We recently spoke to DeNada Dance Theatre artistic director Carlos Pons Guerra, about himself as an artist, his inspirations and his ways of working:
1) Why do you do what you do?
Although it sounds a bit metaphysical, I really believe that when you choreograph or dance, you do it out of an instinct, a necessity to move, express and share. In my particular case, I found many obstacles in my journey to dance- mainly, due to cultural factors, my family in Spain did not think it was right for a boy to dance, much less ballet! So the fact that it was forbidden for me, in a way was a gift- the gift of need, of having to do it and find freedom through it.
A lot of my work is narrative, and I enjoy narrative the most. I think a big part of the reason to choreograph is that I really want to communicate, to express, to tell stories and help people think and reflect about the world around them. This for me is the most important aspect of my work.
2) How do you work?
I would say this varies a lot depending on the choreography I’m making. I wouldn’t say I have a specific practice or single process. For me, every choreography is a new, distinct world, so the creation of it varies, and I design the process that I think will get the dancers and myself to that world, so we always take different paths.
When I choreograph narrative works, like Ham and Passion, what tends to happen is that months before, I get an idea of an image, a basic storyline, and often a character. I live with these characters in my head for quite a while- I investigate them, and ask what their story is, what is their conflict, what is the relationship they have to other characters. I wonder what their story can say about the world we live in now. I then start thinking of how they move, how I can abstract that, and finding references, artistic and from everyday life, that can help me construct them- I read a lot of literature, I love contextual research, and am very inspired by film and visual arts. At the same time, I gather music, a lot of random things, that could kind of create the soundtrack of their lives. This happens slowly and for months before getting in to the studio- I spend a lot of time travelling, so actually, most of this happens on trains! Whenever I’m not feeling inspired, I may just jump on a train somewhere and that tends to help.
Once in the studio, I teach movement material that for me are anchor points or sketches of what the vocabulary of that production will be. I then work with the dancers to develop that movement. We sometimes work with dramatic improvisations, to create narrative situations and find new avenues for the characters. I bring a lot of material into the process, but actually there’s nothing quite like letting the work grow with the dancers.
3) What’s your background?
I began training in ballet at the Choreographic Centre of Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, Spain, and then continued my training at the Royal Conservatoire for Dance of Madrid and at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. During my training, I was very interested in choreography, from the first moment.
4) What’s integral to the work of an artist?
For me, art is a social tool, it should be subversive and reflective, and we can’t forget it is also a form of entertainment. I believe an artist should always have something to say, should always comment, and, my favourite aspect of being an artist- we should subvert and question and challenge. I also really believe in entertaining an audience, in seducing them and taking them with you on your journey, in allowing them to laugh, cry and think; for me, art is a dialogue between the artist and his or her audience. Therefore for me it’s integral for an artist to speak clearly, so we can have that conversation, that encounter, and hopefully, if it all works, we could have an exciting affair together.
5) What role does the artist have in society?
I think artists are one of the pillars of society. As artists, and especially performing artists, we have the responsibility to comment and question what we live through; we keep our past alive, can change the present, and hopefully construct a better future. There is something magical about performance, how we can create new worlds onstage. Particularly with narrative work- we can remove the audience from their lives, take them somewhere else, and this escapism is necessary for people, and one of the reasons why the arts have existed from the beginning of time. As artists, we have the responsibility to stand for our ideals and perceptions, and this is particularly relevant today, as sadly we are living through some very scary times. More than ever, I think we cannot afford to not be political and subversive with our art.
6) What has been a seminal experience?
For me, my epiphanies have come mostly through working with some of the mentors I’ve been very fortunate to learn from. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Javier de Frutos, Mark Baldwin, David Nixon- I really value the time I have had with them and the generosity they have had with me, and I would say that I have had several eureka moments with each.
7) How has your practice change over time?
This is a hard one to answer! I suppose one of the main things for me is the gaining of life experience, outside of the studio- in life you live through different things, you meet new people, you travel, make new relationships, end others- a lot of my work comes, in some way, from personal experience and perception, as my experiences change, so does my work. I am also very fortunate to be able to work with some excellent dancers, collaborators and mentors, all of whom bring their artistic baggage into the studio, and I feed from all of that.
8) What work do you most enjoying doing?
What I enjoy the most is narrative work- work where I can create characters, delve into them and their situations. Narrative work is tricky- it requires a lot of thought, and things need a coherence that abstract work perhaps doesn’t. I don’t use text, so trying to explain certain things without words can be very difficult! But I really love that challenge, of finding ways for the body to speak without needing words, to get to the raw essence of a plot, of a conflict. That challenge is always exciting.
9) What themes do you pursue?
A lot of my work deals with themes of gender, sexual and cultural identity. I am interested in exploring the conflict between repression and freedom; in deleting the limits of what we traditionally think is male, female, heterosexual or homosexual. I am also very interested in history, and how we can draw parallelisms (which at times are very scary!) between the past and our current situation. People like to say that I create work that is queer-themed, and although I don’t see anything wrong with that, I think that ultimately I try to make work about people and their relationships to each other. I don’t think that to make work about universal ideas- such as love, power, sex- we have to stick to heterosexual archetypes. My reality is not heterosexual, so I create work that often features same-sex or transgender relationships because they exist, and we can learn as much about ourselves from them as if we watch ‘heterosexual’ work.
10) Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
A lot of my work comes from real-life situations- I guess I am very observant and consciously or not, they enter my work all the time! In Ham and Passion, for instance, there is a character who ties up her husband so she can feed him. Any Spaniard can tell you that’s the archetype of a Spanish mum, like mine, who are obsessed with stuffing us! There is also a drag queen character who has many gestures I took from ladies in Spain, watching them talking in a café, and also, the character comes from one summer when I kind of stalked a couple of drag queens back home in Gran Canaria! A lot of the symbolism involving our real leg of ham comes from my experience of machismo in Spain growing up. I use all these images and experiences and weave them into my work- they do get exaggerated and perhaps taken into slightly absurd situations- but it’s all things that I have lived through in some sense.
11) What memorable responses have you had to your work?
One of the most memorable was when we performed one of my works from Ham and Passion in Madrid. A young teenage boy came to me after the show and thanked me, from the heart, for bringing a work about gay men to Spain- he said he’d never seen dance work he could identify with in that way. I was very touched by that and still find it very encouraging.
12) What food, drink, song inspires you?
Apparently, Spanish food and cured meats are a great source of inspiration for me- you’ll see in Ham and Passion! I won’t lie and say that a glass of Rioja or two also really help to get the creative juices going! In terms of music, I have a slight addiction to Mexican rancheras sung by women- my favourite is the great Chavela Vargas. Their songs are always full of melodrama, anger, deceit and they’re always drunk on tequila, and it is that amplified emotion that I love, that raw way of talking about love and pain and the things that make us human.
13) Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
Jean Genet, Pedro Almodovar and Mats Ek.
14) Favourite or most inspirational performance?
I’ve only cried once watching a ballet- and it was with Natalia Osipova dancing Giselle, after her mad scene - so I guess that’s it!
15) What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as an artist?
One of my mentors and good friend, Javier de Frutos, said to me early on, when I started choreographing: “Carlos, whatever your do, you will always be a gay Catholic boy from Gran Canaria. So go with that.” And he’s right- the most important thing is to always be yourself, and to look inside yourself, your experience, your culture, what you like and love, to find that inspiration.