Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle López-Ochoa has found fertile ground for her creations in Cuba. She has been coming to the island for three years straight and has produced works for Contemporary Dance of Cuba (DCC) and the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC).
She made her first working visit to the island in 2014 bringing Celeste, with music by Tchaikovsky for the BNC, premiered during the 24th International Ballet Festival. That same year she created Reversible for DCC, directed by maestro Miguel Iglesias.
Now she returns, sponsored by the charity The British Friends of Ballet Nacional De Cuba, who first funded Celeste and are doing so once again with her new piece.
In regards to López-Ochoa’s background, she completed her studies at the Royal Ballet School inAntwerp, Belgium, and in 2003, after a successful career with various European companies, decided to pursue choreography.
Since then she has traveled to countries across the world to create works for important companies including the Dutch National Ballet; The Royal Ballet of Flanders; Modern Dance Theater Ankara; Luna Negra Dance Theater; Marseille National Ballet; Le Jeune Ballet du Québec; Scottish Ballet; The Washington Ballet; Chilean National Ballet; IncolBallet from Colombia; Madrid Dance Center; Dominican National Ballet; Joffrey Ballet; and the English National Ballet.
For example, last year, during activities to celebrate the Joffrey Ballet’s 60th anniversary, she presented Mammatus which she describes as a “surrealist” creation; while one of her most successful choreographies has been the complete version of A Streetcar Named Desire, developed alongside theater director Nancy Meckler for the Scottish Ballet.
The daughter of a Colombian father and Belgian mother, López-Ochoa received a strong Hispanic influence and rich Latin American history. Her cultural background has inspired several of her works such as Broken Wings, based on the life of Frida Kahlo, premiered in Sadler’s Wells by the English National Ballet and starring lead dancer Tamara Rojo; or Memorias del Dorado, a pre-Colombian piece created for the Grand Rapids Ballet.
The successful choreographer spoke exclusively with Granma International, shortly before a rehearsal featuring two of the protagonists of her new work at the BNC’s headquarters in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood,
You had a professional career as a dancer, what made you decide to focus on choreography?
I was trained as a classical ballet dancer but I only danced contemporary. I’ve never worn a tutu in my life. I started choreographing at 11 years of age, and although I can speak four languages, I feel freer with movement than with words. I think that dance is my way of expressing myself to the world.
Is that why you draw on your personal experiences?
Yes, I like to narrate, to tell stories. I create abstract pieces but there’s always a theme, some theatrical element, I’m not a choreographer that makes movements for movement’s sake. I always look for a way to say something to the audience. The piece I am currently working on is a first for me, working with tutus; it’s a personal experiment.
How has your work changed over recent years?
It has changed a lot; I created my first works at age 23. Yes, I’ve changed a great deal, my expressive language has become enriched. The thing that has changed the most is that I can create works much quicker now than before, I’m less afraid, less doubtful; I never think about the result, but rather the process, I look to create a certain atmosphere, for the dancers to follow my lead. Speed is something I have developed after creating so many works. Now I can explore other modes of self expression.
How do you start creating a piece?
Sometimes I start with a theme or country. For example, I wanted something different for the piece for Danza Contemporánea. I had already created a work for the BNC and I was interested in what I saw on the streets, the people, the machismo, and the ways in which this is expressed in other countries; I created something similar with Reversible. Sometimes its music, I had Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for a long time and I used it for Celeste. At other times it starts with an observation, for example, women’s behavior. It’s always something different.
You just mentioned that your new piece with the BNC features tutus…
That’s right. Here, the starting point is my dream of doing something with the tutu, an experiment to see if it has the freedom to say something. It’s very difficult, because there already exists a fixed idea around the tutu, hard to change, its something very rigid. Visually I love the geometric shape of the tutu, which is what I am creating now for the company, what does the tutu mean to me? This is the starting point, but the piece has a theme called Oscurio, a more enigmatic title, an anagram of dark (oscuro) and curious (curioso). I wanted to do something with black and white, in reference to the famous image of the white and black swan, and yin-yang symbol. People are divided into two parts and I want to play with shadows and silhouettes. Shadows behind a white curtain. We are afraid of confronting our darker side, but we are made of two parts. It all depends on which moment you are in, a positive or negative one. It’s a dialogue within ourselves. I feel like its circular, yin-yang and tutus are circular, for me it all came together.
What about the music?
First I thought the tutu is very traditional, so I wanted something non-traditional, a strong counterbalance to the romanticism of the tutu. I have music by Ramy, who is very contemporary and Weather 2 by Michael Gordon; I used part one with the Joffrey Ballet. It’s a very powerful violin piece.
So the music is contemporary, but what about the movements?
For me they are very classic, but now I see that the dancers are having some trouble picking them up quickly because for them they are really new, there’s a part that’s subversive, non-classical. Given the fact that I never danced classical ballet I don’t know the difference. I know the steps, but not the order in which they go. I think I’m subverting the order, its classical but at the same, not. The structure isn’t very classical.
How many and which dancers are you working with?
It’s a two-part piece with a four minute duo and then the ensemble for 15 minutes. Lead dancer Viengsay Valdés and Ariel Martínez (soloist) make up the main pair, as well as four other male dancers and ten female.
Do the protagonists influence your work? For example Tamara Rojo danced Broken Wings, andViengsay, Celeste…
Yes, the person before you always influences you, their turns, leg raises.
What does dance mean to you?
It’s many things. Sometimes I use art and dance to talk about things that touch me, that affect me and at others, to make beauty, to share an extraordinary moment. Dance is a career which demands focus, dedication, hard work, a lot of pain and sacrifice, for a moment of fantasy, of dreams. Dance is my way of life.
Oscurio, world renowned choreographer Annabelle López-Ochoa’s new piece for the BNC, will premier this coming October during the 25th Alicia Alonso International Ballet Festival.
INNOVATING ENRICHES ME AS A DANCER
Lead dancer Viengsay Valdés, considered to be one of the world’s most talented, is the protagonist of Oscurio, a new work by Annabelle López-Ochoa for the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC), directed by the sublime Alicia Alonso.
At the company’s headquarters, Viengsay had just finished rehearsing Dan-Son (choreography by Gustavo Herrera danced on multiple occasions by former lead dancer Josefina Méndez, one of the four famous gems of the BNC’s who passed away in 2013) and is now preparing to work with Annabelle. She took a moment to respond to a quick question from this reporter:
You have already done Celeste and now Oscurio, what interests you about working with Annabelle?
It’s very important to me, above all at this point in my career, to be able to innovate, try different types of movements and choreographies. This enriches me as a dancer, as an artist, it completes me, and even allows me to gauge my physical and theatrical abilities and take them to the next level. Annabelle has given me this opportunity; I have worked well with her. She is an incredible choreographer in the sense that she experiments with the dancer, according to how the movement feels, within her own style. It’s very important for us, the National Ballet of Cuba, a company which dances the great classics, to suddenly see ourselves with this type of choreography. This encounter is essential to us classical dancers. Annabelle is very versatile; she exploits the music, all the off-center steps, different arm positions, the nuances, slow and fast parts, attacks. She’s a very interesting choreographer and I have learned a lot with her, and I will continue to make the most of the opportunity. This piece is with a tutu, which shows the legs, the positions; although it seems academic the arms are completely different to what a classical dancer does, with only a few rounded or aesthetic positions, she breaks away from this. The piece has a big mix, but it’s interesting.