Finnish Fusion | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Finnish Fusion
A look at Jorma Elo, one of America's busiest choreographers, as American Ballet Theatre premieres one of his works at New York City Center in October.

Long before he became one of the busiest choreographers in this country, Finnish-born Jorma Elo used to entertain thoughts of coming to the United States in another capacity. "I wanted to dance with ABT," he says. "That was my dream. I came and took classes, but I felt I was not up to the level of the company. So I never auditioned."

Instead, he comes to ABT as a choreographer whose work is creating a buzz on two continents. On October 19, the Company will present a world premiere by Elo, the first of six performances to be given during the New York City Center season.

Elo, who is resident choreographer of Boston Ballet, challenges dancers and excites audiences with a high intensity fusion of classical and contemporary movement that is physically demanding to the extreme as it hurtles along at warp speed. His rigorous choreography requires virtuoso dancers who possess a sense of abandon coupled with precise coordination — who can make athletic movement, unfamiliar steps, and demanding partnering look effortless.

"Jorma has a kinetic quality to his choreography that I believe will sit well on our dancers," says ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. "He pulls from a wide range of movement, involves the dancers and shapes pieces with a unique voice."

Elo's arrival as a vital force on the international dance scene was 30 years in the making, dating back to his teenage years as a student with an insatiable curiosity about the art form. He initially took up dance as a way to gain more flexibility for playing ice hockey, but by the time he was 14 he'd left sports behind to concentrate on dance. He studied Cunningham and Graham, then trained at the Finnish National Ballet School and the Kirov Ballet School.

He also began traveling with his friend Mikko Nissinen in the United States and Europe to see great companies perform. "We were really hungry and focused on dance," says Elo. "That was our life as teenagers. It was the time of the dance boom. Balanchine was still at New York City Ballet, and Baryshnikov was at ABT. I saw lots of big companies that were really inspiring, and all of it helped with my development."

Elo danced with Finnish National Ballet from 1978 through 1984, then left to join Cullberg Ballet. "I loved doing classical work," he says, "but you have to have a wide range of technical abilities to be a really good classical dancer, and I lacked some of those abilities. I knew I could never be a prince. So I wanted to try something else. I needed to develop."

He remained with Cullberg Ballet through 1990, then joined Netherlands Dance Theatre. "I went there to work with Jir‹ Kylišn [then Artistic Director], but I didn't go there only for him," says Elo. "He was fascinated by creativity and always invited a lot of guest choreographers to work with the company. He also encouraged his dancers to make their own works. He wanted the whole house to be cooking. We would do workshops, and maybe 20 dancers would choreograph. Jir‹ created the kind of atmosphere that made you ask yourself, 'Do I have a talent for choreographing?' I wanted to try and see."

One person who believed in his talent was his old friend Nissinen, who had become Artistic Director of Alberta Ballet (Canada) and invited him to choreograph there. He began receiving commissions in Europe, and in 2002, shortly after Nissinen became Artistic Director of Boston Ballet, Elo was invited to create a world premiere. "Dancers love working with him," says Nissinen, "They discover new ways of moving and new things about themselves."

Elo's Plan to B, created for Boston Ballet in 2004, made other companies take notice. The world premiere brought the audience to its feet for an unusually long and loud ovation, critics raved, and later in the year the piece was seen at Jacob's Pillow and at City Center's Fall for Dance Festival.

Earlier this year he choreographed new works for New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. During the 2006-2007 season, in addition to his world premiere for ABT, he will choreograph works for six other companies, and three companies will stage existing pieces. The idea of creating seven new ballets in one year might seem daunting, but Elo takes it in stride.

"The worst thing to me is when you have a period where you haven't worked," he says, "and then you start working again. That's what I fear. You have to find a way to mentally get into that mode. So the things that I've been doing next to each other have been the most productive. That's when I work fast. I'm thrilled to work with every company and happy that I'm being given the chance."

Sheryl Flatow writes frequently for Playbill.

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