Choreographer and dramaturg Neus Gil Cortes lifts the lid on what it takes to dance professionally.
Neus tell us where you’re from, what kind of dancing you do and when you first decided you wanted to dance professionally.
Hello! I’m originally from Spain, but have lived in Holland and in U.K. for a long time. I’m a contemporary dancer and choreographer, but I get inspired by a mixture of dance and music styles, from flamenco, to jazz, reggae, house, folk or fusion.
When I was five years old my parents took me to the theatre to watch Nacho Duato’s “Mediterráneo”. I was so impressed I turned to my mum and said: “I want to be a dancer”. I kept going about it for a whole year and finally they put me in a dance school.
How did you go about learning your craft?
I started doing a lot of ballet, because the mentality back then in Valencia was that if you had a strong ballet base you’d be a better dancer. I understand why they believed it, and I’m happy I got a strong technique, but, as a teacher from the National Ballet of Cuba once told us, you should try to learn as many dance styles as you can, because they will all give you something different.
When I went to CODARTS, the Rotterdam Dance Academy in Holland, I was so excited to learn all the different contemporary dance techniques and work with professional choreographers. That year was a revelation.
Then I got an apprenticeship with Dance Works Rotterdam and continued learning exponentially. There, as well as at National Dance Company Wales and at Hofesh Shechter Company, I worked really hard aiming to be a better dancer every single day. I think that’s what made me the dancer I am today. That, and learning from those I admire. As Dana Caspersen once told me, you can lock yourself in a room for five years to master something, or you can ask somebody who’s got it already to help you, and make it in less than a year.
What was your first job? How was it?
I got my first job at Dance Works Rotterdam after I finished my apprenticeship. There were people that had been in the company for a long time when I arrived. That had its good and bad sides to it: good because I could really learn from them- and they were very generous with me-; bad because there was a very strong sense of hierarchy and if somebody was wrong it had to be the young/new one. But I’m very happy about those years, they taught me how to be a good professional and I worked with amazing choreographers and dancers, plus I toured all over Holland and internationally to Saint Petersburg, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Indonesia and I love travelling!
How did you then go on to get further work?
That is a funny story. After Holland I moved to Barcelona to be with my boyfriend back then, but the relationship didn’t even last a month after I moved in. One day, not long after the break up, a good friend and amazing teacher- Jean Emile, almost forced me to apply for an audition that was happening in London in less than a week. The company had just changed their name, so I didn’t even know who they were. Only later I found out it was the former Diversions, currently National Dance Company Wales. I booked the plane ticket on the spot and headed to London without knowing anybody.
I think I did a great audition because I was so relaxed, and really enjoyed the repertory we were learning. It was almost fate. The next four years there were some of the happiest of my dancing career.
Tell us about your time with the National Dance Company Wales – what shows did you work on? What did you learn? What was a typical week life?
My favourite performance while at NDCWales was a triple bill with pieces by Ohad Naharin- ‘B/olero', Itzic Galili- ‘Grammar of Silence’ and Eleesha Drennan- ‘Phantoms of us’. Working with those choreographers, particularly with Ohad, really changed the way I moved and felt as a dancer, it was thrilling, invigorating, I felt really alive.
Other great choreographers we worked with were Adonis Foniadakis, Gustavo Ramirez, Angelin Preljocaj and Steven Petronio. I feel very lucky of my time there, I loved the repertoire, my colleagues(dancers, techies, office people…) and my group of friends in the city. I learned the most diverse styles and processes, from the very prescribed and precise work of ‘Noce’ by Preljocaj in which we even had the stage divided in a grid with spacial marks to get to for every single step, to using weight and relaxation for movement with Itzic Galili or internal images with Ohad Naharin. It also taught me to feel the movement more internally and to constantly push my limits.
We had two types of week: when we were in creation we would have an hour and a half class, alternating ballet with contemporary, and then 6 hours of creation/rehearsal, usually 9:45am-5:45pm. If it was a touring week we would alternate teaching workshops around the country, rehearsing, and performing. The performance days were usually 12 noon-10pm.
You’ve done work on stage, for photoshoots and TV. Tell us how the processes differ for you as a dancer. Whether rehearsal time, time of production or anything else you’ve noticed.
They are quite different and similar at the same time.
When you are working on a stage within a traditional setting, you don’t usually see the audience. It’s a strange combination between a very intimate experience and something you have to get across to the last row of the auditorium. Almost like a meditation that goes from the internal to the external. You usually have rehearsed a lot and feel quite confident of what you are doing, or know how to fix it if something goes wrong. But you only get one chance, so there is a different kind of excitement and sometimes a bit of nervousness too, about it.
When you are working for photoshoots is a lot less intimate and in most cases, less about your own personal experience. You are asked very often to propose your own poses while the photographer is clicking, sometimes with very little guidance. You have to be able to almost see yourself from the outside, know how the camera is seeing you, be very precise, relax your face and be prepared to do the same movement over and over again. You have more chances of doing it “right” than on stage (and I propose if you are allowed, to look back at the pictures taken), but you have to master it, because people are only seeing a frozen image of your movement.
When you are shooting a video you usually have had a lot less time to rehearse, and are often in a completely new location with new outfit and shoes. On top of that, you usually have an early call, not the best conditions to warm up properly, and quite long working hours. I think it takes a lot of sharp concentration to be able to do your best in a very few takes, and again you need to be very precise and be aware of how the whole of your body, -including your face- is moving, because the camera is often very close.
But I think in all three you are constantly trying to be as honest as possible with who you are, and feeling the movement intensely. Otherwise the performance, in any of them, can be quite lame, and audiences or viewers recognise that immediately.
What have been your most interesting and challenging productions? Any interesting stories?
Being an underworld creature for The Mummy working with movement director Alex Reynolds was definitely one of the most interesting and challenging productions. We were exploring how to look “not human” without looking like dancers or animals. We were trying to achieve movement that was expressive: a killer creature that acts on command, while imagining we had lost a limb. It took me a while to understand the physical state we were looking for. And I was exhausted. But one day I just got it, I became “it”. It was amazing, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
When on set we knew we had to be great every single time. You don’t want to waste the time of somebody like Tom Cruise. But we were so strong as a group, we were cheered and congratulated by the team after the shot. It felt so great, and it made me realise how strong you can be if you put all your mind and body to it.
Are there any dancing myths that people believe starting out that you can reveal aren’t true?
Some people focus on their “style” too soon, thinking that their “personality” will give them the job. However true that is, it’s not something you can fake. I think you are better of learning as much as you can from everybody you respect- teachers, colleagues, other professionals… and constantly evolving. Don’t get stuck, keep growing and keep trying new approaches, your personality will come out naturally if you are true to yourself and your work.
How much practice is too much and how much is not enough – for physical endurance?
Everybody is different. What I would say is that is like a marathon- it doesn’t make sense to show up on the day and try to do it. You have to get there gradually. But that is a different pace for everybody. I’d say: listen to your body and to the people you trust. They will give you the feedback.
Some people pick up some terrible injuries. How do you take care of yourself and avoid this?
I think an injury is feedback from your body that you are not working right, unless it’s an accident. Sometimes can be that you are overworking a particular muscle and the others are weak. Other times you are forcing your body without building up to it gradually and mindfully.
In my experience you are much more likely to get injured when you are feeling sad or depressed and/or loose concentration. I think taking care of your mental health is one of the best ways of preventing them. Making sure you are 100% engaged with what you are doing. Eating well is another really important thing. We are what we eat. Food literally becomes our muscles and bones, so you should try to eat a balanced, healthy diet. And of course what we all know: warm up before exercise and cool down after.
What advice can you give to somebody wanting to be a professional dancer?
Go to see as many performances as you can and ask yourself what is it that you like about some dancers and what do you dislike/are less impressed about others.
Film yourself when you can and ask for honest feedback. If a teacher is giving you a correction, take it as a present, it’s something that can really make you improve, don’t get defensive or think of it as a criticism. And that goes for the corrections that are given to the whole group too- take them as possibilities of becoming better.
Work really hard, but also find other things that you love doing and keep nurturing you, wether is clubbing, climbing, playing an instrument, reading… because you are not just an empty body, your soul has to come out when you are dancing, too. And always try to keep in touch with what got you dancing in the first place. Remind yourself of it when you feel tired or uninspired. Don’t loose the joy of moving.
Tell us what you’ve got coming up? And about your choreographer workshops.
I’m working on a really exciting piece for next year: Quimera, which will integrate circus, dance, music and theatre. It’s also going to be performed at a fantastic venue in London which I can’t reveal yet… And there will be plenty of workshops to choose from related to the performance. If you are interested in finding out more visit my company’s website: www.nuadance.com
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