Ballet B.C.'s flying at the speed of choreographer Jorma Elo

The momentum and flow that the fab Finnish choreographer is bringing to Ballet B.C. can partly be traced back to his past on ice.
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It’s five minutes before rehearsal in the Ballet B.C. studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, and a lithe, athletic-looking man in navy sports shorts, a bright blue Adidas shirt, and skin-tone slippers is lowering into deep, impressive side and front splits. A minute later, he’s flipped over and is effortlessly pumping away in pushups. But it’s not a dancer warming up for rehearsal for the company’s season-opening show; it’s celebrated Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo getting ready to go to work with the troupe.

This tells you three things you need to know about Elo, the resident choreographer at Boston Ballet. He’s not one to sit on the sidelines and call out commands. He still approaches things like a dancer. And he loves the athletic possibility of contemporary ballet.

The moment hints at something else from his past, though, and it’s a world away from the tights and slippers of ballet. In fact, it’s a clue to the way the world of sports brought him to dance. As the quietly affable Elo puts it earlier in an interview at the Vancouver company’s offices: “I have had two passions in my youth: it was hockey and it was ballet.”

Push Elo to talk about his upbringing in his Nordic homeland, and you’ll find out he was a promising young goalie. And if you know anything about hockey, you know that goalies need to be incredibly flexible. They need to be able to do some serious splits. To do that, the young netminder, the son of a physician and a dentist, signed up for his first dance lessons at 12—and started a journey that would take him away from the rink to starring roles at the Finnish National Ballet, the Swedish Cullberg Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and far, far beyond.

Not to push the comparisons too far, but if you watch his dancers move on-stage today, you can see some remnants of his past on ice—from its lightning-fast flow to its swirling patterning. It was obvious in Ballet B.C.’s 2011 rendition of his electrifying 1st Flash, and you can see it now in rehearsals for a brand new commission he’s setting on the company for its season opener.

“I always liked the physical speed and the moving in space of hockey, the connecting and the shooting,” he tells the Straight. “And when I went to the ballet, it felt similar. I was moving in space at high speed, and I needed a lot of focus on that one thing, and there was that turning around on the spot,” he says, getting out of his chair to demonstrate. “But the musicality was the more powerful element for me as a 12-year-old. And then I went to the opera house [to see a ballet] and it was like ‘Whoah’—the theatricality and the drama.”

Elo was signed to the Finnish National Ballet at just 16, swept up at a time when male stars like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev were at the height of their careers.

Back at the rehearsal hall, as the Ballet B.C. dancers start up to the racing strings of a Johann Sebastian Bach violin concerto, what still comes through the most is Elo’s love of dance and its physical possibility. Upraised arms propel twirling bodies around like tops; torsos sway like currents have been shot through them; and couples connect in an effortless flow. For this new, as-yet-unnamed work, Elo says he’s been inspired by his parents’ relationship: in their 90s, with his father losing his sight and his mother losing her memory, they’ve come to depend on each other’s senses. So the piece is about how we adapt when we lose those senses, and about the kind of mature relationships where two people become a part of each other.

It has a more “joyous glow” to it, Elo admits, than the harder-edged 1st Flash. But the movement looks as quick as ever.

“I love speed—it just keeps my attention,” Elo explains during the interview. “I’m quite slow in my nature, how I speak, how I move. But I can dance really, really fast,” he adds with a grin. “I get in a way an ecstatic response when I dance fast. Subconsciously I’m drawn to that state of moving so fast that you’re lost in the movement—in the flow. It’s a state where time is not what the clock says it is.”

He is pushing this troupe of young dancers hard. In the tight quarters of the hall, you can see them panting and sweating. Elo even jokes about it our interview. “I’m sadistic, evil. Yes!” he says, jumping out of his chair like a drill commander. But then he sits down and says with a smile: “It’s part of the work of the dancer to be pushed constantly to a certain amount. But I hope I find a joyous way of using them. I think in the end it’s a joyous and positive experience for everybody.”

That’s clear from the devotion of the dancers you see in the studio. Artistic director Emily Molnar, who just signed a new three-year contract with Ballet B.C., has scored a coup attracting Elo here to create a new work—after this, he heads to major ballet companies in Tulsa, Boston, Hong Kong, and Holland. But he feels a genuine affinity for the company. “Emily has created this atmosphere where it’s very, very inviting to be part of this constant movement study,” says Elo, who, in the studio, works hands-on with the dancers to choreograph to the music in a free-flowing process.

Elo has a deep connection to the dancers and it comes as little surprise: he’s one of them. Just as he warms up with them, he’s always jumping into their midst to demonstrate and take part in a move. He may have shed the goalie pads a long time ago, but the ballet slippers are going to be a lot harder to take off. “I’m very much from the same race of animals,” the celebrated Finn says, referring to the dancers, before heading back to work. “This is the best world for me: to connect with these beautiful people and their dedication.”

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