At The Ballet: How Mikko Nissinen Keeps Boston Ballet on Its Toes

08/31/2017 12:11 pm ET

Mikko Nissinen is about to begin his 17th season as Artistic Director of Boston Ballet. Under his tenure, the company has skyrocketed to the top level of ballet companies around the world. Ballet fans want to know how he did it—and what he does to keep Boston Ballet always striving for more.

Michael: Boston Ballet has been so successful. So the first question is this: How do you maintain the edge?

Mikko: It’s the same as in sports. Once you win a season, repeating everything that you did the next season is the surest way not to win. To stay on that edge, you have to question and risk everything. Once you get used to winning, then you just love that edge. You love the fact it’s risky. Otherwise, I’m sorry, it gets really boring. So there is no formula. You just have to go for it.

Michael: When people think about winning, risk typically creeps into the process. People think, “This worked before, so I’d better not change anything.” That’s human nature, but how do you overcome that?

Mikko: It’s funny how it’s human nature to hate change. At the same time, there’s only one thing that is guaranteed in life and the universe: Things are going to change! It’s a contradiction. If we just accept that things aren’t going to be the same and embrace it, everything works out. I personally enjoy that. I think that’s what tells me that I’m alive.

Michael: Where do you build risk into what Boston Ballet does?

Mikko: On every level. I want the dancers to dance on the edge. I want the productions to be very challenging for them. I educate my dancers, but I expose audiences to what works. I don’t try to educate the audience. It’s a process of exposure.

Michael: What’s the difference between exposing and educating?

Mikko: I would feel pretty arrogant to say I’m going to educate all of the people who see our performances. I think it serves the art form better when I want to expose the audience to things and say, “Let's enjoy this together.” I’m no different from anybody else. I may have 40 years in the industry, but I’m as excited about the work as they are, hopefully, and it’s like having fun together.

At the same time, with my dancers it’s totally the opposite. Of course they get exposed to these works, but I really want them to learn from these different ballets, and to understand the mastery of Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, or Mark Morris.

Through performing these different classics, they experience how much they grow by doing them.

Michael: And now you have a five-year relationship with choreographer William Forsythe.

Mikko: I’m so happy with the relationship with William Forsythe. Not only is he one of the most desired choreographers in the world, but the dancers get better as they work with him. You have to be such a strong dancer that you can be vulnerable and willing to be a true instrument in his masterful hands. Then he asks you to do a structured improvisation! When I came to Boston Ballet, the word “improvisation” was as far from this organization as you can imagine.

It’s really scary. Dancers are always told what to do, and how to do it, and then they color that instruction and become interpretive artists. So to get to the point that you are so comfortable that you can share your process as it’s happening on stage through improvisation, I think that’s fantastic, and Forsythe uses it a lot. And this is just the beginning of our initial five-year relationship. I’m very excited to see not only how well the dancers are handling it now, but also the growth of their mastery in five years. That should be fun.

Michael: How did you convince Forsythe to come to Boston?

Mikko: I created a space for it to happen. He had worked with our company right before the New York tour, and he loved how strong, attentive, and disciplined our dancers were. Then from there it started expanding, and we started talking about this relationship. I basically offered him carte blanche. I said, “I want you and your works in our repertoire to the fullest possible extent.” Interestingly enough, I got a text from him the next morning asking, “Are you sure you meant that?”

Then of course, he saw the whole process of working with Artifact. He saw how we hit the market, how seriously we did every little thing that we do here. And he saw how we also respect the art. Taking the time to rehearse and really going for that high level—that’s what the choreographers want. I think I was trying not to tell him what to do, but rather show him both through the work and through Boston Ballet’s commitment.

Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen; photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Ballet.
Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen; photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Ballet.
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