Spain has a lot to brag about these days: tennis superstars, European soccer champions, innovative film directors, and mega talented ballet dancers. Add to that list Nacho Duato, a Madrid-based choreographer whose ballets have made a deep impression on the global dance scene in the last two decades. On May 28, Houston Ballet will present the company premiere of a Duato classic,Jardi Tancat, originally choreographed in 1983 for Netherlands Dance Theatre.
Duato stated in an interview that his work centers on "the body expressing the emotion of the music; my dances are inspired by everyday life." If art is an imitation of life, then Duato's choreography illuminates life in the most esthetic, touching ways. Jardi Tancat was Duato's first ballet, and it set forth his signature style: bold, physical movement, full-blooded musicality, and passionate undercurrents.
The title, Jardi Tancat, means "walled garden" in Catalan (a language of northern Spain). Set to songs by the Spanish singer, Maria del Mar Bonet, the ballet evokes the humble and heart-felt prayers of Spaniards who pray for rain on their barren land. Despite their despair, the three couples valiantly continue their task of planting and persist in hoping. The text for the songs is based on poems by Majorcan writers from the early 20th century. Del Mar Bonet came to prominence during the last years of Franco's regime in Spain, when she recorded albums of Catalan folk music, despite the prohibitions of the dictatorship. She has toured the world singing with her distinct, earthy fluidity and has garnered many awards for her work.
Duato, now the artistic director of Spain's Compaê±‹a Nacional de Danza, has nurtured a style that is fully contemporary in spirit but still utilizes a strong base of classical ballet. He has said he needs to work with dancers who "have the turn-out, the pointed feet, the graciousness that classical dance gives the dancer." Houston Ballet's dancers, who are both technically brilliant and artistically mature, are naturally suited to dance Duato's vivid works. In 2000, the company danced a successful staging of his haunting, lyrical ballet Without Words, set to Franz Schubert's songs transcribed for cello.
Born in Valencia, Spain, Duato began his ballet training later than usual, at the age of 18. Because there were few good ballet schools in Spain at that time, he auditioned and was accepted at the Ballet Rambert School in London. "I was told, 'You don't know much about dance but you have something special that makes me look at you all the time even if you do everything wrong'," said Duato in an interview. After further studies at Maurice Bejart's Mudra School and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, Duato took his first professional dance job with the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm, Sweden.
But it was his tenure as a dancer with Netherlands Dance Theatre, under the guidance of choreographer/director Jiˇr‹ Kylišn, which brought out the genuine artistic essence of Duato. Kylišn's expressive choreography spurred Duato not only as a dancer but as a burgeoning choreographer. Jardi Tancat was Duato's first attempt at choreography and the result was a huge success; it took first prize at the International Choreographic Workshop in Cologne in 1983. In 1988, Duato was named resident choreographer for Netherlands Dance Theater, along with Kylišn and Hans van Manen. His works grew in demand and he eventually choreographed or set his ballets on internationally prestigious companies like The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and The Stuttgart Ballet.
In 1990, the Spanish Ministry of Culture asked Duato to direct the Compaê±‹a Nacional de Danza and restructure it into a more contemporary troupe that highlighted Spain's emerging artistry. True to his instincts, Duato has shaped the repertoire by choreographing numerous ballets, including Tabulae, Por Vos Muero, Romeo y Julieta, and Multiplicity. Duato has said that, "when people come to see us at the theater, they should see themselves reflected on the stage."
But for Duato, who plays the piano, music provides the springboard for his choreography. "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," said Duato. "Often I choose a piece of music and take six dancers, barefoot or en pointe, and try to see if it's possible to keep the audience's attention, just by movement alone: yet making sense."
Duato ballets like Jardi Tancat blend the human element with the ephemeral magic of music. Indeed, they accomplish more than grabbing attention. They can be downright hypnotic.
Of An Era will include Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance), Nacho Duato's Jard‹ Tancat and Stanton Welch's Nosotros.
For tickets and info visit Houston Ballet.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and author of Round About the Ballet.