As the Compañía Nacional de Danza moved nimbly between Alejandro Cerrudo's sleek style and Mats Ek's earthiness in Paris last winter, it was hard to believe that just five years ago, Spain's national dance company was primarily a single-choreographer troupe under longtime director Nacho Duato. Since José Martínez, the only Spanish male étoile in the history of the Paris Opéra Ballet, took over in 2011, CND has reintegrated ballet and caught up fast, without losing its contemporary edge.
It's not the first U-turn in CND's history. Created in 1979, the company initially filled a gap as Spain's only state ballet under directors such as Víctor Ullate and Maya Plisetskaya. With Duato's arrival in 1990, however, it became mostly devoted to the choreographer's contemporary repertoire, leading to complaints about the lack of opportunities for ballet dancers and choreographers in Spain.
Martínez was keenly aware of the problem, and has thrown CND's doors wide open. In just four seasons, the company has added nearly 40 short works to its repertoire, including ballets by Balanchine, Kylián, Forsythe and Ek, and is once again a home for Spanish talent, starting with choreographers like Cerrudo.
Like many of his contemporaries, Martínez himself pursued a career abroad. One of the most celebrated étoiles of his generation at the Paris Opéra, he had no ambitions to direct until 2009. That's when the Spanish ministry of culture, hoping for a return to ballet, asked him for his thoughts on the future of CND. He submitted a report, and was asked if he'd be interested in applying for the directorship on that basis. “I had to leave Spain at 14 because there were no companies for me to dance in, and I wanted to contribute to Spanish dance," Martínez says. In December 2010, he got the job.
The transition was far from easy, however. Duato had already been asked to leave and had decided to withdraw his works, though CND was still allowed by law to perform them for one year after his departure. When Martínez landed in Madrid in the summer of 2011, the day after his lavish Paris Opéra farewell, the company was virtually repertoire-less, with no performances or tours scheduled for the next season.
Martínez had a plan, but in his first company meeting, Duato's former dancers gave him the cold shoulder. “They had been through a really difficult period, and they decided to team up against the new director. They were midway through a two-year contract, so I couldn't fire anyone. I was announcing a season, and they didn't believe me," he remembers.
Instead of radical change, Martínez set about winning over the company in a patient, relaxed fashion. He kept Duato's artistic staff on, and merged the existing senior and junior companies to put everyone on an equal footing and improve salaries in the process. The first season was tailored to the dancers' contemporary abilities, with just a few roles on pointe, cast on a voluntary basis.
The company has since become a harmonious melting pot. Roughly half of Duato's dancers have left, the majority on their own accord as Martínez renewed most contracts. To bridge the gap between the company's contemporary base and the new repertoire, a classical group and a contemporary one now coexist unofficially, with dancers floating between the two or joining forces for full-length productions. Twenty of the 43 dancers are Spanish; pointework still isn't mandatory, and triple bills often cater to both types of dancers with a mix of ballet productions and modern offerings.
Kayoko Everhart, a longtime Duato dancer who is now a principal, put her pointe shoes back on when Martínez arrived and surprised herself: “Physically it was hard, but I enjoy having that option. It means we have dancers who are great at both styles, and the younger, more classical dancers keep us alert."
And she praises Martínez's open-door policy. The Spanish director says choreographing taught him much about directing (Les Enfants du Paradis, his evening-length work for the Paris Opéra Ballet, had a cast of 70), as did his years as a dancer in Paris. “It was such a big company that everyone was replaceable, and there was little dialogue. I try to explain my decisions to the dancers. It can be difficult to hear why you haven't been cast, but it builds trust."
Martínez has applied the same approach to rebuilding the repertoire from the ground up. In addition to modern classics, he has gone back to the core missions of a national ballet company. This has meant taking a step back as a choreographer to promote Spanish colleagues such as Cerrudo or Goyo Montero. He is also looking to nurture up-and-coming talent. Full-length ballets are the next step: CND will reclaim the most Spanish of all ballet classics next season, Don Quixote, in a new production by Martínez.
CND also had to weather the severe economic crisis in Spain, a country with no tradition of private sponsorship. The company absorbed three years straight of government cuts to its funding when Martínez arrived, but its proactive outreach efforts, from partnerships with schools to rehearsals open to the public, have been rewarded with an 11 percent increase in 2015. “We needed to show that dance isn't elitist, that we have a social function," says Martínez. “It's always been difficult for dance in this country, but even more so today."
Martínez's main challenge for the future is the lack of a permanent venue. CND shares sun-filled studios in Madrid with the Ballet Nacional de España (a flamenco company), but for performances, the company has to juggle between three different theaters in the city, in addition to venues around the country, with programs set typically only a few months in advance. Martínez sums it up with a smile: “You have to love improvising in Spain."
Compañía Nacional de Danza
Number of dancers: 43
Length of contract: Year-round, renewable every season
Starting salary: Inquire with company
Performances per year: 70
CND is obligated by Spanish law to hold an open audition for any available positions every summer. Martínez likes to have interested dancers come and take class in Madrid beforehand, however. “I'm more interested in a dancer's personality and commitment than in a specific body type, and that way I can get to know them. I can't give out contracts, but they know if it's worth coming to the audition."