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Leaping Forward

Since 1963, Boston Ballet has dominated the dance world with breathtaking classical performances as well as innovative contemporary showcases. Having completed its fiftieth season, Boston Ballet is respected for leadership in the arts both at home in the New England community and internationally. This remarkable fiftieth season has included a record-breaking performance in Boston Common, hallmarks such as the holiday tradition The Nutcracker, and numerous initiatives to share the love of dance with diverse audiences.

In the midst of this eventful season, Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen and a few of the talented dancers from Boston Ballet Company met with the Harvard Leadership Magazine to discuss the past fifty years and their excitement for Boston Ballet’s future seasons. Boston Ballet exudes a powerful energy, stemming from its creative leaders’ and disciplined performers’ passion for dance. By establishing a strong relationship with the community, Boston Ballet simultaneously educates and entertains.

You can always improve, discover new things, or take a different approach. You never get tired of doing it.

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Boldly Leading Boston Ballet into its 50th Year

Mikko Nissinen has served as Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet since 2001. Originally from Helsinki, Finland, Nissinen became a professional dancer at the young age of fifteen. In addition to a brilliant career as a principal dancer for San Francisco Ballet, Nissinen has performed with The Finnish National Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, and other major ballet companies.

When asked about his opinion regarding Boston Ballet’s position as a leader in the arts, Nissinen reflects upon how much the company has grown over the past fifty years. “We are the pre-eminent dance organization in greater New England, and we hold this as a great responsibility. Our role is exemplified through exceptional Company performances nationally and internationally, our broad-reaching school programs, and acclaimed community outreach initiatives.”

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Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in Elo’s Close to Chuck Reborn. Photo courtesy Rosalie O’Connor.

Boston Ballet is particularly revered for the professional company’s magical productions in the Boston Opera House. The fiftieth season included performances of the classical storybook ballets The Nutcracker and Cinderella, modern repertoire in Pricked and Close To Chuck, summer tours in major world capitals, and more. Boston Ballet School provides a nurturing program in dance education, currently serving 5,000 dancers of all ages.

As for this being the fiftieth season, Nissinen shares, “It was a long time coming! This milestone anniversary is a wonderful celebration of the company’s history…It has been tremendously exciting—from our week at the London Coliseum with amazing response and reviews, to Night of Stars on Boston Common (which drew 55,000 people), to the inspiring repertoire throughout the season, to concluding at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center and New York City’s Lincoln Center. There is a great deal to celebrate!”

Nissinen is especially grateful for the encouragement Boston Ballet has received from the community over the past fifty years. “It is nice to take a little pause to recognize the early foundations. It is a time to thank our community for their support and also to ask them to join us as audience members, donors, volunteers and enthusiasts for the next fifty years. We cannot do it alone.”

Dedication to Dance

At the heart of Boston Ballet’s legacy are the talented artists who grace the stage, creatively telling a story or expressing an emotion through dance. What is a Boston Ballet Company member’s typical training schedule in preparation for a performance? They start with a morning class to practice technique, followed by a six-hour rehearsal block with five minutes off every hour and a one hour break for lunch. In total, dancers have thirty hours a week of actual dancing, not even counting classes or the performances themselves.

As husband and wife, principal dancers Yury Yanowsky and Kathleen Breen Combes contribute a special dynamic to the Boston Ballet stage. Yanowsky has been with Boston Ballet since 1993, and Combes joined in 2003. Combes expressed enthusiasm to dance in the fiftieth season’s diverse repertoire, particularly the ballets Jewels and Pricked. She also performed the title role in Cinderella.

Yury Yanowsky

Lia Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Rie Ichikawa in Forsythe’s The Second Detail. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Through exploratory choreography, Boston Ballet dancers illustrate a unique partnership between athleticism and artistry. “The audition for Cacti (a contemporary piece in Pricked) alone lasted an hour. By the end, our hands were bruised because we were all so into it!” Combes says. Cacti creatively explores the connection between dance and musicality. As opposed to pointe shoes, the dancers performed in bare feet and complete intricate sequences of clapping and pounding the floor in a display of the physicality of dance.

Yanowsky, also an avid choreographer, confided his personal attraction to dance. “You can always improve, discover new things, or take a different approach. You never get tired of doing it. Dance and music should be taught to everyone because these arts help to develop many other skills.” Yanowsky’s words echo Boston Ballet’s enduring dedication to enriching the community through dance.

Dancing for the Community

In turn with its network of support, Boston Ballet continues to give back to the community in which it has become a pillar of the arts. Through Citydance, Boston Ballet shares dance education with approximately 3,000 Boston Public School third graders each year, reaching students of diverse backgrounds who otherwise might not have the opportunity to even attend the ballet.

The Citydance students, who receive dancewear and ballet shoes for their classes, are often inspired to pursue further dance studies. Some even ultimately join professional companies. Other Boston Ballet community education initiatives provide ballet training for special needs children and middle school students, teaching confidence and creative expression through dance.

In addition to dance education outreach, Boston Ballet serves new audiences through opportunities like its free program of Night of Stars. In fact, The City of Boston designated September 21, 2013—the date of the Night of Stars performance—as “Boston Ballet Day.” Presented to over 55,000 people on the largest stage ever to be erected in Boston Common, the show introduced ballet to an extended community.

Dancers representing more than fifteen nationalities from across the world and the United States graced the stage during Night of Stars. Unlike most Boston Ballet performances (which run for approximately two weeks at the Boston Opera House), Night of Stars was a single show—yet the dancers practiced over 800 hours just for this milestone event. Boston Ballet Soloist Brad Schlagheck shares a dancer’s perspective of Night of Stars minutes after the finale. “All of this happening… it was just surreal. I know I am going to remember this performance for the rest of my life. It was amazing.”

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Principal dancers Kathleen Breen Combes and James Whiteside in Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Boyko Dossev, a member of the Corps de Ballet from Sofia, Bulgaria, comments on the importance of maintaining the strong relationship between Boston Ballet and the community. “It is very important to show the city and the people who are not really aware of Boston Ballet what we are all about and what we do. Night of Stars was a fantastic opportunity to share our love of dance and dance itself.”

With a cheeky smile, he adds, “Because everybody loves dance!” Dossev shares his passion for dance with the Harvard community as instructor for Harvard Ballet.

Boston Ballet has a unique partnership with Harvard University as well. Each February, about ten members of Boston Ballet Company perform a preview of the spring season repertoire at the Harvard Dance Center for “Harvard Dance Talk.” The excerpts are followed by a panel conversation, establishing a dialogue between Harvard students, Boston Ballet dancers, Nissinen, and company choreographers.

Looking Ahead

While Boston Ballet has achieved much over the past fifty years, Mikko Nissinen assures dance enthusiasts that “the company’s commitment to classical ballet remains the foundation of our repertoire, while we simultaneously encourage new choreographic voices and new creations that advance the art form.”

Even in just the past thirteen years he has been with Boston Ballet, Nissinen has noticed transformations. Boston Ballet Company has reached extraordinary heights in execution, musicality, and attention to detail. The ballet continues to expand its audience and introduce them to innovative styles of contemporary dance with global relevance.

Nissinen warmly looks to Boston Ballet’s upcoming seasons. “These years mark the start of our next chapter. I hope for sustainable growth and to maintain our momentum in the community and internationally. I am excited to continue a program of high quality art and new artistic voices and to build on Boston Ballet’s artistic relevance for today’s people.”

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The company will perform Swan Lake during the 2014-2015 season. Photo courtesy Boston Ballet.

The stunning 2014-2015 season will include the debut of a brand new production of Swan Lake, George Balanchine’s Episodes, world premieres from Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo and Principal Dancer Jeffrey Cirio, and much more. If the past fifty years are any indication of Boston Ballet’s future, the ballet will continue to serve as a preeminent fixture in the art world. It is clear that this role has been achieved through the determined efforts of the dancers and staff to build a strong relationship with their audience, treating viewers as part of the Boston Ballet family. As for Nissinen’s perspective on Boston Ballet’s next steps? “You will not want to miss a moment!”




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