Africa Guzmán grew up training in Madrid, Spain. In 1988, she joined the Compañia Nacional de Danza (CND) under the direction of Maya Plisetskaya. There she danced leading roles in ballets by renowned choreographers such as Marius Petipa, Michail Fokine, and George Balanchine. In 1990, Nacho Duato was named Artistic Director of CND. Under his direction, she was promoted to Principal Dancer and took part in many of his works. Some would describe her as Nacho Duato’s muse. In 2003, Guzmán joined Netherlands Dans Theater for two years and, in 2005, returned to Compañia Nacional de Danza. Throughout her career, she has had the opportunity to work with renowned choreographers including Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, and Mats Ek among many others.
Africa Guzmán is an amazing talent whose choreography showcases her eclectic background. Over the past three years, I have had the incredible privilege to work with her as she choreographs and sets works on the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group in New York City. I was very fortunate to be a part of her original choreography, Barrocco, a beautiful 20-minute contemporary ballet set to Vivaldi. Watching her demonstrate is a surreal experience. She has a natural movement quality that is breathtaking in its juxtaposing grace and strength. It is a remarkable experience to work with her; and, for this reason, I am ecstatic to share the following interview.
Interview on January 14, 2015
Q: How did you get started in dance?
A: My mom is a ballet teacher. I never decided to dance but, by the time I was 3 years old, I was already hanging on the barre.
Q: Who were your mentors/biggest influences?
A: In the beginning, my mother was my mentor. I grew up in her school. Also, my sister. I was always looking to her because she was six years older and joined Compañia Nacional de Danza when I was 12 or 14. When you’re a young student, you always watch the ones older than you.
Maya Plisetskaya, my first director, gave me my first big role when I was very young and new in the company. She selected me to perform “Lisa” in “La Fille Mal Gardée”. The experience of working with her was remarkable for me.
The mentor I learned the most from and put me on the path that gave me my new dance life and career is definitely Nacho Duato. It was a big change for me when he became Artistic Director of CND. He moved so naturally and personally that just watching him was a learning experience. His movement is special.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?
A: Definitely my foot injury. I took off for a jump and landed very badly. Next, I was having surgery at 21 years old. The surgery wasn’t done well so it didn’t heal as quickly as it should have. I went to more doctors and was told I probably wouldn’t dance again. But I was determined and didn’t listen. Miraculously, I met a physical therapist who took my injury as a challenge. He spent day after day with me. He even came to the studio and watched me in class. He would stare at my foot as I did demi-plié and say “That’s wrong.” He changed the entire mechanics of my foot and got me on stage again.
Q: Did you ever have any performance catastrophes?
A: In CND, I had a very tiring solo in one of our pieces. It was long and fast with lots of jumping. At the end of it, when you’re dying from exhaustion, two boys are supposed to come on stage and take you into a pas de trois. I’m onstage and run into the wings to take my boys. No boys. My face at that moment must have been…Finally one of the boys realized, flipped out, ran onstage and we had to improvise the entire section.
Q: If you could relive a past performance, what would it be?
A: I would like to do Petit Mort by Jiri Kylian. I was lucky to perform the gala version, a one of a kind opportunity. In the gala version, the three pas de deuxs from the second part of the original ballet are all done as one single pas de deux. Performing it is one of the best feelings I have ever had on stage.
The other piece I would love to perform again is Violoncelo by Nacho Duato. It is one of the pas de deuxs I enjoyed the most of his choreography.
Q: Was going to college a decision you ever had to make?
A: I joined CND when I was 16 years old. When the time came for me to go to school, I was already working. I was already being paid to do the thing I loved which was incredible to me.
I always wanted to be a lawyer also. So when I was around 25, I enrolled in the Universidad Nacional a Distancia online. I absolutely loved it but I was too exhausted from dancing full-time everyday.
Q: What do you think needs to change in the dance profession?
A: More respect for what we do as dancers from our directors, ballet masters, choreographers, etc. They don’t always really appreciate what we do. If you are injured, often you are expected to dance through it. We are not taken care of like normal athletes for the amount of extreme physical activity we do.
Q: What advice would you give a young dancer about to pursue a professional dance career?
A: You need to be there 100%. You cannot miss technique class any day. Class is a religion almost because you have to always be pushing yourself to the limit. What you don’t do in the studio, you won’t be able to do on stage.