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Let’s dance: Belgium is a hotbed of dance talent
Could we meet in a little diner close to the Bourse in Brussels, Mario Barrantes Espinoza asks. His class has just finished and he’s on his way to a show at Bozar. “That’s one of the great things about Brussels,” he says. “There’s always something inspiring to do at night.” Espinoza is 23 and from Costa Rica. In 2013 he left his home, friends and family to come and study contemporary dance at P.A.R.T.S., the school of world famous dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
“In Costa Rica, I started studying architecture, then I switched to theatre, only to find that what I really longed to do was dance,” he says. Costa Rica couldn’t give him what he was looking for, so he started to explore his options overseas. “I became familiar with the work of Jan Fabre, Rosas, Alain Platel, Les Ballets C de la B and Wim Vandekeybus’s Ultima Vez, and then I knew: Belgium is where I need to be.” His parents first thought it would blow over, but it didn’t. He prepared his trip and got himself two auditions. “For P.A.R.T.S. a thousand of us auditioned in the first round, and for a school in Austria, we were 700.” He was accepted by both but picked P.A.R.T.S., and it’s a choice he hasn’t regretted for a moment.
“Studying dance in Brussels suddenly put all these huge names on the international contemporary dance scene within reach,” he says. “All the experts I used to admire on the internet when I was back home, I can see them performing in real life or even meet them now and then. It’s like the best of everything is represented here.” Espinoza is very aware that all the hard work, dedication and discipline required from him are just a taste of the real thing. “Of course I hope to be able to join a good company or work on my own projects, but I have to focus on now,” he says. “What comes after is too hard to predict.” He’s in Belgium on a student visa, so if he can’t find a job once he graduates, it all ends here. “Well, not everything,” he says. “When they know back home that I’ve studied in Brussels, at P.A.R.T.S., that I’ve done workshops with people who have learned from the best, doors will open for me. It’s a comforting idea for me to hang on to.”
That’s also what Iris Bouche, artistic director for dance at the Royal Conservatory/AP University College in Antwerp, is trying to do: bring her students into contact with the best local and international dancers and choreographers. “We are lucky not only to share the building with deSingel but also to be part of the International Art Campus-deSingel, which is an international art centre known for scheduling great performances, including dance,” she says. “So when we see there is an interesting name lined up, we try to get them involved with our students as well.”
Asked what makes the classes in Antwerp so unique, Bouche explains that it’s her goal to help her students develop a unique personality. “In the UK or in the Netherlands,” she says, “technical skills are everything. We have a different approach. When a student is admitted to our programme, we already know they’re gifted. So we focus on their identity as a dancer. We dissect their definition of dancing.” This helps the students develop, in a very conscious way, a style of their own and stand out from the crowd. The competition is brutal and most auditions start with mass email applications. “By organising workshops with famous choreographers or dancers,” Bouche says, “we give our students the chance to show what they’re capable of. It gives them a head-start for future selection procedures.”
She is reluctant to be drawn on the next big thing in contemporary dance. “One has to look further than what has been hyped by the media,” she says. But still, some names just can’t be ignored: “I like the work of Gabriela Carrizo and Peeping Tom, or the latest by David Hernandez: Hullabaloo is definitely worth mentioning. And then there is Moonstein Cie, not to mention Jan Martens.”
The next generation
With dancer and choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez, Maarten Van Cauwenberghe formed the contemporary dance and performance group Voetvolk. If there’s such a thing as the next generation of contemporary dancers in Flanders, this company would be the perfect example. The two founders have both worked with Jan Fabre, while Gruwez studied at P.AR.T.S. and has danced with Ultima Vez and Needcompany. “When we started there was a very obvious link with the intensity of Fabre’s work,” Van Cauwenberghe says. “It was very energetic and powerful. But along the way we started to develop our own language, in dance and in music.” Van Cauwenberghe creates soundscapes for the Voetvolk performances, which “have become more narrative, but in a subtle way. Technicality is not everything. Details and essence are put up front.” Of the new generation of contemporary dancers, he says: “The performances are more generous now. The link with the audience is restored. We don’t want to create intellectual choreographies that only a happy few understand; we want to connect with the audience.”
Breaking out of its borders
The high days of Belgian contemporary dance are far from over. Old names are still going strong, new names are making fame, and contemporary dance is breaking out of its borders, with former P.A.R.T.S. student Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui appointed to lead the classical Royal Ballet Flanders. Elsewhere, with her Let’s Go Urban project, Sihame El Kaouakibi has turned contemporary dance into a tool to empower young people who don’t quite feel they fit in. As Mario Barrantes Espinoza said as he left for a performance at Bozar: “I really don’t understand why they would think of cutting the budget for culture. Don’t they know Belgium is a unique platform for dance, and for arts in general?”
Image credit: BetNoir-®DannyWillems2011