The most important item in Jorma Elo's dance bag as he travels between assignments is his passport. This spring finds the Finnish-born choreographer, who danced with the Netherlands Dance Theater for 14 years, splitting his time between the Boston Ballet and New York City Ballet to direct two works that première within a month of each other.
Such is the demand for a dancemaker who has rocketed onto ballet's A-list by virtue of choreography that is a thrilling blend of classical technique and contemporary dance. Jorma Elo has an affinity for the startling: Ballerinas with their legs stretched out to tomorrow, choreographic effects enhanced by mysterious lights and shadows, and undulating set pieces that intertwine or interrupt the ballerinas' patterns of movement.
Elo's hour-long version of "Carmen," set to Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin's adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera score, opened last weekend at the Boston Ballet. Elo was named resident choreographer for the company in 2005 following the success of his 2004 powerhouse work, "Plan to B," which Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times described as "a high-tech ballet in human terms." The appointment means that Elo will provide a new ballet for Boston each season but leaves him free to work elsewhere - a useful arrangement for the in-demand dancemaker.
"Carmen" is Elo's first ballet to tell a full story, but he started out by performing in a number of 19th-century classics of story-telling dance with the Finnish National Ballet at age 16. His introduction to his future profession was an unconventional one: He discovered dance through his childhood love of ice hockey. "I was a goalie and wanted to become more flexible," he explains. "In the '70s in Finland, modern dance was a trendy thing." Later, he trained for three years at the Finnish National Ballet School and then spent a year in what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia.
Elo began to choreograph during his career at the Netherlands Dance Theater (NDT), directed by Jiri Kylian. "There was a lot of creativity at that time at NDT. Jiri wanted to be around creatively thinking people," he recalls.
Influenced by Kylian's works, Elo's earlier ballets consisted of dancers performing abstract movement for its own sake. But after creating a number of those works for various companies - including the Finnish National, Alberta (Canada), Norwegian National, and the Aspen Santa Fe Ballets - he was ready for a new challenge. "I've wanted to choreograph a story ballet for several years," Elo says.
His take on "Carmen" is far from traditional. Elo changed the setting from a cigarette factory to the streets of a modern city where Carmen and her friends work as supermodels, Don Jose is a nerd-like yuppie, and Escamillo, the glam-guy, is a NASCAR racer. Rather than conventional storytelling, the ballet unfolds as a series of confrontations in movements derived from multiple dance styles - including break dancing - all of it transformed by a fast-paced delivery.
The sets by Walt Spangler and lighting design by Mikki Kunttu reinforce the contemporary feel of the work, especially the spotlights that pinpoint the characters as if they were insects startled at being caught in the glare. The women's costumes by Joke Visser have the sleek look of a "Vogue" fashion shoot. And Carmen wears a plum-colored, strapless mini-dress - for once there's not a crimson skirt in sight.
Putting "Carmen" on hold during his day off each week, Elo has been jetting to New York to rehearse the NYCB dancers in the work that premières at the Lincoln Center in June. The ballet is made for four couples, including principals Wendy Whelan and Maria Kowroski, and is based on a 22-minute-long score that Elo compiled from "different bits of music by Vivaldi and a bit of Biber," he says. "It's an abstract ballet but, as [George] Balanchine said, 'You put woman and man together, of course, there's a story.' "
Elo is rehearsing under pressure because the dancers are performing each night as well as preparing other ballets. "They are used to working on a lot of things, putting them together fast," he says.
After the New York première, Elo takes off for Germany where a small dance company is remounting one of his works, before he joins his longtime girlfriend, Nancy Euverink, an NDT dancer, and his family in Finland. Elo is a Finnish citizen who has made his home in Amsterdam for the past 16 years, but he'll be working in the US again next season. "I'm in good shape. At one point I would dance and choreograph at the same time. This is like a vacation for me," he says.
• "Carmen" is at The Wang Theatre, Boston, through May 21. World première by Jorma Elo at New York State Theatre, Lincoln Center, June 16.