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Artistic Director Style


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In today's Boston Globe, Mikko Nissinen and Jose Matteo both talked about their upcoming Nutcrackers. I could not help but notice the contrast in the tone of each of these Directors. All in all, I thought Mr. Nissinen sounded a bit condescending. I also thought he sounded a bit harsh. Did anyone else have this reaction?

some examples:

Whereas Mr. Nissinen said, "I demand that they not only dance well, but that they dance as well as possible," Mr. Matteo said "that the dancers truly enjoy this ballet, and it is inevitable that they imbue each presentation with genuine spirit and heart."

Mr. Nissinen stated that he must alter long standing partnerships because "They may be good, but if the team doesn't make it to the playoffs, the coach has to alter the lineup in order to stimulate new chemistry."

Mr. Matteo said, ''I continually look to dispense with anything old that no longer stimulates the engagement of today's diverse audiences, and replace it with imaginative surprises. I look to retain everything that contributes to the sense of beauty and awe that are intrinsic to ballet itself and work to find a fresh way of presenting it."

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It's definitely a different approach, but I didn't think Nissinen sounded condescending, but rather demanding, of the "ballet is good only when it is great" school. (I must say I don't care for the sports analogy, but I think that he's probably just trying to "relate" to the general reader.)

While Mr. Mateo has a right to discard anything he wants, of course, I'm always mistrustful of people who think they know what no longer "stimulates" -- or amuses, entertains, whatever -- today's audience. On what is this based? They don't take a poll. They just take what they don't understand and chuck it, rather than trying to understand it, and inspire the dancers and coach them so that they understand it and make it work for the audience.

I think each approach will attract different dancers and different audiences -- which is fine.

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I dance for Mr. Mateo, and have been working with him now for almost three years. I know very little about Boston Ballet, I have never studied or worked there. I hope this post helps build further understanding to SusanB's original observations. I am always willing to discuss these things further.

Compare and Contrast: Mateo & Nissinen

I don't know about the tone of Mr. Nissinen's statements; that is a matter of great subjectivity and personality. I can say that, as far as factual matters go, Mr. Mateo could have said much the same thing. For example, both directors expressed a reverence for the score.

All of us [his dancers] agree, Mateo is very demanding. He demands in a soft-spoken way. The demanding standards are developed and applied from within each of us, rather than imposed from the outside. I think some of this came through in Mateo's quotes in the article. But let there be no doubt about it, in the end Mateo gets what he wants from his dancers. He is very much in control, right down to the details.

Like Nissinen, Mateo also frequently alters long-standing partnerships. In fact, he will pair up dancers differently within just one show, because he doesn't want the same two dancers being seen together in separate unrelated pieces (in the repertory performances).

In contrast, there are some things of Nissinen's that Mateo would never say. He would never attempt to build a Nutcracker that goes beyond any other in scope and size; he simply does not have that kind of funding. Our Nutcracker is frequently called "warm" and "intimite" in the press. That is partly because of our smaller size, and partly due to certain conscious choices Mateo made. For example, even in the context of a Victorian set and costumes, Mateo sought to make the interactions between characters in the party scene more "American". That is, somewhat less formalistic. This is a subtle difference, I'm sure, one I do not completely understand. But look at the Kirov's Nutcracker video tape, and you will see a very different approach from ours.

A New Classicism

I can understand that Alexandra, having grown tired of the "stop, drop, roll" routine of "Ballet Moderne", would be distrustful of change for the sake of change. But I think that if she were familiar with Mateo's work, she would find it quite relevant to her own well-publicized concerns about ballet today. I quote from this very web site (and apologize in advance if the elipses have changed the overall meaning of the writing):

"Real ballet." What a dangerously reactionary, titillatingly revolutionary idea. Clarity of composition. Serenity of style. Line. Placement. Tutus--dare we put it in print? Classicism. As dance has becme more and more hybrid, and, in many cases, pop, "real ballet" has less of the spotlight. We agreed with our reader, and thought it was time to shine the light on ballet again...

There's no use pretending that everything is as it was, or as it should be..  Croce's original piece was... a warning that the overheated, starstruck atmosphere, the attention to the short term at the expense of posterity, would have a price. We are paying that price now.

Why have the dire predictions some (all too few) critics made during the '70s and '80s (no choreographers, no stars, no style, no standards) come true? Is this reversible? If so, how? Can ballet survive as an specialty art (as Spanish character dancing once did) in companies that more and more seem to be dance companies rather than ballet companies?

Without being familiar with Mateo's work, it is unfair to claim that Mateo just "takes what he doesn't understand and chucks it." Mateo is a brilliant and thoughtful man. While he was a dancer, he saw many things he would like to change, and he is now changing them under the title of a "New Classicism". He has a reason for every change he has made, just as Alexandra has a reason for every change she would like to see. In many cases, he is not the first person to be making these changes; some go back to the Ballets Russes. I can discuss specific changes with anyone who is interested. In any case, the critics like the results; these are the same critics who watch the Boston Ballet.

But in case anyone thinks otherwise, this Nutcracker is not some type of deconstructed "Notcracker". It is a truly classical Nutcracker. Mateo is more like Fokine than Eliot Feld. Fokine called for reform and fresh approaches in the paridigm of classicism. Mateo is deeply interested in classicism, that is all of what we do. We are not "classically trained dancers doing modern dance." Mateo may be one of the few post-Balanchine choreographers seeking to carry forward Fokine's original mandate.

Other Points

The single authorship Mateo points to really is a distinctive characteristic of his Nutcracker. He is a ballet master in the 19th century meaning of the word: teacher, choreographer and rehearsal director. There is a tight integration between our training, the choreography and the execution of the dance. That integration is possible because it is all done by one man. This integration is much harder in a large ballet organization, in which one person simply cannot serve as teacher, choreographer and rehearsal director.

Do we enjoy the ballet as Mateo claims? Beyond the inevitable griping and expressions of dancer anxiety, I'd say most of us really do. One of his principle dancers told me once that she stays with him because he really cares about us. I would second that assessment. If you feel cared for, you come to genuinely enjoy what you're doing and you give it your 110%. I would certainly think long and hard before dancing for someone else.

Mel Johnson is absolutely right: each approach attracts different dancers and audiences. Dancers who are more used to big ballet companies often can't stand working with Mateo. As for audience: Mateo's Nutcracker can sell about 20,000-30,000 tickets (and that number has been growing over the past decade), whereas BB's is at about 130,000 (and shrinking over the past decade). But it's not a matter of subscribers "switching Nutcrackers". Mateo's audience is a different demographic: younger, more family-oriented. It includes many people who are new to ballet. I think that is ultimately a good thing: to attract people who have never seen ballet before, and to do it with real classical ballet.


That is great news to hear that Eva Evdokimova is now a ballet master at Boston Ballet. She has a spectacular and deep background in Russian ballet. I unfortunately never took her class in New York.

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Citibob, my remarks about changing ballets were made IN GENERAL. I'm sorry, I thought that was clear. No, I haven't seen Mateo's work and therefore cannot comment on it.

It's great to have an inside view, but I also hope some audience members will also respond to Susan's query. (And we don't have anyone from Boston Ballet here, as far as I know, who can give that backstage view of Nissinen's comments.) I jumped in on this first because it was Thanksgiving and a slow posting day -- I hope others won't be discouraged from posting.

Susan, did you think Nissinen was being condescending to the audience or the dancers, or both?

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The comments from both directors seemed characteristic considering the position they are both in. Matteo has his own small devoted company experimenting with the form. Nissenen is trying to prove himself to his dancers and audience as the new kid in town with something to prove.

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The complete quote from Nissinen is... "For the company dancers, who have probably danced hundreds of Nutcrackers, I demand that they not only dance well, but that they dance as well as possible."

This acknowledges what must indeed be a big challenge of the Nutcracker season, dancing the same work night after night, yet attempting to keep it fresh.

I must say, I've always wondered how the orchestra gets through playing the same score for a month straight.

(The article profiles four local Nutcrackers, and as a proud mother, I must digress and say that my daughter is dancing in one of them, the Massachusetts Youth Ballet production.)

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LMCTech: I think that is a very insightful comment.

Congratulations, fendrock! You have every reason to be proud!

Freshness is an issue. Every time we do the party scene, we must act like we've never seen a nutcracker before.

Mateo seeks to keep us fresh by always imploring us to improve. We just had a great opening weekend, but we were back rehearsing the dances again today. Next Thursday's show needs to be better than last week's shows; you can never be satified that a performance was "good enough". Mateo has no shortage of corrections to give to the dancer willing to listen.

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