How could a city full of mountain-sport-loving people somewhere in the Alps become the centre of a ballet dancer’s life? Enrique Gasa Valga tells us about his journey. One that spans two decades and takes him from Barcelona to Cuba and finally ends in Tirol. And why Tirol means more to him than just skiing and mountains. His story.
A huge excavation pit in which the foundations for the new Musikhaus are being built is on the right; the Tiroler Landestheater to the left. A narrow entrance lies in-between, where Enrique Gasa Valga is already waiting to meet me for our chat. The native Spaniard has been Director of the Tiroler Landestheater TanzCompay since 2009. With great success. Today, however, he has taken some time out to talk to me about his personal experiences as someone who has emigrated to Tirol. Enrique and I head to a local coffee house around the corner for an open discussion.
A slender, wiry man of around forty with dark, shoulder length hair sits opposite. Enrique orders a coffee, places a pack of cigarettes on the table and starts telling me his story, which began in Barcelona in 1976. The story of a hyperactive eight year old boy, whose mother sent him to ballet classes. A psychologist advised her to do so because her son, Enrique, had big problems at school. More than just problems, “I was kicked out of every school I went to“, remembers Enrique. Football and karate were not an option either, because they would have only made him more aggressive. So ballet it was. “I hated it“, he says. Nevertheless, the eight year old persevered, because that is what his mother wanted.
The turning point came when he was thirteen: Enrique witnessed his first ever ballet performance in Barcelona. Romeo and Juliet. His parents could only afford one ticket, so they waited outside. As the performance ended, the people around Enrique stood up and applauded the dancers. Young Enrique went outside to meet his parents and declared confidently: “That’s easy, I could do that too“. It was not quite that easy in practise, he says today. But dancing gave him confidence as a child. He had never experienced that feeling of being accepted before: “It was the first time in my life that someone said: “You’re doing well!“
A babble of Spanish voices can be heard from the bar next to our table; a group of tourists. Enrique comments laconically: “The Spanish are always the loudest“, and quick to be on first-name terms. A parallel shared with the Tiroleans and one that Enrique is particularly fond of: “I prefer things to be unceremonious from the outset. I worry sometimes that I may be a little too informal“.
Enrique tells me more about his ballet dancing, and that he first thought it was really only something for the girls. Until he realised that being the only boy in a group of females also had its benefits: “I only worked that one out later“, says Enrique and laughs. Aged 16, he eventually moved to Saragossa where he visited a prestigious dance school. At the age of 18, Enrique flew to Cuba – where, as the only Spaniard, he received a scholarship for one and a half years dance training in Havana. A culture shock for the European. Sometimes the lights didn’t work, there were power cuts or no warm water because the Cuban government was on an economy drive. Back then he would order a coffee at the Hotel Nacional in Havana for one dollar and make it last for two hours. It was his only luxury.
He returned to Cuba two decades later, but only this time as a tourist. For nostalgic reasons, he returned to visit Hotel Nacional again to drink a cup of coffee. And a Mojito. Because in contrast to the time he spent in Cuba as a youngster, he could now finally afford to. “The only thing that had changed, was me“, he says. In Cuba it seemed as if time had stood still, and this made him realise, “that we actually have more than we need in Tirol.“
After his time in Cuba, Enrique worked as a ballet dancer all over Europe. In Scotland. In Germany. And also in Austria. He performed with the Tanzcompany in Tirol and rented an apartment here: “Innsbruck is perfectly located in the heart of Europe. I can live here and still get to Munich in only two hours“. The close proximity to Innsbruck Airport was also convenient for him because of his many guest appearances as a ballet dancer throughout Europe, explains Enrique.
In 2009, the Tiroler Landestheater engaged him as Director of the Tanzcompany: “I threw all my contracts as a guest dancer away and concentrated on the work here“. Tirol finally became the new centre of the native Spaniard’s life. He lives now here with his girlfriend and has re-discovered things, like skiing. Enrique learned to ski in Spain as a child, but his dance career prevented him from actively taking part in the sport. As Director of the Tanzcompany, he can hit the slopes now as often as he likes: “I love skiing and the quality of life here“.
Nowadays, Enrique feels just as much at home in Tirol as he does in Spain. He spends at least one month every summer together with his family in a village near Barcelona. “The Catalans are a proud folk“, says Enrique, “they take their time before they call someone a friend. But if you manage to get that close, it is for life. I appreciate that attitude amongst the Tiroleans too“.
He will attest, however, that Tirol has a pronounced provincial complex when it comes to culture. He considers this reputation to be unjust because: “I believe that Tirol could be a metropolis in the world of culture. Tirol is so much more than just sport. Many of its sons and daughters have left here to explore the world and are now returning, because the quality of life is so good here. And these people bring their experiences back with them“.
Enrique gets quite carried away, especially when talking about his work as the Tanzcompany Director: “Tirol turned me into the choreographer I am now“. He maintains a warm and close relationship with Tanzcompany audiences. People often stop to speak to Enrique or his dancers on the street and tell them frankly what they liked about a ballet performance – and what they didn’t. Important feedback for him and the Tanzcompany ensemble, says Enrique. It helps him in his work: “When you create something, you do not know if it is good or bad. You have this unspoken question – at least I do. And when the public react positively, you know you are heading in the right direction and can we continue along the same path“.
Enrique does not believe that mountains restrict one’s horizon: “That was a long time ago. Almost everyone I have spoken to in Tirol has been to London. Ordinary people go to the theatre in Munich, or concerts. The Tiroleans are not the sort of people to just stay put“.
Enrique, on the other hand, is happy to continue living here in Tirol for as long as he can continue to positively influence the world of ballet dance here. Dance has so far worked out wonderfully for him: “Audiences are phenomenal, I only have sold-out performances“. And that with no less than five different ballet productions in just one year. Art and talent are especially important for Enrique when selecting new dancers for his Tanzcompany, “not their nationality“, he emphasizes. His dancers come from all over the world: Australia, China, Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Holland. “I think I have had dancers from almost every continent“, says Enrique, “only Romeo is Austrian“, Which is the name of the dog belonging to Martine Reyn, the Tanzcompany Ballet Mistress.
Enrique does not always have a great deal of leisure time: “I am fortunate that my work is my passion“. Enrique also celebrated his fortieth birthday in Tirol: “It was a twenty year long journey. Now I would like to have roots, and Tirol has given me some”. At the end of our conversation we return again to Enrique’s childhood. If he could give a child a piece of advice today, what would it be I ask. Enrique finishes his coffee, thinks for a moment and says: “That you should do what you love. Because then you will never have to work a single day in your life“.