Dance: twenty questions to José Navas
Founding artistic director of Compagnie Flak, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2015, José Navas orients his choreographic research in three directions: he performs his solo creations with intensity, he creates enchanting abstract group pieces, and he makes commissions for contemporary ballet that marry classicism to sensitivity. Recipient of a Bessie Award and an Associated Dance Artist of the National Arts Centre of Canada, he has presented his work in thirty countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
1. Firstly, what attracted you to dance?
In the beginning, it was more of an accident. I was already a theatre student when I went to my first dance class. And I felt drawn to the work with the body. I was lucky to land in a school that gave Cunningham technique, Merce Cunningham being an American master of dance who changed how we saw and made dance. The abstraction of it all was very attractive to me.
2. Do you think it is possible for everyone to dance?
Yes, I think we all dance. We are all movers, we are born movers. To become a professional dancer is another matter. That requires talent and discipline.
3. What types of exercise does a dancer need to do, to remain supple and in good shape?
It really depends on each body. In my case, I direct myself towards yoga. I still do a ballet barre and I dance every day. With the years, my systems of training keep changing, always around yoga and dance.
4. Do you feel that sometimes dance can express the human condition better than words, music or paintings?
Dance can say different things, maybe not better, but sometimes it’s simpler, real.
5. As a child, did you dream of travelling around the world?
Yes, very much so, always. I even had clear visualizations that I was going to be an adult travelling around the world, without even knowing that I was going to become a professional dancer.
6. You often go to Belgium; why?
At the beginning of my career, I was produced in the city of Brugge (around 1996) and since then I have developed a close relationship with the audiences and producers of Flanders.
7. Do you get tired of the ongoing linguistic conflicts in Belgium and Quebec?
No, both places are richer and more interesting for these issues. I find it interesting, though, that I’m popular in two places that have linguistic conflicts. Both places are intellectual and very much oriented towards contemporary art, and I think they’re richer because they have the friction between two languages. Each is stronger because of the need to assert itself.
8. Did you like living in New York? Did NYC change your life? Was it not too hard to survive in Manhattan?
I really enjoyed living in New York. It changed my life drastically, it was a turning point in my life as a person and as an artist. Encountering Merce Cunningham changed my life. I was ready for the challenges and hardship of life in Manhattan and it actually turned out to be interesting because I danced from early in my time in New York. I cleaned apartments and worked in bars to make money and I rehearsed almost daily in many different projects; that’s how I survived.
9. After living in Caracas and New York, why did you choose Montreal for your place of residence?
I was living with the Canadian choreographer William Douglas and he was dying of Aids and preferred to spend his last years on Canadian soil, so we moved to Montreal where he had a job as a professor in the dance department of the Université du Québec à Montréal, until his death in 1996.
10. Many professional dancers have told me that this all-consuming art requires too much from the body; do you share that view?
Yes, it requires a lot from the body, all the time – but much more from the mind.
11. Is solo dance too demanding, both psychologically and physically?
I wouldn’t say too demanding, but it is demanding because it requires that the discipline come from you, and that is sometimes the hard part. If you are well trained, I wouldn’t say that it’s psychologically or physically impossible. It is a life commitment.
12. What would your advice be to young people who want to engage professionally in dance?
Make sure you have technique. Be sure to know who was there before you and how it was done before you. Be inspired. Be curious. Take risks and learn how to get up and move on. By that, I mean focus on the work. It is the work that is the final answer.
13. You danced for peace? Do you think, when we look around at what is happening in the world, that peace will remain a utopia?
No, I think peace exists already. It’s something that comes and goes. We have to be vigilant to make sure that, as a collective, we understand that there is an equilibrium that we might call peace, and it might have many different shapes for different people. But it’s not a utopia, we have glimpses of it already. That gives me hope.
14. In what ways can you deliver a political message through dance?
Dance is already political by existing, by being a discipline that is abstract, that is demanding, that is constantly pushing the envelope of what we perceive as theatre or art.
15. How did you cope as you watched your native country gradually fall into populism and authoritarianism?
Distance has been a way of coping, as I haven’t been there for many years now. Like many Venezuelans living outside, you hope that things will change and I think that is how everyone is coping, hoping that things will get better. They don’t seem to have that much space to get worse! With the recent legislative elections, there is a window of possibility now and I hope this is the beginning of positive change. Excelling and serving others with my dance helps me to cope with the absence of a country I used to know.
16. Do you think one day you will return to live in Venezuela?
Today, home is Canada. Although my work takes me around the world, it is in Canada that I have built my family and home with another Canadian, Robert Leckey.
17. You are trilingual, aren’t you? Do you think more in one particular language than another depending on the circumstances? Can you give us examples?
I think more in English. I create in Spanish and in English. And I work in French. For example, when I teach dance, I don’t seem to be able to teach dance in languages other than English, because that’s how I learned it in New York. But when I count in a dance class, I have to do it in Spanish, and when I need to count fast and without thinking about it, I have to do it in Spanish.
18. If you could see just one dance show for a second time, which one would you choose?
I would actually love to see one of my solo shows from the audience. The only peek I ever get is a two-dimensional perception from a video, which doesn’t capture the things people describe to me, especially the lights. But if there is a last thing that I would want to see once again, it would be the late Kazuo Ono performing live.
19. In your view, are governments doing enough to promote artistic creativity?
The true answer is not enough. But speaking comparatively, Canada has a better system of government funding for the arts than many countries and Quebec is very generous too.
20. And finally, what is your next project?
I’m working on a new solo show with composer Alexander MacSween and visual artist Lino. I’m also preparing to start the next tour of my most recent solo show, Rites, which includes Le Sacre du Printemps, and will be going to Germany, Belgium, and Holland among others, with possible destinations in Asia. Touring for Rites starts up again in fall 2016 and intensifies in 2017 and 2018.
FΩRMIdea Montreal, 26th January 2016