Finnish-born Jorma Elo trained with the Finnish National Ballet School and the Kirov Ballet School in Leningrad, and during his stage career danced with Finnish National Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, and Netherlands Dance Theater. He has been resident choreographer of Boston Ballet since 2005, and has created numerous works in the U.S. and internationally for companies including Norwegian National Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre 1, New York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. He is a recipient of the Prince Charitable Trust Prize and was recognized by Dance Magazine as one of 25 to Watch. While working on his piece for the New Works Festival he spoke about his transition from dancer to choreographer and the stimulation he enjoys from a fast-paced work environment.
BACKSTAGE: You're known to thrive on a fast-paced work schedule and you're constantly busy working on one ballet after another. How does that affect your creative process? Do you often find yourself creating numerous ballets in your head simultaneously and it's a matter of setting them, or does your inspiration come once you're working with the dancers?
ELO: Well most of the time it's with the time spent with the dancers in the studio, so that's where everything basically happens. But of course I have the music usually way before the process starts, and then I work that in my own head for a long time before I hit the studio with the dancers and start coming up with stuff.
BACKSTAGE: So to you does it feel like you're constantly busy or is this just the pace that your creative juices flow and it's natural for you?
ELO: There's nothing for me to really compare what other people do since you can attack the field of choreography in such many ways. Maybe some people need time between, but for me it's always difficult to start a new thing, so this way, when you work a lot, you're just in the motion of being with the dancers in the studio and not at home waiting for, "Okay, so when are we going to start something," because those are the most difficult moments for me.
BACKSTAGE: How did your career as a dancer influence the way you choreograph? Do you choreograph works that reflect things you like to dance or are you creating the works you wish you had been able to dance?
ELO: Interesting question. My body is a dancer's body. I mean, of course I can't do everything that the dancers can do, but it's related to what my body wants to do on some level. So I guess it is things that I would have loved to do myself. But it's also just things that come naturally for me, that flow out of my body and what I see, what it does to the dancers' bodies.
BACKSTAGE: And you're still dancing, not professionally, but I heard that you still take company class and that you do still dance. So that movement is still with you.
ELO: Yeah. I love to dance, you know. Once you start dancing, unless you have [an] injury or other reasons that you cannot do it, why not if there's [an] opportunity to take company class until they kick me out of there? So I love to dance. I don't have to be on stage, you know. I did a lot of fun stuff, but just to dance a little bit is great for me.
BACKSTAGE: How did you decide to make the transition from being a full-time professional dancer to being a choreographer?
ELO: I was in an age that nobody else was that age around me anymore, so even though I didn't have any injuries, I was very lucky that there was things that I could feel like I was worth to the company where I was dancing. So the transition, I just got a lot of offers to make choreography and it was just so much fun that I couldn't really say no to that, and it took more and more of my time so I decided let's leave dancing and concentrate really on making dance.
BACKSTAGE: Do you ever experiment with movement on yourself before you set it in a dance? How much does that play into it?
ELO: Yeah, I like to improvise, be in the studio alone and with the music or with somebody that I feel very comfortable with. So I do that to some degree. But often it's not so much use in the end because maybe the stuff I come up with doesn't really connect with the dancers that I'm working [with] on a particular process or project. But to some extent I improvise.
BACKSTAGE: You've choreographed for an incredibly diverse array of ballet companies in the United States and in Europe. How would you characterize working with San Francisco Ballet? Does this particular group of dancers inspire your work in any special way?
ELO: These are fantastic dancers. They are incredible, so there's not a lot of that level dancers anywhere in the world, at least where I've been, and, like you said, I've been to a couple of them. So you know, it's just to work with the best instruments available, so it's a bliss, you know?
BACKSTAGE: Is there anything about your ballet for the New Works Festival that you think will surprise audiences?
ELO: Oh, of course I hope. Everything surprises audiences, you know. I love the music. It's crazy music so I think it's going to hit the audience pretty bad in a good way. It's a massive, cool music. I heard this music many years ago and I was hoping for enough crazy, you know, commission that I could attack that music [with] really good dancers. So when Helgi asked me to come to this festival, then I thought yeah, this is to write music for this madness.
BACKSTAGE: What intrigued you about participating in the New Works Festival with this huge group of choreographers and all this new work coming out of it? Were you interested in bringing that different creative element to it?
ELO: I think it's so fantastic idea to make so many new works in a whole season, you know, and now in this festival it's like in one week. So it's really great. I think, I hope, you know, more companies could do it, but it's very demanding on many levels to be able to do that. You know, I think you have to build up to be able to provide so many great dancers who can attack this whole massive work and new creations and also, I guess, the financial possibilities on many levels. But for me to be in a creative environment like that it's, I feel very at home. So many things happening all the time.
BACKSTAGE: Does that happen very often where you're in a space creating a new ballet at the same time as another choreographer is and working with the same group of dancers?
ELO: There's not a lot of new creations happening, unfortunately, so it's unusual. And to this extent, that there's so many of them, so I think it's great. And I have been able to luckily get all the dancers and the time I want. Sometimes it can be hell to schedule this all in, so this has worked like a Swiss clock so far.