Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen sat down the other day to chat about the company’s tour to Helsinki, which took place Sept. 5-10. For the 50-year-old Nissinen, who was born in Helsinki and danced with the Finnish National Ballet, and for his boyhood friend Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo, the tour was not just an artistic success but a poignant homecoming.
Q. What did this tour mean for Boston Ballet as a company?
A. We all jumped through hoops to make it work. It was just after my 10th anniversary with Boston Ballet, with the company’s 50th anniversary knocking on the door next season. So this bridges many things. It’s been a couple of years since our last tour to Spain. In the next two or three years, I think we’ll have a major tour a year, maybe a couple. So kind of a beginning of new beginnings. It was one of those dreams I never dreamt of, but it was incredible.
Q. From the reviews, it seems the company was very well received. All performances sold out?
A. Not at first, but as soon as I landed, I was in morning TV shows. At every break in rehearsal I was doing interviews. We made all the evening news, and in about a day, everything sold out. People went really crazy. We were blown away. We expected the Saturday night to be [a] big, big crowd and everything, but the matinee was sold out, and the reaction was this endless applause. We dropped the curtain to get ready [for the next piece] and they’re still clapping in the dark, two minutes, three minutes. I felt for the first time ever in my life that I was so welcome with open arms. Everybody recognized the company’s standing, which was so phenomenal.
Q. Is ballet a big part of Finnish culture?
A. The modern tradition is more rooted than the ballet tradition. Even Finnish National Ballet, which is [a] huge company, they do lots of contemporary dance.
Q. The program you took is adventurous by our standards: Jorma Elo’s “Plan to B,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail,” and Helen Pickett’s “Tsukiyo.” But now that makes sense.
A. It wasn’t going out on a limb for them. I knew that’s where I would meet them the most. And these pieces showcase the dancers’ versatility, and it’s a program of high artistic integrity.
Q. Surprisingly, as international as Boston Ballet is, you have no Finnish dancers. Any thoughts on why?
A. The door is open, but I’ve never had Finnish dancers in any of my companies. No Scandinavians. But Finland is a small country, five and a half million people. And the Finnish National Ballet is big, 80 dancers I think, so to produce talent for that . . . there are not so many dancers who leave. And after a couple of years in the company, you have a lifetime pension.
Q. Why did you leave?
A. I wasn’t looking for money or a pension. If I was, I wouldn’t be in the arts. I was hungrier, looking for more stimulation, a broader repertoire, a wider perspective. I’d read all the books and the Dance Magazines, and I wanted to go where things happened, take classes, watch performances, which I did a lot with Jorma.
Q. It must have been a blast sharing this with Jorma. You two go back to the Finnish National Ballet School from childhood, and you used to travel to competitions together.
A. We met in class when I was 11 and he was 12. I wanted to do ballet; he wanted to do contemporary. When I was 16, we decided to go to the biggest competition in Europe, the Prix de Lausanne. It was the very first time they started enforcing the age limit, and you were supposed to be nonprofessional, but everybody was [a] young professional. Someone called and said they had to disqualify us two days before we are supposed to leave. We had saved all our money for the tickets. So I called a travel agent and said, “Can you book us for New York?” We get to New York City and go to SAB [School of American Ballet], to the front desk, and I say, “I’m Mikko Nissinen and this is Jorma Elo from Finnish National Ballet, and we want to take [a] class.” She says, “Well, boys, you can’t just walk in.” But [the renowned instructor] Stanley Williams walks by, looks down his nose and says, “OK.” That class was Misha Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Peter Martins, Helgi [Thomasson]. . . . I remember after the class saying to Jorma, “I like America.”
Q. Do you have dual citizenship? What does that mean to you?
A. I’m definitely Finnish; it’s in my DNA. But I have been part of this society since 1987, a citizen for five years. I am committed to this country and its well-being. I care about its future in every possible way. It’s very natural.
Q. Did you see a lot of old friends at the tour performances?
A. All the [Finnish National Ballet] dancers from my generation — I joined the company when I was 15 years old — I think 90 percent came. It was really a “Twilight Zone” to see all these people. It’s been 30 years since I left Finland. It was fabulous and freaky. I saw kids I went to school with when I was 8, 10. They came with pictures of a little soccer team.
Q. Did you feel like you had something to prove?
A. The good news is that I didn’t. I wanted to share the experience, and support the local dance, and celebrate my roots.
Q. What are the dancers saying about the experience?
A. Before, they knew me and Jorma as individuals. And while we are very Finnish, we are not typical Finnish. And they realized, Oh my God, now we know where you guys come from. They had the costume, but now they have the whole set. They wanted to take pictures with my parents. One night Jorma’s parents threw a garden party for the whole company. Finland has almost 24 hours of sunlight in the summer, and the vegetables and the berries taste very different. They were experiencing the things I experience when I go home for the very first time, so it was so great to see all that. It was a very personal touch. We had some board members come as well, and for them to experience the audience reaction and be part of all the buzz, they were in cloud number nine.
Q. What’s the hardest aspect of a tour like this?
A. The logistics. It’s like mobilizing an army. And last-minute injuries. You can’t cancel the show, so it’s like kind of a chess game. But what a wonderful cultural gift to our dancers, to see a whole new part of the world and experience new audiences who appreciate what they do and how they do it. It’s external validation and it gives us pride and tremendous momentum and helps with development efforts. We’ve been climbing and we’re right on the tipping point. We actually have a cash reserve. And the company jells and gets tighter, the camaraderie, the focus and intensity to dance their very best, then relaxing and celebrating together those accomplishments. It’s beautiful to see.
Q. What’s next on the international agenda?
A. A major tour — more news to come next week.