Style

Dance

Jorma Elo combines precision, flow with Boston Ballet

Two of Boston Ballet’s dancers are practicing “Bach Cello Suites” under the intense gaze of resident choreographer Jorma Elo when he asks them to pause.

Alex Lancial for the boston globe

The award-winning choreographer is known for a swift, contemporary movement style. But this piece is more formal, more flowing.

“Stop. Stop the madness,” Elo says drily. “What’s going on, Jeff?”

Advertisement

Jeffrey Cirio, one of the company’s principal dancers, had added an extra step. He apologizes. Cirio and principal Kathleen Breen Combes begin again.

“OK. Good, good, good,” Elo says, when they finish. “You put me in a happy mood.”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Elo stares at the floor, and seconds slip by. Cirio lifts the hem of his black shirt and wipes sweat from his face. Elo looks at the dancers’ feet, as if imagining them move.


“Hey, hey, sorry. It looks like there’s nothing going on,” he says, looking up. “Ay yi yi. Please say something. I need some inspiration.”

Elo is finishing the last sections of a world premiere that will open at Boston Opera House on April 30. The award-winning choreographer, who has created dances for ballet companies around the globe, is known for a swift, contemporary movement style. But this piece is more formal, more flowing.

Advertisement

“With ‘Bach Cello Suites,’ Jorma seems to be exploring more toward the classical balletic vocabulary here, perhaps because of the music’s solemnity,” says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet.

Elo is a physical coach, moving his body, his arms, his hands — sometimes the dancers themselves — to suggest motion.

“I let the music become like a skin for me on my mind,” the Finnish choreographer explains later. “I react impulsively to the music on the floor. [Along] the way, the work has been done with my unconscious mind.”

If he relies less on verbal instructions, it is not because English is not his native language — “I have problems even more in Finland,” he says — but because translating fleeting ideas about music and movement into language is cognitively complex.

“In my head a lot of things go much faster than I’m able to speak,” he says.

Elo combines mathematical precision and creative flow, recording each practice with a GoPro video camera he clips to a chair. At night, he watches the video and makes notes for improvements. Each day, he brings a small book made of fluorescent yellow sticky notes, filled with those tiny pencil-written notes.

This performance of “Bach Cello Suites” will be unusual because Elo, who stopped dancing professionally a decade ago, will perform a three-minute solo.

‘I let the music become like a skin for me on my mind. I react impulsively to the music on the floor.’

Quote Icon

“I wanted a death figure to the young and fresh-looking dancers,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Who could do that?’ Then after being next to the dancers, I [realized I] would be an obvious contrast.”

The only other time Elo has performed in Boston was in 2008, when he danced with three other choreographers for Boston Ballet in “Téssera,” a piece he created.

During this rehearsal, he complains that his leg aches. “It felt like a little pull in my calf,” he says later. “I had it as a dancer many times.”

Elo stays in shape by running and playing tennis and continuing to dance. He wears a TomTom watch and heart-rate monitor and compares how much running and dancing exercise the heart.

“I always want to have a little more scientific comparison,” he says.

He was surprised. While running keeps his heart rate consistently high, dancing does only for short bursts.

“I think dancers are using the muscle power, not the heart,” he says. “It’s a lot of endurance, a lot of holding the muscles.”

These dancers are used to working with Elo. Breen Combes has danced with him for 12 years, Cirio for seven.

“Sometimes choreographers come in and they already have it mapped out. They’re just teaching it to you,” Breen Combes says. “Whereas Jorma kind of lets us see where it is going. He has a definite idea where he wants it to go but he uses us to kind of figure out what works best. So I feel that it ends up kind of being comfortable for your body because it’s yours.”

Cirio says Elo is more methodical about studying each day’s practice than other choreographers.

“Most of the time, he kind of puts a blueprint out there,” Cirio says. Sometimes he knows what he wants. “Other times, he’s just like, ‘Show me something.’”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kathleen.burge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.