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Mikko Nissinen
A new artistic director dances into Boston


BOSTON BALLET HAS certainly suffered its share of turmoil this year. After it was announced that artistic director Anna-Marie Holmes would be leaving the company, Australian Maina Gielgud signed on to take her place. But before her first day of work, Gielgud and the ballet parted ways, citing irreconcilable differences. Then the CEO and general manager, Jeffrey Babcock, gave his notice. It seemed Boston's foremost ballet company was on shaky ground.

Then came Mikko Nissinen. Born in Finland and trained at the Finnish National Ballet School and the Kirov Ballet School, Nissinen danced with such companies as the Dutch National Ballet, Basel Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet before taking on artistic-director duties for the Marin Ballet and, after that, the Alberta Ballet in Calgary, Canada. Now, Nissinen is poised to take the helm at Boston Ballet; he'll be splitting his time between here and Calgary until his Alberta contract runs out next summer. His formal Boston appointment is set for July 1, 2002, through June 30, 2005; local ballet aficionados no doubt hope Nissinen's long-term presence will be a grounding force for the upheaval-weary company.

Q: Why Boston?

A: Why not? This is one of the great companies in North America. It's been a lifelong dream for me to run one of the major ballet organizations in the world, so I was thrilled at the opportunity, and very honored that people entrusted me with the organization.

Q: What about the city of Boston itself?

A: Well, I think I've been blessed - I'm very lucky. I got to spend 13 years in San Francisco, and now I get to have a long time in Boston, so I'm thrilled. And I'm also very happy to come back to America. I have enjoyed my time in Canada; it's a little different culturally - it's sort of a mix between North America and Europe. But I got pretty Americanized in San Francisco, and I'm very happy to be back.

Q: Do you know where you'll be living once you move here permanently?

A: I think the South End. I'm planning to work that much that I've got to be close by.

Q: Where do you see the company a year from now?

A: I think, where do I see the company going? Onwards and upwards. Right now I'm in a state where I'm collecting lots of information and formalizing my vision for the company.

Q: Do you miss dancing?

A: Well, you know, once a dancer, always a dancer. I'm a dancer in my soul, but I don't practice it on stage anymore. Everybody will miss the incredible moments, you know, when you're on a major stage and everything clicks and all the right critics are there. But I don't miss one bit [those days] after summer vacation when you're starting to get back in shape - it's not easy. You go to some pretty dark places, psychologically. So I don't have to deal with that. Life goes on - you have different periods in your life, and I'm having a blast doing what I'm doing now.

Q: Do you think dancers should continue dancing professionally past their early or mid 30s?

A: I wouldn't like to put any age on it. I think dancers can dance as long as they want. But when you're dealing with an international, major company, there comes a time when the quality is not meeting the standard that the company has to have. And then if they want to move into the smaller company and continue, that's up to them. So I wouldn't ever think that I'm going to be the one who says, "You should stop dancing now." Dance as long as you want; people have to make courageous decisions. There are people in their 60s and they dance. Baryshnikov is dancing brilliantly and he's in his mid 50s.

Q: Do you have a favorite ballet?

A: If I have to pick one, let's say George Balanchine's Theme and Variations. But naturally, I have my favorite hundred ballets. It's really hard to pick, because my appetite is so wide for dance.

Q: Do you have a favorite ballet to dance that's different from your favorite to watch?

A: You know, that's a very interesting point, because some ballets, they feel great to dance, and then you see the same ballet from the front, and the impact is not the same. So they differ.

Q: If it feels great to the dancer but that feeling isn't conveyed to the audience, is that a failure on the part of the dancer?

A: That's why we use the mirror, because it might feel so great, and will not look good. That's why you have ballet masters and directors standing at the front of the room, to help you.

Q: How do Canadians view dance differently compared to Americans?

A: Sometimes I feel they're not as expressive. There's a little bit more distance between the stage and the audience. I find in America, the audiences, when they like something, they are there. And the same thing from the other side of the curtain; for example, one of my big tasks in Alberta was really to get the dancers to come across the proscenium, because you have to have contact with the audience. You know, theater is not a museum, nor a church: if the audience loves what they're seeing, express it. If you don't like it, go ahead, let us know. It was interesting, because in Canada, they think, "Western Canada, oh, there's nothing, it's a cultural wasteland." So when we came to Toronto, the Toronto audiences were quite surprised - and the critics, they said, "Oh, this company comes from Calgary?" It was very interesting. I enjoy that kind of position, you know, being the underdog; it's very satisfying.

Q: Do you feel at all in the underdog position here, coming into this role after the recent upheaval and controversy -

A: And now the stabilizer is here.

Q: Is that how you feel? That your job is to be the stabilizer?

A: Pretty much, yeah. We've got to work within realities here. I'm very ambitious, but I'm ambitious when it's related to reality. I don't want to dream for two years and create a huge hole underneath the company that we're going to fall into. So we're here to work on the foundation, build on that, and then consistently move upwards.

Q: Do you think Boston Ballet puts too much emphasis on Nutcracker?

A: Okay, let's ask the question: what is Nutcracker? Nutcracker is one of the classical ballets that has become this big box-office attraction in North America. You take the Nutcracker out of the North American picture, and you can count the companies that exist in North America with the fingers on one hand. So it's extremely important to everybody. It has to work as an educational tool for the company, for the school; it should also be the production that really tells the audiences about ballet. Yes, it's a huge spectacle, but it should also be - it is the first introduction for so many people who have never seen ballet. So for me, it should hit all those marks. Is there too much emphasis on it? I don't think so. I mean, it is the most important piece in many ways.

Q: But probably no critic is going to say it's their favorite.

A: Well, it depends what production, and where. But you know, it's seen so much, it's like Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Yes, you like it, but when I go home, I don't put on Vivaldi's Four Seasons; I know it way too well.

Q: Riverdance or Lord of the Dance?

A: Riverdance. It's more original. It's the first one.

Q: What's an evening out for you, when it doesn't involve dance?

A: I would go to a really nice seafood restaurant, have some great clams and oysters like you have here in Boston, with a glass of white wine. And since I don't know that many people in Boston, maybe there's some friend of mine who would drop in and we would go and shoot a little pool and catch up.

Q: In terms of dancers, how thin is too thin?

A: Well, health always comes first. I would say you have to judge it on an individual basis. I always promote health; I don't believe in starving yourself. Dance, gymnastics, modeling - there are lots of professions where there's an emphasis on aesthetics, and people want something really bad, and they lose perspective, and they become a bit blind to themselves, and it's a very serious psychological disorder.

Q: Do you think Boston dance companies feel they're in the shadow of New York?

A: Well, I think maybe there's that perception, but it's the close proximity. Boston is a huge city, and I think after a certain point, it's all a question of the artistic quality. And if that's the perception, then let's change it.

Q: Will Boston winters be mild for you?

A: I think they're going to be pretty much on par with Calgary. I think the temperature might drop sometimes, but let's face it: I had three mild winters there. So maybe I don't speak from the right perspective. It's a really dry cold, and there's hardly any wind. I'm originally from Finland, so I don't think it's going to bother me one bit.

Q: Do you ski?

A: Yes. I haven't had much time. I think in three years in Calgary, I've gotten out once.

Q: As a dancer, are you even allowed to put skis on?

A: Well, it was more a question of, do you want to risk everything? One big accident can finish it. I think in the contract in the San Francisco Ballet and some of the European companies, there are certain things that you're not allowed to do - horseback riding, skiing.

Q: What about in Boston?

A: That's one of the things that I'm going to do: go through and read the contract. I don't know at this point. Think about it: you put in at least eight years of dance training before you get into an entry-level company. Then let's say you work eight years in the corps and you become a soloist. You have this goal of getting into the company, and then people want to climb to the next level. They have put in so much energy and investment - it would be quite stupid if they really want to risk it all. I know people who have roller-skated and fell down and did such damage that - no more dancing. Dance means a lot for the dancers, so they're very conscious of what's good for them and what's not.

Q: So we won't be fighting the crowds at the slopes alongside the Boston dancers?

A: I hope not.

Boston Ballet's latest program, From Distant Shores, is at the Wang Theatre, in Boston, October 25 through November 4. Call (617) 695-6955.

Tamara Wieder can be reached at

Issue Date: October 25 - November 1, 2001