|| The Boston Globe
|| March 20, 2011
|| Jeffrey Gantz
“We met in ballet class. At the barre.’’ Mikko Nissinen is remembering how, back in the early 1970s, in Helsinki, he and Jorma Elo first met. He was 11; Elo was 12.
Thirty-eight years later, in an improbable conjunction, Nissinen is artistic director of Boston Ballet and Elo is the company’s resident choreographer. Together they’re planning a sea change for dance in Boston.
“Elo Experience,’’ which Boston Ballet will open at the Opera House this Thursday, isn’t simply an evening devoted to one contemporary choreographer. “It’s a little boring,’’ Nissinen explains, “just to have one work, and then another work, and then another.’’
Instead, as you travel along what he calls the “river’’ of an Elo premiere, set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, you’ll see “elements’’ from pieces Elo has done for Boston Ballet, like “Plan to B,’’ “In on Blue,’’ and “Brake the Eyes,’’ and pieces that haven’t yet been seen in Boston, like “Double Evil,’’ “Lost by Last,’’ and “Slice to Sharp.’’
“Jorma has added two characters that take you through the whole journey, Jeffrey Cirio and Larissa Ponomarenko,’’ Nissinen continues. “We’re trying to tweak the whole theater so that you feel engulfed by the show, with the way we’re doing the lighting and mixing the sound. The concept is to have the orchestra in the side box so the dancers will be much closer to the audience.’’
Nissinen also had a new vision for the marketing of “Elo Experience.’’ “The posters didn’t feel right,’’ he says. “So let’s create a Shepard-Fairey-Andy-Warhol-esque image of Jorma’s face.’’ The green-and-orange-tinged result promotes Elo as a ballet rock star. But Nissinen didn’t stop there. He declared March 1 “Elo Day’’; videos of that day’s company class (with the dancers all wearing Elo’s trademark black, rectangular-framed glasses) and rehearsals were posted on the Boston Ballet website, and tickets to “Elo Experience’’ were offered for $31. More tickets were given away on the private Web boutique site Rue La La. Then on March 8, members of the Boston Ballet Volunteers Association roamed the city handing out stickers, T-shirts (with the poster image), and pairs of Elo glasses. You can follow it all on Facebook and Twitter as well as at BostonBallet.org.
That’s a lot of hype for someone who, 11 years ago, was getting his first commission, from Nissinen, then director of the Alberta Ballet in Calgary. But the Gospel of Elo has spread well beyond the six pieces he’s done in Boston, to commissions for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and all over Europe.
This may be his moment, but not everyone is sold on him. John Rockwell in The New York Times called Elo’s NYCB commission “Slice to Sharp’’ “an exhilarating exercise in flat-out virtuosity,’’ but for Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, the same piece was “an instantly forgettable aerobic exercise.’’ Tilted off balance and at an angle, Elo’s movement is ballet as rock back when rock was rock and not pop. (When I ask him why he’s so fond of the relatively obscure Baroque composer Heinrich Biber, he cites “Biber’s raw, electric beauty. I connect the sound to electric guitar. My first love was rock concerts.’’) His modular vocabulary of hyperkinetic robotics lends itself to being deconstructed and reconstructed into an evening-length “experience.’’ And though titles like “Cut to Drive’’ and “Brake the Eyes’’ (“Break the Ice’’?) can seem like last-minute thoughts, they are really miniature poems (“Jorma haiku,’’ Nissinen calls them), and they stick.
When I sit down to talk to Elo and Nissinen at Stephi’s on Tremont, around the corner from the Ballet’s South End studio, and listen to their banter, it’s almost like listening to George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. They may have been normal Finnish kids who played soccer and ice hockey, but there was no question they were going to wind up as dancers.
“Every summer, we would go to some school,’’ Nissinen recalls. “We were extras in the Finnish ballets and operas, so we made some money, and we traveled to London and Cannes and Paris. Eventually we came to New York together and spent hours in the Lincoln Center library watching old videotapes. We got hired into the Finnish National Ballet the same day. I was 15, Jorma was 16. We had just come from Copenhagen, where we saw ABT. Twyla [Tharp] had just done “Push Comes to Shove’’ for Misha [Baryshnikov], so we saw [Gelsey] Kirkland and Baryshnikov in “Don Q,’’ Misha in “Push,’’ [Natalia] Makarova and Kirkland in “Lilac Garden,’’ and that’s when I said, ‘This is what I want to do for a profession.’ ’’
Elo’s parents are both doctors; they were not thrilled.
“No, no, no, it was a big shock. I was at university, to continue . . .’’
To become a doctor, perhaps?
“Exactly. It was bad times. But I felt like Mikko. This was a huge driving force for a teenager. I wanted to dance a little bit like Baryshnikov, or to be in the same world. It totally overtook us. There was no other way, unless they put us in jail.’’
“Life in the theater was so much more interesting than reality,’’ Nissinen adds. That life next took them to St. Petersburg, where they roomed together, were in the same class at the Kirov Ballet School, and got in free to three performances a week. “For the first six months, we sat up there in the lousy seats,’’ Nissinen recounts. “Then our friends showed us how to bribe the ushers, and we had good seats.’’ He turns to Elo. “You remember?’’ Elo doesn’t: “No, I didn’t get any good seats.’’ Nissinen decides he must have gotten the good seats with other classmates. Elo is unconcerned: “I liked my seats up there.’’
They went their separate ways, Nissinen to the Dutch National Ballet, Basel Ballet (you can see him on videotape in that company’s performance of “La Fille Mal Gardée’’), and San Francisco Ballet, Elo to the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm and then Nederlands Dans Theater. Now they’re reunited in Boston. What would they do if they had an entire day to spend together?
“We would play tennis in the morning,’’ Elo begins. He’s the more serious student of the two; he grew up in a tennis-playing family, and his mother, at 87, still plays three times a week. “No, first we’d go tuna fishing, really fast, really early.’’ Early as in 2:30 or 3 a.m., according to Nissinen. An avid fisherman, he has his own boat anchored at Green Harbor in Marshfield.
Then, Elo continues, “Mikko would make an incredible dish of tuna!’’ And in the evening? Well, there’s the Symphony, which Elo calls “one of the best bands on the planet’’; he and Nissinen even suggest that the next BSO music director could be a Finn: Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä. But Elo’s real passion would be the Bruins at the Garden. “Or the Rolling Stones, if they’re in town. Or David Bowie, even better.’’ That triggers a response from Nissinen: he’d love to get Bowie to do a score for Boston Ballet. “I just don’t know who I would give it to. I would be so jealous if I gave it to Jorma, for example.’’ Elo is puzzled: “Why would you be jealous?’’ “Because you would get to work with him more intimately than I. But I would give it to you anyway.’’
Could a Bowie ballet turn up in 2013-14, as part of Boston Ballet’s 50th-anniversary season? Nissinen will say only that he has “major, super-ambitious’’ plans for that celebration. But a company that can market Jorma Elo as a rock star might be capable of anything.