José Montalvo on his version of Don Quichotte
José Montalvo's Don Quichotte de Trocadéro

Just as Cervantes’ hero mixed up dreams and reality, José Montalvo blends genres old and new to put the Man of La Mancha on the Paris Metro, finds Kelly Apter

José Montalvo's Don Quichotte de Trocadéro
[José Montalvo’s Don Quichotte de Trocadéro]

Engaging, friendly, open, amusing – the adjectives that describe José Montalvo’s new dance work could easily be used to sum up the man himself. When I meet him at the Gémeaux Theatre, in the suburbs of Paris, the smile that greets me, the gentle hand that takes my elbow and the “thank you for coming” he plucks from his limited English are devoid of artifice. His warmth is genuine, so too his artistic output later that evening.

The final dance work at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Don Quichotte du Trocadéro, has many ingredients, but the central one is Montalvo’s desire to create happiness. His love of dance has led him to call the art form a “high-performing anti-depressant”, with the ability to influence the mood of its viewer.

“A lot of the time in the contemporary dance world, we only talk about sad or depressing emotions that we might have,” says Montalvo. “But ever since I was a child, I have so many memories of wellbeing and happiness being associated with dance. Either from shows I’ve been in or seen, the strongest emotion connected to dance for me is always happiness. And now that I’m getting older, I want to keep that fire burning – so that’s what I’ve done with Don Quichotte.”

Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ early 17th century novel, Don Quixote, and the Marius Petipa ballet that sprang from it almost 300 years later, Montalvo’s production brings the central character into the present day. An idealist in search of something new, who sets out to affect change in some small way.

“In Cervantes’ novel, he takes the journey to La Mancha, in our story he crosses Paris on the Metro,” says Montalvo. “And the dancers are all telling the story that he imagines as he goes. Because I think we are all Don Quichottes when we travel on the underground – we look out of the window, and it’s like we’re not really there.

“This show is the same – it’s what is going on inside the old man’s head while he’s travelling, it’s his dream. So it’s a tribute to Cervantes – but without all of his characters, because there are over 600 of them.”

Instead, the story is portrayed by 13 dancers and French comic actor, Patrice Thibaud. Between them, they bring a cornucopia of dance and theatre styles to the show. For the movement itself, Montalvo started with Petipa’s ballet Don Quixote – created in 1869 with composer Ludwig Minkus – then turned it into something new. Instead of using classical ballet dancers, he assembled a cast trained in a range of disciplines. At any moment during Don Quichotte du Trocadéro, you could be watching ballet, contemporary, tap, flamenco, hip hop – or all of them at once.

“The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once said that ‘to mix, is to Cervantise’ – because everything is mixed in Cervantes’ work, nothing is black and white,” says Montalvo. “And for me, the art of mixture is also very important. So I have taken Petipa’s ballet and the music of Minkus, and then destroyed it completely and created a crazy Don Quichotte.”

Born of Spanish parents (but raised in France), Montalvo has fond memories of his grandmother reading him Cervantes’ novel, and warning her young grandson not to get the same grandiose ideas as Don Quixote. The character, he says, was “everywhere” in Spain during his childhood visits – on pens, napkins, ashtrays. As strikingly modern as Montalvo’s work is, with its use of film footage to complement the action on stage, he never loses sight of the past.

“The influence that Cervantes had on all the big writers of today is huge,” says Montalvo. “And just as his words led to the Petipa ballet, I have taken Petipa’s choreography to create this new show. Because I feel that tradition is one of the most important things you have if you want to create something new, to make sure it has real roots.”

But not everyone in the company knew their history. Petipa may be the most influential classical choreographer, responsible for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker et al, but he may not register on the radar of a young dancer honing their craft in another style.

To that end, Montalvo brought in Carole Arbo, a former principal ballerina at the Paris Opera Ballet, to teach the dancers Petipa’s choreography.

“A lot of the dancers didn’t even know who Petipa was,” says Montalvo. “But I felt it was absolutely right for us to start with the actual steps from the original classical ballet, so the dancers all had to learn it – and only then could we go elsewhere.”

Don’t go looking for Petipa’s hallmark anywhere in this work, however. Don Quichotte du Trocadéro is pure Montalvo. As Roberto Pani, a dancer with the company for 21 years, explains, learning those classical moves was only the first step in the process.

“Working with Carole was great,” says Pani. “First she taught us the exact repertoire of Petipa’s Don Quixote, so we could do it properly, the classical way. Then, each of us started to transform it into our own specific dance style. That’s something José always does – start with something well-known, then turn it into something contemporary.”

With each of the dancers highly skilled in their own chosen dance style, Montalvo’s task is not to create the steps for them – but to shape the ones they devise themselves.

“José doesn’t show us what he wants us to do – he asks us to use our own movement,” explains Pani. “Which we all do, but in the specific style of this company, which is very sharp, very fast and witty. And that way, each dancer can bring their own experience and imagination to the work.”

With a background in classical ballet, jazz dance, contemporary, tango and African, Pani brought a lot of skills to the table when he joined the company in 1992. Montalvo’s way of working suits him well – as does the man himself. “José is very gentle compared with many choreographers,” says Pani. “He’s very human, and careful with people. That’s why I’m still here after 21 years – otherwise I would have escaped.”

When Pani first joined Montalvo’s team, their output was mainly contemporary. The mixture started in 1997, when dancers proficient in other styles entered the frame. Naysayers told Montalvo it would never work (they were wrong), but initially it was a challenge for new performers unused to working in this way.
“For those first shows it wasn’t easy,” recalls Pani. “Because hip hop dancers are used to a certain kind of music, African dancers want percussion – so it was difficult for them to dance to contemporary or classical music.

“Now all the dancers who come to audition for José know they have to share the stage with dancers from different styles, so they are all prepared. It’s easy to work with everyone, because we’re all delighted to play and dance with each other. Whether it’s ballet, contemporary, hip hop, flamenco, there’s a good energy on stage each night, and we’re having a lot of fun dancing in this show.”

For this new work, Montalvo blends Minkus’ 19th century score with the electronic sounds of French composer, Sayem. Yet another ingredient into a pot that already contains a ballet dancer who suddenly starts bodypopping, a flamenco / tap dance face-off, and the physical comedy of Thibaud.

With so many tastes catered for in the show, is Montalvo trying to be all things to all people? The answer is no – our appreciation is a happy by-product of Montalvo being true to himself.

“I never create work for the audience, I do things because I like them,” he says. “I think about what touches me, and what I would like to see on stage – and luckily, the audience feels that way too. If it helps me, then hopefully it will help others. But it’s absurd to think you can guess what an audience will think of your work.”

MORE INFO: Don Quichotte du Trocadéro, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Thursday to Saturday.