With the world premiere of Nanine Linning’s ambitious “La Mer” Thursday night, Boston Ballet unveils what artistic director Mikko Nissinen calls its most complex project to date, pushing boundaries on every front and driven by a lofty goal. The multi-disciplinary work aims to highlight the ocean’s role in sustaining the planet; collaborators on the piece include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), for which the project offers a new way to convey the vital importance of ocean preservation.
“La Mer” is part of Boston Ballet’s “Our Journey” program running April 6-16 at Citizens Bank Opera House. It is paired with Justin Peck’s 25-dancer ballet “Everywhere We Go,” set to a nine-movement orchestral score by Sufjan Stevens. The award-winning Peck and his acclaimed work have generated their own share of media buzz, but the 50-minute “La Mer,” which involves a huge ensemble of 33 dancers, is the program’s big draw.
“It’s all about the layers,” says Nissinen, noting the international team of collaborators brought in for the work. Linning’s choreography is complemented not only by Debussy’s luminous “La Mer” and “Sirènes,” performed live by the Boston Ballet Orchestra and the Boston women’s vocal group Lorelei Ensemble, but also by multi-channel electronic soundscapes by Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides. Dutch visual artist Heleen Blanken uses unique software to create digital video scenography she hopes will evoke an awe of nature and our role in the natural world, bringing audiences “close to something wild and alive,” as she describes it. Dramaturg Peggy Olislaegers, Linning’s longtime creative partner and artistic adviser, guided the work’s contextual arc, and Japanese costume designer Yuima Nakazato created more than 80 costumes, including one that appears to dissolve onstage, leaving the dancer cloaked in darkness.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable piece of dance theater,” Nissinen claims. “Climate change and the state of our oceans is a serious issue for everybody. We just want to make a piece of art that makes people think, and I think it’s gonna wow people. … It’s so original, so different, so profound.”
Linning is still relatively unknown in the United States, though Nissinen says the award-winning Dutch choreographer has “a “cultlike following” in Europe. She made her American debut with Boston Ballet via her dance film “La Voix Humaine,” created during COVID. “La Mer” will be Linning’s first live performance work for a North American company.
Linning says the team collaborated to help conjure a new world where dance and music fully merge with video, set, and light to impart a sense of urgency to a subject dear to her heart. “I am in love with the ocean,” says Linning, who is also a rescue diver. “I strongly feel and believe I come from the ocean. Over the last 10 years, I have read more and more about climate change and the impact on our oceans.”
Her vision for “La Mer” germinated for several years before she started work in earnest over the past year. The movement, performed by the dancers wearing socks instead of slippers, is distinctly non-balletic, featuring elastic limbs and upper body. She says she works with a “highly embodied physicality” that incorporates input from the dancers. “I want to reflect their voices and body language and use what they have to offer.”
During a recent rehearsal, swooping, spiraling lifts dissolved into fluid undulations, curls, and spins that sent the dancers rippling to the floor. But as Debussy’s score fractured into Kyriakides’s electronic roars and rumbles, the dancers stabbed and lunged, limbs jagged or coiling in contortions, reflecting ocean areas so compromised by pollution that there is no oxygen left and nothing can live there. “I wanted to create that feeling, translate that into the body,” she says, “the nervous panic, trouble breathing. I talk to the dancers about those physicalities, and that generates emotion [that] is accessible to anyone.”
Linning wants to reflect not only the beauty and power of the sea, but also the peril of undervaluing its importance to our planet’s survival. Multiple visits between the creative team and WHOI scientists helped ground and fuel the work. (Boston Ballet is chronicling the process through a docuseries posted on its YouTube channel.) WHOI senior scientist Larry Pratt says the project shows how art can “deepen understanding and highlight hope and solutions for the future” by summoning emotions in a way that statistics and numbers cannot.
Linning says the collaboration is giving her a way to join a broader dialogue and use her art to advocate for change. “I feel so humble to stand on the shoulders of these researchers,” she says. “I had the idea that so many messages from scientists were not being heard, yet [they] were so hopeful, full of passion and energy and sharing knowledge.”
She hopes “La Mer” will “inspire people to want to be part of the solution to be curious and ask: ‘What else can I do?’”
At Citizens Bank Opera House, April 6-16
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.