At 48, Venezuela-born, Montreal contemporary choreographer José Navas is at the top of his game. Both his solo and group shows have been performed in 30 countries around the world.
Navas and his Compagnie Flak are darlings of the festival circuit. His reputation rests on dances that reflect the principles of geometry and architecture, yet in their final form, fill the space with structured beauty. Every work is simple elegance, which is not surprising since Navas trained with Merce Cunningham in New York – Cunningham being the master of dance as science.
A whole new career opened up for Navas when Emily Molnar, artistic director of Ballet British Columbia, offered him the position of resident choreographer in 2010. It gave Navas the opportunity to work with classically trained dancers, something he had wanted to do for several years.
Says Molnar: "It was a risk, but I felt that José's approach to space would fit the classical form. He constructs his pieces. He builds movement. His many-layered works lend themselves to reflection."
Molnar's gamble paid off when Navas's Bliss was a huge hit for Ballet BC in 2012. Navas's second work for the company is his modern-day update of the classical ballet Giselle. In fact, Navas has now become known as a classical dance choreographer, and Karen Kain has invited him to create a piece for the National Ballet next season.
Navas's Compagnie Flak is touring Ontario, while Navas himself is in Vancouver putting the finishing touches on Giselle. The Globe and Mail reached him by phone
You are best known as a contemporary choreographer. What's it like working with ballet dancers?
It's a whole new chapter in my life. I'm excited by the possibilities of what that block of wood in a point shoe can do, like a perfect circular spin. A ballerina can do things that you can't do in bare feet. I'm fascinated by ballet technique and the very specific elements that a choreographer must work within. The challenge is creating movement that fits into the formality of the ballet aesthetic. I'm offering the audience what I imagine classical dance to be – the quality of movement as I see it.
Giselle is the sine qua non of 19th century French romantic ballet. This is your first experience with a story line. I understand you have updated the plot.
In the original, Giselle and Albrecht are kept apart by class. Her jilted lover Hilarion exposes the fact that Albrecht is a nobleman and Giselle a peasant girl. Class is not something that resonates in today's world, so I've shifted the perspective. It's still a love triangle but Albrecht and Hilarion are now the love interest, and Giselle is the third wheel. I also have Giselle commit suicide like she did in the original ballet. Having her die of a weak heart was a later innovation to 'pretty up' the story.
What are you doing about the second act Willis – those vengeful ghosts of girls who have been betrayed by men?
I have both men and women as the Willis. The afterlife in my version is inclusive. The second act is also off point.
The formality of ballet led you back to ancient Greek drama.
Yes. In my research, I discovered that Sophocles proposed the format of three major characters, a chorus and a pictorial background. I thought – Bingo! That's what I want for Giselle – a clear story that respects the lyricism of classical ballet, and a chorus that informs the drama.
Tell us about the video projections you've commissioned for Giselle.
Ancient Greek drama was set against a pictorial background. The Quebec graphic artist Lino is creating the paintings. These paintings are then animated and the changing flow is like a kaleidoscope. Lino is the genius behind the posters for many Montreal opera and theatre companies. He is so Montreal …
You are using the original Adolphe Adam score. Has that been limiting?
Not at all. In my works I've often used classical music – Bach, Satie, Ravel, Bellini, Vivaldi.
Let's talk about your contemporary work. Your company is currently touring Villanelle and S, best described as abstract spiritualism. What inspired these works?
Choreographer/dancer William Douglas died in 1996. He was my lover, and I'm still coping with the loss, although I've been with my husband for 13 years. I began to create these works in 2008 with the image of Bill in death, and how physically he had become something else. I was also interested in silence and meditation. This led me to explore the theme of how does the soul escape the physical body. After the last breath, how do the body and the spirit maintain a connection? The structure is poetic. Villanelle is the meditative solo that leads into the group section S.
These works have produced a strong emotional reaction from the audience. Is that what you wanted?
I do want the audience to experience something. Everyone can relate to the idea that after death we go to a place of becoming otherworldly. Audiences are human so they see themselves in the dance. They are responding to the power of theatre.
This interview has been edited and condensed.