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The actor, stage director and dance dramatist Gregor Acuña-Pohl, has written the plot of La Bella Otero. He regularly works with choreographer Johan Inger, having penned Carmen, by the Compañía Nacional de Danza. In his first work for the Ballet Nacional de España, he researched the life of la Belle Otero to tell the audience her story through movement.

What was the historical figure like?

After reading some seven biographies, including her autobiography, the image that comes to mind is that of a woman who invented herself. She was a girl who came out from hell, from a situation of violence and abandonment and through music, dance, and art turned into a woman that reached the stars. She achieved everything one can ask for as an artist. She was a diva at the Folies Bergère and rubbed shoulders with the European elite of the late 19th century, but she never found happiness. She used to say that the roulette was her greatest passion.  She led a lonely life for more than 50 years, isolated from the world and only surrounded by her memories.

What is the character you have created like?

For me the most important thing was to show a very magnetic, charismatic, strong person. I have tried to seize the essence without missing the most important points and leaving the anecdotic out. I thought it essential to know where she came from and how, through art and talent, she gradually comes out of the pit she is in, always in the company of a man and also inspired by the fight for freedom of the character ‘Carmen’. We witness her ascent and fall until she ends up alone, after squandering her fortune in casinos, with the memories of her life.

Why do you think today’s audiences may find her life interesting?

I believe that the great names, whether they are myths, legends, or based on actual events, always attract the attention of the public. I would even say that it’s more interesting when they are based on actual events. A character like la Belle Otero, who was world-famous and on top of that, Spanish, belongs to our heritage. Learning about our great historical figures is always interesting, much more so if they are involved in art or culture. La Bella Otero is an invitation to meet this unknown figure whose name sounds familiar to all of us.

Which aspects of her life did you focus on to tell her story through music and dance?

When I read and reread her biographies, I was seeking those moments that would take me to a danceable scenic stage, that could be expressed through dance. It was very important for me to start with the pilgrimage in the Galician village and create a contrast with the attack she suffers.  Attending the performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen was also very important as it affected her to the point of announcing that she was the daughter of the real Carmen and was born in Andalusia instead of Galicia. I also wanted to recreate a café-chantant as the start of her artistic career, as well as the Folies Bergère and Monte Carlo casino. Her world tour and her arrival in Paris, where she is transformed into a sophisticated woman ready to meet high society, are also moments I believe would be worth including. I also thought that the fact that she celebrated her 30th birthday in the company of six kings was also really suitable for the stage.  Finally, I chose to end the play by joining the time when she produces Carmen in order to be able to play the lead role, even though she was not a singer, and her meeting with Rasputin.

Did you have to do without something important or that you would have liked to include?

You always have to leave things out for the sake of rhythm. Together with Rubén Olmo, we chose to do without literary details like the verse the Cuban poet José Martí dedicated to her; the scene from Valle Inclán’s Divinas palabras, where two characters talk about la Belle Otero; or the fragment of her description of herself in her autobiography. I also tried to find out which musical numbers where the favourite of the Folies Bergère’s audience. I would have liked to include one in which the girls attract members of the audience using very long rods, which makes for a very participative show, but it also makes it longer. Also, a very spicy and funny act by the Barrison sisters, but it did not quite fit the storyline. We did not include all the men who committed suicide for her either.

What was the research process like?

It was fascinating. Rubén offered me the chance to write this story in spring 2019 and the first thing I did was to read all the books about her. Every author has a different approach and highlights specific details. Also, I went to Paris with my family to follow la Belle Otero’s footsteps: we had dinner at Maxim’s, I researched historical documents, etc. Then I went to Valga, where there is a museum dedicated to her and a restored house from that time. It was total immersion.

What discovery surprised you most?

Looking into her life is one surprise after another, from learning that she was raped, which only a few books mention, to her inventing her Andalusian origins or her publicly stating that her two sole passions were winning at the roulette and losing at the roulette. When World War I started in 1914, Monte Carlo Casino invited her to take refuge at its Hôtel de Paris, and she lived there for free. I like the fact that she had met such important people, including the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. According to some versions, she was the first woman he went to bed with when he was 13. The funniest thing of all is that she made up a twin sister. When she was old and did not wish to see the journalists who wanted to interview her, she’d tell them that the Belle Otero had died and that she was her twin sister.

Is it complicated not to simplify when summarising someone’s life?

When you write the plot of such a complex life, you evidently need to simplify. But we are not judging about what’s right or wrong. We just try to be true to fact while at the same time create a plot that’s attractive to the audience. Dance should move rather than judge. Our goal is not to clean up her image either. I have tried to keep to the historical figure and turn it into an interesting ballet. Then it’s up to each person to draw their own conclusions about the character.

What kind of person or professional would La Belle Otero be if she lived today? Would you dare mention a current Belle Otero?

It’d be someone who has reached the top of their profession. A very famous person. I don’t know anyone of such humble origins and who has been abused and has managed to succeed thanks to their talent and ambition.

What is the difference, if any, between writing for a ballet, for a theatre play or for cinema?

I’m not exactly a playwright. I haven’t written a text. In the past years, I’ve specialised in writing for dance, helping choreographers to make the audience understand the concept of their choreographies. I tell stories based on a non-verbal language, on movement; I wouldn’t write for the theatre or for a film. It’s harder for me because I come from gestural theatre. I declare myself a frustrated dancer. I’ve been involved in the world of dance for many years although I’ve never been a choreographer or a dancer. I’m passionate about helping them to make the message in their head reach the audience, whether it’s a story, a concept, or an idea, as for example masculinity in La maldición de los hombres Malboro by Isabel Vázquez, or power and ambition in Richard Wherlock’s Empty Thrones.

Is La Bella Otero a new project in your career, is it a path you have wanted to follow for a long time, or had you never contemplated it?

I studied at the Instituto del Teatro in Seville and I’ve worked as an actor all my life. I have always liked the kind of dance that tells a story, something that I can follow as a viewer. I have been married to a dancer and choreographer for more than 30 years and with her I’ve developed my dramaturgy for dance. The first dance dramaturgist I met was Natalia Menéndez. I was also quite impressed by Lloyd Newson’s English company DV8 Physical Theatre, as well as Pina Bausch’s dance theatre pieces. Movement dramaturgy attracts my attention and I’m passionate about it because I think I’m useful and also because I like dance and non-verbal communication. As a result of the work I did with Johan Inger, other choreographers have called me. This is my first work for Rubén Olmo, although I’ve known him since he worked at Ramón Oller’s Metros company, and I later saw his shows Belmonte and Pinocchio.