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 trying to understand today’s world fit with your philosophy?
The thing is because this is an art that grew up from royal wedding entertainment to a more public art form—and to understand where today’s world is going and where today’s people are. If we don’t understand that, we don’t know how to position ourselves. You have to build bridges and know how to talk to people about the art and find new ways to be engaged and then when they are in the theater, if you do something from the past, it has to smell and feel exactly the way it’s meant to and then people find it interesting. Or occasionally you get to have these eureka moments, where you get to expose work to audiences who thought it never existed and they absolutely fall in love with it. None of us have too many of those moments in our lives. So then when you get to do that, that’s the best possible feeling. Or feel like, Oh my God this is one of the great masterworks by this choreographer and it was danced all the way to the T, and I can be so proud of my dancers and feel that Terpsichore is smiling. Those are the good moments.

Why don’t you choreograph?
I’ve been here 13 years, and this is the third time I’m doing the executive director and artistic director’s job. Each job is too much for one person. If I wanted to be a choreographer, I wouldn’t run a company. At one point when I was thinking of retiring—I always thought I would be a director—I thought about choreography, and thought, If I had that well of choreography inside me, it would have come out. I feel choreography has to be a product of the heart and not the product of the brain. And does the world need another mediocre choreographer? If I were a choreographer, I would do nothing but live in a huge studio and create vocabulary and mull it over and be so intensely involved in that and whether we have my Nutcracker and Swan Lake in the repertoire—I look at those much more as I curate them. I add additional choreography when something is not original and doesn’t feel right; I take those out and try to construct dance or match what I think was missing and maybe update it a little bit more for today’s technique and musicality. So in that sense I don’t consider myself a choreographer. They are people who create original movement vocabulary and do nothing but choreograph. It’s very difficult to be a director/choreographer.

You have 56 dancers. Would you like more?
Next year we will have 58. And 12 [in Boston Ballet II]. And then we will finally be at our goal. We have been building the company’s size. You know when you do Bayadère, Sleeping Beauty—those are big ballets and we have a big trainee class in our school, but the deeper you go, the quality drops and I think this is the right size of a company for Boston. If I had European-government support, maybe I’d want more but I’m very happy with the size. You also have to remember that a happy dancer is a busy dancer. I don’t have anybody really sitting on the sidelines. But if you have three key ladies injured in one particular year, it immediately creates challenges.

When choreographers come in, do you direct them as to whom they should use?
Everybody is little different. Occasionally, I will have a couple of people they can’t use because they are already in the two other pieces. With some people it’s a conversation and we do the casting together. With some people it’s not; they ask me questions and make the decisions. Your Mark Morrises and Wheeldons. I never tell anybody, “Don’t use that person.” I’m just trying to share the characteristics of the individual so the choreographers get the people who inspire them the most. At the end of the day, the dancers are the interpretive artists who are the instruments for the choreographer’s purpose.

Do you feel ballet in the U.S. is vastly different from ballet in Europe?
I would say there are different characteristics. If you were to take a big overview, I think ballet in Europe is more theatrical and in North America it’s more energetic and perhaps more musical. There’s a different value system. In North American companies, there are stronger dancers overall. In Europe there’s strength on the top. The demands of North American dancers in the corps are a lot more than corps dancers in Europe. I think there’s more pressure, there’s more fire under your butt in North America, which always creates a better result. We don’t have governments telling us what to do with our 0.01 government support. We don’t have to worry too much about what they think we should be doing. We have other challenges finding the money, but honestly I do almost feel like there’s more freedom. It’s a huge job with huge pressure, but it’s also exciting.

Would you ever consider having Boston Ballet be the subject of a reality show, like Ballet West did?
Guess what was the company that they first proposed it to?

It was Boston Ballet?
Yeah. And we turned it down. It started very strangely. They were very excited about the company: “BBC wants to do two one-hour documentaries on the company.” Of course, I’m open. Then they come here and look at everything and they got so excited and said, “What would you think if we did a series of documentaries, six of them?” I said well, I know the ones from London—I’m open. And then they changed the tune. What if it becomes a series? And eventually they got CW, and they got creative in it and I was like, This is going in a really wrong direction. Suddenly the BBC couldn’t keep its promises anymore. We started in such a different place. All the ground rules that we set were broken and at the end, the initial producer came and said, “I’m sorry—you’re absolutely right. We promised all these things and with the CW’s involvement, it’s taken a whole different life,” and they respected it, and apologized about where it went and understood why we said no. But for a company like Ballet West, they don’t have much opportunity to get visibility. I sort of understood why Adam [Sklute] jumped at it. But it was very trashy. Did I watch it? Yes. I was curious. But it was pretty bad.

And boring. How do you define contemporary ballet?
I’m starting to think about the word dance—everybody relates to dance. Our heartbeat is music and with a couple of steps and coordination, there’s dance. Ballet, for me these days in North America…all the daddies and uncles have been dragged into these recitals of the four- and five-year-olds that are pathetic, and everybody’s first association with the word ballet is that. So within there is a huge problem: Even with an organization with the name of Boston Ballet, I am trying to get people to understand that we do dance. One of those forms of dance is classical ballet and another is neoclassical ballet. There’s contemporary dance. But what we do is dance. Human beings’ natural relationship to dance is there and everybody’s connected. The whole ballet thing is problematic. That’s why it’s difficult to answer the question, because I don’t look at it that way. There’s good dance and bad dance. The good thing is that I see fewer and fewer fences. In the ’70s and the ’80s it was modern dance and ballet. The repertoire in big, classical ballet companies—there’s so much influence and that influence has been welcomed and embraced so I think that’s the good news and there are different forms of theatricality entering in. The key is just to keep developing and utilizing the classical ballet technique. But ballet companies have to curate the repertory really well and if we just try to live on the war horses? My biggest fear is that the art form of classical ballet will only survive on Broadway as a movement vocabulary in Disney musicals and that’s a horrible future. We have to do everything possible to stay relevant.
Boston Ballet is June 25–29 at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center).

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