Friday, April 9, 2010

Spanish Soul Inside An American Ballet Corp

Jaime Garcia Castilla

Jaime Garcia Castilla in Tomasson's On Common Ground.

Jaime Garcia Castilla was only 7 years old when he passed his first audition at the Spanish Royal Conservatory of Professional Dance. Little could he suspect then that he would become one of his country's greatest dancing talents. Neither could his parents, who never imagined that the up-and-coming little boy's fondness for music and dance would one day lead to a successful professional career.

Back to the present, it's 2:32 p.m. in San Francisco and Jaime Garcia Castilla has not eaten yet. Since 10:00 a.m., he has been rehearsing with his fellow dancers Neumeyers's The Little Mermaid story ballet, which debuts on March 20 at War Memorial Opera House. Even so, when he leaves the room for a moment, he does not look tired. In fact, his head keeps on dancing with the sounds of music and his feet tap the rhythm while he talks. Even though he only has a few minutes, he is kindly willing to be interviewed.

If a dancer can have striking technique, but a delicate, boyish appearance at the same time, it is Jaime Garcia Castilla. If he can be graceful and fierce with an imposing stage presence at the same time, it is Jaime Garcia Castilla. San Francisco Ballet's premiere danseur was born in Madrid, Spain, and, after winning the Prize of Excellence and Contemporary Dance Prize at the Prix de Lausanne in 2001, was named an apprentice at the San Francisco Ballet, before joining the corps the following year. In 2006, he was promoted to soloist and to principal dancer in 2008. In his years with the company, the Spaniard has given dazzling and notable performances; in diverse roles, he has demonstrated a brilliant ability to hold the audience captivated by his exquisite renditions. Depicted as an emotionally compelling dancer, he won critical acclaim for feature roles in various ballets, including the pas de cinq in Tomasson’s Giselle; Benvolio in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet; Nutcracker Prince, Snow King, and Jack-in-the-Box in Tomasson’s Nutcracker and fey Eros in Morris’ Sylvia. His repertory also includes Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and McGregor’s Eden/Eden.When asked about his early training, Garcia Castilla, who studied jazz and traditional Spanish dance followed by ballet at the Royal Conservatory of Professional Dance in Madrid, refers to his teachers as strict taskmasters.

“They just gave us the right training and push; they corrected us every single minute to help us focus and develop our inner strength; all the time, it was like 'Put your heel forward more here. Turn out!' That way, we were encouraged to work with ourselves and be self-disciplined."

Attending dancing classes from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- even on Saturdays -- sounds as a logical dancer's routine, but for a little boy who was also expected to attend school, do his homework and have a proper social life, it meant an enormous sacrifice.

"When I was a kid, I chose to take rhythmic gymnastics, flamenco and sevillanas as extracurricular activities, while my friends would go to practice judo and soccer. Then, as a teenager, I obviously had less time to have fun like everyone else or go to discos, movies and pubs... However, I rarely complained. When you enjoy what you do, you don't mind the time you have to devote to it."

In such a nurturing enviroment, Garcia Castilla achieved a solid grounding, which qualified him to interpret the wide range of styles that nowadays merge into ballet repertoire. In that sense, he had an extra contribution to make to American dance companies: his Spanish cultural traits. As well as other San Francisco Ballet's Spanish dancers of his caliber, he grew up exposed to Spanish folkloric dances and kept a sharp awareness of his cultural identity. Nonetheless, just as many of his compatriots, he had to leave his country at a young age to pursue his dream.

"Spain’s major dance companies are contemporary, which means that ballet dancers who want a classical company must get into one abroad. And to do that, you have to be at the top. European large classical companies are few and hard to get into without training at their schools. So, getting hired by a company like San Francisco Ballet, with its classical base and diverse repertory, is a blessing."

Regarding the rigor of his current training, he says that the daily rehearsals, exercises and technique classes give a dancer the base to support whatever is required of him.

"When you’re being coached, you’re able to bring yourself to the next level, rather than just doing the steps. It enables you to become a distinct artist."

Still on the same topic thread, he responds firmly to his role as a toreador in San Francisco Ballet's Don Quixote (2007) and that production's ability to convey an authentic Spanish essence.

"First of all, no production of Don Quixote is truly authentic. That one was the classical, stylized version, not the seguidilla or fandango that I learned. Either way, it’s an honor that somebody took Spain's cultural heritage and put it in a huge ballet... In ballet, elements of Spanish style center on the upper body while the feet remain classical, and we [Spaniards] know the vocabulary because we grew up into that culture. Even if you don’t know the right steps, you know how to move and play, or else, just fake it. Whenever the artistic staff gives a correction in seguidilla or fandango, how to focus or move the arms, you already kind of know it; it's inside you. Flamenco, for instance, takes a lot of things from bullfighting, like toreros' arrogant posture and movements ...”

At this point, the emphasis of his tone goes eloquently synchronized with dynamic dancing gestures from his Don Quixote character. But when asked whether that strong Spanish attitude could be fueled by a desire to be the center of attention, he claims that proud, dramatic personalities -- like his own -- are part of their charisma on stage.

"It's a magical instant, when you realize the public shares with you that unique excitement."

And one can imagine that intense interaction after witnessing, though briefly, the way he unfurls his wonderfully lithe arms towards the sky during rehearsal.

Magnetism, elegance and sculptural physique: all define San Francisco Ballet's premiere danseur Jaime Garcia Castilla.

María José Perez de Arenaza

Photographs courtesy of San Francisco Ballet.

(© Erik Tomasson)

(© Erik Tomasson)

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