“Dancing is inhabiting the body with emotion and the mind”

Cesc Gelabert

Retrat de Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada

At 68, Cesc Gelabert still dances and boasts the same impeccable figure he had when he began to move on the Barcelona scene in the 1970s. He would have liked to be the shaman of the tribe’s dreams, but since the era in which he lived does not suit this idea, he has devoted himself to daydreaming, in other words, to art. We met at the Mercat de les Flors [municipal theatre] and threshed out the book El que m’agradaria que la dansa fos [What I Would Like Dance to Be], in which he reflects on his experience. We talk about dance and body awareness as a tool for everyday life and what turns into art. We revisit his period as an emerging artist in the vibrant Barcelona of the transition to democracy, his years in New York in the late 1970s and his time in Berlin. And finally we explore how we get around Barcelona and how we could dance better in the city.

Cesc Gelabert Usle (Barcelona, 1953) hung up his football boots to focus on dance. For a few years he combined architecture studies at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya with his training at the Anna Maleras dance school and under various instructors. Following two years of training in New York, Gelabert began to choreograph for various groups in the 1980s. In 1985, he founded the Gelabert-Azzopardi company alongside Lydia Azzopardi. They premiered shows such as Desfigurat [Disfigured] (1985) and gained tremendous prestige in Catalonia and on the international scene. Noteworthy works from this period include Rèquiem (1987) and Belmonte (1988), in which they collaborated with Carles Santos and Frederic Amat. The Gelabert-Azzopardi ensemble has toured extensively throughout Europe, Central and South America for decades, and it has been the resident company of the Teatre Lliure and the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. He has also created choreographies for other companies and artists, such as In a Landscape (2003) for Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the great dance stars of the 20th century. In addition to his work as a dancer and choreographer, throughout his career, Cesc Gelabert has taught courses and workshops for dancers and people not initiated in dance. He has published the book El que m’agradaria que la dansa fos (Comanegra, 2020), which encapsulates the experience of his longstanding artistic career.

You recently published the book El que m’agradaria que la dansa fos. Were you commissioned or was it your own initiative?

For years I have been thinking about translating the knowledge that I have acquired over my life. At first, I contemplated doing so digitally and interactively, but I couldn’t secure the funding. Speaking first with Jordi Fàbrega – who unfortunately passed away three years ago – and later with Carles Batlle, I began working on it. When it was well under way, it coincided with the beginning of the collection “Paragraphia” on dance and choreographers by the Mercat de les Flors, the Institut del Teatre and the Comanegra publishing house. This marked the incentive to bring it to fruition. So I asked Joaquim Noguero (journalist and dance critic) to help me with the editing. He has been instrumental in finding a language that is understood.

What did you wish to convey in this book?

I understand my work to be a service and, therefore, I wish to share everything I’ve learned. I explain the essence of my experience here. In fact, I have transcribed into book form what I have explained in a thousand conferences, in a thousand lectures and essays. For me, it is not a book, but the book. It seeks to be a synopsis that encompasses the entire essence of cultural transmission linked to inhabited movement. It comes from dance in life, in all possible guises, even in its most specific function as art. It also endeavours to include all roles within the world of dance.

I recognise many statements I’ve heard you say in interviews or essays. I perfectly remember one that goes “dance is to inhabit the body with emotion and the mind” or “a shared dream in a state of wakefulness”. This makes me think that you’ve always been a very easy interviewee to quote. Do you think a lot about what and how you will express something in public?

In my career here in Catalonia, in Spain, since Franco’s time, I have spent my life explaining myself. I have had to explain myself a lot and that’s why I have tried to summarise and find the most appropriate language with simple words. I don’t like using a very intellectual language, I always try to condense my ideas, because the media do not have the time or the space.

What’s more, in our country, dance as an art is very unknown...

The composer Delfí Colomé said that dance is one of the few arts about which anyone deemed cultured can say that they know nothing without hang-ups. I mean, you have to know who Picasso is, but you don’t need to know who Merce Cunningham is. And this ignorance has implications for health. We do not inhabit the body properly.

Apart from the limited interest in the body, perhaps it is unknown because it is ephemeral?

In fact, Lydia Azzopardi and I have been to the Museu de les Arts Escèniques (MAE) [centre for information and research on the performing arts in Catalonia] because we are going to deposit all our collections there. We are in the midst of classifying them. The MAE does not have enough space to exhibit its collections; so we rarely get to see dance exhibitions. For me dance is experiential, it cannot be bought or sold. Authentic dance is an experience, and that doesn’t make money. Even so, I believe that the culture of movement has to be conveyed and art endures in museums.

The book begins with a very basic explanation of what movement is and how it transforms. You don’t have to be initiated in dance to understand it. Can it be read by people not dedicated to dance?

I find it interesting that people use it as a reference book. You do not have to read it in its entirety, but you can read whatever chapter you wish and you’ll understand it. People don’t have time. I’d like it to be useful for schools too. The first part is an analysis of movement, that is, I look at how we inhabit movement, every instant of our movement, the quality that we perceive and how others perceive it. For example, if we look at our bones, we have two hundred and seven of them. You can be walking and be aware of ten or you can feel them all. It’s like a much more accurate X-ray. In this first part, I analyse the body within the soul, that is, I focus on the role of dance in life. In contrast, in the second part, I delve into how to make dance an art. One thing is movement and the other is how to use it. The pedagogical aspect, which interests me a great deal, is present in both parts.

What impact does movement have on our lives? Are the benefits of dance well known?

Now people understand that we are what we eat, but we are also the result of the movements we have made in life. If you are always rigid, how do you imagine you will be when you are older, if you now live without any body awareness? You will never reap the benefits that the body can offer you. In fact, we are condemned to inhabit the body with emotion and the mind. There is no time in life that this doesn’t happen. Dance doesn’t give meaning to life. Your beliefs, whether you are a layperson, an agnostic or a believer are what afford meaning to life, but inhabited movement is astute and is a tool that can help many things in life. The body doesn’t lie. Therefore, it is a question of taking advantage of it and not falling into the extreme of the mind or the extreme of the body.

Should we grow and mature while nurturing the mind and body to find balance?

By the time they finish secondary school, have young people learned to concentrate? Do they know what desire is? Do they have knowledge of emotions? We know very little about the body, but we also know nothing about emotions and even less, much less, about the mind. We learn many things that we do with the mind, but we don’t learn what the mind is or how to use it. The forms of knowledge that bring together the body, emotions and the mind are very beneficial to me. I refer to dance, because I have had this cultural experience. But it can also be connected to many other techniques or activities such as yoga, Tai chi, walking, music and the arts of love. If you aren’t able to deal with your desires, how can you operate in life? If you can’t focus, how will you get ahead? It’s a pity that we don’t use this dimension. I’d like the forms of culture, which have this characteristic of inhabiting the body with emotion and the mind, to be at the very core of education and life.

Obsessed over acquiring theoretical knowledge we abandon our bodies. Do you think that a less sedentary mindset would help us?

I’d like us to get away from desks from time to time. How can we sit all day long? It’s impossible! You’ll never learn languages if your emotions are not involved. I think it would help a lot if we learned maths through dance. I have been doing tests, but I haven’t had the capacity to really influence society. I have collaborated with Amador Vega in a course on Ramon Llull, at Pompeu Fabra University. How can you study Ramon Llull with just your head? It’s just a part of your mind.

Retrat de Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada Portrait of Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada

In the second part of the book you analyse dance as art.

Art has to be for those who create it, but also for those on the receiving end. It’s as if you don’t understand what I’m saying now. We can only have a proper conversation if you understand what I’m saying. I always say that art is a shared dream in a state of wakefulness. Art gives us the opportunity to dream what our heart desires, but wide awake. If the art ritual is performed well, it is an act of re-initiation. If art is connected to society, it can execute collective work. I’m talking about dance families, because dance as a cultural form is all of us, not just the dancers; from you, the person interviewing me, to him [points to the photographer], who is photographing me, politicians, the media, the public... It’s an entire network. And if the machinery doesn’t work, the connections are lost.

Is there any way this machinery can work better?

I strive for informed diversity. My career has entailed tremendous effort to be informed of what’s happening in the world. I have been fortunate to work in countries like Japan, Germany and Bolivia, and cities like New York, and I have been able to access first-hand information, but, at the same time, I have always returned to where I began in the world. I try to uphold and enhance the diversity that this place can offer. Barcelona is not the centre of the world. We are a relatively large medium-sized city, but we are not the centre of the world; even so, we have our idiosyncrasies. I try to create culture here and I believe that culture is something we can share.

Now, you run the risk of ultimately making art for your WhatsApp group. We often forget that the important thing is the culture, not me, the artist. Culture is hard to create and is very easy to destroy, and the culture of movement even more so, because it is ephemeral. But when we really create art for others, we make it possible for us to pulsate together. And that’s really great. A word is a choreography created by people and it will work as long as people dance it. If people stop dancing the choreography, it will die.

When you started dancing in Barcelona, modern dance was just being rediscovered in the country, so a great deal of information was missing. How did you discover dance and in what setting?

I started dancing in 1969, when I was in the final years of secondary school. My physical training was as a footballer; I discovered dance by chance in the studio of Anna Maleras and a world opened up for me. It is difficult to explain what happened in those circumstances. Having experienced that puts you in a very different position. At that time, we could say that Barcelona was a seedy place, especially the Rambles. But the city had a really special charm, because you were beginning to glimpse a future. There was great excitement. We had very little information and even less first-hand information, but we made pipe dreams out of everything.

And for a while you studied architecture too, isn’t that so?

Since I was a teenager I wanted to collaborate with the world via two aspects or realms. One is what I call “daydreaming” – which ranges from literature to music – and the other, what I would call “second nature” – architecture, sculpture, painting and urban planning. In fact, shortly after I started dancing I decided to study architecture. I threw all my strength and enthusiasm into this two-pronged path. But there was a time when I had to choose. As an architect, I didn’t want to design houses, I wanted to design gardens. At that time, dance was still in its early stages and I decided to go out on a limb. I’ve always had a metaphysical streak… As a dancer, I wanted to be a shaman of the tribe’s dreams, but that can’t happen or is very hard today. But it has always been my big dream.

In Barcelona you studied under different teachers, you travelled to cities like London to take courses and in 1978 you went to New York, where you lived for two years. What did you find and how did you feel?

Retrat de Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada Portrait of Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada

I only knew it from photographs. But in two years I got to know New York like the back of my hand; I lived in eleven places in Manhattan, in many cases in friends’ lofts in 400-square-metre industrial spaces with no kitchen or heating. I have never seen the big names in modern and contemporary dance like Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham live. Those who were alive I could finally see, and those who weren’t, well I went to the Lincoln Centre, where I would spend hours watching 35 mm films. It fascinated me, but there they were, in the third-generation postmodern shift, and they were talking about post-Cunningham. I mean everything was very rational and unemotional. For me it was very hard... I came from Barcelona, with everything that that entailed at that time. There I asked myself: what am I doing here? But there was a moment when, instead of adapting and doing what they did, I showed what I did. I started performing in venues like La Mama and The Kitchen. For me, living there was very important, meeting the artists and, above all, being there as another element. What I mean is that I landed in New York with my style. Of course, there I learned what production is and how to wise up.

When you returned from New York in the 1980s, the contemporary dance profession was beginning to take shape in Barcelona.

Having experienced the artistic explosion that occurred after Franco’s death is an experience that marks you for life. The late 1970s and 80s was a wonderful time. At the beginning, everything was very messy, but little by little grants began to become available. It was a time when we had scarce resources, but great enthusiasm. We shared the first linocuts, we also shared the first video camera between five companies. For me, this illustrates what was experienced at that time. The city was transforming and was in full swing, although dance was still in its early stages and had very few structures. A dance venue like the Mercat de les Flors was unthinkable back then.

In this vibrant setting, you began to work and live with Lydia Azzopardi, your wife and co-founder of the Gelabert-Azzopardi company.

Lydia is my eye, my city. I might have studied architecture and have dedicated myself to dance, but she is a real all-rounder: she sings, acts, dances, has designed costumes and has an eye for photography. Living with a person like her has allowed me to speak three languages at home: Catalan, Spanish and English. British but born in Istanbul, Lydia is of Armenian, Greek and Maltese descent. Living with her takes me out of my emotional localism, because I’m from Sarrià, I grew up playing around Collserola and I’m a huge Barça supporter – I’m one of those members who doesn’t eat dinner when the team loses. But I’m also a Buddhist; therefore, I like to live on all possible levels.

Another significant place for you is Berlin.

I visited the city for the first time in 1984. The first years I went it was still closed off, but brimming with cultural facilities. I have had the opportunity to get to know Berlin up close, even to experience it at critical moments, such as when the Wall fell. I have done very interesting projects there: we were a resident company at the Hebbel Theatre, I reinterpreted Gerhard Bohner solos and also created a choreography for the Bauhaus centenary based on a drawing by Oskar Schlemmer, which, for me, was a treat.

Throughout your career you have created many group shows, but you have also excelled as a soloist. Who is more important, Cesc the choreographer or Cesc the dancer?

Before a choreographer, I am a dancer, I believe that choreography begins with dancing. Dance begins with someone dancing. The first thing of all is the movement of the male or female dancer. No choreographic idea is worthwhile until a dancer brings it to life. And it isn’t art until you have someone see it.

Do you think you have defined a choreographic style or hallmark?

I do not define myself by one style, I try many, although that doesn’t sit well, because what people like most is for you to have a very clear hallmark, that is, that you can be identified by a style or a theme. I have tried to connect each project with a cultural phenomenon I am passionate about and that I have been able to delve into throughout the creation of the show.

Among the collage of faces shown by the Mercat de les Flors to “give a face” to this year’s campaign, yours appears amidst a much younger generation. How do you see the new bunch compared to yours?

Today’s dancers have highly trained bodies, but they come up against other issues, because they have access to lots of options and, what’s more, they have to do everything themselves. How can they manage to carve out a place for themselves? Each young person will go study here or there, and will act according to what they have learned, here or there. I would like people here to be able to dance all over the world, but also to be known here, and that is related to the informed diversity I was talking about before: you have to be informed, but maintain your own personality; we do not have to replicate another place or another country. I have been able to work on Gerhard Bohner’s choreographies and I have been able to do so in a personal manner. Besides that, I also believe that it is important to find a balance between the generations and not forget the past. I will never forget either Joan Magrinyà or Carmen Amaya, because, if I forget them or the country’s folklore, we’re on the wrong track.

Do the people of Barcelona have a sufficient range of dance activities available?

Barcelona has always had a big cultural budget and, specifically in the case of dance, it has done great things and lent it visibility, even at popular festivals such as La Mercè [the city of Barcelona’s annual festival] or the Cavalcade of the Three Wise Men. It’s completely unrelated, but I have played one of the Three Wise Men!

Which one?

Gaspar. I was thrilled. It’s the best show I have ever done. I’ve never had such a big or such a dedicated audience. It is a very good example of, without doing a thing, being culture. At the end of the parade, they took us to Sant Joan de Déu hospital to visit girls and boys; we brought them gifts and their faces beamed with joy... It was marvellous.

Retrat de Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada Portrait of Cesc Gelabert. © Álex Losada

And in the theatres?

I’ve always said that I would like dance to be present in more theatres, such as at the Liceu, where only three shows are scheduled a year. I always fought for dance to be present at the Teatre Lliure, but it is no longer featured in the programme, because they believe that, since there is the Mercat de les Flors, it isn’t necessary. For me this is a mistake. It’s true that I come from a Lliure theatre where, as a company, we were residents, and, therefore, the imaginary that I have of the Lliure is different. For me it was very important, because it attracted other audiences to dance.

And in the streets? Is Barcelona a city that facilitates people’s movement?

In order to move properly, we must first respect ourselves, we must find a balance between individual freedoms and coexistence with others, and this balance in a city as dense as Barcelona is very hard to find. Once, in Tokyo, I crossed the famous Shibuya Crossing with my eyes closed, and I didn’t bump into anyone. Try walking two metres with your eyes closed here! And more now, with people clinging to mobile phones. I want a city where people walk and move with ease, but that respects other people’s movement. Although a great deal of work has been carried out to respect people with reduced mobility, more work has to be done to strike this balance. In bona fide choreographies, when you dance with someone, it is the other person who is important, not you.

But Barcelona is a city that really invites walking...

Absolutely! And it facilitates beneficial, healthy and astute movement, although, every time you add a new element to getting around, such as scooters, you are adding a new choreographic element, and if you haven’t introduced this choreographic element properly, it can prove very disruptive. But what I ask of my city is to work to strike this balance, between continuing to fight for individual rights and coexistence. I am aware that organising all this is a complex task, because it has to be coordinated at many levels in the country, both State and European. A great deal of progress has been achieved in Barcelona and the enthusiasm of continuing to do so must not wane. I am sure that then we’ll see people moving and dancing better through the streets of Barcelona.

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