Dancing around the world with Isaac Montllor
Isaac Montllor, born in Alcoy (Valencia region), is a Principal Dancer and veteran artist at the CND. Following his training, which took place in Alcoy and Valencia, he joined CND2—a reserve squad of young dancers—directed by Nacho Duato and Tony Fabre. A year later, he joined the CND where his intense career took him on tours around the world. He has worked with such renowned choreographers as Jirí Kilyán, William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, Johan Inger, Alexander Ekman and Itzik Galili, among others. He joins us to talk about his career, his goals and, above all, his passion for dance.
You started out in 2000, in what was then the CND2, the junior version of the company, under the direction of Nacho Duato and Tony Fabre. Tell me, what were those years like? How was the atmosphere then?
We were a big family; 12 students from different schools, none of whom had danced professionally before. We all came with the same goal in mind, which was to learn, dance and have a really good time.
In the 2001-2002 season, you joined the CND; a very sharp turnaround. What was that process like for you? Did you notice a big difference?
Very big! The aim of CND2 was to create a kind of reserve squad to later feed the CND1 (the main CND). And while the way things worked was similar, it was always a small company. In the CND1, everything was magnified a lot; you worked with people who had matured, dancers from great companies, choreographers, assistants … I was the smallest of the lot; the youngest. I entered at 19 and nearly everybody was around ten years older. What was the best thing? … Working with great dancers, great choreographers and endless travelling. We were always moving around with a suitcase in tow. The tours were amazing. You were always toing and froing. One month you were in Asia, the next in USA and then the next in Australia. And, of course, having just joined at 19, you can imagine how intense an experience it was for me.
You lived through the CND’s most intense years, dancing choreographies by Nacho Duato, Jirí Kilyán, William Forsythe, Mats Ek and many others. What did it feel like to work with the world’s most renowned choreographers? What would you highlight about each one?
I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, coming from where I come from. I studied in the Alcoy Conservatory, I went on to a school in Valencia, where I stayed for a year and a half, and then, suddenly, I landed here in Madrid. I did not receive all the great training at places like the Institut del Teatre or the Madrid Conservatorio, but I was lucky enough to find the most marvellous teachers along the way. When I look back, it seems incredible that I have got to where I am and that I have worked with the crème de la crème, coming from where I come from. I really never thought my career would be like this. I couldn’t feel more grateful.
Each choreographer has their own personal touch. You learn so much from each one and they bring so much to you that it would be a little complicated to highlight any one thing. Nevertheless, they all have one thing in common: the atmosphere they create in the studio when you work with them directly.
Of all the teachers you have worked with, which of them would you do it over again with?
One of the people that most marked my career was Irena Milovan, a CND teacher for many years. She really looked after the young ones when they entered the Company; she prevented us getting lost along the way. She is one of the most dance-passionate people I’ve known in my life. I learned so much with her … But, sadly, she left us last year; I miss her so much.
Working with Jirí and Mats was such a special part of my career; they are pure magic, though I’d probably do it all again with almost all of the teachers. Even so, it’s true that whenever I was able to work with those two, it left me feeling like there was magic inside the studio. And that doesn’t happen every day. To spend six hours a day working with them and then for the clock to strike four in the afternoon and you’re like “no, no, please don’t let this end, give me more, give me more” … I mean, that feeling of not wanting to leave the studio doesn’t happen all that often. It happened to me with Mats, with Jirí and with Nacho. It is something so special.
Nacho Duato was your mentor for many years. Indeed, you have held workshops on his dance repertoire. What does he mean to you? What was the most important part of the teaching he transmitted to you?
He has been the most important person to me throughout my career, not least because he was the first to offer me an opportunity. I joined very young, when he was directing the Company. I trained in his style. I was 18 and, at that age, we are all like sponges. They practically shaped me in the image and likeness of the Duato style. Twenty years on, and I realise that it is something that I have in my body; that I can do it effortlessly, at the drop of a hat. I mean, I have 30 of his ballets under my belt. For me, he is the most influential person and choreographer in my career.
In 2008, you move to Montreal, in Canada, to dance Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. What made you take that decision? What did you enjoy most about your time there?
I learned to dance professionally here in the CND and I was suddenly hit by the need to step outside Spain and outside my comfort zone. In the CND, I had everything to hand and what I had was all wonderful. But I also had that urge to discover and experiment. I began doing auditions and one of the places to offer me a contract was Canada.
I didn’t need to think about it and just went. It was really an amazing experience; one I’d recommend to everybody, in fact. “Leave home, go abroad…”; it’s the only way to give yourself a shakeup, learn another language, see other cultures.
Contact with another culture is so important and super rewarding for everybody. Sure, it was freezing … I’m a Mediterranean boy (laughs). I remember it fondly because it shifted my personal and professional views. It also brought me realisation on many things. Sometimes you’re so involved in a situation that you can’t see beyond your nose because, in reality, you don’t know anything else. And the experience in Canada made me see everything from a different perspective. I realised how lucky I’d been to be in Madrid and to have had the opportunity of working with the people I work with. I had to return.
You have danced many pieces and different styles. Is there one you are particularly fond of?
From Nacho, I have some special ones; emblematic ones like White darkness, Multiplicidad… Formas de silencio y vacío… Arcangelo, one of the ones I most enjoyed… Or Txalaparta, one that we did seldomly but, for me, one of the most beautiful pieces he has created. It was very abstract, inspired by the instrument it is named after and the sound it produces. It was all movement and at breakneck speed. From Kilyán, there are many pieces that I thought were just amazing. But to do his Petite mort here …! The tears rolled down my face with emotion during the bow-taking after having experienced one of the most magical moments in all my years as a dancer. It was also an incredible experience doing his Wings of Wax and No More Play. From Forsythe, Quintett sticks with me; such a super special piece; exhausting, very intense. There were just five of us dancers on stage for thirty minutes, making it difficult to lean on the music too much. As a reference, there were two screens, one either side of the stage, displaying the choreographic details for us while we danced. Crazy, but it was an incredible experience.
And from other choreographers, I’d mention Nippon Koku by Marcos Morau, which involved a really lovely process. Morau works on the dancers’ improvisation based on his own code. We spent the first weeks working on the language of that code. He set the basic essentials and we built upon them. I thought it was a really nice way of doing it. I entered the studio, I put my headphones on and spent hours improvising and creating material alone. I chose when to stop and when not to; when to drink, to go to the bathroom …
And I’d also like to say at this stage that the whole process with Antonio Ruz in creating In Paradisum was one of the best of my entire career. I think he was right there behind the dancers, with real knowhow in directing the group and, above all, he was so respectful with everybody before him.
You are the company’s most veteran dancer. Do you notice much difference with the young dancers now entering at barely 20 years old? What is it like dancing with somebody from a different generation? What can you offer them?
Yes. The difference is in the baggage because they are three times better prepared than I was when I arrived here. But basically, I have real experience and they don’t. It basically takes time for the new dancers to master the tools they have acquired over the years. That learning curve is forged working with different teachers, choreographers and assistants. And it’s all a process. It takes a while to get off the ground, as you need to acquire certain skills in order to develop. But that is the only difference. The more they develop and acquire knowledge the better they dance. That is the normal dance process.
I do notice a generational change though. I am, let’s say, among the remaining ones from the “old school”. There are a lot of things that strike me about the new generation because they do things I would never do or would not even occur to me. There is a nuanced shift in the respect felt within the world of dance. I’m not saying they don’t respect it but the ideas instilled in my training were different and that difference sometimes strikes me. And I especially realise that this is the generation of instant gratification and of “getting it all with just one click.” They are often discouraged and get down because they really want to dance but they sometimes find it hard to see that dancing is a process; that you need a lot of patience and you have to work hard. Many hours are needed to build that up. And there’s the rub; many of them don’t realise that because they want to reach their gaols right away. But everything involves a process and you need to be right inside that process. But sometimes the process is so long that it’s difficult to enjoy it and you can get a bit fed up from time to time.
I think the most important thing is not to lose focus. I was always clear about where I was heading and, even though it was hard work and there were a lot of obstacles or I had to dance really difficult stuff, that was all a challenge to me. Not losing that focus kept me on the tracks at the toughest times.
Looking back, can you think of one of the most thrilling moments of your career?
There have been so many! Dancing in the world’s greatest theatres, my debut with White Darkness in New York, taking the part of Carabosse in Mats Ek’s The Sleeping Beauty in Montreal… I’ve had a lot of “big moments” … Or the day Nacho came up to me to say he was promoting me to Principal Dancer… I’ve had a really good career. There have been many moments of pure unadulterated magic, like having been twice around the world before hitting 30, or having worked with so many nationalities and learning so much from all of them.
Your eyes shine when you speak and I love that; you can tell you have real passion for what you do.
Lots and lots, I really love dance; I love it. It’s not just a case of going on stage and dancing but rather it’s everything involved in this profession. Living dance is thrilling.
You currently combine your dancing career with that of artistic coordinator. How do you apply your performer skills to your organisational work?
It’s tricky to separate the artistic side from the managing side. The positive side of artistic coordination is that it has given me a broad overview of the Company’s workings, something I was incapable of seeing before, as dancers focus on the dancing side and little else. Now I have an insider view of the problems requiring solutions and have learned why some things can’t be done while others can be done. I can now see all that from a different view and that shows up a lot in the work itself.
It’s also true to say I’m affected less by stuff. When I’m in the studio, lending a hand with repetiteur work, it is a curious experience because you immediately notice each dancer’s personality, of what each one needs, each needing different things… and each one’s attitude—which is everything! But when you are a dancer, you think that the person sitting on the bench doesn’t notice. Nothing could be further from the truth! They see everything and in a big way. It has been such a revelation to be on the other side as repetiteur and manager. I’m learning so much and am very grateful for the opportunity.
When this stage of your career ends, what would you like to do? Do you have other passions beyond dance?
I have no intention of retiring. I mean, sure, the moment will come when I will stop dancing at the CND as Principal Dancer. I’m starting my 22nd season as a professional dancer. So many years at that pace is very tiring and, what’s more, my body is telling me that. But I have no intention of giving up dancing in general.
In fact, there are people who want me to work with them when I stop with the Company; independent projects. I’ve always thought about that and have always wanted to go on to working as repetiteur. That’s something that’s very clear for me. The day I come to a stop here, this side, will be because I’ve gone to the other side of the studio. For sure, in recent years, I’ve been increasingly attracted to more narrative and less physical dance; perhaps because I’m getting old … (laughs). That’s the path I’d really like to explore and develop more.
And, talking of other artistic disciplines, in 2016 you collaborated in a piece by the artist Eugenio Ampudia. Tell me, what was it like to work in a piece by a performance artist? How did that all come about?
The chance arose through the Company, together with Mattia Russo and Antonio de Rosa, directors of the Korsia company, but who were dancing here at the time. We got a small group together and prepared an installation and with a lot of care, as we were diving headlong into a work of art and were becoming part of that work. There is a very fine line between doing it well and destroying the artwork and I think that is a very tricky thing to handle. My opinion is that we did it pretty well and it was so, so interesting. It was such a wonderful group and we all got on extremely well. The way we worked together was incredible. We worked comfortably together as we were all good colleagues. Eugenio Ampudia was really pleased with what we did. In short, a fantastic experience.
And to finish, as it is your birthday, what is your favourite birthday cake or other meal?
I’m a big fan of cheesecake; but of oven baked cheesecake! I love it. One of humanity’s finest inventions… (laughs)
ISAAC MONTLLOR – PRINCIPAL DANCER CND
Interview by: Sandra Cadenas