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As a pupil of many groundbreaking choreographers of the 20th century — Martha Graham, Maurice Béjart, Alvin Ailey, Mats Ek, and Jiří Kylián — Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato has established his creative path by fusing his learning experiences with his creative urgencies. He soon realized that dance is not just entertainment but a “wanting” transformative experience for those who create it and those who watch it. In this interview with Dance ICONS, Inc., Duato shares his intimate artistic wisdom and compares his past work in Berlin, Germany, and his current position in St. Petersburg, Russia.
ICONS: You studied at Rambert in London, with Béjart in Brussels, and with Ailey in New York, among many others. What different learning experiences did you get from each school?
Nacho Duato: Well, they are very different schools. Rambert is a very classical school; I was taking classes with Madam Ellis (Helena), who was the daughter of Madam Rambert. Madam Rambert was still alive, and she would come from time to time to watch the students at the barre and in the classes.
At Mudra of Maurice Béjart, we had African dance, Flamenco, and Classical ballet daily. We also had Graham's technique, theater, rhythm, composition, and so on. I loved my time in Mudra. We were located close to La Monnaie Theater so that we could see dancers like Ivan Marco, Daniel Lommel, Shona Mirk, Vladimir Vasiliev, and many others.
Then I went to New York, where I wanted to study with everybody everywhere: from Martha Graham to José Limón and Louis Falco to Jennifer Muller. Ultimately, I went dancing on contract with Alvin Ailey, and later I moved on to dance with the Cullberg Ballet in Sweden.
ICONS: What memories do you have from your dancing career in Cullberg Ballet with Mats Ek and the Nederlands Dans Theater? Did your work with Jiří Kylián influence you?
ND: As a young dancer, I had many experiences working with different choreographers. Maurice Béjart was a really powerful figure; somehow, I was afraid of him. With Alvin Ailey, it was the same because he also had such a strong personality. I liked Mats Ek and Cullberg Ballet, but the choreography didn’t suit my body well.
While at Cullberg Ballet, Jiří Kylián saw me and offered me a contract at Nederland Dans Theater -- NDT. So, in 1981 I went there. When I arrived at NDT, I felt that that was precisely what fitted me. For the first time in my life, I realized this type of movement was most suitable for my body. The personality of Kylián was also close to my personality. He was quiet, distant, polite, and very elegant not only in his choreographer work but also in the way he talked to us.
Kylián substantially impacted me; however, the strongest impact was and always will be Martha Graham in New York. My work is much more earthy, and my choreographic technique is closer to Graham’s than Kylián’s. I studied Graham's technique for three years at her school and met her when she would come to see some of the classes. We exchanged some words, and after her passing, I created three works with Graham’s company.
ICONS: What inspired you to choreograph and pursue a career in choreography?
ND: The Hague, where NDT is based, is a small town where at 5 PM, all shops close and everyone goes home. Since there were not a lot of exciting social activities for a young person like me, I stayed in the studio and tried to create some choreography.
I created a dance piece with a few colleagues called Jardin, and I showed it in the studio. Jiří was there, and he said he loved it. He suggested that I show it at the Cologne international competition, and Jardin won the first prize. And yet, at that moment in my life, I didn’t want to choreograph. I only wanted to dance. Jiří pushed me, however, and so I went on and on until now. In the beginning, it was a struggle. Then I gradually enjoyed creating ballets, particularly my first ones, which were naïve and honest because they were based on my enthusiasm for dancing.
In my creative career, choreographing was like a window to the world. Then choreographing, for me, gradually became a door that was opening to my intimate self. My work became more serious, mature, and intimate, but also more dark. That is clear in my dance pieces, such as White Darkness, Herrumbre, and Rassemblement. I began to realize that dance not only entertains but can also be something that questions society and addresses issues that are important to humankind. So, I began to change my choreographic expression.
ICONS: How do you create movement, and what excites you when you are choreographing?
ND: I do work more outside of the studio than I do in the studio. I work at home, and I listen to a lot of music. I read a lot. I think a lot.
Before creating a new ballet, I must know the music well. My process of creation could take as long as one year, and then the actual staging in the dance studio goes very fast. Also, I need to know the dancers well, not because I expect their choreographic suggestions and creative involvement, but because some dancers inspire me more than others.
My choreography is my intimate physical thinking shared with other people. Trust is important! The dancers and I have to be able to understand each other without speaking too much. I make movements very fast, and I don’t talk very much because I feel that when I speak about a movement, the movement is wrong.
My choreographic process is about the wanting of a movement, a lift, a diagonal of a group of dancers going through certain formations. And it’s something that I just feel… I don’t know why the new dance is emerging like this or like that – it is all deeply intuitive, and I can’t explain it rationally.
ICONS: Do you let your dancers participate in the creative process by contributing their movement material?
ND: The dancers’ personalities and generosity during the creative process inspire me, but they don’t participate in contributing their movement material. I know some choreographers create things together with the dancers, but I don’t work like that. I have too many steps in my mind; I don’t need any steps and moves from anybody else.
But I do need the dancers' love, confidence, and commitment. I need to know that they trust me, are not afraid of doing what I tell them to do and will be doing everything I ask for.
For example, during the last ballet I danced with Kylián – he almost didn’t choreograph it. He would simply do something, and then I would just follow what he wanted. We did it so easily. He knew exactly what to ask for, and I knew exactly what to do – without any questions and verbalization.
ICONS: How committed is your relationship to the music and collaborators in the visual aspects of your productions?
ND: Music is my first source of inspiration. I am, first of all, a musician. I think the most perfect and profound art is music, more than dance. I am faithful to the composers, and I try to read all about them. I am also very respectful of the music. I never cut it. I never change music but use it as it was written. I don’t feel I choose the music; it’s rather the music that chooses me. When the music is very much inside me, I create the choreography by knowing every note.
Maybe I was supposed to be a musician rather than a dancer and a choreographer. However, I am very energetic and restless, so I needed to move and this is why I chose dance — because I could move and listen to music simultaneously. I couldn’t sit in front of a piano because I was too nervous. Yet, my first love is music and the human voice. If I would be born again, I would like to be a mezzo-soprano (laughs). I have to admit, however, that in the past, I played some piano, sang as a soloist in a choir, and played flute and guitar.
About working with my designers: I learn from my collaborators every time I create a new production. I often work with Angelina Atlagic from Belgrade; she is an amazing costume designer. Also, I work with Brad Fields, the American Ballet Theatre technical director, who is on my lighting design team. He is fantastic! My creative and design team is like a family to me; they know me not only as a choreographer but also as a person.
ICONS: You have created an extensive repertoire: Is there a dance work that you feel emotionally attached to and that you would consider the most special one? Which one is it and why?
ND: It’s always the last one I make. I just made Don Quixote, and I enjoyed it a lot. I am a strange choreographer because I make modern contemporary pieces like White Darkness, and then I make Sleeping Beauty. Now I am going to do an opera, Carmen, and I am very excited. I am working with mezzo-sopranos, sopranos, baritones, and a fantastic singer who will play Carmen, and she is from the Mariinsky. I enjoy doing opera very much. I don’t have my favorite ballet. Some of my dance pieces are more successful than others.
I often say that as choreographers, we are amateurs for our entire lives because we are never really in complete control of our medium. We never know what will happen to our new dance, and we anticipate that a new dance will develop its distinct path different from the previous dance. So, we're always new to the process, and each process comes to us as new and unknown. Therefore, it is normal for us as artists to act like amateurs and feel like virgins.
ICONS: You worked with two major world companies, Staatsballet Berlin in Germany and the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. As the choreographer, how would you define your creative process with those two companies?
ND: I had some challenging times in Berlin on multiple levels – at the opera house as a workplace, with the dancers, with the management, and even with the dance critics and the city. Looking back, my time in Berlin was not an entirely positive experience. Many situations came to me as a shock – for instance, many dancers were always on sick leave. The conditions in the dancers’ work contracts were odd. There were also moments when the local politicians were questioning some of my artistic choices, and I felt like I was being supervised.
At the same time, the audience loved my work. I brought in Jiří Kylián’s ballets; they had never had Jiří Kylián’s works staged at the Staatsballet in Berlin. They also never had the repertoire of Ohad Naharin, whose work I brought in. It was hard for me to believe that they didn’t have that type of work, so I did program all these amazing choreographers. I'm proud of all my work, even if I constantly felt I was not liked. At the end of the day, leaving Berlin was a relief.
Being now in St. Petersburg is such a joy! Every time I have a premiere – it’s a beautiful experience! The devotion of the dancers, orchestra, technicians, and the constant respect from the dance critics and the audience is unbelievable. This is why I could never leave the Mikhailovsky Ballet and my 170 dancers, of whom 25 are Ukrainians. I could never leave them because their country is at war.
I regularly receive hate emails saying that my hands are soaked in blood. I am constantly criticized because I am still working and creating in Russia. However, it is important to understand what I do and how others see it: I believe that one thing is art, and another is war.
I have been working in Russia since 2010. In Russia, my art is not seen as political; it has never been political! If the Russian people love the artwork, they don’t care about anything else. As a matter of fact, anything else is forgiven or not even important. I like this mindset and the fact that art is being held as superior to politics.
Russia is a unique country for opera, ballet, music, and the arts. It is remarkable and astonishing how appreciative and educated average citizens are regarding the arts. At the same time, Russia is also a very complicated country, often behaving erratically and lacking the total freedom of expression that is enjoyed in Western Europe and the US.
During my time here, I have learned and know all the negative sides of Russia. However, which country doesn’t have negative sides? As a compassionate citizen of the world, I believe that Russia has a bright future ahead. Let's not forget that only 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and it will take time for Russia to redefine itself.
I can also honestly admit that I have never been censored as an artist in Russia, and I have always said whatever I feel and that I find important to express and represent. Of course my role here is as an Artistic Director of a ballet company.
ICONS: What are the latest projects that you're working on or looking forward to?
ND: As I said earlier, I am going to create Carmen with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. After that, I will work with Jordi Savall on a Don Juan by Molière at the Opera de Toulouse, and then we’ll take it to Liceu in Barcelona and the Opéra Comique in Paris.
I also have a premiere in Dresden of my ballet White Darkness, a premiere in Brno, a premiere in Bayonne, and another in Munich. All these are regional premieres of White Darkness. Then I will go to Cape Town, South Africa, to stage my dance work Bach and do something in Pittsburgh, USA.
I will also have to create a Nutcracker at the Mikhailovsky Ballet because they want it. They also want me to create La Bohème, so there are always projects ahead. However, I really want to retire to my hometown in Valencia and one day die under a blossoming orange tree (laughs).
ICONS: What would you advise your younger self if you could time travel back into the past?
ND: I can’t advise anybody – not even my younger self. However, I know that since I was very young, it became clear to me that I had to work very hard. I wanted to become someone, and I had to commit to hard work very early in my life. No compromises. No shortcuts. Choreographing is not so much about an inspiration that may stay or flee, but it is all about hard work.
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MORE INFORMATION AND A BIOGRAPHY about Nacho Duato:
White Darkness (2018) choreography by Nacho Duato, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
Photos © Charles Thomson, portrait of Nacho Duato
Photos © Alice Blangero, photos © Stas Levshin, White Darkness (2018), choreography by Nacho Duato, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
CREATIVE TEAM ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
Interviewer: Veronica Posth
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., May 2023 © All rights reserved.