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Posted on September 21, 2017

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In 2015, Marcelo Gomes, the princely star of American Ballet Theatre, joined New Adventures for the sex and violence of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man. He spoke to Zoë Anderson about challenges, choreography and change

In a huge rehearsal space in east London, the New Adventures company is preparing for The Car Man. Multiple casts take turns to work through the same scene, while the production crew keep an eye on design and staging elements as well as choreography. Marcelo Gomes is dancing Luca, the show’s handsome, dangerous stranger. When another cast takes over, he watches attentively, following the nuances.

With this production, Gomes has plunged in at the deep end. “They started two weeks before me, so I had quite a bit to do, learning and catching up,” he explains. When he danced the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, the rehearsal process was more gradual:“With The Car Man, I just saw the video, then when I got here I started to learn the steps. It was a shock, at first, because when the other dancers are already feeling the steps, they go much quicker. I was starting very late in the game, so I had my job cut out for me.”

In person, Gomes is engaged and engaging: softly spoken and focused, he thinks his way around questions, keen to get to the root of it. “When people are creating on me, at ABT [American Ballet Theatre] for example, I tend to move pretty quickly – and then clean it up after. At New Adventures, they work differently. In a ballet company, sometimes you focus more on the first cast, the opening night, so it’s spot on. Then when that’s safe, you go back and put a second cast on. Here, since it’s a smaller group, and many, many different casts, they have to make sure that everybody knows what they’re doing. It’s different but nice, because it gives me a chance to go over it many times in my brain.”

How does he see Luca? “It’s a really meaty role,” he says happily. In terms of style, he feels he’s still getting used to the fi ght scenes, the boxing. “That will eventually get there, so I’m completely comfortable. I’ve played the sexy guy that comes in and makes trouble for the town, that kind of dude, at ABT a few times. It’s not like it’s not familiar for me, that kind of role and dynamic that he needs to bring on stage. It’s larger than life, but in a quiet way.

“Luca just knows he’s attractive, he knows he’s sexy, he doesn’t have to try. Even when he’s dirty, he knows that people want him. He’s not aware, so much, of his actions. He comes from a rough background, let’s say, but he has something, a kindness inside, that wants to protect others – perhaps because he was not protected when he was little.

“The cool thing about The Car Man is that it is a bit of a play in itself. There are so many intrigues, and who did what, and who murdered whom. We all have to do these homeworks and character studies. So when you step on stage, you really know where you came from and how the play will change your life, and change the lives of others. It’s been completely eye-opening, very inspiring. At ABT, we rehearse for a season – I could be rehearsing five ballets in one day. Here, I’m concentrating on one thing. It’s such a luxury to be able to do that.”

Gomes’ first experience of Bourne’s work was Swan Lake, the celebrated staging with male swans. “I was blown away by the production. I was really moved by the fact that these men were swans but very masculine at the same time, and very lyrical with their arms and upper bodies. At the end of the show, I didn’t think of men, really, I thought of them as creatures. I knew it was something I would want to be involved with, eventually.”

When he saw the show again on Broadway, he remembers, “It came to a point in my career when I thought, ‘I will talk to Matthew.’ So we had a coffee, and it came about that there was an opportunity for performances in Japan. I think if it had been two years prior, I wouldn’t have been ready, as an artist, to handle such a role.”

Top: Marcelo Gomes in Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man. Above: Marcelo Gomes and New Adventures in Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man. Photographs: Chris Mann.

Why not? “In order to be in a production by Matthew Bourne, it’s not only thinking that you can move well. ‘Oh, that show looks fun, it would be wonderful to be part of it!’ I think there’s a whole aura of an artist that is very special to these guys that I see working here. They’re not only great movers, they’re incredible actors, and they’re very comfortable in their own skin. I feel like, if you’re apprehensive about something, if you’re not willing to go for it, to really go into Matthew’s mind, then something is going to hold you back. You’re not going to be part of the team.

“It ended up being the role of a lifetime, really. There are a few times when you step on stage, and you feel… You have flashbacks to when you were a child. You know, all that work, all those classes that I’ve taken – even though I’m not doing classical ballet, that I’m moving in a certain way and I’m being completely free, it was really gratifying.”

Gomes has danced many classical Swan Lakes. What was it like moving from the ballet to the Bourne production? “It was really strange at first! In [what is usually the ballerina’s] variation, I had to really think about it as a different statement – what am I saying here to the Prince, you know, am I getting more comfortable with him, or…? I had to completely switch around my way of thinking. It’s actually all in the story, all in the steps. Even though I had this preconceived notion of it, it wasn’t hard for me to go into Matt’s production and imagination, because it’s all there. If you’re true to the movement, if you’re true to what he is thinking… I wasn’t thinking about what I did before.

“Being the Swan, I could feel a certain kind of anxiety that maybe ballerinas feel, with that music. Let’s say, her entrance, the build-up to that…” Gomes breaks off to sing the melody, “…I understand now that you have to come on stage and make that statement of ‘Here I am, I am this creature.’ I went to a few of the women at ABT and said, ‘I absolutely understand now!’ So some of that is also built all over Tchaikovsky’s score. It’s the same feeling, even though it’s a completely different idea.”

To dance Bourne’s choreography, Gomes adds, he needs to “drop my centre and really get low to the ground. That’s harder for me as a ballet dancer. Our core has to be really strong – and it has to be really strong for this kind of movement too, but here [in Bourne’s work], we have to be able to let go and dance. When I’m doing a double tour, I can’t let go! I have to prepare my body to be able to do the action.

“Of course, I’m learning a lot more about using contractions – how do I start it, how does it happen as a gradual movement. That’s not something I do every day, so I have to keep a clear mind and be really aware of how others move their bodies, and take from that. I come in with my perspective on things, and the dancers have their way of doing it, so we learn from one another. It’s a really good give and take.”

Does he see this as the start of a longer collaboration? “I hope so. I enjoy London a lot. I love doing my Swan Lakes and Romeos and Onegins and Manons, I’m still not done with all of those things. But I feel I need this outlet, I like being with different kinds of artists, to have something else to say, a different perspective on dance. That’s what I’m gaining here: it’s going to make me more well-rounded. One could ask, ‘What are you doing?’ Spending two weeks boxing and learning how to fight, dropping my weight in sneakers! It’s something to go for. And you see: you see if you succeed, you see if you fail. It’s a chance that you take, but my instinct is to be here right now, to go for this. I’m really happy I am.”

This summer, Gomes will also take part in the Ardani 25 Dance Gala. He’ll be dancing alongside other stars such as Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, but also choreographing for the show. The dance he’s created, called Tristesse, is “about a group of guys who grew up together. They have a reunion – it’s been maybe 20 years since they’ve seen each other. Each guy talks about their lives, where they’re at. Then they realise that maybe they don’t see eye to eye any more – about anything, about politics, or sexuality.” Gomes laughs, ruefully. “I’ve found that happens, with friends, from time to time, so I was inspired by that.”

As a choreographer, he’s made both narrative and plotless works. “I like to have a thought – I don’t like to tell dancers to not think about anything. I’ve made a pas de deux called Tocarre, and it’s about the touch of partnering. I’m very interested in how partners move their fingers, or how the energy of someone not touching you will react to your body.”

Gomes is busy, between his ballet schedule and other projects. How does he juggle his commitments? “It’s difficult,” he says frankly. “You plan as far ahead as you can, and you try to stick to it. Sometimes it’s impossible – dates change, or ABT needs an extra guy. Emergencies happen. It’s just a lot of trying to sleep whenever I can! I try to eat well, I try to take care of my body. But it is very hard. You know, you come to a certain age – I’m 35 now – and my body’s not like when I was 20, where after a performance, I’d feel great the next day! Things will creep up. Things hurt the next day. So I have to be really careful. In the meantime, the career’s not very long, so you want to do as much as possible, as opportunities come.

“It’s very important to me to branch out in other projects, like this. As an artist, I think you have to keep striving. If I’m going to keep dancing, I never want to stop growing. After Swan Lake, I’ve had such a growth. It’s helped me with my classical work, because I’ve tried something different. So I think that the same thing is going to happen here, and I’m really, really excited about it.”

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, the documentary about Marcelo Gomes by David Barba and James Pellerito, will be screened on September 21 and 25 as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Click here for more information.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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