On choreography and Chacona: a conversation with Goyo Montero

Goyo Montero doesn’t like labels. Although his choreography is frequently described as ‘contemporary’, including Chacona, which gets its UK premiere with Birmingham Royal Ballet on June 10 at the Birmingham REP, he says it is only so in the sense that it is of now, and of him.

Whether to give dance or any artwork this label or that label is less important than whether it is relevant, he feels. “It has to create questions. It has to transform the viewer. It has to bring emotion or questions that make you want to come back to it, maybe want to see it a second time, maybe want to try to understand something different. When I see a movie that I love or go back to a book, something new comes out every time.”

Goyo Montero
Photo Alice Blangero

Montero explains he was actually very classically trained, initially in Spain by Carmen Roche, one of the best teachers of her generation, then at the Royal Conservatory for Professional Dance in Madrid and the School of the National Ballet of Cuba, where he worked with more top teachers and alongside great dancers including Carlos Acosta and José Manuel Carreño.

As a dancer, Montero was a principal at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and also performed with the Oper Leipzig, Staatstheater Wiesbaden and what is now Ballet Vlanderen (Royal Ballet of Flanders). He says he was fortunate to dance in Germany especially, where companies have a wide repertory and have long embraced contemporary and neoclassical work alongside the more classical. “There was van Manen, Jiri Kylian. I had Balanchine and William Forsythe in my repertoire too. Not that everything was easy, but I basically started to fall in love with contemporary dance through dancing it. I really didn’t have too much formal education as a modern dancer.”

Ballet Nacional Sodre in Goyo Montero’s Vasos Comunicantes
Photo Carlos Villamayor

So, when he started to choreograph in 2000, he says the contemporary aesthetic was somehow already in him. “I don’t know how I can explain. I was just coming out of me. It was my way of expressing my ideas and the concepts I wanted to bring out.” But while I cannot define my choreography as contemporary or neo-classical, I think it definitely profits from a classical base.”

Montero was appointed ballet director at the Staatstheater Ballett Nürnberg (Nuremberg Ballet) in 2008 but is also much in demand elsewhere, creating works for many other companies including Acosta Danza, where he is Resident Choreographer. He also has a long term association with the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, (where has was a prize winner in 1994) as coach, jury member and choreographer.

His wide range of output may also be influenced by early exposure to a wide range of styles. His father, who danced with him at a gala in Nuremberg when he was 65, was also a choreographer. “In his generation, they had to do a bit of everything. He was really well known for folk and flamenco, but he also did classical ballet, a lot of jazz and a lot of modern dance. He even did musicals. My father was also an amateur painter, so I’m also very much connected with art in general, architecture, light design and cinema, which is a huge influence in my thinking. I am a frustrated movie director. That would be my dream but that’s complex and I’m happy just to control the choreography.”

Staatstheater Nürnberg Ballett in Goyo Montero’s Don Quixote,
which he has described as being ‘not particularly Spanish’
Photo Jesús Vallinas

Montero believes firmly that being able to live in both classical and contemporary worlds is today as important for a choreographer as it is for a dancer. “I think for a choreographer, it’s essential. It’s essential to also know the languages, the different ways of communicating. I think the better you communicate with the dancers, the better you bring your ideas forward.”

Although says his work is not shaped by his Spanish background, Montero admits to being attracted to a certain melancholy or dramatic flavour in his choreography that perhaps comes from the darkness in the Spanish soul. “I do have a tendency to bring shade into my work. I am very attracted to the kind of music that brings me to a place that is not necessarily a joyful place.”

Perhaps that’s partly why he’s been so successful in Nuremberg. When once asked what the city’s character as a dance figure would look like, he replied, “a mixture of Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser and a little bit of Nuremberg’s dark times under fascism, which fortunately led to a new path for the city.”

Staatstheater Nürnberg Ballett in Sacre by Goyo Montero
Photo Jesús Vallinas

But the birth of his son brought something of a change, he believes. “I am a father. I have a kid who gave me a way back to pure joy. And with this pandemic, what I am doing right now, what we are going to premiere in July in Nuremburg (Blitirí), is basically a way back to just the joy of moving with music, and being connected as a dancer with each other and with the music. I think there has been enough trauma in this time. It’s necessary to bring the audience out of the darkness.”

Back to Chacona, another piece with a very positive feel, Montero says he’s impressed by how quickly the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers picked up the work. “And I have to say I have been really impressed with their unity. At the beginning you have to have that, then you can start to see the different personalities, and the intensity. They already look really good.”

As we spoke just under a month before the company premiere, he explained how he was now “looking forward to bringing them a little more into the detail and the challenges.” It needs to be danced on the edge, he says. “At the moment they are doing it very properly. It’s very clean but I want to mess that up a bit. Then we can bring them to a certain shape, but first we need to destroy them a little.”

Staatstheater Nürnberg Ballett in Goyo Montero’s Vasos Comunicantes
the ‘parent’ ballet of Chacona
Photo Jesús Vallinas

While all artists, in any field, should be open, Montero considers they should also always feel a little uncomfortable and a little out of their depth. Dancers should always be eager to acquire new tools or new ways of understanding, he says. “They have to keep this naivety, this kind of pureness that is there when you they are young, but that can dissipate as you go through a professional career.”

Chacona is actually the final section, of a work originally made in 2003, called Vasos Comunicantes (communicating vessels), to Bach’s Partita No.2 in D minor, a piece of music he has always loved. A commission from the Spanish Ministry of Culture, it involved important Spanish dancers then working abroad. “There were dancers from William Forsythe, Béjart, The Royal Ballet, Compañía Nacional de Danza, Tamaro Rojo.” The ballet uses not only the violin score, but also versions for guitar and piano, using the final Chaconne to connect them all together.

Montero is not precious about his choreography. Originally for seven dancers, he reworked Vasos Comunicantes totally in Nuremberg in 2010. “Somehow it developed for a full company cast. We had eight couples in the company, and I did it for all eight, and the Chacona had all the dancers. And then it just stayed on the books. It has always been very successful.”

Staatstheater Nürnberg Ballett in Goyo Montero’s Latent
danced to and inspired by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
Photo Jesús Vallinas

Chacona as a standalone ballet first appeared in 2017, when he staged it for the Ballet Nacional de Sodre in Uruguay. “Carlos [Acosta] was always in love with the piece. We thought about doing it with Acosta Danza at one time, but it didn’t happen. Then, as soon as he became director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, he asked me for it. Of course, it’s an honour.”

Whoever it is staged for, Montero is adamant that, “It has to fit the dancers. It has to take them to places where they are challenged, to be slightly different for each dancer and each company.” As such, Birmingham’s version will very much be “their Chacona.”

Audiences will witness a very physically challenging ballet that’s full of energy. Essentially, it’s a response to the music, although also partly inspired by Communicating Vessels, the book by French modernist writer André Breton that considers ideas of dreams and reality (he aims to demonstrate that the real world and the sleep is the same), the erasing of notions of time, and the restoration of the presence of beloved and absent beings.

Sadly, the Birmingham audience will not be seeing a new pas de deux for Carlos Acosta and Alessandra Ferri, also to Bach and planned as a sort of introduction to Chacona. Schedules just didn’t work out. But, he promises, “We are going to do that in September.”

Goyo Montero’s Chacona receives its UK premiere on June 10, 2021 at the Birmingham REP as part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Curated by Carlos programme.