Dance Matters

January 21, 2007

To the Finnish Line: Jorma Elo in America

With so many commissions on his schedule in Europe and North America, where does Jorma Elo live these days?


“That’s what my girlfriend always asks,” the Finnish choreographer says, laughing. “I live in Holland, but I don’t spend much time there!”


A provocative amalgam of classical ballet, modern dance, and idiosyncratic gesture, Elo’s movement style feels distinctly 21st century. When his Sharp Side of Dark premiered at Boston Ballet in 2002, his innovation was evident in its spaceship stage design and fast-paced partnering. Two years later, his Plan to B, a spectacle of ricochet lighting and solo virtuosity set to organ music by von Biber, quickly became Boston Ballet’s new signature work and ticket to the future. Last year, artistic director Mikko Nissinen named Elo resident choreographer; he’ll create a premiere for the company every year through 2008-09.


“His distinct movement vocabulary made him an obvious choice,” says Nissinen. When he served as artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, the first work he commissioned from Elo was Blank Snow. “He really develops the dancers. Working with Jorma has pushed many of them to another level.”


Elo’s first dance for New York City Ballet, an abstract piece set to Vivaldi, premieres June 16 as part of the Diamond Project Festival for new choreography. Except for the use of live music, the commission did not impose any conditions, which pleased Elo. And he was exhilarated by what he’d seen that morning in the studio.


“The City Ballet dancers are very different for me,” he says. “They are so much [masters of] pointe technique, and they use extreme speed. All these kids have a quality of madness.” Elo selected Sofiane Sylve, Ashley Bouder, Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski, Nikolaj Hübbe, Ask la Cour, Joaquin De Luz, and Edwaard Liang for his cast.


There aren’t many ballet choreographers in Finland. “I guess I would be the closest to using mostly classical steps at this moment,” says Elo. “It’s hard for me to say that there is a Finnish school. I’m excited to use pointe work, and I guess I wouldn’t have done that if I had worked only in Europe.”


For one year of Elo’s adolescence, a passion for hockey competed with his study of Graham and Cunningham techniques. But hockey had faded away by the time he was 15 and started taking ballet classes regularly. That same year he saw Herbert Ross’ film, The Turning Point, which, he says, became a major obsession. A year later (1978), he joined Finnish National Ballet, where he danced for six years. After another six with Cullberg Ballet, Elo joined Nederlands Dans Theater, where he remained until 2004.


NDT artistic director Jirí Kylián provided Elo not only with great works to perform in, but also with the opportunity to make his own dances. Elo continues to be inspired by Kylián. “I saw his Throw of the Dice last spring, and it doesn’t really have a clear structure,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why it gave me goose bumps.”


With 17 ballets under his belt, Elo, 45, wants to explore narrative in his next effort. On May 11, Boston Ballet premieres his 50-minute Carmen, set to Rodion Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet’s music.“I don’t plan to use mime,” says Elo. “I guess you have to go to some symbolism, situations that are recognizable for people, to tell the story. Carmen has a very up-to-date look, like supermodels mixed with businessmen and soldiers.”


Elo’s research for Carmen led to his investigation of earlier stagings, from Roland Petit’s 1949 classic to Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s all-male 1993 version. Eventually, he set the action on a fashion show runway. He knows, too, what he will exclude. “I’m trying to avoid Spanish clichés as much as possible,” says Elo. —Theodore Bale


The Boston Ballet’s Carmen runs in mixed repertoire May 11–21 at The Wang Theatre, Boston, Elo’s NYCB commission premieres June 16 at the New York State Theater,


Hole-in-One: Colorado Hires Boggs

Gil Boggs, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and Twyla Tharp Dance Company in the 1980s and ’90s, has returned to dance after a seven-year absence. In February, the Colorado Ballet chose him from a field of 35 candidates to succeed 19-year artistic director Martin Fredmann, who was fired in October (“Dance Matters,” Feb.). “Always, if the right opportunity presented itself, there was no question I would come back,” Boggs said.


After retiring from ABT in 1999, Boggs turned to his second passion: golf. He took a position at The Golf Club at New York’s Chelsea Piers, becoming director of its Golf Academy in 2001. “The clubs always went with me [on tour], and my days off were on the golf course,” he said.


The Denver-based company may be getting a two-for-one deal. Boggs’ wife Sandra Brown is a former ABT soloist who left in 2003 to freelance with Complexions and Lar Lubovitch. He hopes she will coach part-time and eventually move into a full-time position. “You take someone who has worked with Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory, Elena Tchernichova, and Irina Kolpakova . . . there’s a wealth of knowledge to bring, especially to the women of the company,” he said.


Although Boggs, 45, has not headed a dance company before, the Florida native is confident. Besides working under Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov, he believes his management experience in the golf business will transfer easily to ballet. By recruiting new supporters and boosting the Colorado Ballet’s image, he wants to help the company reverse its financial setbacks. The picture has recently improved somewhat, but the troupe lost $341,000 during its 2004-05 fiscal year and has an accumulated debt of $522,000.


Boggs plans to continue the Colorado’s ABT-like mix of classics, modern masterpieces, and contemporary works, although he would like to refresh it with innovative pieces. He hopes to improve the company’s standards, increase the number of dancers, and expand the season.

In addition to the attraction of returning to the dance studio and overseeing his own company, Boggs was drawn here because it is a family-friendly city. He and Brown had a baby last year. “Denver—everybody says it’s an amazing way of life,” Boggs noted. —Kyle Macmillan


Ballettikka Internettikka: Pranksters or Visionaries?

As patrons took their seats at the gala marking “International Day of Solidarity with the Bolshoi Theater” on March 28, 2002, security staff at the theater turned away two men carrying large bags full of recording equipment.


Unperturbed, the pair circled the outside of the building, located a window in the cellar, and broke in. Emptying their bags, they wired together two laptops, a mini digital camera, MP3 audio systems, and mobile WAP telephones. While the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet were performing Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride upstairs, Igor Stromajer danced to Brane Zorman’s mixed sounds in the dank basement, and their 11-minute performance was broad-cast live over the Internet.


Visual artist Stro-majer and musician Zorman are self-styled “ballet guerrillas.” Since 2001, they have made incursions into the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the National Theatre in Belgrade. At La Scala, they replaced themselves with two remote-controlled robots and wireless web-cameras, which they controlled from a van parked outside.


Gaining admittance to La Scala artists’ kitchen, where the robotic performance and broadcast took place, was relatively easy. In Belgrade, they wanted to perform in the ballet director’s office, where the most important artistic decisions are made. They breached security by posing as employees of a non-existent Serbian electrical company—Elektroda d.o.o.—repairing a nonexistent fault that had been reported by an undercover collaborator working in the theater (code name: Miroslav).


So what is the goal of these performances? Stromajer claims that the Bolshoi incident was an attempt to demystify the mythical status of the great theater. In 2001, incoming general director Anatoly Iksanov told the Moscow press he would like to include new dynamics in the theater. Stromajer felt that his emerging project, Ballettikka Internettikka, was suitable. Although the project received first prize at the Media Forum Festival in Moscow that year and a sufficient budget was in place, letters to the theater went unanswered. So, Ballettikka Intern-ettikka decided to perform illegally.


Stromajer isn’t a vengeful failed auditioner out to prove a point. His untrained and ungainly movements—or those of the robots—are deliberately unlike what would normally appear onstage. They magnify his challenge to traditionally held values around dance.


And then, there’s the suggestion of voyeurism. The grainy black-and-white films on their web site hint at subversive activity more sinister than dancing, as they are filmed entering buildings, setting up their hi-tech equipment, performing, and then leaving. In their four-minute video, Red Code, images of the Bolshoi performance are mixed with those of the siege at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, where Chechen terrorists and 129 hostages were killed as Russian troops stormed the building. The conceptual parallels might seem tenuous between the bodily sacrifice of homicidal-suicidal terrorists and the ballet dancer whose body is surrendered in the name of art. But as the project develops, a collage is forming around Ballettikka Internettikka, and the artists seem happy to let those images sit together and coalesce until they form something mythical.


Online videos of the Ballettikka Internettikka netcasts are on —Michael Seaver


Awards and Honors

Dancer-choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaker is one of six artists who will serve as a mentor in the 2006-07 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative…The National Dance Project has awarded $295,000 in touring grants to 11 U.S. and foreign contemporary companies…San Francisco State University’s International Center for the Arts has honored Mikhail Baryshnikov with the $25,000 George and Judy Marcus Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts…Philadelphia’s Dance Advance has announced $645,000 in grants to 25 artists, companies, and organizations for the 2006-07 season.…British Columbia’s Simone Orlando has received the Banff Centre’s 2006 Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award…In the latest round of Theater Development Fund/Irene Sharaff Awards for Theatrical Design, Franco Zeffirelli has received the Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement. Lester Polakov was honored with the TDF/Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award; Emilio Soza has received the Young Master Award; Martin Izquierdo took the Artisan Award. Posthumous honors were conferred on Lila De Nobili…The recipients of the Choo-San Goh Awards for Choreography are David Dawson (Dutch National Ballet; $10,000); Charlotte Boye-Christensen (Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company; $5,000) Susan Shields (Richmond Ballet; $4,000); and David Hochoy (Dance Kaleidoscope; $5,000)…Choreographer Leslie Friedman has won the Fulbright Scholar Award, a Senior Lectureship grant…Dance Magazine Contributing Writer Victoria Looseleaf is this year’s recipient of a Special Achievement Lester Horton Award, for “Furthering the Visibility of Dance”…The Anti-Defamation League honored Ballet Austin with the Audrey and Raymond Maslin Humanitarian Award for artistic director Stephen Mills’ Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project…The Joyce Foundation has awarded DANCECleveland a $50,000 grant to support the commission of a dance by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar…Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor Brenda Dixon Gottschild has won the de la Torre Bueno Prize for her book, The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool…American Ballet Theatre has announced a $300,000 challenge grant initiated by Brian J. Heidtke to raise funds for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.


Names in the News

What happened to the dancers from Indianapolis’ Ballet Internationale, which closed suddenly last November after 32 years? Eight of those dancers have been hired, permanently and as supplementals, by Cincinnati Ballet. Two dancers from Indianapolis, Ogulcan Borova and Shelby Dyer, have also been performing with Tulsa Ballet. A $230,000 grant from the Clara Noyes Endowment Fund covered the major portion of the cost to Cincinnati. Ballet Internationale’s artistic director, Eldar Aliev, was guest artistic adviser for Cincinnati’s Swan Lake. Following negotiation of a successful contract with its dancer’s union, Washington Ballet returns to the boards May 10–14 with The Bach/Beatles Project…New at Louisville Ballet: principal dancer Philip Velinov…Signed on at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: Brian Enos, Mistaya Hemingway; new at Hubbard Street 2: Jeremy Nedd, Christopher Tierney. Hired: Paul Kaine, as executive director of Cincinnati Ballet. Departing: Cathy Edwards, artistic director of New York’s Dance Theater Workshop since 2003; Jennifer Langenstein and Dmitri Kulev, after six years at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. American Ballet Theatre ballet master Kirk Peterson has been appointed artistic director of ABT Studio Company effective June 1.