Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The man who saved Boston Ballet, Part II

We return now to a conversation we began with Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet, some weeks ago, just before the company embarked on a successful tour to London.  Here we try to probe the Ballet's choices in contemporary dance a bit more deeply, and learn how Mikko came to become an Artistic Director . . .

Photo: Eric Antoniou
HR: So you've been identified a bit - by critics in New York and elsewhere - with the William Forsythe branch of contemporary dance. Do you think that's accurate? Does it really sum up what you do? And if so - was it "planned," was it a conscious decision, or did it just sort of happen as result of circumstance and instinct?

Mikko: Hmmm . . .

HR:  You've developed a specialty in Jiří Kylián as well, and of course there's your house choreographer, Jorma Elo, to consider.  I feel there are tensions between the way those choreographers adopt and adapt classical technique - but there are some similarities between them as well. What's that all about?  Is there some overarching connection you feel between them?

Mikko: Well, it's all about being relevant to today's audience. You know, the world is ever-changing - so we must keep up, we must remain true to the environment in which we live, and make art for the people who are alive now, who are with us right now.  But at the same time we try to do three different things - three different types of repertoire.  And over time those three things have offered different entry points to dance for three different types of artists and audiences. 

HR: Okay, stop right there.  You said "three things" - let's define again what those three things are.

Mikko: First, the big, classic academic story ballets.  Then the modern, well, neoclassical ballets -

HR: Balanchine and his generation -

Mikko: And then the current, the contemporary -

HR: The postmodern.

Mikko: Actually, I think that of all the big ballet companies, we may have the strongest commitment to contemporary dance.  We've done Kylián and Elo and Mark Morris and so many other choreographers - and then of course today we're working with all this cross-pollination and influence and borrowing.  But in the end, those are the three sort of genres that we do.

HR: So you're balancing three audiences - and not everyone can like everything, of course -

Mikko: Well, people come to us from different directions, but they usually begin to see the connections between things, and start to explore - I'm talking about the dancers as well as the audience!  So I'm not feeling much - resistance these days to the mix.

HR: Years ago I spoke to you on the phone, not long after you first arrived.  And I had just begun seeing the Ballet again, and I could see a big difference already in the dancers, in the standards.  And on the phone I said to you that I wasn't sure Boston had caught up with you, and the change in the Ballet - I myself actually hadn't picked up on it in the reviews at all - and you said at that point, "We won't be respected till we go somewhere else - "

Mikko: And get external validation!

HR: Yes, exactly - and then come back, with the proof in hand.  Do you feel that the tours this year, to London and New York, are the final steps in that process?  Do you have proof in hand?

A class in "The Forsythe School" - Boston Ballet in The Second Detail.

Mikko: Well, the tours are the final step in our entry into the international hubs - we're performing at the Kennedy Center this coming year as well, by the way.  So I think we're already past the validation part, and on to the part where touring has become part of our identity. Over the next ten years, I'd like to visit London three times, and maybe three times in New York, maybe twice in Paris -

HR:  Wait a minute - over the next ten years?  (Laughter.) Uh - how long a contract do you have?  (More laughter.) Okay - so you see yourself being here - well, for the duration, so to speak -

Mikko: What kind of artistic director would I be if I didn't have my plans?  In fact one of the documents I'm working on right here (unrolling a large scroll) is a production plan through, let's see, the 2019-2020 season.

HR: 2020?

Mikko:  It's not so far away. And I have to have an idea of where I want to be, what I'm working toward -

HR:  Okay, I suppose it's only seven years from now . . .

Mikko:  Of course I build in "air pockets" to give me, you know, room to maneuver.  Much of it is about budgeting, so when I'm programming a piece, or thinking about it for the future I can also balance those pressures - although of course we're not budgeting 2020 yet!  But we are trying to budget at least a few years ahead, which wasn't always the case . . .

HR: So your overarching goal has been to build the Boston Ballet from a regional into an international company.  And now you're moving forward, planning for that level of status over the next decade. 

Mikko: Yes, sure.

HR:  And an international company with a focus on - let's say "Continental Contemporary" dance.  Is that fair?  Because Elo feels like an outgrowth of Forsythe, like a branch on the Forsythe choreographic tree, which even if Forsythe is an American, is basically continental, and Kylián  is of course Czech -

Mikko:  But there's this crazy thing about Jiří  that's not just continental, though.  He - his choreographic personality is so strong, and he takes the classical vocabulary into the contemporary realm with such a unique twist - he has so much to say about the past, and at the same time it's kind of global and all about the present is what I'm saying -

HR: Hmmm. Can I ask you a kind of personal question about all this?  About how this mix came about?

Mikko:  Sure.

HR: It's about your own development.   You were a dancer yourself, of course, for many years.  When did you first begin to think that you might want to be the guy calling the shots, the Artistic Director? How did that kind of happen?

Mikko:  It was within my first two years of being a professional; and I started at fifteen.

HR:  So when you were seventeen years old, you were already thinking, "I'd like to run Boston Ballet."


A portrait of the Artistic Director as a young man.
Mikko: No, but I was already looking at the director, and thinking about what he was doing, and wondering if he could do more, and how he might do it.

HR:  Where were you then?

Mikko:  The Finnish National Ballet (photo at right).

HR: At fifteen you were in the Finnish National Ballet.

Mikko:  Yeah. I got a super-early start. And by the time I was twenty I was already such a dance history buff, I was reading all the trade magazines from all over the world, it was just fascinating to see how other companies put things together, how they used to be put together, and so eventually I began to feel that for me, becoming an artistic director would be like the natural continuation of the actual dancing - and I  knew I had to use my dancing years as the best possible opportunity to learn as much as I could, become as versatile as I possibly could be, to eventually become the best Artistic Director I could be.

HR: What was your first gig as an Artistic Director?

Mikko:  Well, when I retired from San Francisco Ballet, I had made the decision to throw my hat in the ring. Before that moment I had had another moment, of course, where I wondered if I should do something totally different, and forget all about the very thing I had educated myself to become - but within a week of my retirement I was approached by the Marin Ballet, which was a 500-student school with a performing group. And I told them I would accept the job, but that I was still looking for a professional company, that was my goal, and that I would do my damnedest for them but if such an offer came - well, I would be on my way. But then I had to adjust to getting down off my high horse as this principal dancer who'd been dreaming for years of the kind of company he wanted to run, and roll up my sleeves and get going and make the thing work! It did work, though, and of course looking back the issues were basically the same, it turned out, as they would be everywhere!  (Laughter.) And then in a year or two I got an offer from Alberta Ballet in Calgary - so I spent four years there - and then Boston called.

To be continued in Part 3 (and possibly Part 4!) of this series.

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