Scottish Ballet delivers double dose of emotion

A mother’s flight and Cole Porter’s private life are the inspirations for work by two Latin American choreographers
Dancers Constance Devernay, Thomas Edwards, Victor Zarallo and Nicholas Shoesmith. Picture: Scottish BalletDancers Constance Devernay, Thomas Edwards, Victor Zarallo and Nicholas Shoesmith. Picture: Scottish Ballet
Dancers Constance Devernay, Thomas Edwards, Victor Zarallo and Nicholas Shoesmith. Picture: Scottish Ballet

MARIA Arias was just 16 when she crossed the border from Mexico to California alone. With all legitimate means of entering the country closed to her, the young girl from El Salvador spent hours crawling on her hands and knees through a sewage tunnel to reach the US.

It was a journey fraught with peril, which as an adult she would tell and re-tell her son about. But it wasn’t until Bryan Arias was older, had moved from the US to Europe and lived a little, that he realised how remarkable his mother’s story was. Now, the 29-year-old choreographer is sharing it with the world through Motion Of Displacement, his new work for Scottish Ballet.

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I meet Arias at the company’s Glasgow studios during a brief break between rehearsals. A former dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), he only recently made the transition to choreographer – and has been snapped up by Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson.

Asking Arias about his mother, his admiration and love is palpable. “It’s only just come to the surface how much of an impact she has had on my life,” he says. “And that only came with time and with having something to compare her experiences to. By hearing other people’s stories and knowing what she went through, what her trials and tribulations were.”

Each time Maria would tell her son about leaving home, a new facet of her story would emerge. The trip across Honduras to reach Mexico, the bus crash which almost killed her, the policeman who turned everybody back from the border except her – instead passing her over to a smuggler or “coyote” who led her to the sewage tunnel. And the boyfriend in California she was heading for, only to discover he’d met someone else in the meantime.

Although Motion Of Displacement is not, Arias points out, a story ballet, Maria’s journey is the inspiration. The “themes, emotions and ideas” of the 16-year-old’s adventure are, he says, presented almost like a dream or memory. And watching the dancers rehearse, Motion Of Displacement is moving, exciting and utterly compelling – even without costumes and lighting.

Although the subject matter of his new work is acutely personal, Arias never loses sight of who will ultimately be watching it – a group of strangers who have never met his mother. “I think a lot about my audience,” he says, “and I’m inspired to make them feel something when they watch my work. There’s nothing selfish about what I do, it’s all selfless. And that comes from my artistic approach to life.”

That approach was partly honed at NDT, a company known for attracting world class choreographers who create entertaining, accessible works. Arias recalls watching those choreographers closely, absorbing how they spoke to the dancers, how they articulated what they wanted, and how they created a positive energy in the rehearsal room.

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I’m reminded of this when I enter the space where Arias is working with ten of Scottish Ballet’s dancers. So enamoured are they with him, that a wipe-clean board on the wall has the words “We love Bryan” across it, alongside a heart. It’s easy to see why – his style is relaxed and supportive, drawing out the inner artist in all of the performers.

“I chose to become a choreographer because as a dancer I felt I had reached the limit of connecting with my audience artistically,” he says. “I wanted to challenge myself and find a different way of doing that. But I don’t come into the room with an idea that’s set in stone – I come with something that can inspire us, that can be manipulated, shifted and restructured.”

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Across the corridor in a nearby studio, another kind of restructuring is taking place, this time by a choreographer whose reputation is already established. Born in Venezuela, Javier de Frutos has spent the past 20 years creating work for dance, theatre, music, film and TV – from the Royal Ballet and West End musicals to Game Of Thrones.

I first met De Frutos in 2000, when he was making his choreographic debut at Rambert Dance Company in London. He is in Glasgow to restage his 2003 work, Elsa Canasta, originally created for the dancers at Rambert. What has it been like to adapt it for a new cast?

“If I ever go back to a piece, it has to be with hindsight so I can resolve problems – because everything is unfinished business,” he says. “I’ve never been a choreographer who says ‘I don’t need to do anything to that – it’s perfect’. I knew that the DNA of Elsa Canasta was right – but it’s 12 years later and I know a little bit more now, my craft has honed in different areas.

“The piece was very much about the dancers in Rambert at that time, but the sheer amount of new work that Scottish Ballet does told me this was never going to be a straightforward revival. There is a creative energy here, and these dancers are not happy with just learning steps – so that was not the end of the process, it was just the beginning.”

A sweeping staircase forms the centrepiece to Elsa Canasta, an abstracted version of the entrance to songwriter Cole Porter’s 1920s Venice home. Dancers scamper up and down the steps, fling themselves off, and hint at the sexual politics being played out inside the house. All of which is backed by singer Nick Holder delivering some of Porter’s most emotive songs, plus a piece of ballet music, Within The Quota, which Porter wrote for Sergei Diaghilev.

When I ask De Frutos what inspired the piece in 2003, ten minutes’ worth of cultural references spill out, each as passionate as the last. The 1990 Cole Porter tribute album, Red, Hot + Blue, the choreographers linked to Diaghilev (in particular, George Balanchine’s Apollo), a book he read about Porter, the ballet music he unearthed from the archives, the list goes on.

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“I’ve never been able to do the minimalist thing,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a one-track mind about any work I’ve done. It’s always a complete collection of stuff – and there’s a mixture of a lot of things in this piece. Also, every time I create a new work, for some reason I always think that it might be my last – so whatever my obsessions are at that time, they all come into play.”

Twitter: @KellyApter

Scottish Ballet: Elsa Canasta and Motion Of Displacement, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Thursday to Saturday; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29-30 September; Eden Court, Inverness, 2-3 October, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 9-10 October,