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How Boston Ballet’s Stunning World Premiere Found an Innovative Way to Shed Light on Ocean Preservation

Ballet’s narrative arcs and extraordinary display of athletic and artistic ability has had audiences all over the world hooked for centuries. It’s a dynamic fusion of disciplines like music, dance, and storytelling, but it hasn’t always been regarded as a carrier for messaging about contemporary issues.

Now ballet companies, in a movement led by trailblazers like Boston Ballet—and with the expertise of choreographers like Nanine Linning—are tapping into the ability of ballet to move audiences by creating enchanting and emotive performances that enact society’s most pressing issues. That emotion, Linning says, can work to inspire people to action.

Boston Ballet’s world premiere of Our Journey at Citizens Bank Opera House, showing from April 6-16, includes La Mer, Linning’s latest work set to the Debussy work of the same name, which translates to The Sea in English. The visual and musical messaging are about the importance of ocean preservation. We sat down with Linning as she shared her inspiration and method for choreographing such an impactful work of ballet and environmental activism, and how she hopes it will be an enchanting wake up call for the human race.

Early Inspiration

Linning’s connection with the ocean dates back to her early life. She grew up in the Netherlands, which has an average elevation of just 30 meters (98 feet) above sea level and an extensive coastline. The water was thus a backdrop for many of her young years. She later became a rescue diver, through which she got to know the ocean up close. 

“[The ocean] is something I am in awe of and at the same time I feel so connected with,” she says. “Somehow, in a mythological way, it feels like my own birthplace.” 

Linning says she has learned to view the ocean like we view the human body, which has strengthened the bond she feels to the ocean. Like the human body, the ocean has a complex biological order: “Yes, it’s a vast body,” she says. “But it is also a vulnerable, delicate body, an ecosystem, and it needs a certain balance.”

But that balance has been disrupted by the climate crisis and human-caused damage like microplastics, pollution, over-fishing, coral bleaching, and more. Linning’s deep love for the ocean has, then, ultimately led to her deep concern for it—so, when Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen approached her about choreographing a dance set to Debussy’s La Mer about ocean preservation, she saw the perfect opportunity to create the impactful ballet that she says she’s had visions of for quite a while. 

The Research

In creating La Mer, Linning and the team at Boston Ballet collaborated with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to educate and further inspire their vision behind the dance. WHOI Senior Scientist and physical oceanographer Larry Pratt had recently collaborated with another Boston dance company about their dance depicting sea level rise, so when he caught wind of La Mer, he knew there could be an opportunity to help Nanine inform her artistic process. 

Early in the rehearsal process, Linning and Nissinen visited WHOI. “They were able to talk to a number of our scientists and have some good conversations about how research foresaw these threats to the oceans—oil spills, global warming, ocean acidification, and so on,” says Pratt. “We were able to talk about the close connections that all people have with the ocean, and the potential the ocean holds to help us solve our most pressing challenges.”

Linning says that the collaboration was instantly inspiring for her work. “They said, ‘you, as an artist, can bring emotion to our statistics,’” she says. “And with emotion is when we start to change behavior, when [audiences] are perceptive and open to new strategies. So I bring emotion to the audience.”

The Performance

La Mer is a 1905 orchestral composition by Debussy that sketches scenes of the ocean. The ballet will be set to La Mer as well as a contemporary soundtrack composed by Yannis Kyriakides. Boston-based women’s choir Lorelai Ensemble will perform Sirènes, a 10-minute work from La Mer about the mythological sirens luring in sailors. 

Linning says that Sirènes will represent the temptation by society to neglect the environment. “This piece is a sign of our behavior to consume more, to go faster with our economy, to be cheaper, to want more and more,” she says.

Linning says that Debussy’s music, composed long before the time of climate crisis and the influx of pollution, represents the mystical and untouchable ocean of the early 20th century. The contrast with Kyriakides’ contemporary soundtrack, Linning says, will represent the stark difference between the naive ocean of the past and the abused and at-risk ocean of today. 

“When our children learn about oceans, they see ocean spills, they hear about fracking, they learn about dead zones, overfishing, extinction of animals and so on,” she says. “It is a completely different reality.” To bring the realities to life on stage, Linning has choreographed parts of the dance to depict those phenomena. 

“For each scene we have clearly defined how the movement quality is,” she says. Those movements, she explains, are defined by the phenomena at hand. Take dead zones, for example, which are areas of the water that cannot support life because of a lack of oxygen caused by nutrient pollution or rising temperatures. “We tried to embody that,” she says. “The body can’t breathe—it’s trying to extend, it’s stuck, and there is a nervousness in the movements of the dancers.” 

Another example audiences will see depicts seafloor fracking, which is the blasting of chemicals into the bottom of the ocean to crack the ocean floor and release oil and gas. This practice pollutes key habitats for wildlife like whales, seals, and sea turtles. To depict this issue and the physical destruction of life, Linning says dancer Viktorina Kapitonova will perform a solo. As she’s extending her limbs, constructing a movement, it will appear that her limbs are removed one at a time and the movement is deconstructed before it’s had the chance to be fully expressed. 

Linning even found a way to portray the issue of oil spills: “I have twelve dancers who are always connected physically, and like a stain, they spread real fast over the stage,” she says. “Like a liquid which is going everywhere at a high speed.” 

She says those physical ideas she’s conceived will be supported by the costumes designed by haute couture designer Yuima Nakazato. The costumes display parts of the imagery printed from the performance’s backdrop footage, which was produced by visual scenographer Heleen Blanken. “[She] created video artwork, which is giving certain atmospheres, giving location, for the dance to take place,” says Linning.

Linning assures us that the performance is not all naive or romantic, nor does it focus on negativity. “It hurts as well as it lifts you up,” she says. “One of the aims with this piece is not just to scare, not to point a finger. It’s to give people an emotional reason to learn more about this topic, and to make changes in our lives.” 

She says that the visual and sonic pleasure of the ballet will still very much be central to the piece. “It is giving you so much beauty that you feel pulled rather than pushed,” she says. “It needs to put people in motion.”