Jorma Elo: The dancemaker everyone wants talks about his process

July 17, 2007

The dancers of Boston Ballet are rehearsing a new work with Jorma Elo, the company’s Finnish-born resident choreographer. At one point, ballet master Tony Randazzo invites them to gather around a video to see the phrase as it was recorded four months ago. As they watch, Elo skitters and chassés in an arc behind them—not because he’s jockeying into place to see the screen, not because he’s working out new steps, but simply because he cannot stop moving.

At 45, Elo is still very connected to his dancer self. He does all the choreography full out, whether a pitched turn on relevé with leg extended high, or a weird twist of the torso with the back of a hand pinned to the knee. His choreography springs from his dancing, which is very physical, organic (in that the limbs unfold from the center), and slightly wild. He danced with Finnish National Ballet for seven years and another seven with Cullberg Ballet in Sweden, and then Nederlands Dans Theater for 14 years. As a dancer close to NDT artistic director Jirí Kylián’s creative process, he still occasionally stages Kylián’s

Jorma Elo (YORma Elo) is currently one of the ballet world’s most sought after choreographers. Just in the last year he has made ballets for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and his works are in the repertoires of NDT, Finnish National Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Basel Ballet. His next projects are with San Francisco Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet. He stopped performing only two or three years ago, which could account for the easy, joking relationship he has with the dancers.

Last January I traveled to Boston to watch Elo rehearse and interview him.
—Wendy Perron

You were a dancer for many years. What made you want to start choreographing?

I was working in NDT and there were a lot of people making choreography—and making video, making plays. When everybody around you is being creative, it pulls you in. People were saying, “There’s gonna be a workshop this year, and maybe you want to do something for it.” Jirí had a huge load, making all those ballets and running three companies, and he wanted to have people around him who could be creative and have input.

Did he ever mentor you, or did you have a choreography teacher?

Basically I just started to make pieces. Once I asked Jirí, “What would you like to tell me about choreography?” And he was just full of questions to me: “What do you want, what are your views, what is your interest?” He didn’t want to tell me anything. I understood that he meant that if you want to be a choreographer, you have to be curious and ask questions constantly about what you want to do and where you want to go. That was the best mentoring I could imagine.

You’ve been described as an “enigmatic” dancer. Whom did you learn from?

I didn’t learn too much from the teachers; I learned from the people around me. Especially how to be onstage, how to create magic onstage. For instance, at Cullberg, there was Ana Laguna. In Mats Ek’s Giselle, the second act happens in the mental asylum since Giselle has gone mad, and she really was in that role in all the rehearsals. She made it look like she was really on the edge mentally and physically, and she is a very powerful dancer. It became almost dangerous to dance with her.

You have a distinctive style. There’s more motion in the torso than in most ballet. Is that hard for the dancers to pick up?

It can be difficult, but sometimes it can be good to have difficulty; you see things from another perspective. It looks different than what I do, and maybe that’s a better solution. Maybe there’s some beauty in that. I find it more interesting to build on the form the dancer has.

And what about when another dancer steps in?

Then we’re in trouble!

So do you get to rehearse with the new cast?

Yes, that’s the choreographer’s problem. If there’s not possibility to do that, that’s no good.

You have a sophisticated way of making patterns in space. Do you plan the counterpoint in your work?

I don’t think in patterns, and I don’t draw patterns at home. Basically I go for what is interesting to my eye in connection to what’s been before and what should come after. That’s what I live for. So I videotape what I make and then I take a look at the patterns afterwards, and then I decide maybe I should do counterpoint.

You work with BB dancers more than any other company. Do you feel a certain comfort or freedom with these dancers?

Yeah, of course. People you work with many times, you are not breaking the ice. When you’re making new stuff you’re always trying to break ice. There are always other levels to break, and that’s why it’s great that I have this opportunity here with BB. I can go in that sense deeper.

How did you meet Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director?

We know each other from the Finnish National Ballet School. We were in the same class as kids. Mikko was looking for choreographers when he was in Alberta Ballet in Calgary, and he had seen some of my works and he gave me a chance.

What do you remember about him as a dance student?

Mikko was very inspiring as a dance student because he was determined to spend all the hours and collect all the material around the subject. His energy gave me a lot of energy. He was fanatic, amazing.

Do you see any difference in the dancers in Europe and the U.S.?

If you would go to Finland or Holland or NYCB, the basic things are the same. The dancers come in pain because they’ve been doing Balanchine upstairs and hope they could take another minute to lie down before they have to rehearse. But when they get going, they would give everything. My life is with these people.

How do you choose music and at what point does it come in?

I listen to a lot of music. The way that a musician is attacking old music like Vivaldi can be surprising, so there’s a contrast already in that, and that gets my ears going. Hopefully I find music early on so it’s like home to me and when I get in the studio things can flow.

I thought the partnering in
Slice to Sharp
was amazing. Instead of just lifting the girl up and down, there’s this extended spiraling thing. How do you create those lifts?

I might say, this part of the music requires a lift that would have like razors hitting the air in that rhythm. Often the dancers come up with a solution.

Obviously Kylián was a big influence. Were there other choreographers you were watching?

As a dancer, I was lucky. With Mikko I did a lot of traveling. We came to this country and saw a lot of Balanchine when we were really young, 15–16, Then I started to work with people who were making ballets like Mats Ek, and Jirí, Ohad Naharin and William Forsythe. This is all computerized in the memory. People always remember the big names. But there were a lot of my colleagues, their creative minds, that I admired.

In the studio you have so much energy. Do you do anything before you come to get yourself in the zone to do this?

I do the class, and sometimes I go and play tennis. In the morning I try to create the text of what is ahead. And in the evening I look at my videos and plan for the next day. Sometimes I improvise in the studio to the music, but I do that less nowadays.

Why is that?

I used to prepare more stuff; I was more scared of silence or nothing happening in front of the dancers. Now I try to let those silences happen. You can’t produce all the time; sometimes the brain just freezes. The seconds are going click click, and the dancers are getting cold and they are starting to think something else. You just have to be comfortable with that.

Are you planning any more story ballets? I saw your
for Boston Ballet and I didn’t think it was successful as a story ballet. I wonder if you’re gonna try another narrative ballet, and if you are, how are you gonna go about it?

Yeah, sure, I’m going to try it. I’m fascinated by that. I would love to do a story that has not been done as a ballet so people wouldn’t know the story and have an expectation you have to fight against.

What is your ideal dancer?

I hope that I would not have an ideal dancer, that I would always keep on looking at how people are, how differently they move. Sometimes you audition with a new company and there are people that I see the first time. Here there are people I didn’t see the first time and then I learned to see them. They’re not the obvious where my eye would go, but I find them very inspiring.

What do you want your audience to get out of the performance?

[long pause] I really like to be with dancers. I admire dancers so I think it’s still about the dancers and what they do and what is their attack on the material. But if the audience comes in and sees dancers that are a little bit different and finding new things for themselves, then I would be happy with that. If it makes the audience ask questions about what is being done, that’s all I need.

How do you come up with your titles?

I make a long list, then I show it to my girlfriend, who dances with NDT, and then I make a new list.