“Good morning. How are you guys?” Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen is addressing his dancers at the Opera House. It’s a Wednesday morning, the day before George Balanchine’s “Jewels” opens, and Nissinen is there to teach the company class, which is how a dancer’s workday begins.
He says a few words about the previous night’s technical rehearsal, and then the class begins with simple moves at the barre, pliés and tendus. Nissinen walks up and down the ranks, observing, complimenting, correcting. The sequences grow longer and more advanced, strings of 12 or 15 movements, Nissinen demonstrating them as he goes along. He’s not unlike a yoga teacher in his cheerful admonitions: “Open back.” “Open armpits, flat back and chest.” “Nice placement, that’s it.” Watching the class and hearing him say that “glissade has to start from fifth position” is a reminder that ballet starts with fundamentals.
Teaching company class is just one of the things a ballet company’s artistic director does. And Nissinen doesn’t simply spout those sequences off the top of his head. “You could do that,” he explains over lunch in his office two days later. “But a company is a living organism. And they’re in a different place every day. The product they’re working on is different. And company class should be the balancing act, harmonizing and knowing where they’re coming from. If they’re tired, how do you get the body going again? Then there are other times when you build strength and have a more rigorous class. Everybody has combinations in their head that they can give. I try to take the information from the dancers that I see. I see what is working and what is not, and I try to emphasize that in the next exercise.”
Nissinen, 52, doesn’t get to teach class as often as he’d like. For one thing, he’s been doing double duty over the past six months. Last October, Boston Ballet announced that its executive director, Barry Hughson, would be leaving to become executive director of the National Ballet of Canada. So Nissinen has had to take on some of those responsibilities even while helping with the search for a new executive director. When Hughson’s predecessor, Valerie Wilder, left in 2008, Nissinen acted as interim executive director for 15 months. He’s clearly pleased that Hughson’s successor, Meredith “Max” Hodges, whose hiring was announced last week, has been found after a much shorter search.
Hodges seems equally pleased. “Boston Ballet is one of the best dance and ballet companies in the world, and it’s on the rise,” she enthuses. “Mikko is fantastic and wants to take Boston Ballet to the top and showcase it across the spectrum of classical and contemporary dance. I’m very excited to have the role of supporting that artistic vision.”
But even with an executive director in place and providing support (Hodges will start sometime this summer), Nissinen will have plenty to do as artistic director. As he finishes up Boston Ballet’s 50th anniversary season, he’s also looking ahead five years and more. And in America, he points out, a ballet company’s artistic director doesn’t just develop repertoire and hire dancers. He’s “expected to understand marketing, understand the financial side, be a really active part of the development.”
When Nissinen consults his schedule for the previous Tuesday, it becomes clear why he doesn’t get to teach more company classes. “Senior leadership team meeting starts the day. And then I have appointments with different dancers, tune-ups, issues, they let me know how they’re dealing with an injury, they have a question about the casting, somebody wants me to help them find a new job. I had a meeting with the Japanese consul general regarding potential tours in the future. I spent time in rehearsals. Meeting with a former chairman of the board, meeting with trustees emeriti, then straight into a full trustee board meeting. And after that a full evening of rehearsal in the theater. That’s from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.”
And that’s just one day. There are meetings to discuss marketing and how the box office is doing. Meetings to develop new merchandise for the shop. Nissinen has to approve the posters for next year and go through the pictures from a “Swan Lake” photo shoot. There are meetings with the director of development to ensure that marketing and publicity are in place for the New York tour later this month. He’s working on next year’s budget, finalizing the capital expenditures and looking to see which improvements the company needs now and which ones will have to wait. There are costume fittings to oversee. And other artistic directors are asking to borrow dancers to cover for injuries in their companies.
But he still has to deal with basic artistic director tasks, like planning the company’s seasons. He likens fitting the various pieces together to completing a jigsaw puzzle, but the challenge of coordinating available Opera House dates (which he knows up to 18 months in advance) with the schedules of choreographers and stagers seems more like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. He’s attempting to balance classic story ballets like “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” with neoclassical works like “Jewels,” and contemporary pieces like Petr Zuska’s “D.M.J. 1953-1977” and Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti” from last month’s “Pricked” program.
“I look at the seasons in 10-year arcs,” Nissinen explains. “Repertoire for ’16-’17 is in a pretty decent place; ’15-’16 is almost finished. We’re just dealing with some theater dates and having to go back to the choreographers for their availability. We’re working on ’17-’18, and we have rough sketches of ’18-’19.”
Then there’s the dancer roster and casting. The dancers are on one-year contracts, and the general deadline for renewing those is mid-February. Nissinen says he does evaluations in December for all the dancers. “I have to look at what is the rep next year, how does the company match, what are the things I need more, and then overall how is everybody doing, whether the passion is there.” Next season, he expects to have 58 dancers in the main company and 12 in the second company, Boston Ballet II.
For the places that become available each year, he holds auditions. “I always have at least one audition in Europe and New York and Boston. Sometimes I have New York, Boston, and San Francisco, or New York, Boston, and Miami. We’ve had European auditions in Paris, London, Rome, and Amsterdam. We’ve seen as many as 1,200 dancers, and at the least 800 plus. Or if dancers are in a big professional company, they can come audition in a company class setting. We see annually over 300 dancers that way.”
As for casting, he says, “Most often people are very realistic. Occasionally you have things that people really see themselves in. I experienced it as a dancer. Sometimes I was cast in the roles that I was surprised that I was cast in, and other times, I thought, ‘Oh, this is absolutely natural,’ and I wasn’t cast. That’s how it goes.
“The most important thing is to do the job very well. Every corps de ballet member has lots of value. I have a tremendous respect for the last girl in the line. I always try to make the dancers look good in what they do. Of course I ask a lot of them. But Terpsichore demands that, and I’m totally on the same page with her.”
Artistic directors also travel. Nissinen says he’s just come back from seeing Ekman’s “Swan Lake” in Oslo. “I was 22 hours on the ground. But it was important that I was there to see it firsthand. Occasionally I go see a premiere. Then of course the auditions. Sometimes it’s a seminar at the Kennedy Center, or an artistic directors’ meeting in England, 30 artistic directors spending three days together, things like that. In general I try to travel as little as possible. Oftentimes it’s just too much.”
He will, of course, be traveling with the company to Washington for the first of Boston Ballet’s tours this month. It’s a quick turnaround from the final “Jewels” performance Sunday afternoon. “The curtain goes down,” he explains. “People take their makeup off and shower and put their regular clothing on. They get on the bus, the bus goes to the airport, and they fly to D.C., right after the show.”
And just two days later, Tuesday evening, they’ll be onstage at the Kennedy Center. The program for the three performances was carefully chosen to accommodate the limited rehearsal time: “Rubies,” which is part of “Jewels”; “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” which the company did last month; and Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura,” which the company has done often and knows well.
“Then we come back and regroup,” Nissinen says, “and start putting the New York rep together.” The first program of that tour, which kicks off June 25 at Lincoln Center, offers three New York premieres: William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail,” José Martínez’s “Resonance,” and “Cacti.” The second program comprises pieces from the company’s London tour last July: “Bella Figura,” Vaslav Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” Jorma Elo’s “Plan to B,” and Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements.” Nissinen is excited that Forsythe is coming to rehearse “The Second Detail,” and that Ekman, Martínez, and Elo will all be in New York to supervise the final rehearsals of their pieces.
Nissinen himself has just signed a new five-year contract, but he’s looking farther ahead than that. “I look back at my first 13 years,” he says, “and at what the 50th anniversary means for the organization. And then for the future, what do we need to get done, where do we want the organization to be, how do we want it to look, and how do we make those plans a reality. That’s how I look at the big picture. It’s a lot of moving parts. That’s the bottom line.”