Turning Point

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?

By | Boston Magazine |
boston-ballet-1

Photographs by Finlay Mackay

Backstage at the Boston Opera House, five minutes before the curtains were to rise on a Friday in May, Mikko Nissinen, dressed in an all-black suit, emerged to check on his dancers. This was a rare pre-performance sighting of the artistic director of the Boston Ballet. On many nights, just before the show begins, Nissinen will sneak into a box, or the orchestra, or the back of the balcony, unbeknownst to the performers. The company, which is celebrating its half-century birthday this year, had premiered its new production, Chroma, a week earlier. Each performance since had provoked standing ovations that sounded more like what you’d expect at a Bruins game than a ballet. Nonetheless, Nissinen’s dancers knew better than to be satisfied with their early success. So even as the patrons on the other side of the curtain were asked to silence their cell phones, the dancers John Lam and Isaac Akiba were reviewing video from the previous night’s performance—the moment when they drag Jeffrey Cirio across the stage in skin-tone, crotch-length nightgowns.

Now two minutes to curtain, Nissinen, his face bathed in electric-blue batten lighting, approached 17 ballerinas dressed in diaphanous azure tulle skirts for the evening’s opening piece, the Balanchine classic Serenade. He said something that made them laugh, and then walked to his seat to witness his work.

This was one of the last performances before the Boston Ballet embarked on its ambitious 50th-anniversary season. The company would go on to perform at the London Coliseum with the Royal Philharmonic in July, and then return to stage the annual Night of Stars, which this year was presented for free on the Common in September. The season itself, which kicks off in earnest this month, includes American and world premieres in Boston, and also performances at Washington’s Kennedy Center and at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, in New York, next summer.

When Nissinen, who is 51, took over the company in 2001, a schedule of this magnitude seemed unimaginable. Amid fumbled searches for a director, the Boston Ballet had turned to gaudy and ill-choreographed story ballets, and other than a single performance in New York, hadn’t performed outside Massachusetts in a decade. And little wonder. The Globe concluded that the 1999 season’s repertory “was so dismal you wonder why any presenter would want to import the Boston troupe.” Along the way, the company lost talent, clout, and its home for three decades—the Wang Theatre—and fell $8 million into debt. And after a dancer’s death, it was beset with scandal. Yet today the company stands as the fourth-largest ballet in the country—free of long-term debt, with 58 dancers and a $31 million annual budget. In the past six years it has toured 16 cities and five countries and staged 13 world premieres. In returning the Boston Ballet to health, Nissinen, with his modernist yet populist vision, has helped undo Boston’s long-standing reputation as a conservative arts town. Nissinen and the international talent he has recruited have begun to create what all the world’s ballet companies are desperately after today: an identity.

 

The Boston Ballet was born in 1963, the product of a grant from the Ford Foundation. From the beginning, the company struggled to establish itself. The Melrose native E. Virginia Williams was named the company’s founding artistic director, and held the position until 1983. Williams cultivated a modest range of classics and Balanchine neoclassics—although Balanchine, an occasional artistic adviser, often poached Williams’s best dancers for his ballet in New York.

Violette Verdy, the Boston Ballet’s second director, was hired from France as codirector in 1980, became head director in 1983, and promptly quit in 1984. On her way out, she lambasted the board of trustees, telling the Globe that its members had their “own little, local, parochial, cozy plans…. They do not come to the studio or rehearsals. They do not care about dance.” Next up was Bruce Marks, who began his tenure in 1985 with a press conference in which he laid out his goal of “taking the underdog company of all time, the faceless Boston Ballet, and giving it a face.” Marks expanded the repertoire, commissioning contemporary works by the likes of Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, and in 1991 the company opened a Graham Gund–designed, 60,000-square-foot, seven-studio, $7.5 million headquarters on Clarendon Street in the South End.

boston-ballet-2

Marks left in 1997, and almost immediately afterward the company tumbled to its artistic nadir. During the three-year tenure of Anna-Marie Holmes, Marks’s successor, the company staged some of the most universally panned performances in its history. “You go away feeling you’ve seen a lot—just not a lot of dancing,” the Globe wrote of Holmes’s An American in Paris. Another review concluded that “the ballet is trying hard to sell tickets through works with high name recognition, no matter how crude the choreography.” A letter to the editor scolded a critic whose review was titled “A Lifeless Dracula” for being “too kind.” At one point, the prominent choreographer Mark Morris withdrew one of his ballets mid-production, claiming that Boston’s dancers weren’t up to his standards.

Then, in June 1997, an internal tragedy nearly sank the company. Corps de ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, who suffered from an eating disorder, suddenly died. When the media learned that Holmes had previously requested that Guenther lose five pounds, publications as varied as People and the New York Times ran headlines similar to the one in the Phoenix: “Was Boston Ballet Responsible for the Death of Heidi Guenther?” An autopsy ultimately determined that Guenther had most likely died of a genetic heart condition, but the stigma lingered, and Holmes ultimately left the ballet in 2000.

Maina Gielgud, the veteran director of the Australian Ballet, replaced Holmes, only to resign just five months later—before even setting up her office. Gielgud cited disputes with the administration, which she said had never presented her with a final budget. The company spent the next year trudging through an international search before at last landing on Mikko Nissinen, then a young artistic director who had grown up in Finland and made his reputation as a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet.

 

I met Nissinen recently in the Back Bay at one of his favorite sushi restaurants. He was wearing his usual all-black ensemble, and after a long week of late nights at the South End headquarters—budget planning, performance reviews, and rehearsals for an expansive repertoire in London—he looked sluggish. He said he was going to take a homeopathic medicine after dinner to fend off a cold. Then he asked the waitress to bring out three courses of the chef’s choice. “The more adventurous, the better,” he told her.

The more adventurous, the better: as precise a dictum as any for Nissinen’s ballet. Recent scenes from the Boston Ballet include a pianist plinking a horror score on a baby grand with 9-foot-tall legs as a dancer pirouettes beneath; orangutan-esque arm-swinging by performers in front of a white sign reading, simply, “The”; dancers crawling on bubble wrap; choreography set to the Rolling Stones, an orchestral remolding of the White Stripes, and the barking of a demonic dog; pas de deux beginning in the fetal position on the stage floor, suggesting oral sex; a pair of nude mannequins in transparent caskets hanging from the stage’s ceiling; and, notoriously, topless ballerinas. I asked if any of these were merely attention-seeking stunts. “I would never stage a gimmick,” he said, a ring of poached octopus clutched in his chopsticks. “I only select what I feel is art.”

boston ballet artistic director mikko nissinen

Artistic director Mikko Nissinen adjusts his dancers’ form.

boston-ballet-4

The first-born child (he has a younger brother, Antti) of a ceramicist mother and painter father, Nissinen grew up middle class in Helsinki, encouraged by his parents and his grandfather, a clarinetist, to pursue the arts. In 1973, at age 11, he joined the Finnish National Ballet’s first all-boys class. Soon he befriended a 12-year-old classmate named Jorma Elo. With money scrounged from roles as extras, the boys traveled to Copenhagen to see Baryshnikov perform live. “It was a transformative experience,” Nissinen told me. He returned to Finland dedicated—“I was a slave to ballet for the next 20 years,” he said—and became a professional in the Finnish National Ballet at 15. But even then he envisioned a post-dance career as a director. “I was young when I realized I wasn’t the next Baryshnikov,” he said. “But I kept studying my director and would catch myself thinking, I would do this differently. I would do that differently.”

In 1998, Nissinen was named the director of the Alberta Ballet, in Calgary. Three years later, the Boston Ballet offered him a job. “It was an easy decision,” he said. “I was being asked to join the big leagues. Sure, a big-league team with a lot of problems…. But when you’re new, you have a lot of immunity to achieve what you want.” To begin the process of achieving what he wanted, he fired six dancers before he even arrived in Boston.

After settling in town, Nissinen purchased two floors in a South End townhouse and planted a Japanese garden. (“I’m very scissor-happy with my bonsais,” he said.) He quickly became known for his ferocious work habits. Barry Hughson, the current executive director of the Boston Ballet, recalled the time Nissinen offered to take him out on his boat, Koi. “I had the idea that we’d throw a line out and have a few beers,” Hughson told me. Instead, Nissinen arrived at his house at 4 o’clock in the morning. “And then,” Hughson said, “from the moment we got on the boat to the moment we got off, it was work.”

boston-ballet-5

Nissinen extended each of the day’s dance classes. And he demanded that nearly every performance of every ballet be taped and reviewed. Then he set about recruiting dancers from across the globe.

Early on, Nissinen told me, “elitist” season subscribers and a few board members would lecture him on what to stage, whom to cast, or how to act. “Someone,” said the director known for his all-black attire, “even told me, ‘You should wear blue ties. It makes you look more confident.’ As you can see, I didn’t take their advice.” His disregard for convention wasn’t limited to his wardrobe. In 2002 Nissinen commissioned his childhood friend Jorma Elo, then an unknown choreographer, to craft a world premiere. Elo came back with Sharp Side of Dark, which featured an abstract series of pas de deux, break dancing, and gymnastics in simple gray unitards. “A lot of people around me said, ‘Oh my God, you can’t do that. Audiences won’t get it,’” Nissinen told me. When the trustees raised objections, he recalled, “I would tell them, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’” Sharp Side of Dark premiered in September of that year and quickly drew both catcalls and rave reviews. It was then that Nissinen decided, “Enough with what people have said. I’m going to push the envelope.”

Nissinen also ignored typical ballet hierarchy. Rather than assign the top roles to principals, he often gave them to less-senior members of the corps de ballet. “He didn’t hold on to traditional conventions about having to pay your dues or your time,” said Heather Myers, who is one of three dancers Nissinen brought in from Alberta, and who danced with the Boston Ballet from 2002 to 2009. Not everyone liked these changes. Several dancers, including Romi Beppu, Ashley Blade-Martin, Alfonso Martin, and Sarah Lamb, quit because they felt snubbed. Jennifer Gelfand, a principal ballerina since 1989, told me that her roles diminished soon after Nissinen joined the company. When she left, she told the dance critic Christine Temin, “I wasn’t going to stay around and be miserable trying to find out what he wants.”

Many of the dancers who did stay could sympathize with those who did not. Valerie Wilder, who served as executive director from 2002 to 2008, said Nissinen’s sole directorial weakness, “which could also be seen as a strength, is his single-mindedness in achieving his artistic goals and, one could almost say, ruthlessness. He has achieved great things at Boston Ballet, but at a human cost.” Myers recalled that just before one of her first performances, Nissinen told the dancers to abandon the idea of performing “nice and safely” on opening night. “He insisted on the opposite, that we completely go for it with everything we had.” Lia Cirio, a principal dancer, told me that “The way he designs our repertoire pushes our strengths and weaknesses. We go from one week of crazy contemporary classes and then the next week relearning classical as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Every day is an audition.” (In recognition of the physical demands his style can place on dancers, Nissinen has renovated, and added staff to, the Boston Ballet studio’s health and wellness center.) But Cirio and other dancers who have remained with Nissinen told me that the unrelenting battery of classes and rehearsals fosters a sense of family. During the Chroma performance, every dancer remained close to the wings while offstage, cheering on their colleagues and even playfully flipping them off—an inversion of the toxic backstage culture depicted, for instance, in the movie Black Swan. Nissinen, however, remained hidden in his seat throughout Chroma.

 

In 2004, just as Nissinen was establishing himself as the most dexterous and visionary director in the Boston Ballet’s history, catastrophe struck. The organization in charge of the 3,600-seat Wang Theatre decided that, instead of the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, it would run the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Even more than most companies across the country, the Boston Ballet depended on its annual Nutcracker run for an outsize percentage of revenues—30 percent, compared with 20 percent for the Washington Ballet, and 16 percent for the Joffrey Ballet, in Chicago. Ousted from the Wang, and forced into smaller venues, the company lost $6 million in two years. A sudden $3 million gift (the largest single donation in the company’s history) from the former trustee Beatrice Barrett helped stave off disaster, but the company was still underwater. “Our whole existence was threatened,” Nissinen said.

In public, however, he and executive director Valerie Wilder treated the eviction as though it were an opportunity. “We didn’t want to look as if we were about to go under,” Wilder would later tell Temin for her 2009 book, Behind the Scenes at Boston Ballet. The truth, Wilder told me, was that the duo had always planned to wean the company off its “dangerous reliance on one source of income.” Nissinen swiftly staged a less-expensive Nutcracker, but made no amendments to his forward-looking plan. “I knew what I was doing,” he said. “If I changed course, that would look even more alarming.”

boston-ballet

Members of Boston Ballet’s Company. TOP, FROM LEFT: Whitney Jensen, Misa Kuranaga, Lia Cirio, Brett Fukuda, Lasha Khozashvili, Lawrence Rines, and Sarah Wroth. MIDDLE, FROM LEFT: Jeffrey Cirio, Corina Gill, Irlan Silva, and Bradley Schlagheck. BOTTOM: Ashley Ellis.

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!”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/article/2013/09/24/boston-ballet-artistic-director-mikko-nissinen/