“My generation broke with tradition so that dance would cease to be so elitist”

Àngels Margarit

Àngels Margarit (Terrassa, 1960) is an internationally renowned dancer, choreographer and instructor who has lent her artistic experience to the direction of the Tensdansa festival in Terrassa (2003), the project for El Graner (2008), the Institut del Teatre’s Dance Conservatory in the 2006-2007 academic year, and the Mercat de les Flors from 2016 to the present day. She belongs to the first generation of contemporary dancers that emerged in the late 1970s from the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona and, since 1985, she has directed one of the most well-established dance companies in Spain, Mudances. In 1993, she received the City of Barcelona Prize for the Performing Arts and, in 2010, the National Dance Prize awarded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture. In this interview, she advocates the need to have “well-paid structures, to plough more money into culture and to believe in what is done”.

Àngels Margarit tells us that she couldn’t sit still as a child, and that she learned maths as soon as she was allowed to move. It is fair to say that her energy is boundless, and she has been involved on all fronts in the dance world. Now, in her extended mandate as director of the Mercat de les Flors, which may be prolonged until 2025, she is kicking off a season where, finally and after an exceedingly hard pandemic for the dance profession, she is unleashing the full potential of her undertaking: with established and yet-to-be-discovered international artists, constellations, editions, residencies, educational activities and the building’s renovation. We talked about it in the theatre’s foyer on a morning when all seemed quiet.

You’ve just begun the 2022-23 season at the Mercat de les Flors, the fifth you’ve directed. What was the driving force that led you to take up this position?

It was helplessness. Feeling I could no longer invent anything else from where I was and that the only way to restore dignity to the profession and to myself was to move towards the place where things could be done. If it were easier to create in this country, I would never have directed a theatre.

The decision meant giving up creating, something I couldn’t even have fathomed before, but after a 40-year career as a dancer and 34 years directing my own company, I was more prepared to do so, plus I had the experience of having directed Tensdansa.

How did the idea for this festival come about?

I was looking for a place where I could create and I couldn’t find anywhere in Barcelona. One day, Ferran Mascarell said to me: “Hey, but aren’t you from Terrassa? There are loads of empty factories there!”, and so I submitted a proposal to the City Council. Nevertheless, in the absence of an event related to contemporary dance or creation, they asked me to help them get it up and running, and I threw myself into it, in the midst of a widespread climate of disillusionment and crisis.

I remember that, when I came back from touring with El somriure, a huge co-production of many European festivals with 18 people on the road for a month, the Teatre Lliure de Montjuïc had just opened here, a beautiful public venue, but it only had one rehearsal room, which was small and had a low ceiling. Obviously, it wasn’t designed to be used for dance, and I said to myself that either I was going to move elsewhere in Europe, or I would have to build a new venue here. It was 2001 and “L’animal a l’esquena” was starting up in Celrà. All this made me wonder whether all the companies should perhaps be done away with in Catalonia and, in their place, new structures for shared creation and production should be established. The project I presented in Terrassa was along these lines, with a company that contributed its experience to develop a centre for creation, production and dissemination, including a festival. The thing is that they wanted to start with the festival, and the plan for the centre was pushed aside.

Was the artistic project for El Graner based on a concept similar to what you envisaged for Terrassa?

It was an adaptation, a centre for creation with an acting resident choreographer, similar to the national choreographic centres that exist in France. However, the management model for municipal creation factories does not allow for the direction of an artist.

After all these years, would you design a different project for the Mercat?

When a country has so many existing structures, you can say: “This one is going this direction, and that one is going another”, but we have so few here that, rather than taking one direction or aesthetic, we have to embrace diversity, and that’s what we’ve done. Despite the political and social upheavals that could not have been anticipated, some exceptional things have happened that allowed the project to be endorsed. However, to consolidate it, the staff structure should be increased – thirty people do not suffice – and we should stop outsourcing so many things. I would also like to plan the last two years of my mandate with a clear economic outlook. The hardest thing is working without knowing what resources you will have.

And the cost of a piece has an impact on its reception.

As a creator, you also feel very different if the theatre provides space and time. Cesc Casadesús put the Mercat on the world map and in the network of dance centres, giving it a name and an audience. In the wake of the crisis of 2010-2011, when it became unsustainable to maintain a company structure, it had to be affirmed that this was also the home of artists and dancers.

Where are you right now in terms of creation, territory and educational work?

So far we have put a great deal of work into creation and production. The next step is promotion because many of our artists still only tour abroad, and that’s like having feet of clay! Covering a broad aesthetic spectrum, the constellations around the artists, where their whole imaginary and their relationships unfold, has worked out really well, as we did with Montedutor, Big Bouncers and Olga Mesa, and as we will be doing this season with Olga de Soto. This also applies to the programmes and festivals we host, including Hacer Historia(s) and Sâlmon, which are on the fringes of live arts, or Africa Moment, with a very different vision.

And in the education department we are still working on lots of projects whose success we sometimes can’t handle. In a nutshell, I would say that this is a centre where people love what they do and sometimes we should stop because we can’t take on so much.

From the very beginning, you have put a great deal of emphasis on educational programmes.

I’d like there to be increasingly less distinction between working on a creative or on an educational project. Despite having different goals, rigour and creative ambition should be on a par. This year we are cooperating with A Bao A Qu’s project “Cinema en curs”, which is being carried out at the Institut Doctor Puigvert. They have chosen the Mercat as a place of study to make a documentary, and the 35 students made their debut by attending a rehearsal of Jesús Rubio Gamo’s Gran Bolero. More educational and audience work was done that day than in three years of all the programmes put together.

How do you picture the future Mercat de les Flors?

First of all, I picture it renovated, because it’s a building dating from 1929 that was built to last nine months, and in 2029 it will be one hundred years old! It urgently needs work on its façades and roofs. We are now restoring the space behind the bar and later on we will execute further studies and a space for a library. The other thing is the project: a new plan to promote dance is currently underway, and the role adopted by the Mercat will depend on what happens in the rest of the dance scene.

You have also been director of the Institut del Teatre’s Dance Conservatory. Are the difficulties similar across all public institutions?

Public management is difficult, and I think it’s even more complicated at Barcelona Provincial Council. The Institut del Teatre is a complex institution in many respects, which is difficult to run because there are too many people working for it. This is one of the conclusions I came to after a year of directing the Dance Conservatory with Andrés Corchero, Lipi Hernández, Carles Salas and Maria Pujol. We were called in to change things, but, once on the inside, nothing could be done, and the people who had brought us in to effect these changes were up against the same limitations. We worked hard to draw up a new syllabus, and we found it incredibly interesting to meet with conservatories from all over Spain and see that the momentum we were building was turning the spotlight on structures that might have seemed more traditional, but which were able to capitalise on that. Such was the case of María de Ávila in Madrid, where Núria Font went to teach and initiated research into video dance that never materialised here. We fell by the wayside.

I imagine that, having studied there, you felt emotionally motivated.

I joined the Institut del Teatre in 1973, at the age of thirteen. It was the end of the dictatorship, people believed in the community, in self-management through assemblies and so forth. There was remarkable nurturing, they were very rich years of learning from one’s teachers and peers... It wasn’t an institution, it was my home.

Portrait of Àngels Margarit © Jordi Play

Which teachers do you remember most?

In the early years, the subjects that most interested me were actually those unrelated to dance, because, suddenly, you had Carlota Soldevila giving theatre classes and Maria Jesús Llorente, who made you improvise with Pink Floyd. I must also say that many things that went on in those classrooms would be inadmissible today; that society bore no resemblance to that of today, but there was something very genuine about all those people. Like the Lainezs, who set up the first contemporary dance group in Spain, Annexa, and, obviously, Gilberto Ruiz Lang, a key figure for my generation. At the first class he turned up with pictures by Tàpies and texts by Valéry… there was no subject that taught us what he taught us: a bit of theory, the history of dance, composition exercises… He would encourage us to go visit such and such an exhibition, and he might go with you on a Sunday. He was a teacher in the sense that he opened up an entire universe for you and made you think from somewhere else, he empowered you. I owe him a tribute, we owe it to him.

What defines your generation?

It is a generation that was a catalyst in Barcelona that coincided with the post-Franco cultural awakening, but every country has a similar generation. It is the generation that broke with tradition so that dance would cease to be so elitist, with groups that advocated a new language – and challenged the models of the ballets – and people who had trained elsewhere. We are all alike in this respect. But while, after winning the Bagnolet Choreographic Competition, Jean-Claude Gallotta had his own creation centre, we (who also won it) took 35 years for there to be one for everyone. That is why the legacy has been much smaller than it could have been had the Generalitat Government of Catalonia’s cultural policy not focused solely on language and instead had supported the creative potential and the opportunity to have Europe, which was watching us; it was squandered, and this was to the detriment of the country’s creation and culture.

What do you consider to be your legacy?

When I was young I was impressed by The Living Theatre when they performed at La Paloma, the Bread and Puppet Theatre company, and other stuff related to music and architecture, because I didn’t see dance, there was none. Until I went to New York in 1983 and stumbled upon minimalist dance, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; music and architecture had been the bridge to get there. By the same token, people who have worked with me have had formal backgrounds far removed from mine, sometimes you learn from someone or something without formally reflecting on it. What I do believe I have passed on is a way of doing things related to the respect for work and commitment. I have Asun Noales and Roser López in mind, as well as technicians, such as Marc Ases and Pere Milan, and the people who worked on production for Mudances, such as Teresa Carranza, Montserrat Llabrés, Mariona Castells and David Márquez Martín de la Leona.

I think it shows a mindset of integrity.

Yes, not one of integrity, but rather a mindset based on the value you place on what you do. At first we started working without getting paid, because we wanted to and we chose each other. Then, when there was more money, nobody wanted to work if they didn’t know how much they would be paid. And now I think we are seeing once again that, no matter how much money we get paid, we just want to work with the people we want to work with. For me, commitment means having well-paid structures because everyone needs to earn a living, but it’s also what you do and who you do it with because you believe in it.

Not wanting to plough more money into culture means not understanding how our sector works, that people don’t want to strike it rich, but to believe in what they do and share it with others. The dancer works without a script, they don’t know what role they’re going to play, they don’t know a thing, that’s why the rapport of trust with the choreographer and with the other bodies is so strong. Now that I have a daughter who dances, I sometimes wonder how she will put herself in other people’ hands…

Both your daughters are artists! Did you ever expect that?

Not especially. Rita, engaged in set design, dramaturgy and video; Arlette, in singing and dance… they are pursuits that empower you, as long as you have the stamina to put up with their erratic nature and are able to balance what you do, who you are and how you feel, because that is the material you use in your work.

Has it been easy to reconcile your artistic life and the raising of two daughters?

There have been difficult times, but they also have a father, my husband, and this is very important, although it isn’t always easy; we simply worked out whatever came up. I had the example of my mother, who was born during the war and couldn’t devote herself entirely to an artistic life, but she is more of an artist than me. She had three jobs: work, family and creativity; she revived Talamanca’s local festival, she had a vegetable garden where countless people seemed to work, and she wrote poems and stories.

When they were little, my daughters played at selling tickets, making sets, casting… It was what they saw at home. But I didn’t push them, I didn’t even make it easy for them to go down this road, because, if you have to do something, the more you fight, the more drive you’ll have to get there.

And where is Àngels the artist now?

She’s more relaxed now because she has promised herself that, when she finishes here, she’ll be able to come back. But when I first joined the Mercat, I had all the Àngels talking to me incessantly and saying: “What are you doing, who are you turning into? Until, suddenly, one day I heard them say: “Goodbye, farewell, ciao”. The experience of being a creator, together with the drive and the enthusiasm, had to go elsewhere.

Well, I’ve pictured her, more than once, in the MAC hall or the Pina Bausch room when they’re empty because everyone has left, breaking into dance…

I’ve only done so now and then… Occasionally I go round the circle and say: “Wow, I’ve still got speed”, but not much more. In the first two years, meetings were a pain because I wasn’t used to sitting for so long and my body interpreted this amount of activity as a cue to fall asleep, and moving my legs was the only way to keep me awake! Besides, I have the body of an older lady who has been struggling to get out for years, and sitting here the dancing body is leaving and the older lady is moving in.

It’s a calmer body, but do you think it might dance too?

Yes, one day we’ll see how the older lady dances…

The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments