“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you are connected to the sea, no matter where on Earth you live.”
This quote from marine biologist Sylvia Earle is one the Boston Ballet’s production of ‘La Mer’ embodies wholly. Seamlessly combining art and science is an already-difficult feat, but ‘La Mer’ adds another layer: deep human emotion. Through that, the artists explore the deep sea and the harrowing consequences of climate change.
This environmental message, captured in movement by 33 dancers and set to the music of Claude Debussy, aims to highlight the vital importance of ocean preservation. The Boston Ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to take a deeper dive into the multifaceted piece. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So, first off, I have to ask you: Debussy’s work ‘La Mer’ is not written as a ballet. Is it unusual to be setting choreography to it?
Mikko Nissinen: Well, it’s a little bit unusual because of the structure of the score. But, in general, these days, we use just good music; it doesn’t mean that it had to be written in any way for a dance. I’ve been in love with this score since I was a teenager, and I’m just so happy to see it finally come on stage and in such a unique way, becoming a really wonderful piece of art.
Rath: I’ve looked at some of the rehearsals for this project, which you can see on YouTube. At first, it seems like you would think this music is undanceable, but it seems like you just kind of reached more deeply into creativity with movement. Talk about how you did that and how you work with this kind of work.
Nissinen: Well, we connected them with Nanine Linning, who was the choreographer for the work many, many years ago. About eight years ago, we wanted to do something together. And then, of course, we had something in the books, and then came the pandemic, which sort of ruined everything.
We did a film production. Really, Boston Ballet and her worked so well together. So then we were sort of brainstorming what was next. I said, “What about if we wrote the piece in Debussy’s ‘La Mer?”’And she was in instantly.
From there, it sort of snowballed. We added more elements like a choir, another piece from Debussy called ‘Sirens.’ Then, a contemporary composer, Yannis Kyriakides, sort of brings very interesting, aggressive contemporary music to it. In a way, we are examining the romantic notion of the ocean and where we are today.
Rath: So this draws together this theme of climate change and what we’re doing to the oceans right now. Talk about incorporating that into the work.
Nissinen: Of course, unfortunately, we can’t change the world, but we can draw attention to a very, very important issue. We set out to do an exciting piece of art, great theater, dance theater, combining many, many visual elements to provoke and invite audiences on an inner journey that makes you feel about the ocean, makes you question things and makes you ask, “What are we really doing?”
So while we can’t change the world, hopefully, this stimulates a sort of contemplative session with the individuals and draws attention to the very crucial thing in our world.
Rath: It sounds like a fairly immersive experience. Can you talk a bit more about how you work the visual components into the performance?
Nissinen: We engaged the Dutch visual artist Heleen Blanken. She has this incredible full backdrop-size video art that is very embedded in nature and the ocean. And yet, she twists it all, and it’s really abstract.
So basically, it’s her art, and then the costumes are inspired by the same thing by an unbelievable designer Yuima Nakazato. You can imagine the dance is almost pulled from that movie screen, and they become these 3D creatures.
Rath: That sounds amazing. Tell us about how you worked with scientists in producing this work. Talk about how the collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution went.
Nissinen: Since we were talking about the ocean and we have an incredible organization, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, right next door, we thought it would be great to call them and see if there’s any interest in partnering. It was like a love affair from the beginning.
We ended up going there, seeing what they were doing. Its scientists demonstrated what is their specific part in helping climate change and the oceans. We even ended up doing a documentary about making ‘La Mer.’ It’s just so beautiful to see what they are working on and see how actually optimistic they are. We are facing really, really tough situations, but they have such a good handle on it, so it was extremely exciting.
For me, it also brings another important thing: here, we have a product. Then, we have a purpose, and it involves participation. This is for everybody; there are your dance lovers and art lovers, but here, the whole society can relate to this topic and that’s very special for me because it makes us super, super inclusive.
Rath: It’s wonderful to hear that those scientists are feeling hopeful. Does that sense of hope come across in the music and in the ballet?
Nissinen: You know, the coin has two sides. Yes, in Debussy pieces, it comes out. Then in the Kyriakides sections, there are sections where the fish are dying on a beach. So that’s the other side of it. You know, we’re not trying to alarm anybody, but it’s an incredibly intense journey.
Rath: Right. Well, it’s life and death, right?
Rath: ‘La Mer’ is part of a larger production by the Boston Ballet called Our Journey. Can you tell us about that?
Nissinen: Well, I wanted to construct something we call a double bill—two extremely contrasting works.
The first work is by Justin Peck, a major, major choreographer. He choreographed the recent version of West Side Story and is really one of the premier choreographers in the world. I’ve known him for a while. We’ve done one other work from him before, and he felt that this would be a great work for Boston Ballet. It’s another mass hit called "Everywhere We Go." So that sort of sets the whole first half of the program.
Then we turn to the other side of the coin and the contrast from visual to the movement quality. His work uses pointe shoes and regular shoes, while Nanine’s work is in socks and collides with contemporary dance and modern dance mixtures. I love that kind of contra positioning because it gives people this cliff, and it intensifies the experience for both works.