Double Feature returns with a new groom in search of a bride
By Gia Kourlas|
This week, when Susan Stroman’s Double Feature returns to the repertory of New York City Ballet, Joaquin De Luz must fill the shoes of not one but two stellar performers: Buster Keaton and Tom Gold. Makin’ Whoopee!, the ballet’s second act, is based on the Keaton film Seven Chances, in which a man learns that he has been left $7 million—but can only receive it if he marries that very day. (Keaton starred in the 1925 film; Stroman’s version was created for Gold, the former NYCB member.) For De Luz, a native of Madrid who enjoyed a stint at American Ballet Theatre before leaping across the plaza to NYCB in 2003, the opportunity to take on such a meaty part is a dream—even if the dog, just one of the many surprises in this delight of a ballet, steals the show.
Have you started rehearsing Double Feature? I actually started working with the dog. We have a new dog, and I adore dogs, so it’s been so much fun. The old dog—I mean not old, the poor guy—the former dog is getting old, and he can’t really jump that high. In one section, I pretend to be eating a piece of candy, and he chases me. So they got a new dog, and it’s a different breed; it’s a terrier, like Toto from The Wizard of Oz. He’s actually playing Toto on tour in [a stage version of] The Wizard of Oz, so he has serious acting chops. I’m a little worried. [Laughs]
Have you worked with animals before? No, it’s the first time. And I’m really looking forward to it; I always had dogs growing up. This one is so cute. When he sees me, he runs and flips onto his stomach so I rub his belly. His name is Nigel.
What did you learn about this part? I actually understudied Tom Gold the last time it went up. From my years in ABT, I love playing someone. I’ve always been very into acting. Coming from Spain, we’re crazy about movies. We watch thousands of movies. [Laughs] And Susan Stroman is so creative; I’m a big fan of hers, and I’ve seen pretty much all the shows that she’s done—Contact, The Producers, The Scottsboro Boys and Happiness. Her timing is so good.
Have you been watching Buster Keaton movies? Yes. Seven Chances. I also really like College. I just love how he just tries to fit in. He does nothing right, this guy. It is hilarious. I even like him better than Chaplin. His timing and the stillness of his face: It’s almost funnier when he doesn’t really react. His face just stays the same. I also recently watched The Artist, and that’s a perfect example because he has a dog and [Jean Dujardin is] fantastic. I haven’t really worked that much with Susan yet, but I’m looking forward to that.
Who are you working with now? [Ballet master] Jean-Pierre Frohlich taught me the ballet. I kind of knew it from before, but there are obviously so many details that Susan will shape. She’ll be there to make the ballet so it fits me better, because obviously I’m different than Tom. So that’s the fun part about the creative process and working with a choreographer. The certain timing cues have to be there, but if she makes it personal for everybody, it really works.
This may sound weird, but unlike Tom Gold and Buster Keaton, you’re not asexual as a performer. Do you think about that? Yes, and that’s what’s going to be different for me—to leave that passionate, Spanish side. This character is completely asexual, straightforward and nerdy. That’s the biggest challenge for me, but hopefully with a little pale makeup…
Why did you start dancing in the first place? My mom was a frustrated ballerina. She’s a fantastic flamenco dancer, but she comes from a pretty humble family, so it was an impossible thing to become a dancer. She’s the real dancer in the family, and she’s the one that pushed me into ballet—headfirst. I didn’t really love it, and then I started to like it. I was very ADD as a kid. I hated school, and I could not deal with sitting down for more than ten minutes. In ballet, I found something to capture all that energy.
Were you ever a gymnast? No. I played soccer and I was in bullfighting school for a year.
Wow. What was that like? It was great. You don’t fight bulls or anything—you’re a kid—but you learn about this beautiful animal and about its tendencies. It was really interesting. I think bullfighting has a lot of dance in it.
I do, too. I once went to a sad bullfight though. It was awful. When it’s bad, it’s bad. My grandpa, he never made it to the top, but he was a quadrilla bullfighter. So every male in the family had to go through school. I remember going every year, at least three or four times. Actually, when I made one of my first paychecks, I took my grandma to a fantastic bullfight. It was sold out and I don’t remember how I got tickets, but it was with six bulls. I love it. I think it’s incredible. I get into a lot of arguments here, because if you haven’t been in that world, you think it’s gory and animal cruelty and all that. I understand that, but I wish they would see it through the eyes of the connoisseur. And this particular breed of bulls—if there were no bullfights, they would be extinct. And they have the best lives. They have this honorable death in the ring, but it’s hard to see that when you can’t get past the blood. I’m in school now, and I wrote a big essay on the controversy. I looked at it from two different perspectives. It was a research paper, 25 pages. It caused controversy in my class. I got bombarded and attacked, but I can take it. [Laughs].
Where are you going to school? I’m doing the LEAP program [Liberal Education for Arts Professionals, a Bachelor of Arts degree program designed for current and former professional dancers through Saint Mary’s College of California]. It’s great. They give credits for your life experience, and I’m really enjoying it; I love writing. It’s working another part of my brain that I haven’t really worked before. If you had told me 20 years ago that I would be doing school? No way. But that’s why we evolve and change. I feel that I am fulfilling something that I was missing, I was lacking. I’m about to be a sophomore. It’s slow, because I take one course a semester.
Have you ever focused on the choreography of bullfighting? Well, I really love flamenco and that has a lot of bullfighting in it. Before I came to the states, I was offered a contract in a flamenco company. My only condition was that I had to learn to play castanets. I was going to do the bolero school, which is with ballet shoes and jumps and stuff, but you have to play the castanets at the same time. It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever see. You have to do all these beats, kind of like Bournonville [ballet technique], but while playing the castanets. It takes incredible coordination. I was considering switching to flamenco. I have passion for it. Every time the Flamenco Festival is in New York, I’m there, like a groupie. I have a lot of friends that do flamenco. I know Joaquín Cortés a little bit—he was an incredible dancer before he got involved in the fashion world. It went to his head a little bit, which is a shame, because he was fantastic. He still is. Another great friend of mine is Antonio Márquez, who recently retired. He was unbelievable. He used to dance with the National Ballet of Spain.
Do you still study flamenco? I don’t study it. For fun, when I go home I dance with my mom. We go to places where you can dance flamenco, and we have a good time. I think Spanish people have a sense for music, for passionate movement. I don’t know really how to explain it, but everyone asks, “Why do you think that there are so many good Spanish dancers?” And there’s not really an answer; there’s nothing in the water or anything like that, but I think when we’re passionate about something, and when it involves music and rhythm, we click. We know how to connect with the audience as well. My teacher, the great Victor Ullate, was fantastic because he taught us not only technical stuff. When you’re a kid, they tell you over and over, “When you do passé, your foot must…” But he would give us examples from everyday life: “Your body’s like a bottle of wine and when you do pirouettes, you have to pull the cork.” So when you’re a kid, you retain it that much better. And he would tell us that there should be a two-way bridge from the performer to the audience.
When did you become serious about ballet? When I got into the [Victor Ullate Ballet company] in Spain. I was 16.
Were you a good ballet student? Yeah. It was a great class. There was Ángel Corella and Tamara Rojo and Lucia [Lacarra] and Carlos Lopez. We would push each other in a healthy way. Those years were amazing. Victor was like a second father almost. He was so proud of all of us.
What crazy talent in that class, right? It was amazing. We actually did a show to Spanish folk music, and we were all in it. We were 12 and 13. And when I see it now, it’s really impressive that at 12 and 13, we were almost ready to be in a company. That was the scary part. Ángel was the MC, and he would talk to the audience. This kid was 13, and he had such a spark.
How long were you with the company? I was there for two years. Then I worked with Fernando Bujones. He came to Spain and he started a little pickup company. He was amazing. He would still be taking barre, and you’d see those legs and feet. Unbelievable! I was like, “Fernando, you don’t use them anymore, can you donate them?” So that was a good experience. And then I wanted to come here. I saw a few tapes of Balanchine and of course, I saw ABT’s Don Quixote with Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov] and I was like, Who is that? I want to do that, and I want to be there. I had no savings. A friend told me there was a competition in Hungary—the Nureyev Competition—and the first prize had a lot of money, so I went by myself. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life. Really hard, hard, hard. There was snow everywhere. I didn’t go with a coach or anything, and everyone had their coaches. Everybody spoke Russian, the schedules were in Russian—I had no clue whatsoever. I was doing In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe. I had to do my lighting using a cleaning lady that spoke Italian. I didn’t even speak that much English.
Oh my God! It was a nightmare. You would see the members of the jury going to dinner with the dancers and the coaches, and I didn’t like it at all. But one of the best karma things happened in my life there. Inside of all these dramatic and sad moments, there was a Brazilian guy in the first round that went for a solo and fell and hurt his knee. I was two numbers after him, so I was warming up, and he grabbed his knee and went to the wings and he was crying and crying, and nobody would help him. I ran to the canteen and got him ice and I put it on his knee. And as soon as I put it on his knee, they called my name, and I had to run and do my solo. Years later, when I was in ABT, [Brazilian company] Grupo Corpo was performing at City Center. I was watching in the audience and this guy comes up to me and kneels, and I had no idea who he was and I was like, This is a little weird…
Like, I have my fans, but… [Laughs] No, no. And he starts crying and says, “You don’t remember me.” And then it clicked, and it was this kid. It was so touching. I was like, This is what karma is. And I never forget that. I ended up winning, and I took my gold medal and my money and ran out of there. I thought, Just get me on the first plane. So with that money, I came to America. I was in New York for the first time. I spent hours at the library watching videos, and one day I was taking class at Steps with Willie Burmann when a woman approached and asked me if I wanted to join Pennsylvania Ballet as a soloist. And at first it sounded to me like where Dracula lived. I had no idea what Pennsylvania was. I thought it was Transylvania. I had no idea about the States.
Did you speak English when you got here? Barely. I remember my first few weeks in Pennsylvania Ballet, they would tell me, “You count to five, you come to center.” I had no idea what they were saying.
How did you learn? There was a Brazilian girl who helped me out in the beginning, but you learn from necessity. I had to rent an apartment, I had to sign leases. You always have people that help you out, so that’s why I feel so good when somebody from Spain comes now. I try to take them under my wing, because everybody’s done it throughout my career. When I joined ABT, Julio [Bocca] and José [Manuel Carreño] and all those guys were like my brothers. And these were the big stars. Julio would stay in my rehearsals and give me corrections; it was priceless. I mean, I’m great friends with José. We have dinner together and we go on trips together, and he’s just like my big brother, really—so giving and humble and helpful. Watching all these people from the wings was such a learning chapter in my life. I’m so grateful to have been in ABT for all those years. It really was incredible. I’ve been very lucky. I give thanks every day. Because who would tell a little kid from Spain that he would be here?
How long were you in Pennsylvania? One season. It was a great stepping-stone. I got to do all of these incredible ballets and I had a lot of fun. The only thing is that there was nobody in the street after 6pm. So coming from Madrid, Philadelphia was a shock for me. Like New York is not such a shock, but Philly was. And it’s a beautiful city and now I go and visit and I love it, but it was a bit rough. But it makes you stronger; it makes you grow up.
So you were briefly a member of Pennsylvania Ballet. How did you end up with ABT? I actually auditioned for New York City Ballet first. [NYCB master-in-chief] Peter [Martins] asked me to come take classes at the school. So I go to the school, and Misha is teaching. This is the first time that I saw Misha in person. Then three men walk in: Peter Martins, Edward Villella and Jerome Robbins. Peter was like, “Listen, I really like your dancing, but I have the rep for this year, and you are going to be bored.” He suggested that I go to ABT. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to work for New York City Ballet. So when the time came, I talked to him and he said, “Okay, we’ll give it a try,” and it’s worked out.
Were you dissatisfied with the roles you were getting at ABT after a certain point? No. I really enjoyed City Center. The seasons at City Center were when I got most of my chances. I love the creative process of learning new ballets, and dancing at the Met—I have great memories. I wasn’t unhappy. When I had my final speech with [artistic director] Kevin [McKenzie], I was so appreciative. There were no hard feelings. Victor [Barbee, ABT’s associate artistic director]—he didn’t understand why I was leaving. Because after my surgery—I had to have surgery on both my knees—and I came back and I had a really good season at City Center, and it was right after that. I was like, “Well, Victor, I’m grateful for everything that I’ve been given and thankful to you guys, but I think it’s time for me to go. And I’m not here to negotiate. I’m not here to say, ‘I have a contract with New York City Ballet, what can you offer me?’ ” like many people do. I don’t have the stomach for that. I earned everything I have. My mom raised me that way, and I sleep really well at night. I like earning what I have. If it takes longer, it takes longer. So there was no bitterness. It was just a big challenge to come to City Ballet, and it was something I really wanted to do, and I’m very privileged to be one of the few to have had the chance to work for both companies. And they’re completely different. It’s amazing the way things work. Not only the rep—the rehearsals, the coaching, everything is different.
Tell me about that. There’s not one thing I can even say is similar. Obviously when you’re out there [dancing], you’re out there, but it’s a completely different experience. I really enjoy City Ballet because as an artist you want to—at least I do, which maybe it comes from my ADD as a kid—keep on your toes. And this company is such a machine that you’re always on your toes. You can be doing five different pieces in a week and they’re all completely different, and they require a completely different physicality and state of mind and even different preparation, a different warm-up. It’s a unique company in that sense. The repertory is so vast. You can be dancing something like Double Feature and a [Wayne] McGregor ballet and then Sleeping Beauty.
How do you manage dancing five totally different ballets in one week? It hurts. [Laughs] It really hurts. First of all, when you’re creating a ballet with a choreographer you feel so enriched. It’s like a painting is being made and you’re the brush, and the choreographer puts on the paint and then you mix them together. But things that you would never think: You have muscles that have never been sore, and they are sore. You use some different technique, different accents. So it’s physically demanding at City Ballet, but you learn how to manage it, and with age and with injuries, obviously, you learn how to take care of your body. I wish I did before I learned all these things that I know, but that’s life, isn’t it? In this and every sense. I’m much smarter about my body now. I had to go through bad injuries to figure out that maybe I should come to class ten minutes early to stretch those muscles or strengthen my core. When I was 18, I didn’t even warm up, and I would go straight to jumping like a maniac. Your body pays for it.
What is the difference in coaching? In City Ballet, because it’s such a machine, I think you have to do a lot on your own. You have to find yourself in many roles. There’s great coaching—the Robbins ballets are really well taken care of and they demand time, and I think Jerry was very picky—he wanted to see not only the steps, but it was very important for him to see individuals. With Balanchine, everything is there—his musicality and his physicality—and beyond the steps, you can make it your own; but there’s not really that element [of individualism], even though every time I go onstage, I make my own story. I do. It’s not just about executing. I’ve never been about that. But what I mean to say is that Balanchine is more about repetition than Robbins is. And it takes years. [Robbins’s] Dances at a Gathering I love with all my heart, but you are never satisfied. Brown boy—I used to do Brick, too—there are so many details that you wish had been better. And it’s wonderful, because sometimes you go out there and you do something a little different—it’s hard to explain. That’s why it’s such a great company. Apart from all the new creations and Chris Wheeldon’s pieces and Peter’s, to have Jerry [Robbins] and Balanchine and to be blessed to do some of the most incredible roles is priceless. What do you like about the speed at which you can perform so many more roles? What does that do to your dancing? Everything enriches you. The more you go out there—a career is so short. It’s a growing experience, and it makes you better every time you go out there if you’re smart, and you know how to take the good things about the roles. You can even apply some of the things you do in one role to another. It’s a living art. It never stops growing, and therefore you grow as an artist and as a person. It’s very humbling to go onstage.
Is there less pressure in a way because you have so many changes? Did you feel that way? No. I felt such a pressure and it was a big challenge. I’m still learning so much from partnering. I didn’t know how to partner when I first came. There are great partners in this company—there have always been. Peter Martins is the ultimate partner. The guy knows exactly what to say to fix a problem. He gave me a lot of flak for my partnering—Russian style. It’s very different from how you partner here. When I first came, he would laugh a lot. “Oh, so that’s what they teach you over there?” It’s been great with Peter. We have a good mutual respect, because we both come from somewhere else. He appreciates that I’ve changed, but that I tried to keep the good things.
Did you have to work hard at toning down your performance style, which was more flamboyant at ABT? With looking at the audience and all of that? Yes. I mean, just the way we bow. It took me such a long time to adjust to not having any rest after the pas de deux. At ABT, you send the girl forward and there are flowers and fireworks after the pas de deux and you haven’t even danced yet, right? And here, I’ll never forget doing Le Baiser de la Fée. You have two long pas de deux, and you don’t even get to go to the corner after you bow. You go straight to center and start one of the hardest solos in the history of men. I remember asking Peter, “Do you guys do this? Just bow and walk back a few steps and start the solo?” And he said, “That’s right.”
What has that done for your stamina? Now, when I do things like Corsaire or Don Q on gigs, I don’t even sweat. [His eyes grow.] I don’t even sweat.
What else did you have to unlearn or relearn? I like the aesthetic—the quickness. I was fortunate enough to take classes with Stanley Williams before he passed, and I didn’t get it at all. He would tell me, “When you turn, you go around and I go under.” It took me so many years to understand that it is almost more important when you’re in fourth [position preparation] than when you’re turning. It’s not spinning. It’s placement and turnout, and then the turn will happen. What I like about how they teach here is that every step is important; you’re not spinning or doing tricks, and that’s also a difference between the companies. Especially the roles that I did at Ballet Theatre—they were tricks and the jumping-boy [parts], which were very entertaining and fun, but it’s nice to go beyond that. Yeah, you can spin and turn, but how about doing it really clean and very musically? Also, a big difference is the music: at ABT, there are drum rolls, and they wait for you—the conductor’s like that. Here there’s a tempo, and you have to finish on time. That makes the work show more than the dancer. NYCB is about the work; it’s about the pieces of art that were created and how they relate to you and how you relate to them. It’s not so much about who’s doing Swan Lake tonight, like at ABT. This is the only city in the world that has both companies at the same time. I don’t think you would be able to appreciate one without the other. I think it’s very important to have both.
I need both. I love both, and some of these kids in the company never go to see the other company because in SAB [the School of American Ballet], it’s almost like tunnel vision. I think it’s wrong. I think if you’re exposed to it in a city like New York? I wish I grew up here. I never saw dance in Madrid. I remember when ABT came in 1990. I was in school, and I was freaking out. I snuck in because I could not afford to buy tickets everyday, but I was so hungry. I wish I grew up in a city like this, with a library and with all of these companies coming to New York. It’s great to appreciate things and have two of the five major companies in the world here. The audience is completely different. Over at ABT, you do two jumps and they go crazy. Here it’s more about the art. It’s almost like they’re more avant-garde about appreciating—they appreciate it at the end but they don’t interrupt it so much. I think that is about appreciating the music, too—not interrupting it. Yeah. I think the perfect way to compare the two companies is the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. ABT is the Empire State—big stars and big jumps and everything’s big, and the Chrysler is that incredible Art Deco madness, and it’s so sophisticated. It’s more quiet, yet it surprises you. I think that’s pretty accurate. In terms of everything: the audience, the theater, everything. In terms of your NYCB career, you’ve danced a lot of roles here. Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son was huge, right? It was very meaningful. I actually got the Benois award [Prix Benois de la Danse] a couple of years ago for Prodigal. I was surprised. It’s a role that I really haven’t found yet. I never feel satisfied. I find new things every time I do it, but I don’t know—there’s something about it. I’m not content. I don’t know if I ever will be, but it’s such an amazing piece. To think that it was done in 1929, and it’s still so fresh and current. I tried so many things in Prodigal. I just need to not think so much maybe—it’s one of those roles. I actually talked to Misha, because he coached us a little bit in Harlequinade when we did it, and that was amazing. It would be like two hours with him in a room with Benjamin [Millepied] and me. He spent so much time [with us] in the beginning. We serenade the girl with a mandolin. She’s on the balcony, and your back is to the audience almost the whole time. And he was explaining to us about the commedia dell’arte and he was doing it with the mandolin and he said, “Look from the back.” I felt so rich living in that rehearsal room everyday. So I asked him about Prodigal: “I know you’re super busy, but I would love it if you could tell me a couple of things about Prodigal,” and he said no, because Prodigal is such a personal role. I think if it was any other role, he would have said yes. That threw me off a little. If Misha thinks that…[Laughs] I can’t imagine. I have a little thing with Prodigal. It’s a love…I’m not going to say hate, but love-frustration. Hopefully I’ll get a couple more cracks at it before I retire.
What are some of your other favorite ballets to dance? Dances at a Gathering has been incredibly meaningful. Fancy Free—I’ve been doing it for so long, and every time I do it I have the best time. I really enjoy doing Theme [and Variations]. You feel very naked in Theme. It’s very challenging.
You did that at ABT. I remember your debut with Ashley Tuttle. Yeah. I was nervous. The first big role I did at ABT was Études, because José went out with a neck injury, and they were going to share it between Ethan [Stiefel], Angel and I. And they decided to give it to me, and I remember going out at the Met as the turning boy in Études. No pressure. [Laughs] That was amazing.
At NYCB, you dance a lot with Megan Fairchild. What is that like? It’s great. When we started dancing together, she was really young—she was 19. She’s grown so much. Even our partnership and how we relate to each other onstage has changed. I remember when I came: We would be doing this romantic duet, and I would have to pull it out of her—come on, Megan! And now, she surprises me. She’s maturing in such a way, and she’s enjoying her dancing much more. She’s always been great technically, but she’s really developing. I know exactly what Megan’s going to do. I know that she had a chicken sandwich that probably sat on the left so in the pirouette, she’s going to…[He leans his body the other way.] I mean, I’m exaggerating, but I know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s pure trust. She’s great to work with, and we laugh a lot.
What else are you looking forward to this season? Theme.
You never get sick of Theme. Why? I used to freak out. Theme is one of those that you don’t sleep the night before. It’s like bullfighters the night before in Madrid. It’s the real deal. You’re in white tights and the lights go on and you start doing tendus. It’s so perfect, yet you can make it your own once the technique is there. And the pas de deux is exquisite. The music is beautiful even though you’re so dead. I’m looking forward to Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Tiler [Peck]. I’m looking forward to Jeu de Cartes. That was actually the first ballet I did with City Ballet. We were on tour in Denmark, and I was supposed to only do Symphony in C at the end of the tour, but Benjamin hurt his foot. I didn’t know the ballet, so Russell [Kaiser] taught it to me in one day. It’s Stravinsky. The counts are, like, nine and two and I was like, How? I’ll never forget: I was having a costume fitting for it, and I was freaking out. How am I going to do this ballet? It’s so hard. And Peter walked in and looked at me and goes, “You gonna be okay?” And I didn’t look at him. I said, “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” I was so cocky, because I was so nervous inside that I didn’t want to show it to Peter. They were like, “Welcome to City Ballet. This is how it works.” You just jump in. How did it go? It went well. I actually lost a shoe. [Laughs] One of my shoes came off in the middle of the ballet. It was terrible! But other than that… I’m looking forward to doing it again, and it’s one of my favorite ballets of Peter’s. I like Fearful [Symmetries] and Zakouski. Symphony in C is back. I do the third movement. Ah! It hurts. I always say that every time you do the third movement you take a couple of weeks off your career. And I’m dancing with Ashley Bouder. I have to [work to] get my legs to jump that high. She can jump.
Do you think about how much longer you’ll dance? I don’t know. As the body permits, we’ll see. I take good care of my body. I go to the gym and swim and lift weights. I don’t want to start looking bad. I’ll have that talk with Peter when the time comes. We’ll see. Hopefully three, four years? It’s hard to tell. I’d like to keep going for a little bit. I go to the gym five times a week. I had a really bad back injury three years ago, and I was out for six months. The doctor said I would never dance again. Actually, two doctors told me that I would never be able to pick up anything past my head or dance. I had a vertebrae that moved and pinched a nerve. It was pretty hard to hear. Most of the time, doctors don’t know what we do. What we do is kind of against nature. We stretch the body to its limits. I saw this great kind of chiropractor that works with his hands—he worked with Misha for a long time—and he fixed my back. He said, “You’ll be back in three months.” And I was back. He would adjust my spine through my stomach. It was excruciating. I have never been in so much pain.
Did he tell you to lift weights? He told me that I needed to strengthen my core, and if you lift weights correctly you do. Now when I lift ballerinas, I’m much more aware. I used to really use my back in the wrong way; if your arms and legs and core are stronger, you just lift—and it looks better. I can’t really take time off now. If I take a week off, I feel crippled. It takes two weeks to come back into shape, double the time. The more I do, the better my body feels.