Dancing around the world with José Becerra
José Becerra is a dancer of Cuban origin, who got into ballet after joining the Escuela Vocacional de Arte de Eva Olga Alonso and, later, the Escuela Nacional de Ballet. He has danced in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and in the English National Ballet, not only as a corps de ballet dancer but also as soloist and principal dancer. He has also danced in the Fundación para la danza Compañía Víctor Ullate, where he worked for six years until its closure. He has worked with choreographers such as James Kelly, Alicia Alonso, Aurora Bosch and Jiří Kylián, among others. In the 2020 season, he joined the CND under the direction of Joaquín De Luz.
As a person of Cuban origin, what differences do you find between the dance situations in Spain and Cuba? What similarities are there?
The situation is difficult both here and there because, as with other arts, dance is grossly undervalued by many. Everybody has their own way of living and feeling dance, in my opinion. And, in terms of classical ballet in particular, I think the differences are rooted in the school and in the teaching methods. The Cuban school, for instance, is born of the French and Russian methods and traditions, while embodying a Latin characteristic in the form of movement and expression. In Spain, on the other hand, you see a variety of more European dancers; the Spanish ones being distinguished by a touch of flamenco. I would say the similarities in dance between both worlds rest in that capacity to transmit and proffer emotions.
The decision to start out on an artistic path is usually a well meditated one due to the sacrifices often involved; and among other things, from your position as a man, you will have had to take on difficult situations. Do you think there are still a lot of cliched misconceptions wrapped up in ballet?
The situation has changed a bit but that depends on the place you are and surrounding culture. In my case, not being from Havana, the capital, it was tough. I am from a city called Santa Clara and many people there don’t have such open minds or tolerance. Just for being Cuban you can be subject to macho culture and ideas, consciously or unconsciously, stemming from deep-rooted idiosyncrasies of street life. That is a problem.
In the beginning, I did not want to be a ballet dancer. On doing the entry tests for the vocational school of art it was fine art I wanted to do; I wanted to be a painter. But in that year painting was dropped as a subject at the school. At the time, I was doing athletics and judo, which had nothing to do with culture but, as my brother was already in the art school and I wanted to join too, I did the entry tests for trumpet, percussion and ballet and I ended up doing ballet.
On my course, there were just two boys compared with twenty-three girls. The girls are chosen among many other girls who did the test because they are girls and “girls do ballet”. With the boys, they chose all of those who come forward; that is to say, two. In Havana, the mentality is different. There, a dancer from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba means “somebody important who represents you in culture. “
You have also trained in other disciplines, such as judo. How does that link to dance? Do you think there are similarities between the two?
The judo thing had one explanation. My brother is also a dancer. My father always had an interest in art and he was very open minded and my mother was a dancer when she was younger. We have always been in the world of art and that made us the object of many offensive insults. I let off steam doing judo.
I think there are similarities, not just with judo but with all martial arts. Just looking at the technical side, a martial art is a very comprehensive sport that prepares you physically and mentally. Dance has a lot in common with some of those sports, especially with aikido: in the control of the body core or axis of the adversary and that really helps with pas de deux. Specifically, on controlling a partenaire’s core, be it a woman or a man, it helps you if you understand the amount of force required for a lift or where to focus a movement to make it flow more fluidly and naturally. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that before (laughs).
In 2005, you got your diploma not only as a dancer but also as a teacher of classical ballet. Can you tell me where this interest in teaching comes from?
If I’d waited a few months more I’d have got one as choreographer as well and of pas de deux teacher too (laughs). As a school, it is very complete and very different from other ones. In other places, each discipline is treated individually. In Cuba, education is conceived of in a more comprehensive way and you study everything that is related to your course. Also, there is a talent scout approach in Cuba and if they see you sing better than you dance, they put you on a singing course when you are young. In such a selective system, every year you need to keep your performance high. And, for instance, if you want to be a dancer, they put you on modules in the Escuela Nacional de Arte; you study art and aesthetics, culture and politics, kinesiology, music, French (which has a lot to do with classical ballet), but you also learn dance methodology, history of dance… And one of the modules is teaching, because you need to study the methodology of the classical technique of the Cuban school. So, you graduate as a ballet teacher. For me, teaching is something beautiful.
That same year you join the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, where you remain for four years working in the corps de ballet but also taking on soloist roles. How do you handle doing those two roles? How did you have to work at it in each case?
The handling is a question of hard work. I entered as part of the corps de ballet, just like everybody else. You have to move up step by step in order to grow and obtain maturity as a dancer. On the year I joined, a lot of choreographers arrived for the Havana Ballet Festivals. So, although the Company was not then as big as it is now, it still did international tours in Europe and part of the dance crew always stayed behind in Cuba in order to carry on doing shows at home or in other Latin American countries. That is one of the reasons the teachers started to train some of the dancers who stayed behind and had to dance solo parts. I was lucky enough to be one of those or, rather, one of the ones to be selected by the choreographers who came to the festivals. To be honest, you take it on because your final objective is always to DANCE.
During those four years, you got to work with some renowned choreographers: Alicia Alonso, James Kelly, Goyo Montero, Gonzalo Galguera, Svetlana Ballester, Aurora Bosch and Lázaro Carreño, among others. Can you name a piece and a choreographer you are particular fond of?
There are so many. I have treasured memories so many things; of the festivals, for instance. Each time there was a festival, it was so nice because there were so many people from different places, Joaquín De Luz included. To see all those dance celebrities dancing of even working with you and creating pieces is such an amazing thing for anybody who does dance. Working with Alicia is incredible; she is an encyclopaedia. A rehearsal of Giselle with her, for instance, is simply full of information from her… it’s something unique. You think, “how long this rehearsal is,” but you never forget what you learned, ever. And while you may not be aware at the time, that information later serves you very well for many things. And as regards a particular choreography, there is one by Igal Perry, Nocturno, which is really lovely. I think that was my first neoclassical piece. That ballet has a very particular style because it is a very original choreography within its genre. It was a pleasure to dance. Very free, to be honest.
In 2013, and for the following six years, you were part of the Victor Ullate Company, one of the most famous companies in Spain at the time. What did you enjoy most about your time there? How did you take its final closure?
Let’s start with the bad side. I came to Spain after a really lovely experience with the English National Ballet and with a great desire to continue developing my career. Clearly, the closing of Victor’s company was horrible for me. I think what happened was awful. I don’t think what happened would be fair to anybody, whatever their line of work. It is a terrible situation that maybe could have been avoided. It really affected me, bringing me right down, to the point of depression, even… But, in general, I couldn’t say my six years there—and now we get to the bright side—were at all bad. There were good and bad things and “you live and learn”. But if there is something I would single out as particularly good it is the repertoire they had there. There are Victor Ullate pieces that, regardless of anything else, have been lost. On closing his company, those pieces will now not be done again and I think a lot of dancers would enjoy dancing them, such as Jaleo or Samsara. It’s a shame; and not just for me but for Spain because, whether or not it is your cup of tea, it forms part of the culture of this country.
You joined this Company in 2020, a year after Joaquín De Luz was instated as director. What is it like to work with him? What would you single out?
The first thing that comes to mind is his determination with everything he has done in his career. He is a great dancer; he has forged a career on his own merits; it is really admirable. I think, “he will show me the way to go and, if I don’t achieve it, at least I’ll have tried with that same determination.” He is a guiding star. Working for him is to learn what he knows.
One of the loveliest moments of dance is the opportunity to share it from the stage. What is that sensation like for you?
It’s just the best thing. With the years, you realise that that is what you live for. The moment the curtain opens and you step on stage and you forget EVERYTHING else. I think it is important for any artist, especially dramatic artists; that when you’re actually in it, all the work you put in comes together and is solid and you can perform without worry and enjoy it.
To be honest, it is a difficult sensation to describe and you enjoy it like you enjoy few things in life. Actually being on stage and feeling free, without pressure, even though you have to be alert to positions and a lot of other things… it is inexplicable. When you’re about to appear, your heart is going ten to the dozen. Then you enter, and you forget everything else. When you exit, you are euphoric; and then some. And with the years, you get to realise there are fewer of those moments left… That’s life!
Beyond dance, do you have any other passions or interests you can tell us about?
Choreography. I love it and the truth is it is something I’d like to devote myself to in the future. It is something I believe I need. For example, I’m just sitting, listening to music, and ideas come to my head… I don’t know if it happens to a lot of people. Or maybe I’m watching something happen in the metro, or in the middle of the street, and I see the scene in terms of dance moves. And I’m thinking how you can tell it, how you can transmit the sensations of those moments to the spectator… or how the dancers would need to make their entrance, or in the lighting…
At the school in Cuba, they let me arrange a piece sometimes and when I saw them on stage, I felt like they were my children. It’s been a long time since I last choreographed, to be honest, but I never forget it because I have projects and, above all, I’m hungry to create. Although it is hard to succeed with dance in Spain, if there was a chance I’d like to stay here and devote myself to choreography.
And to finish, and while we’re being confessional, is there any dessert or dish that is a must for you on your birthday?
Well, I like cooking, which is another hobby of mine, and my favourite cake is the one I invent at the time. I usually make a lot of flans, I like tres leches cakes… Not long ago, I invented one with pistachio which was not at all bad. I like the sponge to be soaked, maybe in syrup or similar. Oh, yes, and tiramisú. The tres leches cake I can maybe stop eating but with tiramisú, somebody has to stop me (laughs).
JOSÉ ALBERTO BECERRA– CORPS DE BALLET CND
Interview by: Sandra Cadenas