More olé than ballet … the Nacional’s Cambio de Tercio
Not ballet, but definitely national, the Ballet Nacional de España aspires to a post-Franco ideal: to be a distinctively Spanish company that can accommodate regional and historical differences, as well as modernise and innovate.
Founded in 1978 by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, the Ballet Nacional was a child of its time. The long dictatorship of General Franco had ended with his death in 1975, and Spain underwent a rapid transition towards decentralisation, embracing the liberal and modern. Franco had promoted flamenco as the national dance, at the same time as sanitising and ultimately stultifying its tradition. The Ballet Nacional had a wider vision, though it kept flamenco at its core: it would encompass regional styles, revive historical forms and encourage experimentation.
Its first director was Antonio Gades, a communist flamenco dancer who had left Spain in the 1960s, learned ballet in Italy and experimented with different flamenco stagings in Paris before returning to Spain in the 70s. After two years in the post, Gades was sacked by the ministry following a bitter disagreement over policy; many dancers left with him (they went on to make the famous “flamenco trilogy” of films directed by Carlos Saura). A similar fate befell his replacement, Antonio Ruiz Soler, “El Bailarin”, another anti-Francoist whose elegant, balleticised style of Spanish dance had been developed abroad. Appointed in 1980, he was dismissed in 1983 in another bitter row with the ministry.
Dancing director … Antonio Ruiz Soler performs Sonatas del Padre Soler
The Ballet Nacional then merged into a single entity with the Ballet Nacional Clásico, a ballet company (now a modern dance company) under María de Ávila; but separated yet again in 1986, under the direction of José Antonio Ruiz, until 1992. For the next 12 years, it was led by women: Aurora Pons, Nana Lorca and Victoria Eugenia in shared directorship until 1997; then Aída Gómez until 2001 and Elvira Andrés until 2004. Since then, the company has been directed once again by José Antonio.
Watching Ballet Nacional de España
First things first. It’s not a ballet company – its name refers to Spanish national dance, not classical ballet. But don’t equate Spanish dance with flamenco (or at least, not only flamenco): the company deploys a range of Spanish styles, and is dedicated to creating a repertory of stage works rather than to recreating traditional scenes.
Do expect a stylistic mix in each programme, sometimes within the same piece. You may see influences of folk dances such as jota aragonesa or sevillanas. And if you see something that makes you think of ballet, don’t assume it’s a modern fusion. Besides Spanish classical dance, Spain has other, longstanding theatrical dance traditions such as the zarzuela, which developed through musical theatre, and the balletic escuela bolera, which melded 18th-century French and Italian theatre dances into a highly codified Spanish style.
You can, of course, just sit back and enjoy: the pieces are not designed as primers in Spanish dance but as stage works, generally with Spanish subjects (famous figures), styles or themes (blood, passion and death crop up a lot).
José Antonio is the current director. The company’s principal dancers are Elena Algado and Miguel Corbacho (who, in the current London season, will be dancing a duet with Royal Ballet guest Tamara Rojo).
Tragic but true … Javier Latorre’s El Loco (2004)
Javier Latorre’s El Loco (Ballet Nacional, 2004) is based on the true story of Francisco López, or “Félix el Loco”. The dancer was hired by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes to teach Spanish dance for Léonide Massine’s The Three-Cornered Hat in London in 1919. On discovering that the main farruca number was to be performed by Massine rather than himself, he ran out of the theatre. The police found him dancing the farruca, naked, on the altar of the church of St Martin in the Fields, and he spent the rest of his life in an asylum in Epsom.
In their own words
“The company represents all the original dance forms on the Spanish peninsula. They are based on folk and popular dances and also classical Spanish dance. That’s not ballet, by the way. Spanish dance is very rich and, although flamenco is the most well-known, we have other forms of dance.” – Elvira Andrés, interview with Stuart Sweeney, 2003
“Anything is possible, as long as you don’t lose the root – and as long as it’s true, what you’re doing. There isn’t a barrier or a stopping point so long as you keep your own identity.” – Andrés, interview with Stephanie Bunbury, the Age, 2004
In other words
“Their technique is perfect, their physical beauty shaming, their passion irresistible.” – Mark Monahan, Telegraph, 2006
“The dancers in Spain’s national company may be drilled in flamenco, but their style is softened by a parallel schooling in classical dance. With their torrid spins restrained into fluid pirouettes, their arms lengthened and feet turned out, this is flamenco buffed and polished for global consumption.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2006
Toe-tapping tribute … La Leyenda (2002) is a paean to dancer Carmen Amaya
“This is an ensemble specialising in passion … Much of it may well seem preposterous in the light of day – but the company’s beauty, skill and intensity are not to be denied, and there are worse fates than not respecting yourself in the morning.” – Lewis Segal, LA Times, 1996
“Do they succeed in being national without being nationalist? Discuss.”
“It’s not ballet.” Or “it’s not flamenco”.
Eva Yerbabuena made her early works for the Ballet Nacional. Like Yerbabuena, Angel Rojas and Carlos Rodríguez of Nuevo Ballet Español are also experimenting with making theatre works from a flamenco root. The company’s most famous alumnus is Joaquín Cortés.
Now watch this
Ritmos (Alberto Lorca, 1984), performed at the company’s 30th anniversary celebrations
Rehearsal of Aires de Villa y Corte (José Antonio, 1994), with a strong influence of the escuela bolera
La Leyenda (José Antonio, 2002), a homage to flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya
El Loco (Javier Latorre, 2004)
Where to see them next
See the Ballet Nacional de España website (in Spanish) for performance dates.