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An interview with Nacho Duato

by Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 7 July 1997 - Clichéd images of an ebony-haired, burning-eyed Flamenco dancer can be swept aside upon meeting Nacho Duato, the Spanish-born director of Spain's Compania Nacional de Danza de Espana.

Tall, fair and softly-spoken, Duato moves with the natural grace of the classical dancer, reflecting his years of training at London's Rambert School, Bejart's Mudra and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre.

After a year's contract as a dancer with Cullberg Ballet, where he worked with Mats Ek, Nacho Duato joined the Netherlands Dance Theatre in 1981. A brilliant soloist, he signed his first choreography, "Jardi Tancat", in 1983 (winning the International Choreographers Competition in Cologne), and was appointed resident choreographer in 1988 alongside Hans van Manen, and Jiri Kylian, the artistic director who first sensed Duato's choreographic talent.

He has been at the head of his classical contemporary ballet troupe since 1990. "For years, Spanish culture was reduced to bull-fights, castanets, and foot-ball", he told me. "It was the image given by a dictatorial regime. Spain is so much more. I despair at criticism that the company has not enough olé, olé, for that is just what I am fighting against. We now have a very strong Spanish identity, but I certainly don't intend to bring bulls onto the stage to prove it".

The Ministry of Culture in Madrid asked Duato to form a company that was a reflection of Spain and its people, something which was creative and would develop over the years, he explained to me. "When I arrived, the troupe had no personality of its own because it had been directed by so many different people, each with their own ideas", he said.

Founded in 1979, it had started life as a modern neo-classical company, with its director, Victor Ullate bringing in such works as Bejart's "Firebird". Ullate was succeeded by Maria de Avila (who brought the choreographies of Balanchine and Tudor), Ray Barra, and then Maia Plissetskaia who tried to impose a traditional classical company in the style of the Bolshoi or the Paris Opera, bringing in dancers, teachers and pianists from Russia. It couldn't, and it didn't work.

Duato explained why: "classical ballet has no roots in Spain. We have no tradition, and no theatre. It was like trying to plant a cactus in Alaska. What could 65 dancers do in Madrid? Matters worsened when they tried to start a school, for nothing was properly worked out.

When I arrived I not only had an unwieldy company whose average age was about twenty five, but I discovered all the dancers had life-time contracts, so pupils in the School would have had to wait until they were fifty-five before joining the troupe!

Now I'm planning ahead and using the money more intelligently. We're more mobile (thirty-five dancers), and when not performing at the government-owned Theatre de la Zarzuela, or at the Theatre de Madrid, we travel around Spain, hiring theatres as we go. After all, it's a national ballet and so everyone has the right to see it."

In addition, tours throughout Europe, to the United States, Canada, Japan, South America and Australia have brought them international recognition.

Duato has created about fifteen ballets for his company whose identity is distinctly Mediterranean; dancers with this kind of energy are not found in the North. The level, both technically and artistically is very high and Duato is the first to acknowledge their qualities.

He explained that when he creates his ballets, he always tries to show each of his dancers at their best. Laughingly, he described his work as "made to measure", belittling those who suggest national ballets shouldn't have directors who were creators. "When you look at similar companies, there has always been a creator there behind, whether Balanchine, Cranko, Kylian or Bejart", he said.

Like Kylian, Duato loves movement and both are very musical; but the similarity between the two choreographers ends there. "He inspires me simply because he is great", says Duato. "When I hear critics, especially in England, compare me to him, to Béjart or Ailey it's because they know I've worked with them. If I may say so, dance in England has stayed very much behind. They have Covent Garden, and then their totally avant-garde, modern choreography... they have not only not evolved in classical dance, but are aside and isolated on another road. It's bad for them for they are not allowing their public or their choreographers access to what is happening elsewhere. You have to be exposed to other ideas and companies. Classical dance has moved on since Frederick Ashton and these men are the great choreographers of our time."

"Inbred" is not a fault that can be levelled at Duato's company. Fifteen of the dancers are from Spain, the others from countries including Venezuela, Germany, Holland, France and the United States. "It's stimulating to be from different cultures, to speak different languages and remain open to new ideas", says their director. "We don't only dance my ballets but those of William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Glen Tetley, Ohad Naharin. Each year I give five or six of my ballets to the Cullberg Ballet and Netherlands Danse Theatre, to American Ballet Theatre, Chicago Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, or Stuttgart, and the exchange is both rewarding and enriching.

Projects for the future revolve very much around "Romeo and Juliet", Duato's first full-length narrative ballet, which should be completed by January, 1998. "I love Prokofiev's score," he said, "and I'm following the ideas in the music. Juliet's solo will remain Juliet's solo, the main difference being the ballet's strong Mediterranean flavour. I see the story as love breaking through the walls of hate."

"I listen to music all the time at home; images come into my head and my ballets are in fact interpretation of the music through movement. Often I choose a piece of music and take six dancers, barefoot or on pointe and try to see if it's possible to keep the audience's attention just by movement alone, yet making sense. I've always set myself this kind of exercise but now I'm ready to move further. After having written over thirty ballets and at the age of forty it's time to move a bit "up". I feel I'm ready to move people on stage in the right way, and balance the scenes."

Apart from progressing in his work, "Self"(1996) being a magistral demonstration of a maturing talent, Duato's ambition is to establish a small school, however modest, maybe just a younger company to begin with, and to obtain the funding for a theatre.

Choreographic talents are encouraged in the company by workshops that were started four years ago, the pieces created by the dancers being performed in April each year.

Duato's joy in his work is passed on to every member of the company in the beauty and rapidity of their movements ,in the swirls of skirts whirling across the stage, and in their quieter observations of human nature. The freshness, homogeneity and sincerity of the dancers make the company a force to be reckoned with, but long after the performance is over the memory of the intense musicality of the choreography lingers on in one's mind.

Duato, who plays the piano, loves music, maybe more than dance, he told me. "Even when I stop playing, I still hear the melody around me". One might apply those words to his ballets too.

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