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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What does it take for a dancer to be good in his work?
It’s a combination of driving on the edge of the cliff with extremely fast speed and having inner calm. His works usually don’t relate to the score note by note, but they relate on an emotional basis. It’s quite a mélange of ballet, contemporary dance and then his individuality that is kind of indescribable. He has this twist that only he knows.

What is your point of view as an artistic director? What’s important to you?
Quality. To be very true to the original in terms of the choreography. And having a repertoire that’s relevant to today. I want the audience to be a participant in an experience versus a distant admirer. What I tried to do with the company is to create a dialogue—what takes place onstage and of the audience’s inner journey, and how they react to everything. There’s no right way or wrong way—there is just their way. We do the 19th-century classics, neoclassical ballet and then contemporary dance. It’s like three doors, which makes us inclusive versus exclusive, and in Boston we have noticed that the audiences have really cross-pollinated; people who thought they only liked the big classical ballets now might find the contemporary the most interesting, and people are starting to attend everything. Our audiences are growing and our average age is getting younger and younger. And people are excited about dance, which is so nice to see. Sometimes you feel like you have to drag people to see shows, but we have a big part of our audience that is so enthusiastic. People come several times to see the same program, which is pretty unheard of, so something is working.

How do you feel about those historical reconstructions of classical ballets? Like when the Mariinsky presented La Bayadère?
Well, I’m very happy that somebody’s doing them, and I see them and I want to see them, but we do Florence Clerc’s Bayadère, which is close to the original—a little cleaned up. So it’s super classical, but if you talk about the Mariinsky reconstruction, we probably wouldn’t do it. Personally, I’m interested to see it once, maybe twice; I think it’s great that there are organizations that can afford to do that. I think it’s a historical, intellectual stimulant, but for today’s audiences, I think they’d rather turn off than turn on. For the dance critics and the ballet enthusiasts, it’s exciting.

But you’re informed—you know your history and are more interested in dance history than other artistic directors even.
Probably. I spent my dancer years really studying dance history, just because I was interested in knowing as many productions as I could of all the classics. I always took my summertime breaks to go somewhere to see more and when I was in New York, I would spend every second of my free time in the New York Public Library, going through old Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, old Nijinsky stuff—everything possible to cram it in, and then I started collecting dance videotapes. And I have this whole network. I was thirsty. I have this thirst to know. And when I was in San Francisco as a dancer, I did some lectures at Stanford University on dance history so I’ve always done that—whether it’s the state of dance in the world today or Ballets Russes topics—I spent six years reading nothing but Ballets Russes and Nijinsky just to have a comprehensive understanding of it.

Why did you have that interest? Dancers aren’t generally consumed by history.
I had the curiousity to understand the past; that helps you pave the way to the future. I think it’s so helpful to know the past and I’ve always been fascinated with history, whether it’s about the Second World War or dance, and the more you dig into it, the more you see that the same issues Cecchetti was dealing with affect today’s dancers or artistic directors; you read the earliest Italian writings on dance from Carlo Blasis—it’s so true to today. [Tamara] Karsavina’s advice to young dancers—how to survive in the theater and keep progressing—is ever-valid, and I have to say I came from a country where we had very limited exposure, so the books Nureyev Image and Baryshnikov at Work were bibles. Through the exploration of all the different art forms that Misha and Rudolf did, I read everything possible and that stimulated me to learn more.

Didn’t you and Jorma travel to Copenhagen to see Baryshnikov perform when you were little kids?
Yeah! In 1979, I think.

Is that what made you serious about ballet?
We were first in London where we saw the Royal Ballet do Swan Lake and Rudolf do Giselle. And then when we saw ABT in the Tivoli Gardens, I said, “You know what? This is what I want to do.” Ballet school didn’t start for a month and a half or something, and there was a group of students from Sweden, and we asked if there were classes. The director said, “No, but come to the morning class with the company.” He offered both of us a contract a week later. I thought I was going to become a professional in two, three years so that decision in Copenhagen was very influential for me then, and it just happened immediately. The performance was Misha and Gelsey doing Don Q, Lilac Garden and Push Comes to Shove at the end, and the evening opened with The Moor’s Pavane. There was a huge standing ovation at the beginning of the show, and we were wondering why—it was Erik Bruhn’s final performance in The Moor’s Pavane. That was quite a show.

How did you end up in San Francisco?
When I first left Finland, I joined the Dutch National Ballet. I had two and a half years there. Fantastic time, incredible rep. But I wanted something that was more disciplined and I felt like I wanted to develop as a dancer so I joined Basel Ballet, which was the most American of European companies. There were lots of American dancers and ridiculous discipline; artistically, I needed more, the process was right. Helgi Tomasson had just taken over San Francisco Ballet three years earlier, and I was visiting Bill Como in the Dance Magazine offices to say hi, because Bill often came to Basel and wrote about the company. I said, “Well, I have resigned from Switzerland [Basel Ballet], and I’m going to come next summer to audition for American companies, and he said, “You’re here—why don’t you audition now?” He made a call to Boston and to San Francisco, and first Bruce [Marks, artistic director of Boston Ballet] called me and I was going to audition for Boston and a half hour later Helgi called me. I called Bruce and said, “I can’t make it—sorry” and went to San Francisco and that’s it. I was so lucky I came there at the right time. I had an amazing ten years with the company. The roster of principal dancers we had at the time—the camaraderie—we just wanted the very best for the company and would do anything to get there. We learned so much.

Do you model Boston Ballet after San Francisco Ballet?
Every artistic director is a different person. Of course, there are lots of things that I relate very well to from San Francisco Ballet, but I have my background, all the places I’ve been. My philosophy has always been take the best, leave the rest. I have to be very true to my artistic vision. That’s the only truth an artistic director has. And trying to understand today’s world and really trying to serve Terpsichore—not in any safe way, but in a true way of taking chances, promoting talent, not getting into the personal politics, making the hard decisions that are the right decisions for the art form. I’m trying to do it my way.

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