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Boston Ballet’s Artistic Director Reflects on 20 Years of Evolution, the Future, and an Upcoming Gala to Celebrate it All

Mikko Nissinen by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Boston is a place of historical landmarks. The city, for many Americans, is about national history. But Boston’s value does not lie only in the past—the city contains living, breathing, pirouette-ing, arabesque-ing icons that stretch beyond the boundaries of this country. That’s because of organizations like Boston Ballet, whose prestige and talent are unwavering in the eyes of performing arts lovers around the globe.

This is a milestone year for Boston Ballet’s Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen, who has been with the Company for 20 years and works each day to uphold that international standard.

We spoke to Nissinen and Chair of the Boston Ballet Ball Lynn Dale, who explain what it means to be a part of and celebrate what is, has been, and will continue to be an iconic performing arts company.

Lia Cirio, Lasha Khozashvili, and Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake; photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Nissinen was a professional dancer for 19 years before his debut as Artistic Director here in Boston. At the age of 15 he started dancing for the Finnish National Ballet, then continued to Switzerland and Holland, and spent 10 years at San Francisco Ballet as principal dancer. He then ran a ballet school and a professional company in Canada, finally arriving in Boston in 2001 to start paving the way for 20 years of ongoing success.

“Boston Ballet was of course one of the major ballet companies in the world,” says Nissinen. “All through my dancing years I knew I wanted to be an artistic director, but also run one of the major organizations. Here we are quite a few years later.”

So, after aspiring and preparing for the first part of his career, how has Nissinen ultimately been so successful?

Nissinen knew he needed to cultivate a company that could handle diverse styles and a repertoire that was relevant to a modern audience. “I didn’t want it to be a church or a museum, but a living theater for people who are experiencing life right now in our community,” he says.

It came down to choosing the right productions, taking them on one at a time.

Altan Dugaraa, Sarah Wroth, Yury Yanowsky in Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Nissinen highlights some essentials in that repertoire: the sharp and classical works of Jiří Kylián and groundbreaking choreography of William Forsythe. Fast forward to 2022: Nissinen’s company has the largest Kylián repertoire in North America, and Forsythe has chosen to make his home right here at the Boston Ballet for an ongoing partnership. “That has been huge,” says Nissinen.

“Our resident choreographer has created an incredible body of work,” he says, referring to Jorma Elo, one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world who has been with Boston Ballet in residence since 2005.

Lia Cirio and Viktorina Kapitonova in William Forsythe’s Playlist (EP); photo by Angela Sterling; courtesy of Boston Ballet

With this unwavering attention toward outstanding curation, choreography, and performance, Boston Ballet has had a Lincoln Center season, a season in London, and a season in Paris. Nissinen says taking such stages allows the Company to “be a player in the biggest houses around the world.”

And according to him, it’s incredibly fulfilling.

“To be a dancer is very hard work,” he says. “To run a ballet is very hard work, and for the community to support the Company is very hard work.” After all, in the nonprofit arts, organizations are supported largely by individuals and ticket sales.

“But when you go to those places, and you succeed, that’s the ultimate reward,” he says. “That’s what keeps all of us running.” And it’s what Nissinen ultimately cherishes the most: sharing that gift with the world.

Lia Cirio and Patrick Yocum in Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker, photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Ballet

“If I can give somebody a show of work that they didn’t think existed, they get to fall in love one more time in life,” he says. “I care about the works, and to be able to show them and give people that kind of experience is really, truly special.”

That’s the passion that Boston Ballet emanates. Even through adversity—the economic collapse in 2008, a lost Nutcracker season that cost the Company millions of dollars, and the most recent global pandemic—Nissinen is proud to still stand “on solid footing and pave the way to the future,” he says.

He assures us that the Ballet has incredible works of art lined up for the next five years, when he is eagerly anticipating re-entry into international performances. “We are planning feverishly—and staying put optimistically—waiting for the world to allow us to be fully back again,” he says.

The 2022 Boston Ballet Ball, which returns this year on April 9 after a hiatus like most other events in 2020 and 2021, is devoted to Nissinen’s achievements—its namesake, “The Vision,” points not only to a remarkable 20 years passed, but toward the brilliant future Nissinen speaks of.

Ball Chair Lynn Dale; photo by Lindsay Hite; courtesy of Boston Ballet

This year’s Chair of the Ball, Lynn Dale, who is leading the event, is grateful for the opportunity to tip a collective hat to Nissinen. “I love that we have this anniversary year, because he really deserves a live moment to recognize his incredible contributions to the organization,” she says.

The Ball is taking place at the Omni Hotel at the Seaport Boston for the first time this year, and Dale is looking forward to taking advantage of this new, more spacious location. “During the first hour or so, we’ll have an opportunity to pay homage to the evolution of the company in a very visual way,” she says (preserving an element of surprise).

The 2020 Boston Ballet Ball: Off the Charts at The Castle at Park Plaza, photo by Lindsay Hite; courtesy of Boston Ballet

The night will continue with dinner, the program, and, of course, an electric live ballet performance, not to mention a silent and live auction and other fundraising. Then there will be an after party where, according to Dale, there is no shortage of very impressive dancing (what else?).

“It’s the best party in Boston,” says Nissinen, who is working closely with Dale. “Partnering with Lynn is a dream. She’s incredible.” Nissinen anticipates something of a “Cinderella effect” for the night and is very grateful for the opportunity to celebrate his passion and his work.

“It’s a dream job in so many ways,” he says. “How many people get to do exactly what they want—and this is what I want.”


To learn more about the Boston Ballet Ball on April 9 and the people behind the Vision, visit bostonballet.org/ball