Cesc Gelabert brings his innovative and creative approach to dance to two shows at this year’s festival.
The word ‘unique’ is often used, seldom merited. Watching Cesc Gelabert dance, however, you soon realise he’s entirely worthy of the adjective. With a penetrating gaze that fixes you from the stage, he commands your attention, yet has the capacity to drift into the background and allow his dancers a chance to shine. It’s a technique born of years of experience, swathed in a captivating stage presence few can match.
At the age of 56, when most dancers have long since put their muscles out to pasture, Gelabert is still a force to be reckoned with. One of the most influential figures in Spanish contemporary dance, both as a performer and choreographer, his inimitable style is in demand all over the world. In Conquassabit, one half of the double-bill Gelabert is bringing to this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, he plays a powerful master of ceremonies. Brandishing a large stick, he controls the space – and his dancers – with a mix of strength and finesse.
Yet when I meet Gelabert at his company’s Barcelona headquarters the morning after the show, I’m faced with a very different man. Gentle and unassuming, with a cap covering his striking bald head, it’s hard to imagine what he’s capable of on-stage. A soft voice serving as the gateway to a fiercely intelligent mind, he talks eloquently about his perception of dance. How it’s so much more than just a physical pursuit and how his early training as an architect feeds into the creative process. But what about that word, ‘unique’? Is he aware of his own virtues in that department?
“I have always loved being on stage,” says Gelabert by way of explanation. “That’s the basic thing. When you put me on the stage, I wake up. I’m not a conventional dancer and I think I have developed a technique which is the most unique thing I can offer the dance community, it’s not very obvious.” That ‘offering’ is currently being given to the young dancers in Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia de Dansa – the troupe Gelabert co-formed in 1985 with his partner (both in life and work), Lydia Azzopardi.
The couple spent many years touring as a duet – including a run at the Assembly Rooms during the 1985 Edinburgh Fringe – but these days London-born Azzopardi is happy to let Gelabert and the dancers take the limelight. Credited as the costume designer for the company’s Festival show, Azzopardi’s role is, in fact, far more substantial – and Gelabert’s admiration for her is clearly boundless. “She has so many talents and has been so helpful to me,” he says. “Lydia and I really direct the company together – even if I am more in the front because I am still dancing and do most of the choreography. She’s a really talented artist and an extraordinary teacher.”
The two met by chance, when Gelabert attended a dance class being taught by Azzopardi in Barcelona. Thirty years later, Spain is still her home. “I fell in love with her – both in life generally and also as a dancer,” says Gelabert. “Sometimes it’s hard when you live and work with someone, because you’re together all the time – there are no secret corners. But it’s also very nice.”
Azzopardi was largely responsible for recruiting the talented team of dancers the company is bringing to Edinburgh this August. Although Gelabert himself can’t help but draw your eye when he’s performing, the dancers joining him on stage have qualities all their own. Mixing strong ballet and contemporary technique with acres of personality, they do ample justice to Gelabert’s two dynamic Festival works.
Both Sense Fi and Conquassabit are abstract rather than narrative, but the astute use of set and props really gives the audience something to think about. And we’re not the only ones using our grey matter. “I always say that dance is an activity which occupies the body, the mind and the heart,” says Gelabert. “It’s not just a physical activity. So real dancers need a complicated knowledge – they have to be intelligent.”
Set to the music of Handel, Conquassabit uses a vast piece of silver paper to define the space. Raised, lowered and bunched up, the paper becomes whatever our imagination tells us it is. “Each of my friends has come up with a different image,” says Gelabert. “Some say it’s a tree, a column, a cross, somebody even said it was a squid.”
The large inflatable globe, three giant ice cubes and moving kiosk covered with small ads in Sense Fi are equally open to personal interpretation. Only one thing is universal – the sheer enjoyment of watching it. “With Sense Fi the general feeling I went for is of a happy smile,” says Gelabert. “Not a laugh, but a happy smile – in the face of whatever happens in life.”
Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia de Dansa, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 21-23 August.