Three decades ago, two men met for one hour, one a legendary choreographer and the other a dancer. Today, that brief encounter is having a dramatic effect on Boston’s dance scene. 

The year was 1989, and William Forsythe was traveling from Japan back to Germany and had a five-hour layover in San Francisco. As it happened, the San Francisco Ballet was working on a piece of his, and he decided to attend the rehearsal. He spent time with one of the principals, for whom the encounter changed his life. That dancer was Mikko Nissinen, who, after retiring as a performer, became the artistic director of Boston Ballet in 2001.

“Dancing was hard,” Nissinen says. “In one hour with Bill, he liberated me. He was able to decode ballet for me, and the whole thing became organic and natural. It finally felt like the glove fit.”

William Forsythe. Photo: Liza Voll

Trying to elaborate, he adds, “Dance is a balance between control and strength, and release. When you train as a dancer, the control and strength come easily, but it’s difficult to find the release. In that short time, Bill showed me that. And it suddenly all made sense.”

Nissinen has described it as an epiphany, more evidence that Forsythe seems to have an uncanny ability to put a dancer at ease while remaining within the rigors of a very controlled art form.

As Forsythe himself describes it: “The rules of ballet are a language, and dancers write using this language in real time. I just help them write better.”

Forsythe is continuing to write his latest chapter as he begins rehearsals for Boston Ballet’s Full on Forsythe, which will be performed from March 7 to 17 at the Boston Opera House. Set to showcase three Forsythe pieces, including one world premiere, it’s part of the choreographer’s five-year residency with the Nissinen-led company.

Artifact. Photo courtesy of Boston Ballet

In the world of dance, there are great artists, and then there are the gods: Nijinsky. Nureyev. Graham. Tharp.

Forsythe belongs in that pantheon.

He has an honorary doctorate from Juilliard and has won a Bessie, Olivier and Golden Lion award. A Commander of Arts and Letters in France, he’s also received the German Distinguished Service Cross. Revered by dance lovers around the globe, Forsythe transcends art forms and genres, even boasting a big enough reputation as a visual artist to warrant shows at the Louvre, the Venice Biennale and now at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects is on view through Feb. 21. If he isn’t exactly a household name outside of certain rarefied circles, he’s an extremely, major big deal.

And he’s working right here in Boston.

Born and raised in New York, Forsythe didn’t study dance seriously until he was at Jacksonville University in Florida. He joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1971, but soon decamped for Europe for the next 45 years, following his then-wife to the Stuttgart Ballet. After an 11-year stint there, he was urged to create his own company, Ballet Frankfurt, where he choreographed the early breakthrough works that cemented his international reputation. After leaving Ballet Frankfurt in 2004, he formed the Forsythe Company, also based in Germany, which enjoyed a decade-long run as one of, if not the most innovative contemporary ballet companies in the world. During this time, the accolades from critics, audiences and cognoscenti kept piling up. Forsythe was breathlessly hailed as the savior, the future, the apotheosis of ballet.

Nissinen asked if he’d consider doing a five-year residency here, and Forsythe emailed the next day, asking, “Do you mean it?”

Keeping up with Forsythe’s later work from afar was Nissinen, whose first program at Boston Ballet included the company premiere of Forsythe’s In the Middle (as well as works by Jorma Elo and Mark Morris). But the two men didn’t cross paths again until last decade.

“I always followed what he was doing, but I didn’t actually see Bill again until I was in New York. They were doing Impressing the Czar, and I saw him at the party afterward. But over the years, I’d become even more of a fan of his. We did a few of his works with a stager, but he never actually came here to work with the dancers until our 50th anniversary [in 2013]. He came here to rehearse Second Detail.”

A few years later, while enjoying dinner together one evening, Forsythe told Nissinen how impressed he was with the company. Nissinen asked if he’d consider doing a five-year residency here, and Forsythe emailed the next day, asking, “Do you mean it?”

Artifact. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Following that initial conversation in 2016, it came together very naturally, according to Nissinen. As for Forsythe, whose official residence is now in Vermont, he says: “I’m working in Boston because Mikko is the best director in America. No company ever did Artifact better. But the city itself is awesome. It has a very European mentality. It’s medicine. It’s education. There are a lot of very smart people. And the city is very livable.”

“There’s this big myth about artistic centers like New York or London,” Forsythe says. “But you’d be amazed by how much happens outside of the center. And right now, it’s happening here.”

And here, as Nissinen puts it, “The dancers say they’re the luckiest people in the world. We’re actually the envy of the world because of this relationship.”

Nissinen believed his dancers would benefit from having the same kind of awakening he’d experienced in San Francisco. “Boston Ballet had never done any structured improvisation, where the dancers receive a broad directive and they have to improvise. I knew that was the next step. A dancer has to be so strong that they can be vulnerable enough to do that.”

Ask the company members what they got out of it, and it turns out that Nissinen’s prediction was correct. Principal dancer Paul Craig says: “Before Bill signed a five-year agreement with the company, his protege Jill Johnson came to work on Second Detail. That’s when my mind was blown. She dove into theories ranging from improv, negative space, geometry, bounce and much, much more. I’d never been so cerebral in my approach to dance. It was as though I was finally using my brain—or at least a part that had lain dormant until then. I like to compare Forsythe’s choreography to jazz music. It’s a modern, cerebral and mathematical approach to a vocabulary that’s been around forever.”

Mikko Nissinen. Photo: Holly Rike

Fellow Boston Ballet dancer John Lam is even more effusive: “I’m always in awe at how Forsythe brings art out of you, if you’re willing to create with him. He’s a collaborator and always open to different interpretations. Vile Parody of Address was one of my special solos I did last season, and it spoke to me in a unique way. Having the incredible gift of Forsythe being in the studio with us is a dream come true for any artist. Boston as a city still hasn’t grasped the concept that what they’re seeing and experiencing is the work of an artistic genius.”

Forsythe, however, prefers to downplay his effect on the dancers, whether it’s the current crop or Nissinen 30 years ago.

“I think of myself as more of an educator than a choreographer,” says Forsythe, who has also joined the faculty at the University of Southern California. As for all the adulation, he says, “It doesn’t kiss you goodnight and it doesn’t take out the garbage. I mean, people are nice to me, but it’s really about dance.”

The March performance of Full on Forsythe will debut Forsythe’s Playlist (EP), which is an extension of Playlist (Track 1, 2), a piece he staged in England last year. The first world premiere Forsythe has created for an American company since 1992, it features music ranging from Barry White’s “Sha La La Means I Love You” to Khalid’s “Location.” It’s only the latest step in the Forsythe-Nissinen connection. “I’m a dreamer and I dream of big things,” Nissinen says. “This is the dream of dreams come true, and it’s only five years to start. It’s not going to end. We’re on a wonderful journey.”

It seems some of the city’s art lovers are keeping up. Forsythe’s show at the ICA is one of its most popular in recent memory, while Artifact was one of Boston Ballet’s most anticipated and widely appreciated works in its more than 50-year history.

“We had to hold the curtain for 20 minutes because of the line at the box office,” Nissinen says of the 2017 production.

In April, the pair will take the company to tour Paris, which promises another first. Boston Ballet, which will soon have the largest Forsythe repertory of any U.S. company, already has the largest repertory by Jirí Kylián. The famed Czech choreographer, who suffers from claustrophobia and doesn’t fly, has agreed to make the landlocked trip to the City of Light to work with the dancers.

“Imagine, Forsythe and Kylián with Boston Ballet in Paris,” Nissinen says. “Dance history in the making.” 

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