Jorma Elo is hot, and right now the National Ballet has him.
The company is the latest in a long line commissioning world premieres from the Finnish-born choreographer. Elo's Pur ti Miro, set to music by Beethoven and Monteverdi - and part of a mixed program with Jerome Robbins's West Side Story Suite and Opus 19/The Dreamer - opened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto Friday.
At 48, the prolific Elo, who originally turned to dance to help improve his hockey skills, is at the peak of his creative powers. Innovative and surprising, he delivers dances that radiate a breathtaking physicality.
Before becoming an independent choreographer in 2004, Elo performed with the Finnish National Ballet, Sweden's Cullberg Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater. He has created works for companies ranging from the American Ballet Theatre to the Royal Danish Ballet and the Vienna State Opera Ballet. In 2005, he was appointed Boston Ballet's resident choreographer.
Is it true you were a hockey goalie before you became a dancer?
I was a passionate hockey player, but I was never good enough for the top league. I was a goalie because I loved wearing all the gear, and doing the splits, and catching the puck coming at me. I was totally fearless.
Was your family into the arts at all?
My family's emphasis is medical. My father is a urologist, my mother a dentist, and one sister is a nurse. My three older sisters and my mother took modern dance as an aerobics workout. When I was 12, my sisters suggested I should take dance classes to make me more flexible for hockey. I really connected to being physical with music. I was offered a full scholarship to take all the dance classes I wanted. I studied Graham and Cunningham, and later ballet.
Did your talent as a dancer flower early?
It turns out that I was surprisingly good. I had a high jump, and I liked to move fast. I found ballet tricks to be exciting and challenging. It was my ballet teacher who told me to audition for the Finnish National Ballet School when I was 14. That's where I found my passion for dance, because I was exposed to the creative and artistic side that was beyond mere physicality. When I was 16, I was offered a contract with the Finnish National Ballet. My parents were disappointed because I wasn't going on to university.
I understand you had a fanatical interest in learning about dance.
My friend [the Finnish ballet dancer]Mikko Nissinen and I went to London and Paris and New York on our breaks. We saw every company we could. In New York, we spent days in the library looking at dance videos. When I was 18, I was an exchange student at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg. Students got free tickets to the Kirov productions. That experience opened my eyes. I realized I would never have the necessary technique to be a principal dancer in classical ballet.
So you set your sights on contemporary dance instead, working under two of the greatest icons.
Contemporary dance gave me my career. I joined the Cullberg Ballet in 1984, under Mats Ek, and then Nederlands Dans Theater in 1990 under [Czech choreographer]Jiri Kylian. I gave up performing in 2004 when I was 43. Working with Mats and Jiri, I began to understand creativity. I learned how to find the dramatic connection between movement and storytelling.
How did you get into choreography?
Through Nederlands Dans Theater 's annual choreographic workshops. Being a dancer with other dancers is great, but it's even a richer experience working with dancers as a choreographer. I love collaborating with people.
Having Nissinen as a long-time friend has certainly been fruitful.
Absolutely. When Mikko was artistic director of Alberta Ballet, he invited me to set a work on the company for the 2000-01 season. Now he's at Boston Ballet and I'm resident choreographer there.
How have you found it working with the National Ballet of Canada?
It's a very professional organization with great dancers. The opera house has a wonderful stage, intimate and grand at the same time. There's a lot of scope for choreographic effects.
What is your piece Pur ti Miro about?
The title is from the final love duet from Monteverdi's opera The Coronation of Poppea. It means "I adore you." I also use music by Beethoven. The piece addresses the formalities connected to love, particularly the eternal question of the importance of marriage, the consecration of the house, and a union made holy. It touches on commitment, both being afraid of it, and surrendering to it. The dance comments on our fear of being in love because we don't know how things will turn out.
You travel the world as a choreographer. Do you have a private life?
I call Holland home, but I'm rarely there. I've been with my girlfriend Nancy Euverink for 15 years. She's Dutch and danced with NDT. She acts as my assistant. She knows what I want in terms of movement quality, and I depend on her eye.
How would you define your choreographic style?
I'd use words like speed, difficulty, athletic and physical. Dancers seem to love the challenges I set them.
Pur ti Miro, West Side Story Suite and Opus 19/The Dreamer run at the Four Seasons Centre to June 13.
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