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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How does it take on dance criticism?
The whole first section is spoken word, and it goes, “Well, this is a contemporary dance proscenium art, blah, blah, blah…” It explains what it is and then it says, “But not. This is really about the cacti.” It’s an interesting journey. And since I didn’t want to do any Balanchine work in Balanchine’s house on the opening program, the second program opens with Symphony in Three Movements. Balanchine is a big part of what we do, and it’s a huge piece. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Then, there’s Nijinsky’s [Afternoon of a] Faun. I think that was a pivotal work that was the beginning of modern dance, and it’s such a historical masterpiece. So many people haven’t seen it; I want to remind people that that’s where it all started. It’s a palate cleanser for the following piece, Jorma Elo’s Plan to B, and then Kylian’s Bella Figura, which I think super highly of.

Why?
It’s one of those pieces that touches your heart, cradles your soul and bypasses your brain. It’s this emotional journey and it’s so beautiful.

I read that one of your dancers refused to perform Bella Figura because she didn’t want to appear topless. Is that true?
Yeah. We give everybody an option. We say, “This is the piece. Take a look at it and talk among yourselves.” We had a couple of people; one was for religious reasons and one said, “I’m not sure if I’ll be comfortable.” One of those dancers feels she doesn’t want to do Arabian in Nutcracker because her belly button is exposed.

That’s so hilarious.
[Laughs] I know. I almost want to say, “Could you explain that to me, again?” But people have to be comfortable. Some dancers said that they were a little nervous at the first dress rehearsal and then it was like second nature, and they didn’t think twice about it. Our audiences never had any issue with it either. I think I got one letter. But when we did Cinderella and the stepmother was drinking martinis, I got 30 letters about how we’re promoting drinking and smoking cigarettes onstage, and how dare you! Hello Boston.

Do you find it conservative?
Well, there is that element, but there is so much else. I thought it was going to be way more conservative. Today, the average age is 34; people coming to the contemporary stuff is our biggest-growing audience. There are so many different sides to it.

Who staged Faun?
Ghislaine Thesmar from the Paris Opera. I’ve always had such a reverence for this work, so I thought, Where has the lineage been the cleanest? Paris Opera has never really stopped performing the piece from the get-go, so I looked at different people who have staged it and I just felt she had a clean, clear version that was very much in line with how I understand the piece.

What does performing Symphony in Three Movements do for your company?
I think it’s one of the cornerstone collaborative pieces between Stravinsky and Balanchine. This is a masterpiece, and Balanchine matched the score. It was important that we did several pieces before tackling this one, and I’m very proud of the way we do it. I didn’t want the first program to go to the New York State Theater [now the David H. Koch Theater] and open with a Balanchine ballet. I wanted to show something very different. At one point, I was even thinking of bringing Études to New York; then I thought, I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t have to prove to anybody that we can do classical white ballets really well. The piece builds very slowly, and I want the audiences to be engaged from the get-go. People can see from Resonance and Second Detail exactly the level that the dancers comprehend classical vocabulary, so I thought, Let’s try to show a little bit of what I think the ballet company of the future would do. One of the things that is quite unique about us is the versatility of the company. I was just trying to be very true to what we are as a company throughout the run. It’s a big deal, but I’m not coming and making something different—our product needs to be good here, nationally and internationally. It’s very much about who we are today. When we went to London it was interesting, because the critics initially were like, This kind of program really belongs more in Sadler’s Wells, but when we did it they were like, “Oh my God—you were right, this was a great program for the theater.” It was a phenomenal reception. They were questioning whether Kylian and Forsythe belonged at the London Coliseum.

London is just so stupid. I can’t handle it.
I know. But in the end, even Clement Crisp came to me and said, “Oh my God, I usually hate stuff like this, but it was so energizing.” So at the end, it worked super well. Second Detail is a fun, fun piece, and Billy [Forsythe] is coming to Boston to work with the company right before we come. This is the first time. Jill Johnson, now the head of the Harvard dance program, staged it.

Let’s talk about Jorma Elo. What is his appeal? I feel that bringing his work to New York is another risk—not because the work is risky, but because we’re all kind of over it.
Yeah. But there are two things. Jorma’s work with the Boston Ballet clicks differently than Jorma’s work with the other companies. You have to have dancers that can do it. At many companies, it looks like they can’t do it and the end result is blah. It doesn’t make sense and it looks contrived. He is our resident choreographer. It’s a 14-minute piece. The problem with companies is that they have local success with his works and then they come to New York, and they get killed. These works are hard and they need to have the details. It’s like any work—if it’s run through and roughly done, it’s very one-dimensional. On purpose, I didn’t want to bring a huge Jorma work. I’m a little bit on the same page of where you’re coming from asking this question. If we come next time, maybe I’ll show a really obscure different kind of work from him that nobody has seen.

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