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The Ballet Nacional de España will perform La Bella Otero from 7 to 18 July at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid. This narrative ballet, created and directed by Rubén Olmo, is about the intense life of one of the most famous and influential dancers of the late 19th century, Carolina Otero. A world-famous Spanish artist, her name is known worldwide but her story remains unknown to many. A woman from a small village in Galicia, who invented herself after a tragic event in her childhood. Taking Merimée’s Carmen as a guide, she used men to rise in her artistic career, was admired by European kings, although the only love she fell for was gambling. La Bella Otero is a reflection on abuse, ambition, success, the inability to love and loneliness.

The director of the Ballet Nacional de España, Rubén Olmo, had been thinking about creating a choreography about la Belle Otero for years, attracted by the fact that one of the most famous women of her time was from a village in Pontevedra. But it was not until he was named director in 2019 that he had the chance to make it as he had pictured it, a large show, both in terms of the number of dancers and of the display of costumes.

“The spirit of our two latest shows was to enjoy Spanish dance in all its styles. In contrast, dance has now been placed at the service of the plot in order to get the fusion that would allow me to tell the life of an amazing woman, using folklore, contemporary dance, stylised dance, and flamenco”, Rubén Olmo explains. “It’s a very moving and dramatic show because it tells the story of a woman who reaches the top and ends up alone and forgotten”.

Gregor Acuña-Pohl, who regularly works with Johan Inger took care of the dramaturgy. The actor, director, and dance dramatist has tried to extract the essence of the historical figure to the full without losing the main points in her life and doing without the anecdotic. “The most important thing for me was to show a personality full of magnetism, charisma and strength”, he stressed. After doing his research on Carolina Otero in books, newspaper cuttings, audiovisual material, and archives, he selected the most representative instances of her life that could be expressed through dance.

“When writing a plot about such a complex life, we evidently need to simplify. We are not judging about what’s right or wrong; we’re just trying to stick to reality while making an attractive show for the audience. Dance must move rather than judge. I have tried to stick to the historical figure and turn it into an interesting ballet for the audience. Each person would then draw their own conclusions about the character”, he added.

Two artists for one Belle Otero
The plot of La Bella Otero spans different periods in the life of Carolina Otero, so Rubén Olmo chose Patricia Guerrero and Maribel Gallardo to perform the title role at different ages. “I invited Patricia Guerrero to the Ballet Nacional de España because she is a bailaora that emanates great power on the set. She was part of my company and I directed her in the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía. She has the same magnetism that made la Belle Otero great. Nowadays, she is one of the most relevant figures of avant-garde flamenco and I’m proud we can count on her”, Rubén Olmo explains. “Ballet Nacional de España’s former first artist, Maribel Gallardo is, apart from a dancer, a wonderful actor who has played a great many characters on the stage and she is always committed to the full in all the projects I involve her in”.

According to Patricia Guerrero, la Belle Otero is a complex character because the different conflicts she experiences make her a dramatic puzzle.  “She was a woman with a lot of personality and self-confidence in addition to a huge instinct for survival. She really boosted her charisma and sensuality to achieve success”. The Granada artist intends to bring every detail into dance so that the audience understands a woman she admires, especially because of her self-confidence and her ability to bewitch, features she has clung on to in order to put herself in her shoes. “La Bella Otero is a hard show in its content, but it’s dynamic, amusing, fresh and its colour and energy will make us all enjoy it, both on and off the stage.

Maribel Gallardo, who plays the mature Otero, describes the character as a woman who broke the rules in a a male chauvinistic society and admits that there is something of la Belle Otero in every woman. The repetiteur mistress and choreographer, who has dance first artist roles like Medea or La Celestina with the Ballet Nacional de España, feels very motivated by this character, which is also a great challenge as she has to deal with the language of a choreographer she had never worked with before, Rubén Olmo, and getting to be as fit as any dancer must be when being on the stage again.


Music and costumes

Just like the choreography blends diverse dance styles, the music of La Bella Otero includes in its symphonic score compositions of different kinds and by different composers.  Composer and conductor Manuel Busto coordinated the writing of the score in which Alejandro Cruz Benavides and Agustín Diassera took part. Also, there are flamenco compositions by guitarists Diego Losada, Víctor Márquez, Enrique Bermúdez and Pau Vallet; and Rarefolk sounds in the scene that takes place in Galicia with their particular psychedelic Celtic rock. Fragments of Bizet’s opera Carmen, and the zarzuela El año pasado por agua, by Chueca and Valverde have also been included.

“My main challenge when doing the arrangements and orchestrations was for them not to lose an inch of the original’s freshness and personality while at the same time making them fit in naturally”, Manuel Busto explains. The final result “is an unprejudiced music in its conception that does not renounce to anything”.

The Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (ORCAM) will play the score live at the Teatro de la Zarzuela conducted by Manuel Busto. The original music was recorded by Fundación Barenboim-Said students to be used in performances held in theatres where there is no orchestra available and in rehearsals.

Designer Yaiza Pinillos has drawn nearly 200 designs needed for the scenes in La Bella Otero, which is set in a wide range of places and situations. The Canarian creator has used multiple sources of inspiration and research including photographs by José Ortiz Echagüe and paintings by Zuloaga, Manet, Ramón Casas, Boldini or José Cardona. There are also remakes of models by Jacques Doucet and Balenciaga, and even contemporary fashion designers like Issey Miyake or Alexander McQueen who, from a Belle Époque perspective, give surprising results.

The main dress of the protagonist is the Byzantian style jewel costume that Otero wears in one of her most iconic pictures taken by Reutlinger. “I’m especially proud of this design because it’s a remake of that well-known image of Otero. I believe we’ve managed to enrichen it through an evocative rather than an emulative approach, adding effects that enrich the staging and reflect the essence of a period”.

One of the challenges the designer had to face was to combine the narrative side of the costumes with making them easy to dance in and change between scenes, with the added complication of the characters wigs, beards, moustaches, and hats used to give a faithful depiction of the period the show is set in.

Stage design and lighting

The challenge for stage designer Eduardo Moreno in his first work for the Ballet Nacional de España was to boost the pace in the succession of scenes as the plot demands swiftness because it spans many different moments in the life of la Belle Otero. The backbone of the design is a great architectural element, a dome that frames the whole performance and is host to the different scenes with some simple changes to identify time and place. It also fulfils the requirement for the production to easily tour different theatres in order to suit the itinerant nature of the Ballet Nacional de España.

For his part, Juan Gómez-Cornejo, Premio Nacional de Teatro, had the difficult task of enveloping La Bella Otero with light. “Light has to accompany, protect, help and, if possible, caress the dancers so that the story reaches the stalls as sharply and emotionally as it was created”. Lighting travels through the story of the character to help recreate the places and situations she experiences, from a rural Galicia that resembles Goya’s black paintings to the Portuguese countryside lit by a full moon or the bright lights of theatres and casinos.

After its premiere in Madrid, the Ballet Nacional de España will perform La Bella Otero at the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville on 26 and 27 May 2022. Before that, it will close the 2020/2021 season on 7 August at the Festival Internacional de Santander, with the show Invocación. Although it is not usual, this year the Ballet Nacional de España will perform three times in Madrid. After the premiere of La Bella Otero, they will put on Centenario Antonio Ruiz Soler at the Teatro Real from 13 to 16 October, and Invocación, at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, from 10 to 22 December.