ASPEN - Jorma Elo confesses that he doesn't especially enjoy sitting in a theater, watching a dance performance. In particular, what he doesn't like watching are the dances he has created: "I feel like, that's not what I want to do - sit down and look at what I've done," Elo, an athletically built, 49-year-old native of Finland, said last week.
A big part of this distaste is that Elo is a perfectionist, and a tinkerer to boot. Looking at his own work being performed, mostly what he sees are the ways it could be improved. Even watching pieces by other choreographers draws him into the same hypercreative zone. "I love to look at the dancers; it gives me a buzz," he said. "But I still look at how it could be structured better, modified. I never look at a dance performance and just let it flow. I try to study. If you're not curious of the options in what you're making, you kind of die."
What interests Elo - though, from the way he speaks about it, "thrills" is probably the better word - is the process of creation. Dance is his default form: "I'm in this business because I can't build houses," he said. "This is my way of making something, and I've fallen in love with the process of doing it with other people."
Among Elo's favorite collaborators are the dancers of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. In 2006, the local company commissioned a piece from Elo, "Pointeoff." Two years later, the ASFB commissioned "Red Sweet," which, with its combination of old elements (music by Vivaldi) and new (bits of break dancing), has become a signature dance for the company. Also in 2008, the ASFB added to its repertoire "1st Flash," a dance Elo had created in 2003 for the Nederlands Dans Theater.
This weekend, the ASFB performs another new Elo piece. "Over Glow" was previewed earlier this month in Santa Fe, then had its official debut at Wolf Trap, the Virginia venue which commissioned the piece for the Aspen company. "Over Glow" will be performed Friday and Saturday; the program of mixed repertoire also includes dances by two other choreographers who have worked with the ASFB: Cayetano Soto's "Kiss Me Goodnight," which will have its Aspen premiere; and, returning from last winter, "Stamping Ground," by Jiri Kylian.
Along with not liking to watch his own works performed, Elo doesn't like to speak about them, at least not with specificity. Asked to describe "Over Glow," he answered, neither obnoxiously nor with an air of mystery, "I don't have to say. That's the good thing about being an artist. It's left for other people to experience. At this point" - this was three days before the first performance - "I don't even know what it is. I'm fixing the bugs, what's not right with it."
Jean-Philippe Malaty, the executive director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, can't find much wrong with Elo's choreography, at least, not as it fits with the local company.
"He really gets what the company is about," Malaty said. "And we get a piece that reflects the personality of our dancers, the strengths of our dancers. It couldn't be a better match."
If "Over Glow" follows Elo's usual form, it will be another mix of classical and contemporary parts. The piece, for six dancers, is set to the music of Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Typically, Elo then plays modern movement against the old sounds.
"He loves to create new interpretations on classical music," Malaty said. "It would be easy to do classical steps to classical music. To see modern movement - hip-hop and break dancing - against that music, that's interesting." Of "Over Glow" specifically, Malaty added, "It's a little more dramatic, maybe a little underlying plot and story."
When Elo arrived in Aspen, some three weeks before the piece was performed in Santa Fe, he had no story, just music. But he knows the music - Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony and Overture from "Ruy Blas" and Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D - well; more significantly, he is familiar with the ASFB aesthetic.
"I know the dancers. I know how they dance, their personalities in connection with the movement. I know their musicality," Elo said. "And then we work in the studio for three weeks, five hours a day, and we see how we connect to each other, what comes up with the music, and how we're inspired by each other.
"In this case, I find, since I know the elements well, it's like a conversation with your own family. I know what elements I'm going to see onstage. Then I have to rearrange them in a surprising way, surprising to myself, in the studio. That's what you hope for - suddenly one of the dancers, or I, find somewhere to go, and we say, 'OK, let's go deeper on that one. It's feeling each other's creativity."
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Among Elo's surprises is the fact that he is a choreographer.
Like many kids in Helsinki, Elo's dream was to play in the NHL. Instead, he found himself following a trail to the Finnish National Ballet School. He then spent a year dancing in the Kirov School, in St. Petersburg, Russia - except, at the time, the city was called Leningrad, Russia was part of the Soviet Union, and Elo found the experience chilling and memorable.
"It was the Soviet era, under Brezhnev," Elo, who has homes near Boston in Holland, and in Finland, said. "It was freaky, but authentic. There was no color except the posters of Lenin. Everything was gray. I was in St. Petersburg, a beautiful city left totally to rot. They beat the hell out of it."
It was a start to a 25-year career as a dancer, in Finland, Sweden and Holland, for a series of touring companies. Toward the latter part of his career, Elo dabbled in choreographing: "Small things, not really serious," he said. "Just get together with friends, make something happen Over time, it took over my mind. I loved it. It was another way to be with the dancers, be in their environment."
In 2000, a friend became director of the Alberta Ballet, in Canada, and asked Elo to create a piece for the company. Elo responded with "Blank Snow," and his second career in dance began. Elo became the resident choreographer of the Boston Ballet, and has created works for the Royal Danish Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Last month, Moscow's International Dance Association awarded him the prestigious Benois de la Danse, in recognition of two 2010 pieces, one of them a full-length production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that he created for the Vienna State Opera Ballet that featured 36 dancers.
But Elo prizes working with the ASFB because of the company's smaller scale. "Other companies have a hundred dancers; they're working on other pieces at the same time," Elo said, adding that the local company is the smallest he works with. "Tom [Mossbrucker, ASFB's artistic director] and J.P. are able to give me the dancers so many hours a day, and their focus is 80 percent just my thing."
Eventually, Elo circles back to "Over Glow," and this time he at least hints at the themes that were emerging. He noted there is a "strong element of dying, of death. And of something continuing despite that. When one thinks of death, you think something stops. But nothing stops. The machinery keeps on going. Is it sad, or beautiful? I don't know."
That view seems a reflection of Elo's perspective on his life as a choreographer. Nothing ever quite ends. Even after a piece has its premiere, it is ripe for re-inspection, for picking over to see what could be improved.
"It's never finished. The process goes on - try to make it better, more interesting, try to make the structure more complex," he said. "That's what I love to do. I kind of hate in when stuff is ready."