Finnish Composer Jean Sibelius was so important in Finland that his 50th birthday was declared a national holiday. His Fifth Symphony is deeply tied to the idea of Finnish independence. So imagine having to take a piece so precious and familiar to you and your countrymen…and then choreograph a ballet for it.
This was the challenge facing Jorma Elo, resident choreographer of Boston Ballet. The world premiere of the ballet he created takes place November 3-12 at the Boston Opera House. Elo took time from rehearsals to speak with HuffPost about how he approached the task of converting the musical equivalent of a national monument into a ballet.
Michael: Tell me why you chose Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.
Jorma: It feels like making a full evening ballet to your national anthem almost. It has those difficulties. It’s just a beautifully complex challenge.
Michael: How do you begin the process? You listen to the music, and then at what point do you start to see a ballet taking shape? How does the choreographic process work?
Jorma: Of course, I try to get really familiar with the music. Not just the structure and architecture of the music, but so that it’s in my skin. It’s like I’m swimming in the water, so my body reacts kind of naturally, impulsively to the music when I start with the dancers in the studio. That’s what I usually do. It’s the music playing over and over. Like background music at home, but also studying the structure of it. Then, I try to be free with it. To react with the dancers and their bodies and my body to the notes when we start to work.
Michael: How responsible do you feel to adhere to the composer’s intentions for the piece or what he had in mind? How free do you feel to interpret it as you see fit?
Jorma: There is no responsibility for me. He’s done his work, now I have to do my work. Of course, I have a big respect for it. But I try to make it like it was my music, like I composed it myself and it becomes part of me and that creates imprint of artistic interpretation that comes from me, and not necessarily what he thought of it.
Of course, this music gives a lot of images of the Finnish way of seeing the landscape and experiencing the seasons and this melancholy, but then joyous triumph of a small nation of five million people who survived being under big kingdoms, I’m proud of their independency. It’s been a struggle and Sibelius was a big part of that movement to start our nation and get the inspiration of those few small nations trying to survive their bigger neighbors.
Michael: Does that concern reflect itself in the choreography?
Jorma: I think it does. I don’t try to put a big emphasis on it, but it does have that element. Hopefully, it doesn’t come through too obvious for the audience that it would really serve as a dance connected to the music. The storytelling elements should be the undertone and not the main element.
Michael: Tell me what the audience can expect when they see this piece.
Jorma: I try not to think of the audience too much. I think it’s our responsibility, as creative artists, not to think of the viewer too much, that we have to be focused on our reactions to the moment we make something and try to find a richness connecting us in the moment with the dancers. How we feel in that moment. Then, hopefully, that becomes so rich that it takes the audience to a compelling journey about what we have made and brings them into that world we have created in the studio and put on stage.
Michael: If you do your job well enough, as an artist then there will be plenty for the audience to enjoy. Is that what I hear you saying?
Jorma: That’s right! Of course, the end result has to be, that it culminates into that connection with how does the dancer and the musician connect to the audience in that very moment of the performance.
Jorma Elo’s Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius premieres during Boston Ballet’s season opener, Obsidian Tear, running November 3–12 at the Boston Opera House. Visit bostonballet.org for tickets.