Q&A: Mikko Nissinen talks up his Boston Ballet

Boston Ballet makes its Lincoln Center debut at the David H. Koch Theater



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Boston Ballet; George Balanchine; Symphony in Three Movements

Boston Ballet; George Balanchine; Symphony in Three Movements Photo: GENE SCHIAVONE

With one eye on history (books about Nureyev and Baryshnikov were like bibles to him) and the other looking to the future, Boston Ballet's artistic director Mikko Nissinen is trying to succeed where many other ballet directors have fallen short: to uphold quality and authenticity, while staying relevant and fresh. In advance of the company's season at the David H. Koch Theater, Nissinen lays out his approach.

What is the challenge for a larger dance company today?
We need to really change the way the big companies are looking at the future. I think you must reach out to the audiences in a very different way than just ads in the papers; the audience experience in the theater needs to change. The threshold of walking into big opera houses—we have to figure out a way to lower it. We don’t have to dumb down the art at all, but we have to make it more social. I think the old-fashioned theater is a little bit antiquated, and if we keep going about it the same way, we are going to lose ground.

What do you want to do? What’s your idea?
The easiest way to go about it is to have a purpose-built theater where you have more rooms for social interactions. The brain surgeons get together before the show, during intermissions, stay there afterward—have a big lobby experience at the end like New York City Ballet does on [certain] Friday nights. You want to open it up in so many different ways to get more people in the theater. Start a dating club. I don’t care! You could do so many things to increase the volume and to create more natural exposure. If you do a study of the younger generation, everybody wants social interaction. They say, “I don’t do culture,” but actually cultural social interaction is exactly what they want. They just don’t know it.

Can you really do that without dumbing down the art?
It’s the opposite. You have to take more artistic risks and get everybody to understand that art is the place where you can take a plane, crash it and walk away.

Why is it so important that Boston Ballet appear at Lincoln Center?

It’s very simple. It’s perception. Well, that is one part. The real reason is that it is the theater where the company looks like the company that it is. And that is true whether it’s us or some other company. I know some of our peers—a little smaller than we are—like Houston Ballet go to the Joyce. I really think it only harms them in the long run. If this is our big coming to New York, we need to look not less than that.

Also, when ballet companies perform at the Joyce, they bring such mediocre repertory—part of it is a taste issue, but it also has to do with fitting smaller dances on that stage.

What do you think about the rep that we’re bringing?

I don’t know, to be honest. You tell me: What were you thinking?
The first program is three New York premieres. William Forsythe’s Second Detail has never been seen in New York. José Martinez just did a premiere for us called Resonance, and he’s from a classical background—really the most talented newcomer choreographer. He’s never done anything in North America. He was one of the best étoiles at the Paris Opera and has worked with everybody, from Pina Bausch to Kylian, and on all the classics. He handles classical material—you know, like [Christopher] Wheeldon was the big promise? He has that caliber of sensitivity. I will continue to use him, so I wanted to showcase him in New York. He did a very intriguing piece, Resonance; I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but it’s truly captivating, and it serves a great purpose in the program. The last piece is Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. It’s a very different kind of a thing than today’s ballet companies are doing.

I saw a snippet of that on YouTube. There were dancers kneeling or standing on platforms. I’m a little nervous about that one!
[Laughs] We’re going to win you over when you see it. It’s about dance criticism. It’s about a dancer being an instrument. It’s not a serious piece, it’s a very smart, clever, funny, entertaining, mind-bending piece. And it really works at the end. When you see the whole thing, it’s, Ah—okay.

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