Articles from Ballet2000

Spanish dance, a beloved mystery

There are three genres of dance in Spain: Spanish dance per se, in its manifold varieties (including the refined Escuela Bolera of 18th/9th-century origin and flamenco), classical ballet and European contemporary dance. The custodian and indisputable exponent of the first genre, that of “Spanish dancing”, is the Ballet Nacional de España. Roger Salas takes a look at the company today and discusses its recent programme tribute to the iconic figure of Antonio Ruiz Soler

Spanish dance is in line with the current “global” drive to recover past legacies and historical repertory. The Ballet Nacional de España (the prestigious national company of Spanish dance, not be confused with the Compañía Nacional de Danza, currently directed by José Carlos Martínez and which has a “normal” classical/modern international profile) also follows this trend. Ever since Aída Gómez (1998-2001) was at the Ballet Nacional’s helm, this trend has gained momentum, with varying degrees of intensity.
First of all it is necessary to explain that the art of dance in Spain can be broken down into three great “genres” that account for what is on offer on stage: classical ballet (in all its denominations, from classic-romantic to the newest styles); contemporary dance (whose various denominations fall under the European umbrella of contemporary dance and dance-theatre) and “Spanish ballet”, or Spanish dancing proper, which groups together all the styles and techniques that range from the Escuela Bolera (which was born in the 18th century and whose history runs parallel to and closely resembles that of classical ballet), to stylised dances (the result of the assimilation and adaptation of Spain’s variegated folklore), to flamenco (an essential component of Spanish dance that has contaminated all the other styles and has its own modern stage form).
The great dancer/teacher/choreographer Mariemma (who also danced at La Scala in Milan and created works for that company), used to maintain, and not without reason, that there is only one Spanish Dance as such, with various branches, and that it would denote “lack of culture” to separate them or consider them unrelated to one another, a mistake that would endanger its preservation and development.
Spanish dance’s big problem has always been how to stabilise itself and preserve the repertory correctly.
The Ballet Nacional de España was preceded by two other companies that had a national profile, namely Ballet Antología and Ballet Nacional Festivales de España, both of which focused heavily on “stylised dances” and so-called “Spanish classical” dance, a choral and complex genre suited to story-ballets.
Spanish national companies are relatively young institutions, half a century old at the most; this is too short a time span to be able to talk seriously of the development of a “school” (in the artistic sense of the word) and of a repertory proper. But it is a fact that not everything has always been done in the best of ways since the Ballet Nacional Español was founded back in 1978. Its first artistic director, Antonio Gades, immediately called in some of Spain’s most renowned dance celebrities of the previous period, including Pilar López, Mariemma, Antonio Ruiz Soler, Juan Quintero and Rafael Aguilar.
We cannot say that Ballet Nacional de España’s current director, 41-year-old Antonio Najarro (appointed in 2011), enjoys the full support of the whole company. There has recently been a lot of serious conflict, of the kind that hadn’t been seen since the days in which María de Ávila held sway – with a appropriately iron fist – over the two Spanish state-subsidised troupes (Ballet Nacional de España and Ballet Nacional Clásico) which were united from 1983 to 1986 under her leadership. The new programme of historical choreographies by Antonio Ruiz Soler (1921-1996, known as “The Great Antonio”), presented by the company in tribute to this gigantic dance celebrity and Spanish dance creator, was very warmly received by public and critics alike, despite still being a long way off from true excellence. Such a tribute to Antonio Ruiz Soler, last June and July, was supposed to be the climax of Antonio Najarro’s mandate at the helm of Ballet Nacional; yet it ended up by being a disgraceful moment, with strikes, cancelled shows and union demos in front of the Teatro de La Zarzuela in Madrid. Generally-speaking, this had a negative effect on both quality and artistic productivity and thus one couldn’t have expected more from the BNE’s dancers and technicians. The Spanish Ministry of Culture responded to the unrest by extending Najarro’s contract at the helm of the BNE by a further three years.
The choreographic works in the aforementioned programme, by Antonio Ruiz Soler himself or from his repertoire, are part of the legacy that constitutes the mainstay of Spanish dance today and they would by rights merit clearer attention and a more balanced treatment than they have received to date: they are the ABC and basis of everything that has been created since, in almost three quarters of a century; they explain why dance historians describe 20th-century Spanish theatre dance as a modern art, an expression of the contemporary arts that began to emerge and develop with the avant-garde movements of the 1900s.
The show we saw at the Teatro de La Zarzuela was undoubtedly a big effort, but not a total success. According also to the opinion of renowned maîtres, the company today has numerous dancers of talent, but they need to be better groomed in the authentic style they are dancing in.
The programme consisted of: Eritaña (music by Isaac Albéniz, 1960); La taberna del toro (1956); Zapateado (music by Pablo Sarasate, 1946); Fantasía galaica (music by Ernesto Halffter, 1956); and El sombrero de tres picos (“The Three-Cornered Hat”, music by Manuel de Falla, 1958).
As for the Taberna del toro “taranta”, it was a bit odd to watch this fragment on its own as it seemed out of place, devoid of any connection to the other choreographies of the evening. And with regard to better-known Sombrero de tres picos, we need here to mention a few basic facts. On 24 June 1958 Antonio Ruiz Soler presented a version of this ballet at Teatro del Generalife in Granada, with scenery by Manuel Muntañola and famous dancer Rosita Segovia as the Miller’s Wife; as music critic Antonio Fernández-Cid immediately noted, the impression was that composer Manuel de Falla (who died in exile in Argentina in 1946) “had found his ideal team” – alluding to the fact that all the team members were Spanish. Antonio Ruiz Soler’s later (1981) version with the BNE used scenery by Pablo Picasso and testified to the power of a shrewd publicity stunt that condemned the original sets by Muntañola to ostracism and oblivion and created a certain confusion, taken on board by dancers, critics and history; it so happens that Picasso’s sets had been designed for another – extremely different – work, namely that by Léonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a successful ballet stylisation of Spanish melodies that is still in the repertory to this day.
The confusion was then endorsed by another choreographer and BNE director, José Antonio Ruiz, who created his own version in 2004, again using Picasso’s sets.
However, when the Great Antonio died, he was attired in the very cloak that Muntañola had designed expressly for him in his original Sombrero de tres picos.
Returning to the subject of the style and technique of dancers of this genre, one must consider that together with training in Spanish dancing they also receive classical ballet training. That is how it has been in the past few decades, in keeping with the idea of the “complete dancer”, akin to the 19th-century dancer who was capable of tackling both the classical ballet and Spanish repertories. The last great example of this type of artiste was probably María de Ávila when she was “prima ballerina” at the Gran Teatro del Liceo, Barcelona in the 1940s. The concept of “complete dancer of Spanish dance” continues to be key of importance and decisive when it comes to preserving a repertory which was, basically, created and devised for this kind of performer. Aida Gómez and Joaquín Cortes were thoroughly complete dancers; when it comes to the present generation, it is Sergio Bernal who, with his superb natural gifts and schooling, fits this ideal profile.

Roger Salas

BALLET2000 n° 263, December 2016