, and then I met my coach who worked with me for “Siegfried” in Swan Lake. It was a six-month preparation period. It changed my life.
MOLLY SMOLLEN and TIIT HELIMETS
— The Sleeping Beauty —
Sean: The right coach is everything. I know I’m very demanding with my own clients. You can’t afford to waste time. You have to cut to the chase and get to the point about what needs to come across – especially to the producer and the local critics out in the house. Was the coach associated with the ballet school? How did a new coach come into your life at that point?
Tiit: He was going through a life-changing time when I was there. He was actually a Company masseuse. He had previously been dancing with Estonian National Ballet for about 20 years or so. He was from Kiev. He was an exceptional dancer. He was trained by Pushkin who was the partnering coach in Russia at the Bolshoi Ballet School. So, he’s coming from a great tradition. He was very hard on me. I remember when he was still a masseuse, the Company director said, “I have this boy and I know you’re a really good coach. You really just want to do the massage, but could you come next door and maybe work with this boy – just to try out?” I was his first try-out. Since then he has been the Company’s Ballet Master.
Sean: That is a beautiful story.
Tiit: He was taking on a bit of a leap. But every time I go back, he works with me and gives his perspective. He’s very, very passionate about dance. It was hard for me to commit that much, because being 19 you don’t really have such concentration or focus. You are completely running wild, a wild child, you are experiencing life, you have a tremendous amount of energy that’s getting spent in areas that are not necessary. And so, he pulled me back and re-worked my focus. It was very successful.
Sean: Prior to doing Swan Lake, was Tchaikovsky a part of your listening experience?
Tiit: I’d seen Swan Lake so many times and knew all the melodies by heart. At the school you have free access to every show. We would see ballet five times a week because it was running all the time.
Sean: Do you have a favorite classical leading role – one that you want to do again?
Tiit: As you mentioned, “Apollo” was one of the later favorites. It’s often perceived as non-narrative. It is very narrative. I always perceived it that way. It’s like the god gone wild – just working out his magic – like, “What can I do with this?!”
Sean: And for the first time.
Tiit: For the first time, exactly. So, for me, that was always a great role. I’m actually doing it this summer again in Estonia. I’m taking a group of dancers from San Francisco Ballet and other companies and going to Estonia as Tiit Helimets and Company and we’re performing Apollo.
Sean: Well, that’s a dream come true! Wish I could be there!
Tiit: Yes, it’s going to be a wonderful experience. We’re also doing Ibsen House – Val Caniparoli has given his permission for us to do that. We’ll also be doing a Gala act with little diverts from here and there. We’re doing Double Stop which Val created for this season’s Opening Night Gala.
Sean: Speaking of Galas, in the 2008 SF Ballet Gala you did the grave site pas de deux from Giselle with Lorena Feijóo. It was breathtaking. As the piece began to unfold, the tension out in the audience was incredible. It has to be the most effective rendition of that pas de deux I have ever seen.
LORENA FEIJÓO and TIIT HELIMETS
Giselle, Act II, pas de deux. SF Ballet Gala, 2008.
Photo, Erik Tomasson
Tiit: That was the 75th Anniversary Gala. We had re-worked the ending of the pas de deux so that it would fold more into the story.
Sean: Do you remember what was going through your head that night as you danced the scene?
Tiit: I was very nervous for my wife Molly who was performing the Five Brahms Waltzes (In the Manner of Isadora Duncan). I wasn’t so much worried about Giselle because I had danced it so many times. I was just going back into my “Albecht” mind-set and I always love working with Lorena.
Sean: Molly’s performance that night was mesmerizing. With that sepia-toned lighting, it was like stepping back in time – an Impressionist’s memory of Isadora Duncan. What is Molly doing these days?
Tiit: She’s a law student at Berkeley.
Sean: Very nice! So, she’ll manage the legal end of things for you, right?
Tiit: She’s actually looked at one of the contracts and re-worked the language.
Sean: What’s it like living with someone who has retired from ballet and is now going on to a new career? Does she keep up the exercises?
Tiit: She does not have time to do anything except sit and read. You would be surprised. Her law books are like this thick. And scary.
Tiit Helimets. Photo, S.M.
Tiit: You see a book like that and your mind just goes blank. She goes through them very quickly. She’s a very fast reader. It’s very inspiring to see a dancer – after being so committed to her art – move on to something new. It’s encouraging.
Sean: Is she concentrating in a particular field?
Tiit: She’s interested in contracts, employment law. It’s a fascinating subject for her. She actually just competed in one of the mock trials that the law school holds and won.
TIIT HELIMETS and YUAN YUAN TAN
— The Little Mermaid —
Photo, Erik Tomasson
Sean: Let’s jump over to The Little Mermaid. The production last year was astounding. It’s a complicated story – the male author becomes the mermaid who is then coming on to you, “Prince Edvard”, the Bridegroom. I got it. But then I have a very vivid imagination. How does this experience compare with all the other roles you have performed?
Tiit: It was great to be “a person” on the stage again. We do a lot of modern ballet that doesn’t always require a personality. It was nice to portray something again – to have thoughts and ideas. The whole experience of working with John Neumeier was very, very rewarding in the sense that that’s what he was looking for. He wanted it to be a person – not just to do steps. The story was more important. Your feelings, your emotions, how you relate to the other characters – all very important. For me to portray a character such as “Prince Edvard” was very interesting. He’s a little bit nicer than “Albrecht” in Giselle – he doesn’t want to hurt “Mermaid” and he doesn’t know that she’s in love with him. He’s just a nice guy and really doesn’t understand. He just has this fascination. Maybe he thinks that Mermaid is extremely cute, like a little sister. That’s how I see it. He loves her dearly, but not sexually.
Sean: She is not the “other woman” nor a temptation.
Tiit: Exactly. So, I try to be very clear, when I’m projecting energy towards Mermaid, that it’s very friendly, very respectful. More like a father looking at his child rather than looking at a love interest. Playing with that kind of focus was very interesting for me.
Sean: Can we look forward to seeing you again as “Prince Edvard”?
Sean: Great! Perhaps I’ve seen one-too-many movies about the Olde Days – but I’m one of those viewers who wants to see the names of the Stars printed above the title or at least on a banner pasted across the poster outside. Whoever gets the Opening Night performance has significance for me. Is it important to you?
Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Garen Price Scribner
— Wheeldon’s Ghosts —
Photo, Erik Tomasson
Tiit: I think it’s important for some people – that “success” is having an Opening Night. I’m usually not a believer in that. I feel like you are either a success or you are not. As long as you continue doing your art and believe in it – you are a success.
Sean: True. And it doesn’t matter when you go on because you still have to deliver.
Tiit: That kind of commitment has more value to me than an opening – because Opening Nights have a very different kind of energy. I enjoy that. It gives you a great buzz. It’s fun to be the first to show it. Beyond that, it really doesn’t matter to me. If anything, it’s more stressful. Being in the second or third cast is actually a lot more fun and the pressure is off.
Sean: I’m always pained by the reality that my favorite performers will one day move on to something else. When that day comes for you – what do you think that might be?
Tiit: Good question. That’s exactly what I’m doing this summer. I’m trying my hand in leadership. I’m trying to see what it’s like to be a leader of a little company that travels abroad. All the communication, the inspiration to your dancers and staff – to ultimately translate your dream to them. My dream is to be the Artistic Director of a company. Whether it’s going to happen, I don’t know. But I love working with people, I love inspiring people. I love seeing that they want to come in everyday and work really hard for something I have allowed them to do – because it makes them feel more accomplished.
Sean: I believe that part of their energy would be totally about working hard for you.
Tiit: Probably, but that’s just in return.
Sean: Exactly! So – “When am I not going to be able to see you anymore?!” – is my larger question.
Tiit: That was my biggest fear. What if I’m really good at that? Why would I want to continue dancing?
Sean: I understand that kind of transition. After 20 years, there came a point when I didn’t want to sing anymore. It wasn’t about performing. I didn’t want to maintain the practice schedule anymore. And now that I’ve been teaching way-longer than when I had nothing else to do but sing, I don’t regret that decision at all. But I still have to keep myself in vocal condition in order to be an effective coach. I know that once those ideas start working in your brain – and with you doing something about it this summer – you will find it to be a very positive road.
Tiit: It’s very exciting. It’s a new inspiration. As human beings, we all have different lives. There’s our life as a dancer – and when that’s over, there is something new. Whatever that might be, you’re going to live it and give your ultimate best to it. It’s also a renewal process. You renew your juices again, you get inspired again, you want to give your best again. You are wise. You’re no longer 19 and just starting out. It’s ultimately about trying your hand in all sorts of fields of talent. I really wanted to live my life knowing I tried every single talent I have – at least once! I want to give it a try and see if it succeeds. I love painting. I’ve painted all through my life. Drawing and painting – it changes and then it doesn’t change. I put it away for a while and then pick it up again. Basically, it’s a form of meditation.
ROMEO AND JULIET. Tiit Helimets.
Tiit: I love profiles, faces. I love putting shapes on the paper and asking people what they see. It’s like a little field of psychology going on there. I don’t use models. I don’t want anything that is too obvious or too predictable. Right now, my project is my daughter’s bedroom. Everything she likes – I paint on the wall. Now she’s into cats. So, I have little cats sitting at the bottom and in the corners. She’ll walk up to them and kiss them.
Sean: How old is she? What’s her name?
Tiit: She’s fourteen months old. Her name is Chloe – after my first production, Daphnis and Chloe. I’m painting whatever she likes, Her imagination is growing as the room grows. It’s now getting some apples and owls, a rainbow – she loves all that stuff.
Sean: Are you a cat lover?
Tiit: I have two cats. The oldest is almost 16, the younger one is 12.
Sean: I had two extremely glamorous females — who will accompany me to the tomb. They didn’t have “fur”. They modeled full-length stoles all day long.
Tiit: I do love cats. Dogs are too much maintenance for me. I love the strong personalities of cats and how they come for comfort.
Sean: One last thought about becoming an Artistic Director. Do you see yourself as not being here, but abroad somewhere?
Tiit: If I get the opportunity, I can work with anything. It doesn’t need to be a top company. I think I could work anywhere. I feel that any company that is hearing what I have to say and is willing to go with my dream of having really inspired dancers — will ultimately succeed.
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JANE MONHEIT – At The Empire Ballroom
CAMERON CARPENTER – Up Close and Very Personal
RUBÉN MARTIN CINTAS – Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet
CHRISTINE ANDREAS – A Conversation with Beautiful Broadway and Cabaret Star
CD Review – REVOLUTIONARY, Cameron Carpenter, Organist
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY
Photo By Luke Thomas FogCityJournal.com