If You Like Great Choreographers, You’ll Love Boston Ballet’s New Season

08/31/2017 12:12 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2017

Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen focuses on great choreographers of the past and present for the company’s upcoming season, which opens November 3 at the Boston Opera House.

Balletomanes will have the chance to see classic works choreographed by John Cranko, George Balanchine, and August Bournonville, as well as cutting edge pieces by Wayne McGregor, William Forsythe, Justin Peck, and Jorma Elo.

Nissinen took time to share details of the upcoming season.

Michael: Your first production is actually a co-production with The Royal Ballet in London.

Mikko: It’s our first co-production, which means the piece is created by two companies that share the costs, and both companies do the work for an exclusive amount of time, after which the choreographer can do it elsewhere.

The first program is called Obsidian Tear (November 3-12), which is the title of Wayne McGregor’s North American premiere. The second piece in this program by Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo, is Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius. Sibelius is a Finnish composer—all his work is fantastic. Since the music in Obsidian Tear is set to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlernt for solo violin and his symphonic poem Nyx, and Salonen is also Finnish, I looked at producing a program of Finnish music and two premieres. A month after I constructed the program, I realized it was going to be the 100th anniversary of Finland!

Michael: So you made it an all-Finland program, is that correct?

Mikko: I’m Finnish and I have a Finnish choreographer and two Finnish composers, so I had a program of Finnish music. I added one more orchestral piece, Sibelius’ Finlandia, a stunning, eight-minute piece. But the main reason I wanted that piece to start the program is that it’s almost impossible not to love. It just takes you with it.

After that, then we go to Obsidian Tear, which starts with a quiet song and violin. The next section is this sort of rumbling, huge orchestral piece, almost like an earthquake. Salonen’s chords are so fantastic—they come towards you and then pull away.

I've been a lifelong fan of Salonen. I think I was 16 years old, and a dancer in the Finnish National Ballet, when he was conducting Giselle. I think he was aged 20 at that point. I’ve seen him build a sensational international career. He turned the Los Angeles music scene upside down. He’s my national hero.

Unfortunately, Salonen couldn’t conduct it for us. He has an engagement at the Paris Opera exactly at the same time, so I asked him for recommendations for a conductor. He recommended Daniel Stewart, music director of the Santa Cruz Symphony, and now he is coming to guest conduct the whole show and make sure it’s tip-top.

Then after Obsidian Tear, we do The Nutcracker (November 24-December 31).

Michael: How do you keep The Nutcracker fresh for the dancers and for the audience?

Mikko: People don’t always realize that for the dancers, the show is technically very difficult. That’s how we sharpen our knives. I know I have a tired company after 44 shows, but The Nutcracker season is when I see people grow, develop, and get different opportunities. It’s like a long coaching session for the entire company.

People ask performers if they ever get bored. As a dancer, I never got bored. I always loved dancing and had great fun with it. That’s the way I keep it fresh, and I try to do the same for the whole company.

Michael: And then a program with modern choreographers.

Mikko: Yes. Parts In Suite (March 9-April 7) is Jorma Elo’s Bach Cello Suites, followed by Justin Peck’s In Creases. I’ve been talking with Justin for many years about Boston Ballet doing something, and finally something is really happening. I’m very happy to add him to our repertoire.

The evening will conclude with William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts. That’s a fascinating work, sort of physical and intellectual. Artifact was hauntingly beautiful and theatrical, but here you get a pure dance laced with nerve, and edges shining. So that should be a fun program.

Michael: And then comes Romeo & Juliet. What’s different about that ballet?

Mikko: We will perform John Cranko’s Romeo & Juliet from March 15 to April 8. We purchased new sets and costumes, and we are refurbishing the production. It’s a Jürgen Rose production. Rose was Cranko’s masterful scenery and costume designer.

Michael: When you have familiar ballets like Romeo & Juliet or The Nutcracker, how do you create that sense of edge, or find a higher level for pieces that the dancers may have performed for years?

Mikko: Well, Romeo & Juliet is a little bit different because it’s such an emotionally charged, dramatic ballet. Basically, you can’t just dial it in. You have to live it, so it’s a little bit easier for the dancers. We use The Nutcracker as a way of showing people their first classical ballet. If we’re not serious about that, we might as well close up shop.

Michael: And then comes Balanchine.

Mikko: In May, we have a Balanchine program (May 17-June 9) starting with Prodigal Son. It’s the second-oldest surviving choreography that Balanchine did with the Ballets Russes in 1929. Then the new addition to our Balanchine repertoire is Chaconne. Christoph Gluck’s music has that sort of simplicity that gets to you. It’s a pretty divine piece, and I’m looking forward to that. I actually think Chaconne is, more than anything, a really spiritual experience.

We also have a one week performance of The Sleeping Beauty (May 11-19).

Michael: And then a return to the classics with August Bournonville.

Mikko: Then the last program celebrates August Bournonville and his oldest surviving choreography, La Sylphide (May 24-June 10), which is a sort of masterpiece of the past, and still so touching. Sorella Englund did a wonderful job for us last time with her staging and production. That is going to be the corner piece of the last program.

Right before that piece, we’re doing some of Bournonville’s Divertissements, opening with the “Flower Festival of Genzano.”

I’m looking forward to it. I really want the dancers to get into the understatement of Bournonville—the much lower arms, and the style—so we pull it off in a really authentic way. And that’s our season!

For more information on tickets and performances, visit bostonballet.org.

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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