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After step back, his company's leaping ahead

Nissinen enters 10th season with Boston Ballet

'The audience experience is better, we control our own box office and have access to information immediately,' Mikko Nissinen says of Boston Ballet performances at the Opera House. "The audience experience is better, we control our own box office and have access to information immediately," Mikko Nissinen says of Boston Ballet performances at the Opera House.
By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen cherishes the story of an elderly gentleman who approached him one day and told him he’d been thinking about the company’s performance of the contemporary program “Falling Angels’’ for three weeks, but he wasn’t really sure he liked it. Nissinen was delighted.

“I talked to him about how art is not something thumbs up or thumbs down, but about how it touches you. Does it last with you, stimulate your thinking process? I told him, ‘You have just given me one of the biggest gifts, if this has lived with you for three weeks.’ ’’

As Nissinen begins his 10th season with Boston Ballet this fall, the anecdote exemplifies his drive not just to entertain, but to challenge and enlighten.

“When I see a piece of art I don’t know that speaks to me, I have this eureka moment,’’ he says. “I think those moments are so rare in life, like new love, something so amazing. If I can show audiences something they didn’t know, but that they really relate to, that’s the ultimate goal.’’

In the past decade, Nissinen has transformed Boston Ballet from a largely conservative classical company to one known for a distinctive mix of classical story ballets, neoclassical gems by the likes of Balanchine and Robbins, and contemporary fare, including world premieres by choreographers ranging from Jorma Elo to Lucinda Childs, Mark Morris, and Peter Martins. He has chosen and developed dancers (nearly 20 percent from the second company, Boston Ballet II) with the technical skill and versatility to pull off such variety.

“Boston Ballet ranks high among ballet companies in the US under Mikko’s direction in a number of ways: introducing the works of Jorma Elo; a commitment to one of the greats among the greats, [choreographer] Jiri Kylian; keeping signature Jerome Robbins in the rep; and honoring classics such as Cranko’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ’’ says Jacob’s Pillow executive director Ella Baff. “The company shows the public a strong and varied range of work that also lets the dancers shine.’’

Part of the credit, Nissinen insists, belongs to Elo, the company’s resident choreographer beginning with the 2004-05 season. With seven world premieres created for the company, Elo has transformed the way Boston Ballet dancers approach contemporary repertoire, Nissinen says: “His work is extremely difficult, and through the process of working with him, the dancers become better. There’s a direct correlation to how they can dance all contemporary work.’’

Bold repertoire choices have also helped position the company internationally. During Nissinen’s tenure, the company launched its first international tours in 16 years, with acclaimed performances in Spain, Korea, and Canada.

To be sure, it has not been a smooth ride. When Nissinen joined Boston Ballet as artistic director in 2001, the company was on shaky ground not just artistically - following the sudden resignation of director designate Maina Gielgud - but financially, saddled with years of accumulated debt, $1.8 million by the end of fiscal 2002, according to the company. Three years later, Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker’’ was forced out of the Wang Theatre, where it had appeared for years, necessitating an expensive retrofit of the production.

By the 2009-10 season, all company productions were out of the Wang and into the Opera House. The move initially resulted in a loss of 1,250 subscriptions out of 9,521 the season before, according to the company. (Since then, single-ticket sales have risen.)

And not everyone has been enamored of Nissinen’s repertoire choices, which he acknowledges may have caused some audience defections and contributed to dancer turnover.

By June 2007, the company faced a loss from operations of $4.7 million, necessitating emergency fund-raising, and Nissinen felt compelled to take drastic moves. He reduced the main company from 50 to 41 dancers and laid off staff, serving during the 2008-09 season as both artistic director and interim executive director after Valerie Wilder stepped down.

“It forced us to really look at the way we do business,’’ he explains. “We did the right thing, taking one step back in order to take two steps ahead. Now other companies are taking those same steps while we are in rebuilding mode.’’

Last season, six dancers were added to the main company roster for a total of 47, with more additions planned in coming years. Boston Ballet’s current budget of $28 million is up from between $24 million-$25 million last season, the company’s current long-term debt is under $150,000, and the structural deficit has been reduced from $2 million to $780,000 and is expected to zero out the next fiscal year, the company says.

In retrospect, Nissinen calls the 2009 move into the Opera House as Boston Ballet’s performance home “royally beneficial.’’ “The audience experience is better, we control our own box office and have access to information immediately; no fees, and we have plenty of seats,’’ he says.

Meanwhile, the Boston Ballet School has expanded its connections with the community. Directed by Margaret Tracy, it is now the largest ballet school in North America. It has been restructured to serve students from 9 months old to senior citizens and now reaches more than 10,000 students annually (up from 7,000 a decade ago). Through its education and outreach initiatives, Boston Ballet reaches thousands more of all backgrounds and experience levels. Adaptive Dance (for special needs students) was started during Nissinen’s tenure, and Citydance, the leading provider of free dance education to Boston Public Schools, has expanded to the North Shore and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

The external face of the positive energy at Boston Ballet can be seen in the $3 million renovations recently completed at the company’s Clarendon Street studios, which include a host of deferred maintenance projects as well as cosmetic upgrades and newly revamped spaces. Studio 7 has been renovated with wings and multi-tiered seating for 144 people and is being fitted with new sound and light systems, all of which will enable it to be transformed into a black box theater for performances and presentations by students and company members, as well as lecture/demonstrations. The space will be available for rental as well.

The company’s fall season kicks off Oct. 29 with the sixth annual “Night of Stars,’’ a gala showcase, followed by John Cranko’s acclaimed “Romeo + Juliet,’’ set to the music of Prokofiev, Nov. 3-13.

But Nissinen already has the next 10 years planned out in his head. He’s particularly excited about introducing more contemporary works, which he believes are helping attract new, younger audiences.

“We’ll feature some more Kylián works not seen outside his company, introduce Christopher Bruce and some young European names who have never done work in the US,’’ he says. “I want to stay current with the times and keep aiming higher and higher. Over the next 10 years, I want the world to really get to know the company, not just be a local secret.’’

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

NIGHT OF STARS

Oct. 29

ROMEO + JULIET Nov. 3-13. At Boston Opera House. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org