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Sketching a portrait of choreographer Jorma Elo

Jorma Elo is a world renowned Finnish dance artist whose choreographies have graced the stages of American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet.

His works have also been performed in Russia, China, Great Britain, Canada, Netherlands, Denmark, and on and off in Finland as well. The home base for this globetrotting cosmopolitan is the Boston Ballet, where he has worked as a choreographer since 2005.

In April 2012 Elo was in Finland conducting rehearsals for his work Double Evil for the Finnish National Ballet. It was about time to find out more about this illustrious and award-winning 51-year-old choreographer who has created over 55 dance pieces.

First of all, he is incredibly enthusiastic about his work.

Elo is on the road ten to eleven months a year, visiting dance ensembles in various countries. During spring 2012 he created choreographies for ballet groups in Boston, Antwerp and Atlanta. Just before his summer vacation, he completed a commissioned work, Dream of Dream, for the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet.

In July he leads a rigorous choreography workshop, and in October he’ll be busy with a new production for the Boston Ballet. During the fall season you will also find him in Oklahoma, rehearsing earlier works such as Slice to Sharp with the Tulsa Ballet, and in Moscow, preparing the piece 1st Flash for the Stanislavsky Ballet.

- I am busy, but I enjoy my work enormously, so I don’t mind the pace at all. My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic, besides I have good genes! In the midst of this all, I do try to enjoy the special fleeting moments life offers.

Elo trained to become a dancer at the Finnish National Ballet’s school and in Leningrad. From 1978 to 1984 he performed with the Finnish National Ballet. At the time of the interview he felt especially honored to be back at his alma mater, where Double Evil had its opening night in May 2012.

This work which he created in 2008 is set to the music of Vladimir Martynov and Philip Glass. It’s a piece for eight dancers, a brilliant choreography that facilitates a smooth and effortless dialogue between classical ballet and contemporary dance.

- I am working with many familiar faces including my former colleague Kimmo Sandell. We have had a great time. It has been somewhat like “putting the band back together.”

In 1984 Elo’s path led from Helsinki to Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, and then continued to Holland, where he performed with the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) from 1990 to 2004. During his period with the NDT he gradually got more and more interested in creating choreography, especially while working with artistic directors like Jiří Kylián, Ohad Nahirin and William Forsythe.

Additionally, his creative juices led him to experiment with scene, costume and lighting design in NDT’s workshops for dancers. He continues to be actively involved in the planning stages of the overall visual presentation, and ponders questions like how to partition an architectural space with lighting.

The Dancer Assumes Responsibility

Elo’s spirit is further spurred on by the dancers’ enthusiasm.

- I just arrived from Moscow, where within couple of weeks I got quite accustomed to their way of working. The Russians are loud and talk nonstop.

- In Finland, excitement is expressed in a more silent manner. During my absence in Moscow, under the leadership of my assistant and mate Nancy Euverink, the Finnish dancers had demonstrated enormous dedication and time commitment to have the Double Evil polished and ready to go by my arrival in Helsinki. It was remarkable.

The highpoint in choreographer’s work is always the opening night. That’s when the dancers take the responsibility on stage and carry the given material into new heights.

- The dancers transform it all into a magical experience. At that moment it feels wonderful having been part of the crew that built this vessel. My job is like a never-ending Christmas Eve; I am continuously showered with presents.

The dancers seem to be happy as well. Jaakko Eerola, an étoile with the Finnish National Ballet, was dancing in Double Evil’s premiere. Rehearsing this piece was really hard for him due to the fast tempo of the music.

- You must have a solid technique from a strong classical background. However, Jore has a deep trust in his dancers and that is unusual. Eerola who has performed in Elo’s earlier productions, says that it is awesome when the choreographer creates a working environment where all the dancers feel that they are appreciated professionals.

Maria Baranova joined the National Ballet as a principal dancer in November 2011. Baranova who is the winner of the 2009 Helsinki International Ballet Competition junior series also finds Elo’s dance movements technically challenging. Working with the choreographer was an unforgettable experience for her.

- It has been inspiring to work with such a great personality as Jorma. He has made me look at ballet from a different angle and see the beauty in simplicity.

The choreographer himself likes all kinds of dance. In his works he combines movement language from the classical tradition with materials that have earthier, more organic style.

However, he admits that with each new production and place, he is constantly refining the material from his earlier works. His frame of mind is set in the continuous working gear and it just doesn’t accommodate anything ready-made.

He shares his hectic life with an agent and three assistants.

- Experience has taught me to start a new work with small steps. However, when I am creating a new piece, sometimes those steps can proceed in a rapid succession: 25 movements within 20 - 30 seconds. My concentration is focused on how to articulate these movements together. My sharp assistants are there to take it all in and to interpret the movements.

Music is the Lifeline

It is also music that keeps Elo’s creative machinery purring. The strong bond between dance and music is evident throughout his whole production.

- Yeah, music is the lifeline we hang on to. Music always has a clear structure, so you can hold on to it if you are lost or out of inspiration. Thanks to music I also feel more uninhibited when working with dancers. We can all relax and experience the state of flow.

What is Elo’s recipe to reach the state of flow?

- It is a big secret! Actually, I am trying to figure out how to turn it on. Basically, it is meditation, an effort to utilize the full capacity of our brains, even the subconscious parts that we are not usually aware of, he says.

- For example, you can draw from previous experiences of the flow, the physical feeling that can include colors and sounds. If you can reach a state of flow even for a few minutes in a day, that is an achievement. The rest of time you can just carry on and take care of stuff with your rational mind.

This sympathetic choreographer acknowledges that he is in his dream job. In the future he might want to tackle the idea of a narrative ballet which, similar to movies, would allow him to combine many various elements; that would provide another learning experience.

During his travels he often marvels how alike dancers operate around the world.

- In the morning you’ll see more smiling faces in San Francisco than in Moscow but, nevertheless, in both places the day starts with the 10:00 am morning practice. It is touching how dancers everywhere, day after day, enthusiastically immerse their whole body and soul into their craft and dance like there is no tomorrow.

(The article was first published in Finnish Dance in Focus 2012 - 2013 magazine.)

Artist Elo, Jorma