|| The New York Times
|| April 29, 2011
|| Claudia La Rocco
HERE is an unusual game to add to the list of competitive virtual activities: playing at being an artistic director, your choices measured against those made by the real head honchos. Imagine an armchair quarterback, with toe shoes.
“In my head I ran all the companies,” Mikko Nissinen, 49, said, explaining the game he had amused himself with since he was a young dancer. “I saw how it played out most of the time exactly how I thought. I have over the years gained tremendous confidence.”
In 2001, after a successful stage career and directorships at smaller troupes, he got a big-league company of his own to run: Boston Ballet. The job came with a host of big-league issues to test that tremendous confidence, beginning with the Sept. 11 attacks just five days after he signed on and including a mandate to shake up an established company that had already endured a rocky leadership transition.
And then, three years ago, Boston Ballet dealt with a more specific trial: the reduction of its main company by nearly 20 percent, to 41 dancers from 50. These cuts were in part a result of the loss, in 2004, of the 3,800-seat Wang Theater, which the company had rented for decades for its annual “Nutcracker” season.
Moving to a smaller theater had a domino effect: not just lost ticket revenue but also leery patrons’ walking away from subscriptions and the need to put $1 million into a retrofitted “Nutcracker.” The damage amounted to more than $6 million in cumulative losses, a substantial blow to an organization that then had a $25.6 million annual budget and $1.9 million in debt.
This is the sort of setback that might make an artistic director view his position as a short-term situation en route to a bigger or at least more stable job. But Mr. Nissinen dug in, even taking over as executive director for a year and a half. During that time he oversaw a rebranding initiative and Boston Ballet’s move to its new theater, the Boston Opera House.
“If you go to a place where everything is in place, you have to take it down and then build it up,” he said, speaking in his office in the company’s airy Clarendon Street headquarters, where a $3 million renovation is almost complete. (Mr. Nissinen’s ballet posters and dance library were still in stacks, but a model North Atlantic bluefin tuna had pride of place above his door, testament to his ardent fishing habit.) “I didn’t have to take so many things down. Some of them had already collapsed.”
Mr. Nissinen vowed to have Boston Ballet back up to speed after two years. And it is — sort of. There is a new executive director, Barry Hughson, who has worked with Mr. Nissinen to streamline operations, and a new chairman of the expanding board, Jack Meyer, who has pushed hard for improvements in fund-raising (95 percent of the $10 million Clean Slate Fund has been pledged to date, money intended for near-term operating costs, debt reduction and Clarendon work).
Those measures, along with moving box office operations in house, help account for the turnaround. The budget stands at $26.9 million, the debt is at $502,342, and the structural deficit (the built-in gap between income and expenses) will have been reduced to just under $2 million by the end of the 2011 fiscal year from $2.9 million in the 2009 fiscal year, with projections for it to be gone by the end of 2013. (The endowment still languishes, at $10.2 million.)
But what of the numbers onstage? Mr. Nissinen now has 55 dancers at his disposal, compared with 59 during the 2007-8 season. “I definitely think that the caliber and product onstage is there with the major companies in the world,” Mr. Nissinen said. “But sometimes I need eight girls for a ballet, and I have only eight girls. The numbers game becomes too much a numbers game.”
Of these 55, it’s important to note, 10 are from Boston Ballet II, the organization’s preprofessional troupe. Before the cuts 9 of the 59 were junior dancers. While Mr. Nissinen described Boston as “a little bit top heavy” (with principals, soloists and second soloists together outnumbering the corps), there is a difference between position and experience.
“The company is very, very young,” said the principal dancer Larissa Ponomarenko, who has been with Boston Ballet since 1993; she is one of three dancers who predate Mr. Nissinen. “I don’t know if that is the best thing. Because they’re eager to learn. But what to learn from? That is a question.”
She added that “the turnover of dancers, it’s a lot.”
This weariness no doubt reflects that the 2008 cuts came after the substantial turnover in Mr. Nissinen’s early years. He was hired to change the company’s profile, and change it he has, bringing in Jorma Elo, a fellow Finn, as resident choreographer in 2005 and promoting contemporary, European-leaning works as part of a three-pronged repertory that includes storybook classics and 20th-century ballets. He also hired more high-profile dancers like Erica Cornejo, formerly of American Ballet Theater, Misa Kuranaga (from San Francisco Ballet) and Lasha Khozashvili (the State Ballet of Georgia).
“They don’t have the same national identity as the top three companies in the U.S., but, at least on the East Coast, the new work they’re doing seems more substantial,” said John Michael Schert, the executive director of Trey McIntyre Project, whose innovative approach to community outreach and branding is admired by Mr. Hughson. “It has a strong brand, and what’s interesting is the brand seems to originate from the dancers and the artistic side, and not from the management.”
Mr. Nissinen’s repertory approach has also met a positive reception. “The direction they’re going is toward more contemporary work, more adventurous things,” Karen Campbell, a critic for The Boston Globe, said in an interview, “and to me that’s much more exciting than yet another ‘Giselle.’ ”
Mr. Elo agreed, noting that Mr. Nissinen “has introduced a lot of things that were not possible with the audience or dancers” before.
During a hectic day in the studios this season the dancers followed morning class with back-to-back rehearsals of “The Second Detail,” by William Forsythe; Jiri Kylian’s “Bella Figura,” which had not yet been performed by an American company; and “Elo Experience,” integrating seven of Mr. Elo’s ballets.
Sarah Wroth, who had earlier emphasized this variety as a big reason for her staying in the company for eight years as a corps member, jogged over, flushed and beaming. “See, like that,” she said, “I get to do ‘Second Detail.’ It’s awesome.”
Mr. Nissinen was adamant that he did not cast by rank, noting that many of the new works are ensemble pieces. Later that same day, as he popped backstage before a performance of “Elo Experience,” he took a moment to chat with the soloist Joseph Gatti, telling him not to push through his Achilles tendinitis, that the opportunities would be there for him. (“The hierarchy is not as rigid, for sure,” Mr. Gatti, previously of Corella Ballet, said the next day. “You definitely have your chances.”)
After a brief pep talk to the dancers Mr. Nissinen zipped to the front of the house. He seemed to know everybody, joking with the ushers, clapping the backs of board members and flirting with the female fans who routinely clustered around him. (“I’m an Elo groupie,” one woman squealed excitedly.)
“At the end of the night we can discuss what you thought of it,” he said to some audience members as the lights dimmed. “Just make sure and fasten your seat belt. This is not going to be your ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ ”
Certainly not. Consisting of previously created material knitted together by the dancers’ spoken meditations, “Elo Experience,” which drew loud applause and cheers that night, offers a decidedly contemporary take on how a full-length ballet might be structured.
“How many valid big classical ballets do you really have?” Mr. Nissinen had earlier asked in his office, chuckling and shaking his head as he described how well-meaning supporters and board members had initially told him that conservative Boston wouldn’t go for ballets that pushed against long-held conventions. “This art form is something so special. But the world changes, and we have to change with the world.
“Art is not a smiley-face stamp of happiness or approval. That kind of sugarcoated ballet, I have the hardest time with.”
Though Boston Ballet’s staff and supporters diplomatically praise the entire repertory, there is an undeniable uptick in enthusiasm from many of them when the subject turns to Mr. Nissinen’s acquisition of more adventuresome new work. Referring to the sensation caused by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the early 20th century, Mr. Meyer, the board chairman, noted that whether euphoric or outraged, people were “always excited to be there.” He continued, “And Mikko is gently taking the company in that direction.”
He just needs enough able bodies to get there. The morning after “Elo Experience,” Mr. Nissinen, who cheerfully refers to himself as “a hired gun,” was hustling down the central staircase at 19 Clarendon when one of his principal dancers, James Whiteside, hobbled up on crutches and a boot, announcing his fractured ankle. The loss of a key dancer midseason is no small thing for an artistic director, especially one playing the numbers game with such tight margins. A crowd gathered and Mr. Nissinen’s face did something complicated for a minute, until Mr. Whiteside broke into a toothy grin. It was only April Fool’s. The show would go on.