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"A Bit Like A First Date'

A talk with Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen about the company’s forthcoming London visit and more.

by David Mead

April 2013

This summer Boston Ballet, celebrating its 50th anniversary, makes its first visit to London for over 30 years. Nissinen says, “I think this is the pinnacle. This is the most important tour we have done, definitely under my leadership, but I think ever. London is one of the dance capitals of the world. It is also part of our strategy for our fiftieth anniversary celebrations. It’s a major investment for the organisation. It is incredibly important. We are very excited about it.”

Touring is extremely important for Nissinen. What is often not realised, he says, is that it can help boost how the company is perceived at home. “It can sometimes be difficult for people locally to appreciate just how good their ballet company is. Touring and being well-received, especially abroad, is a sort of external validation. It gives us a sort of stamp of approval,” he says. And anyway, he says, “If you have a good product, and we are one of the major companies in the world, we play a big part in the national and international dance scene, don’t keep it a secret.

It is important for the dancers too. Nissinen believes that, while the company exposes and educates its dancers through different repertoires, they should also be exposed to the multicultural world. “They become much more rounded human beings and better artists through that.”

Under Nissinen’s leadership the company has visited Spain, Canada and South Korea, but it was last year’s tour to his home country, Finland, that left the biggest mark. “I was so busy with lots of things before we went, I didn’t really have a chance to step back and think how it was going to be. But it was like a tidal wave. I was in morning television shows. I seemed to be doing interviews during every break in rehearsal. We sold out all the performances we did. People went crazy. The ovations were amazing. The programme was very avant-garde so fitted the Finnish ballet tradition. It was a perfect match for the people there. The dancers got a good taste of Finland too. They were so happy they were so appreciated. It was a royal home run.”

Putting something like the London visit together takes around two years of planning, explains Nissinen. “There are so many aspects to consider. You have to look at windows when the company could tour. Then there is looking at the venues that could be possibilities, and then contacting them and finding an opening.”

Of course, a big part is money. “Touring is a very expensive undertaking,” says Nissinen. Boston Ballet gets just $1,500 from the city of Boston every year. “That’s $1,500 out of an annual budget of around $32 million,” he emphasises, going on to explain that even if you add in state and National Endowment for the Arts contributions, the total accounts for just 0.001% of the budget. “It is pretty much a non-player in our funding,” he says. As with other American companies, Boston Ballet has to look to corporate and private sponsorship and endowments. The London visit is being presented by State Street, a Boston-based major financial services corporation, while the company also has “some very generous individuals who understand the importance of touring. Between them we have been able to make it work,” he says.

The hardest plan of putting a tour together, says Nissinen, is the multitude of things you have to control. “The other side of that,” he says, “is the multitude of things that you don’t have any control of. It’s the mobilisation of an army.” The company is bringing a little over 100 people to London, although not their own orchestra; the London Philharmonic will be playing instead. “Even so, it’s a lot of people, a lot of hotel nights, and a logistical nightmare in every sense,” he says. Getting everyone a working visa can be a particular problem. “I have dancers of 17 nationalities, and it often seems that every nationality has a different immigration status. Different countries have different procedures too.”

Nissinen has happy memories of London, and talks effusively of the Coliseum as a wonderful theatre for ballet. “I have a lot of memories as a young student there. I think I was 13 or 14 years old in the late 1970s, when I came to London for the first time to take lessons with Anna Northcote at the Dance Centre in Floral Street. I remember watching the Nureyev festivals at the Coliseum and Fonteyn at Covent Garden, and it’s wonderful to be able to bring the company back to the same place.”

When putting the two programmes together, Nissinen explained that foremost in his mind was the need to be very true to what the company is today. “We are a ballet company, but have a very serious commitment to contemporary dance,” he says. “I also wanted to make it clear that we are an American ballet company.” Finally, it was important that all the works could be danced to a very high standard. “It is very important how you do works, even more so if they are well known,” he says. “This is a bit like a first date. This is sort of getting to know you. This is for London to get to know Boston Ballet and the excitement that we bring.”

There is no full-length ballet. “I think you see them enough in London,” Nissinen says. Programme one does feature “Serenade” though, “a very classical ballet, and one that has to be danced so well.” Then there is Nijinsky’s “Faun”, which he describes as “perhaps the single most important piece of modern choreography.” This is followed by resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s “Plan to B”, “a tour de force of ballet dancers moving in an incredible way,” before finishing with another sort of American ballet staple, Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements.”

The second programme, he feels, represents a little bit more the contemporary neo-classical side. “Of course, Forsythe and Wheeldon both spring from the classical ballet but handle the material slightly differently. And of course, Kylian’s “Bella Figura” is real contemporary dance.” Nissinen is aware that “Polyphonia” and “Serenade” are well-known to London audiences, but far from fazing him, he says that will allow the audiences to see just how high the standard at Boston Ballet is.

Nissinen was hired partly to change the company’s profile, and the London programmes reflect the work he has done to widen the repertory. When he arrived in 2001 he says, “I looked at the community in Boston and I looked at the dance scene in North America, and you know, I didn’t want to be exclusive. Everybody is welcome at Boston Ballet and I’m trying to create a company of the future.”

As part of the changes, Nissinen recruited fellow Finn Jorma Elo as resident choreographer. He explains that although they met at the Finnish National Ballet School, where they trained together from when they were around 11 or 12 years old, they didn’t really stay in touch too much once they went their separate professional ways. Nissinen went to dance with Dutch National Ballet and then to Switzerland and San Francisco Ballet, while Elo went to work with Mats Ek and eventually with Kylian.

The opportunity to work with Elo first came after Nissinen took over the directorship of Alberta Ballet. They had bumped into each other in San Francisco, where Nissinen heard about some promising workshop pieces Elo had done. Nissinen continues, “I was putting a programme together in Canada, and guess what, I ran out of money. So I called Jorma and said, ‘Would you be interested? This is all I can offer you, but I thought the pieces you did were very interesting’.” Nissinen says the resulting piece was “immediately remarkable.” A second was equally good, so it was hardly a surprise when he included an Elo work in his very first programme after moving to Boston.

Nissinen says, “It became clear that not only were Jorma’s works quite different, but that they developed and pushed the company. They were contemporary works but with ballet as a movement vocabulary. It was very clear that he was going to go places. I could see that he was going to get lots of exposure and I felt that it would be good for both him and the company if he went around the world as resident choreographer of Boston Ballet. It would be a two-way street that benefits everyone. So we made a deal that every year he would do something in Boston, either new or existing. It’s worked very well.”

Nissinen concedes his changes were a risk. American audiences do have a reputation for disliking a lot of European contemporary ballet. But, he says, “Audiences are more open than people think. Sometimes it’s a question of the arts organisations not exposing them and making assumptions. I don’t mind taking risks. But I try to manage them to ensure things are a success.

What is important, says Nissinen, is to look to the past but not to gaze at it. “We keep a very straight eye. We have to understand where we are in today’s world and then take a very clear look to the future. The arts pave the way a little bit to the future. We can’t be a museum or a church. We have to be living theatre for people of today.” He continues, “Our experience is that people will come. They will explore new things. Things have been growing and growing and growing, and it’s wonderful. I think the most important thing for the art form is to be really relevant. What we are doing seems to be working, and I’m very pleased with that.”

And what do the dancers think? “Oh my God! We attract lots of dancers to the company because of the process and how we work, and the repertoire. They love it,” he says.

Nissinen’s time at Boston has not all been plain sailing. Financial problems early in his tenure, brought about in part by the company’s ousting from the city’s Wang Theater in 2004, led to a reduction in dancers from 50 to 41. The company had rented the theatre for decades and had 45 performances of “The Nutcracker” booked but then got very last minute notice that they were going to have the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in instead. Nissinen says. It was not only a major loss of money in itself, but having to very quickly mount a revised production in a different, smaller theatre added to the costs.

The loss of the Wang dates had a bit of a domino effect with subscription sales falling significantly. Reports suggest the total resultant loss was around $6 million; a big problem for a company already nearly $2 in debt.

“We scrambled for one year. Until about 2007 or 2008, it was a little bit of a yo-yo. We would take a step forward, then something would happen and we would take a step back. With non-profit arts organisations that sort of thing happens way too often, but after that we were able to stabilise the organisation and we have been growing tremendously since then,” says Nissinen.

Things have been turned round. The company has renovated its building and built a studio theatre. All the programming is now at the Opera House where they have renovated the pit. Dancers are being hired again. Five were added to the roster last year, with another five being added next year. Financially, all the long-term debt has been paid off. The company even has a cash reserve right now. “It’s a very different game, now,” says Nissinen. “We are not trying to raise money for things from the past, and to patch things up. We are raising money for the exciting opportunities of the future, and that is the game changer. “We also have had a wonderful Executive Director Barry Hughson in place for four years, which has taken a little bit of the pressure off me.

Boston Ballet has long had a very close relationship with the local community, something Nissinen considers is one of the keys to success. He says, “Every arts organisation has to understand the community it is coming from. You have to have ties in there. You can have a long string and fly your kite as high as you want, but you have to be grounded in your community.”

Many of the links come through the company’s school and outreach programme, both of which Nissinen describes as “tremendous.” When he arrived, the former already had around 2,000 students, but under him it has grown to 5,600 spread across three locations. Only about 200 of those are on the professional track, but 2,000 of them are adults. “2,000 adult students!” he stresses. “That is unbelievable. I can’t explain that.”

Those links to the city and its people will be highlighted in an outdoor Night of Stars gala to be held on Boston Common, sort of Boston’s Hyde Park, on September 21st. The company are going to build an outdoor theatre with three large screens that will project a live edit of the performance for those who are a little farther back. Those screens are likely to be needed. The mayor’s office is estimating an attendance of 40,000. Free to the public, the evening will feature a selection of Boston Ballet’s repertoire. “It’s a thank you to the city,” Nissinen says.

All round, the company has great momentum going into its 50th year. For the anniversary season, Nissinen is bringing back a full-length “Bayadère” that Florence Clerc from the Paris Opera did for them a couple of years ago, and Ashton’s “Cinderella.” There is the usual “Nutcracker season” plus two repertory programs that feature a world premiere by Spanish National Dance Company artistic director José Carlos Martínez; company premieres by Petr Zuska and Alexander Ekman; and Elo’s “Close to Chuck.” The Boston season rounds off with Balanchine’s “Jewels,” although the company then hits the road with performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Koch Theater at New York City’s Lincoln Center in June 2014.

“You know,” says Nissinen, “an artistic director’s job is to create a very clear direction and then start executing it. It’s a plan with so many moving pieces. When all those moving pieces get in place it elevates the standard. I’m very much attached to quality, and looking overall, the one thing I am very proud of is the quality of the company and the organisation.” London audiences get the chance to judge that for themselves this July.

Boston Ballet at the London Coliseum, 3-7 July 2013

Programme 1 (July 3, 4 and 6 at 7.30pm; July 7 at 2.30pm): “Serenade” (ch.: Balanchine), “Afternoon of a Faun” (Nijinsky), “Plan to B” (Elo), “Symphony in Three Movements” (Balanchine).

Programme 2 (July 5 at 7.30pm; July 6 at 2.30pm): “Bella Figura” (ch.: Kylian), “Polyphonia” (Wheeldon), “The Second Detail” (Forsythe).

Box office: www.eno.org or 020 7845 9300


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