As the Boston Ballet begins its 50th-anniversary season, the brilliant, controversial artistic director Mikko Nissinen has made the once-forlorn company the envy of the dance world. He’s also infuriated his critics, his funders, and many of his own dancers. So what’s next for one of the most creative—and confounding—minds in ballet?
He also pushed for the company to perform outside of the country for the first time since 1991. Touring internationally is costly, and results in little profit, which is why, in ballet’s fragile state in America, only a handful of companies do it. Nissinen, though, saw performing abroad as a kind of long-term strategic investment in the company’s brand. In 2007 the company performed throughout Spain for six weeks. (In the years since, the troupe has performed in South Korea, Canada, and Nissinen’s home country, Finland.)
Yet the ballet’s money problems only grew worse over the next year, with its total debt climbing to $8 million, including a $2 million structural deficit. In March 2008, Wilder resigned her position as executive director, saying that there wasn’t “room here to grow” since the ballet was “so busy with its own survival.” With the global recession walloping the arts world, the company cut the dance troupe by about 20 percent, from 50 dancers to 41. With Wilder gone, Nissinen served as both artistic and executive director. He worked 16-hour days, teaching company class and meeting with artistic staffers in the morning, fundraising throughout the day, and budgeting at night.
When Barry Hughson came on as the new executive director in 2009, Nissinen seized the opportunity to overhaul the company’s finances. In 2010 he and Hughson met with eight donors to pitch the new Clean Slate Fund, a $10 million campaign to clear the structural deficit, finance a much-needed studio renovation, and invest in touring. They kept the campaign secret from everyone but high-level donors. Within eight months, the company had raised all the money and at last began to plan for the future. “It’s very hard for an organization to move forward when they’re looking over their shoulder,” Hughson told me during a meeting in his office, across the hall from Nissinen. “Now I can sit with Mikko and talk about a project that he’s thinking about five years from now.” In the next few years, Nissinen and Hughson plan to launch a campaign to replenish the ballet’s endowment, so that, Hughson told me, “the company will thrive long after we’re both gone.”
Nissinen continues to stage at least one classic story ballet a season—La Bayadère, Cinderella, Don Quixote, and the like—in addition to the Nutcracker. But he says he avoids loading the schedule with too many. “A story ballet in a way is a ballet you can read in the program notes,” he told WBUR in 2005. “They live happily ever after.” He has also instituted a robust diet of Balanchine neoclassics, works that put a premium on a dancer’s strength, precision, and plasticity. “When you do Balanchine ballets,” he said, “you become a very good company.”
Jorma Elo has now crafted 10 works for the troupe as its resident choreographer, and is today regarded as one of the world’s top contemporary choreographers, having also staged pieces for the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. But, he says, “Boston Ballet is my home. I have been the most experimental and maybe taken the biggest steps in unknown directions.” Boston’s dancers, in other words, have become fluent in the language of contemporary dance. The company has commissioned modern works from the likes of William Forsythe, Helen Pickett, and Christopher Wheeldon. And since 2005, it has performed 10 pieces by the celebrated Czech-Dutch choreographer Jiří Kylián, more than any other ballet company in America.
Nissinen’s embrace of dance’s avant-garde, however, has not always been free of controversy. Consider Kylián’s bare-chested Bella Figura. The Boston Ballet staged the American premiere of the work in 2011. Set to meditative Baroque music, the piece featured nine dancers exploring the limitations and possibilities of the human form, folding and unfolding one another’s bodies in positions not found in any classical instruction books. For much of the 30-minute piece, male and female performers danced across a barren stage in nothing but billowing red skirts. Devoid of the artifice of ornate set design and costumes, Nissinen told me, “It’s such a clear dialogue with yourself.” Some board members objected to the ballet, though, and principal dancer Lia Cirio refused to perform in it. “Morally, I couldn’t do it,” she told me. “But I love watching my friends do it, and I appreciate Kylián. It was great for the audience to see that we can do what European companies can do.” The critics agreed. “Boston Ballet makes even the trashy transcendent,” Jeffrey Gantz wrote in the Phoenix in a review of an all-Kylián program. The Globe’s Thea Singer wrote, “Bella Figura is at once delightful, troubling, and moved by grace.” The company brought the piece back to Boston in 2012, and showcased it this July in London, during its first visit to England in 30 years.
One recent morning, after the Boston Ballet returned from London, the dancers entered the studio in a rainbow of warmup sweats, leg warmers, lace, and leotards. As they stretched at the barre and caught up with one another after their post-trip break, their laughs echoed off the cantilevered glass of the boardroom above. When Nissinen entered the room, though, everyone fell silent. In a button-up shirt, wind pants, and dance sneakers, Nissinen told his dancers to plié, demonstrating the proper form in front of a wall-length mirror. Midway through the hour-and-a-half class, Nissinen paced and examined each dancer, occasionally pulling one aside for an adjustment. His demands grew as they soaked in sweat and panted in between exercises. “More generous assembles, please,” he said. “Bigger!” he requested of their ronds de jambe. In the months ahead, they would perform two company premieres (one from Jorma Elo), two American premieres, and a world premiere at the Opera House from José Carlos Martínez, the artistic director of Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza. Not to mention a night celebrating their anniversary at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, home of Balanchine’s old New York City Ballet.
Nissinen’s current contract expires in 2014, but his goals for the company are more ambitious now than ever. “We need to show how the art has progressed,” he told me. “I want us to be the ballet company of the future.” He hopes to start hosting top international ballet companies in Boston each season—not a moneymaker, but something that would “expose our audience to one more example of dance that I want them to see.” He also plans to continue touring, and to expand the corps de ballet by five more dancers next year, allowing the company to stage even more ambitious works. It seems that at 50, the Boston Ballet has finally become the world-class company it had always aspired to be.
Now, as a group of dancers leapt from one end of the floor to the other, Nissinen ran in front to monitor their feet. “Bend. Bend!” he yelled as they landed on outstretched legs. “It’s not going to break, I promise!”