Before getting down to the business of soutenus and jetés in Boston Ballet’s Studio Five, the company’s resident choreographer, Jorma Elo, is talking American appliances. One dancer mentions laundry day, but don’t get Elo started on our inefficient washing machines.
“And I don’t understand these big American vacuums,” the Finn says with a laugh, miming a tussle with an imaginary upright. “They are so heavy. And how do you get under the bed?” He lunges to the floor, comically twisting to demonstrate, and one gets a taste of the man’s gift for spontaneous movement invention — and his sense of humor. Small and wiry, his sharply angled face set off by dark-rimmed glasses, he looks serious, professorial, and tends to speak with a quiet intensity. But his wry quips often leave the dancers in stitches.
The new work Elo is making for Boston Ballet’s subscription season opener Oct. 25-Nov. 4 is on the more dramatic end of the spectrum, however. Elo explains, “I’m trying to create some sort of arc of one man’s life — growing up and opening your eyes to the world, then seeing the world fading away in front of you, and then you fading away.” In addition to the central character, the work features a mother figure, a father figure, a love interest, and a corps of eight.
The as yet unnamed ballet, set to piano and organ pieces by J.S. Bach, will be the centerpiece of the fall program. Unlike the past two seasons, which have opened with big story ballets, the company launches this season with a mixed contemporary program that also includes a revival of William Forsythe’s sleek, enigmatic “The Second Detail,” an edgy, avant-garde ballet for 14 choreographed in 1991 and set to a score by longtime Forsythe collaborator Thom Willems. Leavening the proceedings will be Christopher Bruce’s rollicking, feel-good “Rooster,” fueled by popular songs by the Rolling Stones.
Elo, who just turned 51, began choreographing for Boston Ballet 10 years ago and became resident choreographer in the 2004-05 season. This is his eighth new work for the company in as many years. He was hand-picked for Boston Ballet by artistic director Mikko Nissinen, a friend since childhood, when they bellied up to the barre at a ballet class in Helsinki. During his directorship of Calgary’s Alberta Ballet, Nissinen gave Elo his first commission. Shortly afterward, the choreographer’s career took off in a blaze. Over the past decade, Elo has become one of the most in-demand choreographers on the international scene, creating new works for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, and companies all across Europe. His new “Dream of Dream” was premiered in June by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
But Elo says he considers Boston Ballet his artistic home. His work with the company has molded his style of choreography, especially with regard to pointe work, he says. In turn, Nissinen asserts, the ballets Elo has created especially for the company’s dancers have transformed the way they approach contemporary work, stretching them technically and artistically. “He has a unique voice,” Nissinen says. “His pieces are very physical and athletic, very difficult. Asking the dancers to master this work has helped the company to be strong.”
But Nissinen also cites the emotional subtlety and commitment Elo’s choreography demands, a particular challenge for many young dancers. “He guides them, helps them mature as artists, to understand a work in many different layers, that you have to come out with an aura of feeling, you have to focus,” Nissinen says.
Elo’s process of choreographing favors a give-and-take with the dancers. “He allows you to be part of the creative process, and for a dancer, that’s a very, very special treat,” says Sabi Varga, who portrays the father in the new piece and has danced in every ballet Elo has created for Boston Ballet as well as in his work for Alberta Ballet. “We discover ourselves in that process and find our strengths and weaknesses.”
But Elo doesn’t just tailor pieces to the dancers’ specific skills; he challenges them with movement well outside traditional ballet vocabulary. His work has often been called quirky and hyperkinetic. “I like when things are on the edge of what people can do,” Elo says.
“Dancing and working with Jorma has changed me immensely,” says Jeffrey Cirio, for whom Elo is choreographing the new work’s main role. “Technically, I am much more confident in contemporary work than I have ever been. He is always thinking of new ways to stretch us artistically.”
At first blush, the new ballet seems more narrative, character-driven, and emotionally direct than many of Elo’s previous works. For that, Elo partly credits an especially meaningful ongoing dialogue with the dancers during rehearsals. “We talk about life and choreography and how they experience their family and aging parents, their journey,” he says. “It’s a great way to spend your time, to talk about life with people you love and admire.”
“It’s very emotional for me,” adds Varga. “It’s a whole life in a ballet, very much about birth, life, and death. It makes you think about what’s going to happen and the circle of life, and it’s touching. It is story-based, but it’s hidden in the movement.”
While Elo is still unsure of a title for the piece, that’s the way he’s used to creating. “I never know what it turns out to be in the end, and I think it’s beautiful not knowing,” he says. Pressed for at least some kind of working title, he jokes, “It’s ‘Jeff’s Funeral.’”
“Wait, I’m dead?” Cirio pipes up from the back of the studio.
“Yes, you’re dead, and it’s all a dream,” Elo says with a grand flourish and a mischievous smile. But then he summons all the dancers together with a businesslike wave. “Now, let’s get back to work.”