A journey with Sara de Luis, Spanish dancer extraordinaire
by Dean Speer (transcribed and edited by Francis Timlin)
Born in New Orleans, Sara de Luis studied both classical ballet and Spanish dance, dancing professionally throughout Europe and the Middle East. As a principal dancer with the great Manolo Vargas, she toured Europe, and the Americas. As a member of First Chamber Dance Company of New York she worked with Antony Tudor, Anna Sokolow, Paul Sanasardo, Agnes de Mille, Anton Dolin, Lotte Gosler, Jose Limon as well as First Chamber's director Charles Bennett. A choreographer as well as guest teacher, de Luis has been on theFaculty of Pacific Northwest Ballet for 20 years.
Our interview with Sara de Luis was episodic and fun. We chatted with her on three different occasions, both separately and together, beginning in late summer 2003 to talk about her career and her passionate and life-long commitment to dance. De Luis is irrepressible - an energetic whirlwind and a larger-than-life phenomenon. What follows is a summary of those very lively discussions.
How did you get started dancing?
I've always had a passion for dance and studied ballet as a child and young teen in San Francisco; my family having moved there from New Orleans when I was only three. When I saw the great Jose Greco and his company perform at the War Memorial Opera House, it made me think, "That's what I want to do!" I moved to Spain when I was 18 to study and dance.
Tell us about your involvement with First Chamber Dance Company, and your return to your ballet roots.
[Laughs.] Well, Charles [Bennett, the founding Artistic Director of the company] told me that I had to do ballet, including pointe work, as this was an ensemble that was inclusive of styles. So, there I was in New York and I began by retooling myself with Maggie Black and her marvelous classes. I had been working exclusively in Spanish Dance for many years, and so this was quite a challenge!
My first part was as Fanny Cerrito in Anton Dolin's staging of "Pas de Quatre".” I also did “Demoiselles des Mirlitons,” and a work to the glorious music of Schubert. It [ballet] was a wonderful experience, but very painful!
I did this for five years and then left classical repertoire and stayed with my Spanish classical solos.
First Chamber, which was originally a quartet of dancers, moved to Seattle in 1974, and disbanded in 1979. We did not have good management or solid funding, but that's how I ended up in Seattle.
Please let us in on a little bit of your process. How do you choreograph your pieces?
Well, I never thought I could! Music is my entire reason for being. Charles indicated that anyone as musical as me should become a choreographer. My tribute to my teachers had been rolling around in my head for years, and one of my wonderful students, Mary Rousser helped organize a board and funding resources. If not for her, it never would have been organized
I started thinking about all of my teachers in Spain -- Manolo Vargas, for example. I believe that I'm a good teacher today because of them, but had never done any choreography before "Omenaje.”I threw myself into listening to music, sometimes for 8 hours a day.
Teachers donated costumes, some from the 1920s. The second part of the program, -- modern flamenco-- I wanted to look very different.
Anyway, I was so happy with the result of my first effort, that I did it from 1992 to 2003 with five different casts. I enjoyed the process, due in part to being very clear about how I wanted it to look. My husband did all of the visuals, including 150 photos that were made into slides. I wanted each section dedicated to one dancer, organized into groupings, accompanied by old photos and old recordings. The images changed every three seconds.
I guess you can say I overcame my old fears about choreography! Two of the sections are historical choreography that I reset. I felt I was meant to do this project and was never more inspired in my life.
It's quality of movement. I'm proud to be one of the foremost authorities on Spanish dance.
What are some of your recent projects?
I did the choreography for Seattle Opera's production of "Carmen" last season and also danced in it. That was great fun and a lot of work preparing for it.
I’ll be going to work with William Whitener as a consultant for his new ballet, "Carmen" at the Kansas City Ballet in 2006. And I’ll be giving a lecture in the near future at Seattle’s new downtown library for a program that celebrates the 400th anniversary of Cervantes "Don Quixote,” with a focus on dance of those times.
I travel annually to Spain – which refreshes me artistically -- and to Mexico to teach, choreograph, and perform.
KCTS, Channel 9 in Seattle (a PBS affiliate) made a tribute to de Luis. You can click here to see the tribute and watch a bit of Sara in action via streaming video:
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