Brief Encounter with… Boston Ballet’s Barry Hughson

Boston Ballet’s executive director Barry Hughson discusses the company’s upcoming season at the London Coliseum, which opens on Wednesday, and the impact of the recent Boston Marathon bombings

Barry Hughson
Barry Hughson

Can you tell us a bit more about your season at the Coliseum?

We’re offering two programmes. One is more of a neoclassical programme, the other much more contemporary and we’re very excited to be bringing them to London. We open on Wednesday (3 July 2013) with Balanchine’s Serenade, Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun and Jorma Elo’s Plan to B, closing with Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. The second programme opens with William Forsythe’s The Second Detail – a little portion is Polyphonia by Christopher Wheeldon – and closes with Jirí Kylián’s Bella Figura. The aim is to highlight the wide range of repertoire that the company has and to really showcase the versatility of our artists. It’s something of a tasting menu, if you will.

This is Boston Ballet’s first time in London for 30 years. Why the long absence?

Our last major tour, which we brought to the London Coliseum, was when Rudolf Nureyev was a resident guest artist in the 1980s. We decided at the end of that tour that the company should take a break from touring for a period of time, and that period of time got extended for over 20 years. We only started touring again about eight years ago and this tour, which marks our 50th anniversary season, is the first time we’ve returned to playing major venues. When [artistic director] Mikko Nissenen joined the company eleven years ago his goal was to transform it into one of the top companies in the world and we really feel like the time is now to share that vision with audiences.

A scene from Boston Ballet's 'Plan B'
A scene from Boston Ballet’s ‘Plan B’
© Gene Schiavone

What impact did the recent Marathon bombings have on Boston’s artistic community?

In America the concept of terrorism or direct terrorist attacks is new to us. Prior to 9/11 there was just very little of that in our country’s history. Boston had never had a terrorist attack in its history until a few weeks ago. Everybody deals with it in their own way but it obviously had a tremendous impact. I think it will have ripple effects, though it’s not really clear how the artistic community will acknowledge those ripples. Art and dance are about people’s spirits and are an essential part of the identity of Boston. Our goal is not necessarily to interpret the events through art but more about sharing the love of the artform with the community and allowing it to do what it does best, which is transport people to other places; places of beauty and inspiration and curiosity, rather than terror.

How long have you lived in Boston?

I moved there for the job, and I’ve been there four years now. But I grew up in Connecticut which is just one State over. Boston was the major city closest to home so I spent quite a bit of time there growing up.

And how has it evolved in your lifetime?

I think the biggest change from a cultural perspective is that it has always been a fairly conservative community in terms of its tastes and in the last ten years that has changed quite dramatically. Boston Ballet was known mainly for its classical ballets, but under Mikko’s leadership we’ve introduced a significant amount of contemporary dance. Over ten years we’ve really built a strong following that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. In general the city has become more of a transient place. More people are coming here for work, so people are coming from all kinds of communities and backgrounds, with differing tastes and education. It makes for more curiosity with people willing to take chances and try new things, which is good from a cultural perspective, it’s an exciting development.

Barack Obama made a moving speech where he said the bombers had “picked the wrong city”

Yes, Boston’s a tough city. The working class community is incredibly proud of their city and are passionate about protecting it. I think that pride and determination really shone through recently. There was an extraordinary collaboration between many parts of the community in the days following the attack – from the police and the fire service to the FBI and the mayor’s office. These are organisations that don’t always work together well, but it’s extraordinary what they accomplished.

What’s your vision for the next five years of Boston Ballet?

Mikko believes that we are building the ballet company of the future, a highly diverse group of dancers performing a highly diverse repertoire that reflects the interests of the day. We’re not a museum – we think of ourselves more as a gallery where you can see really brilliant versions of the classics that built the artform. But at the same time you can see where the artform is going by seeing new ways of rethinking what ballet is and what it will be in the future. So that’s what we’re trying to cultivate in the next few years.

How will this be supported financially?

We’re working to build a financial model for dance in America and around the world. Our counterparts in Europe that have long relied on government subsidy are now facing what American companies have always faced, which is very little government funding. Obviously we need to bring more people to the theatre, and find ways of making the artform relevant to a new generation of theatregoers without selling out; making sure the work is still of the highest quality and integrity but at the same time finding new ways to help people connect with it. Individual philanthropy is a huge part of the present and the future funding model, and continuing to build these relationships through promoting the relevance of a company like Boston Ballet in our communities is critically important.

Would you say the image of the ballet world has taken a knock in light of recent events at the Bolshoi?

That’s a very interesting question – it’s either taken a knock or it’s actually elevated ballet’s profile in terms of getting people to talk about it. My feeling is anything that gets people talking about dance is probably not a bad thing, though obviously I would prefer there not to be a tragedy like there was in Moscow. I’m talking more about the reality TV shows that are featuring dance, getting people to think that dance is something that’s part of their life. We have a number of reality TV shows in America now that focus on dance – Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance etc. As a result we’re seeing more people coming to the theatre to take a look and we’re seeing more adult students coming to our school to engage in classes, which can only be a positive thing.

Boston Ballet is at the London Coliseum from 3 to 7 July 2013. For more info visit