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By Justine Bayod PEpoz
Victor Ullate has a reputation for being a “challenging” teacher. But would one expect anything less from the man who has launched the careers of Angel Corella, Tamara Rojo, and Joaquin De Luz? Since 1983, when he founded his Madrid-based school, Centro de Danza Victor Ullate, this commanding instructor has shaped some of Spain’s most sought-after ballet stars.
Born in Zaragoza, Spain, Ullate studied ballet under the celebrated dance teacher Maria de Ávila. His career took off in 1966 when he joined Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels. Ullate left Béjart in 1979 to become the first director of Spain’s national classical ballet company (now directed by Nacho Duato). Nine years later, he established Ballet de Victor Ullate, made up entirely of students from his school. In his class for young adults, after which Justine Bayod Espoz spoke with him, Ullate balances high expectations with an emphasis on “empujoncitos,” or baby steps. “Little by little,” he says, “but always pushing yourself to do better.”
How do you structure your classes for young adults? I assess each student’s level, and I design classes based on individual needs. It’s different from a conservatory, where each year is planned out. The first years at my school tend to be very clearly outlined, but afterward I evolve with the child. What does he or she have to work on? One day we’ll work on turns, the next day jumps or adagio. I don’t repeat exercises. I want the child’s intellect and memory to awaken, so that later, when they are professionals, they can grasp choreography quickly.
Are there differences between how you teach male and female dancers? It’s the same preparation, but with women the port de bras is much more feminine. They work more on turns and pointe and on developing that feminine charm, while the men are taller, more muscular, and have a much more masculine role. But the base is the same, the fondu is the same, the arabesque is the same.
A lot of your choreography combines ballet and flamenco. Do your students study traditional Spanish dance on the side? The earlier generations did have flamenco classes. Rather than teaching character dances like they do in other schools, we added our own national character. As the director of a dance company, I wanted to develop a style that would differentiate this company from the rest. I’ve never tried to choreograph flamenco dance, I’ve just tried to include the essence of flamenco in my vision.
You’ve taught some of Spain’s most prominent ballet dancers. How do you think you’ve influenced them? I’m interested in quality, in elegance. It’s better to take a little extra time and insist that everything is performed well and not just any which way. There are people who say that pirouettes and tours en l’air require the most work, but what about everything in between? The transitions are what make a great professional. A failli, a glissade, a port de bras––all of those things I try to improve in my students. Great dancers have a certain presence that others don’t, and it’s due to that detailed and meticulous work ethic.
On the other hand, many of your students are known for their high jumps and multiple pirouettes. What’s your approach to teaching these? Pushkin, who was Baryshnikov’s and Nureyev’s teacher, always said—and I say it too—that a dancer knows he’s dancing well when he has a good fifth position and demi-plié. The demi-plié is what makes you push and jump up.
Maria de Ávila used to tell us all these stories about Nijinsky. She’d say, “Nijinsky jumps and he remains up in the air.” All of us little children wanted to jump and stay there, like flying. Above all, jumps are a sensation, and the students must have that sensation of pushing and remaining suspended in the air.
As a dancer, I always had a very strong pirouette, which is a talent I have been able to pass on to my students. The student has to think about the axis, turn the head well, and have a properly positioned back.
What have you learned from your mentors that you use when teaching? Maria de Ávila left the biggest impression on me. She gave me the groundwork I needed so that I could later be enriched by the teaching of others. I find the Vaganova technique works very well as a foundation. I start with that and build on it in my own way.
You’ve said that your true vocation is teaching. What makes it so rewarding? I love teaching. A lot of nights I go to bed pretty tired because I’ve been working the whole day, but the next morning, at about 6:30 or 7:00, I’m up and thinking about what I’m going to work on with them. It gives me meaning. I don’t want to lose the teaching facet of my career because it makes me démarrer, as they say in French, or get up and go. It’s the engine of my life.
What do you learn from your students? I learn how to say things in a way that is constructive. I’ve found it’s better to use a soft tone, rather than an aggressive one. You get more through love than aggression. You have to approach students with both affection and firmness and let them know that it’s for their own good, and that everything they give to dance, the dance will give to them.
Photo by Justine Bayod Espoz.