Tanya was born and grew up in Colombia, South America, and started dancing at the age of 7 with her mother, also a performer (ballet dancer), she trained in classical ballet , theatre and folk dance at the Academia de Ballet Allegro and later joined the Ballet Nacional de Colombia in Bogota. After leaving the company in 1985, Tanya travelled to the UK were she was offered a place at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds where she graduated with a BA in Performing Arts. She was co-founder and co-director of the Northern Dance Company; her choreographic work would prove to be a stalwart for the repertoire, and was described as fascinating, colourful and passionate. Being from the land of salsa, she was already bringing a distinctly South American feel to her work
Tanya, since you first came to the UK to further your training as dancer and performer you continuously have grown and developed your vocabulary of performance, choreography and teaching. Whilst maintaining a strong connection and integrity to your Colombian roots, you excel in combining both, Salsa and contemporary styles, in your artistic work today. You have received several awards from the Arts Council England Yorkshire recognising your expertise and ambitions, fusing traditional and popular South American dances with contemporary dance theatre and other art forms. What were the crucial moments in your training and first stages of your career as choreographer and performer that have helped you to launch your career, and are giving direction to the work you are devising today?
My artistic training has come from many talented and passionate people. I grew up in Colombia surrounded by artists, not only my mother, but my grand father who was a painter as well as many in our family, our every day life always included music, singing and of course dancing. Also, having the opportunity to study a variety of styles as part of my training has certainly been very important in the formation and development of my career, so one thing lead to the other...
While working with my mother as her apprentice at the dance school, in Colombia, I had the chance to do little bits of choreography with children, and learned a lot about composition by watching her choreographing on the students, I was always fascinated by the stories of the ballets and she gave me the first opportunities to experiment and try to put my ideas into something that we could all see.
While studying at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance back in 1985, we had 3 years full of opportunities. We travelled to places and saw many choreographers' work including Pina Bausch, London Contemporary Dance Theatre and many more. We had many choreographers from all kinds of backgrounds working with us during our training, so all that was not only inspirational, but an eye opener for me; it showed me a world of opportunities and possibilities for the future.
The work with the Northern Dance Company, was also crucial for me. Whilst working with the company, I had the chance to choreograph many shows, I experimented and tried many ideas - I think, it was really there, when I started to combine and introduce the different styles into my work. At the same time, I was teaching and doing demonstrations in popular Colombian dance styles like Salsa and Merengue at venues across the country, in Leeds and the Yorkshire region (from 1986). At this point in my career, I had the opportunity to show my work to the public and by doing this I could receive enormous amounts of feedback from all kinds of audiences all over the place.
Salsa was hugely popular in London since the seventies but the population of Leeds was just as keen as its Southern neighbours, so in 1993, Leeds had its first premier Latin American night ‘CASA LATINA’ at the Underground and Lubi Jovanovich one of its promoters openly acknowledges that "if it wasn’t for Colombian Tanya Cusan Espinosa the Salsa scene would probably never have taken off in the city the way it has".
In 1995, I returned to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance where I furthered my studies and during my degree thesis, I explored the possibilities of how traditional and popular Colombian dance forms could fuse and combine with contemporary dance theatre.
Working with "Tutti Frutti" was another major milestone during my career. Spending all those years with the company, who gave me the freedom to use just about anything that I thought of to experiment and create characters with; to choreograph dances within the shows, to add voice, singing... anything really. We played a lot and tried a lot of things, that we then later presented to the children audience. And I can assure you, children don’t lie if they don’t like something - they fall asleep or tell you! So, it was a great exercise for me.
I’ve always wanted to explore all the possibilities with in the performing area, versatility and open mindedness gives you freedom, just like Javier de Frutos said in one of his interviews: "It is liberating to be serving other agendas".
In 2000, I was awarded the Research and Development Grant as part of 'The Year of the Artist' and I continued with the exploration of how to fuse and combine traditional and popular South American dances with contemporary dance theatre and other dance forms, I was then able to work towards consolidating some of my existing - and develop new choreographic ideas, work with other artists and to create Cusan Theatre Productions (formerly Salsa Theatre Productions), the company I direct now.
You are currently Artistic Director of Cusan Theatre Productions (former Salsa Theatre Productions), a company that presents original works, which expand upon the vocabulary of Salsa and South American dance styles. In the work you mix contemporary dance theatre, puppetry and song. Could you give us more insight into the work of the company and your role within? When you are recruiting performers and collaborators for your company, what do they need to bring to the project?
The idea behind Cusan Theatre Productions is to be able to create theatrical dance performances that draw inspiration from Latin American culture, and to show people that Latin culture goes beyond the word 'Salsa'...
Our shows are informed by concepts and techniques from different art forms, such as theatre, dance, puppetry and song. The magical realism of Latin American art is present in all of our work. A juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic, where mundane situations are transformed into bizarre and satirical plots. The company tours to a variety of venues throughout the UK and international festivals abroad.
As Artistic Director I am consistently developing the profile of the company. Sergio and I, are continually creating new productions that are suitable for a variety of venues including theatres, outdoor events, festivals and schools. Our touring programme and work in education runs all year round.
All I ask from the artists who work with us, is to have an interest for this kind of work, or at least be curious and want to be part of a team.
So far it has been great and we have worked with a variety of artists from different backgrounds and with a variety of skills. Working with creative minded people is one of the best experiences that one can have; sharing skills and learning from each other is wonderful.
You have worked as a freelance dancer, performer, teacher and choreographer in the UK and abroad. You have also performed with Tutti-Frutti Productions, a company specialising in children’s theatre. You became involved as actress, dancer whilst devising, choreographing and developing several characters within productions. Is the experience you gathered with Tutti-Frutti visible in your work today, particularly looking at your work with young audiences and beyond?
You gather experience from many things in life and from life itself, working with Tutti-Frutti for 6 years was an enriching experience as well as an exhausting one, an average of 200 to 300 shows per year - it’s a bit mad really, but of course all those years gave me a close insight into that particular work. Devising and choreographing for the company allowed me to become more theatrical in the approach to my own work and gave me the freedom to explore other possibilities. In the shows we not only used movement and dance, but voice, singing and story-telling.
I worked and met many artists from various backgrounds and saw many companies from all over the world while on tour. This all was wonderful to be able to do and to learn from.
In Valentino a series of theatrical shows you are using a life size puppet as Salsa dance partner. The production has been a great success. Do give a little more background to the show and the creative process.
The idea of Valentino has been in my mind for a long time. In my country, and probably in many other places, there are street performers, normally men that have a female mannequin attached to them and they swing then and throw them around like a rag doll to various Latin rhythms. My Valentino derived from this, and from the fact that as a freelance dancer and artist you can’t always pay or get the funding to pay another performer!! So I decided that I had to make the perfect dancing partner, always available, always there…
I wanted him to be alive and to perform with me, so I started to explore the possibilities and talked to Diana Bayless, Director of Black Cat Theater, a puppeteer and friend of mine to see if she would venture on creating my perfect dancing partner. After showing her my bits of paper cuttings, pictures, drawings and everything that I had collected, she started to make him, which of course took longer that expected, but the end result was fantastic. He was so alive…
Working with others is a very positive and important aspect of my career development, by sharing skills and adding expertise and opportunity you develop and move on. For me it is very important to experiment, to take risks and to re-invent myself and my work. So with 'Valentino' I have started to explore the relationship between performer and life size puppet as an extension of our bodies. I continue to develop this idea and the result has been a series of dance duets, inspired in many Latin rhythms such as Boleros, Cumbias, and Salsa.
You dedicate much of your time teaching adults to dance Salsa, very successfully!! When I met you early this year, you and your brother Sergio were teaching possibly over a hundred people during one evening! Is this just a regular Tuesday night the Queens Arms pub in Chapel Allerton, Leeds?
Yes fortunately, our classes have always been full…
I started teaching Salsa here in Leeds and mostly in the north of England back in 1986. In those days, there was nobody else but me doing this.
I really believe in the power of dance and movement as a source for integration and communication. My classes are structured like any other dance class, they are design to give people confidence, new movement skills and beyond all this to have fun and feel good about themselves.
I want to introduce people to a culture, not only to a word…. 'Salsa'.
I sometimes feel a bit disheartened because there is a lot of really bad teaching of Salsa out there. I think, it’s great that people want to pass on the skills, but you really have to know what you are doing. Teaching requires experience, practice and understanding not only of the dance but of a culture. Salsa has many interpretations and approaches, and like many other dance forms, sometimes - just playing around with a little break or phrase, a step is born. Part of the fun is to invent a step and then find a name for it. So there isn’t right or wrong style they are just different interpretations, and a great dancer is the one that can take and learn from all of those styles. Eddie Torres said in one of his interviews, that he had many sources of inspiration and his style results from a true amalgamation of those who came before him. I think as choreographers we can all agree with him.
You have choreographed for theatre, opera and stages in the UK and Colombia. Looking further - and at your work as choreographer, performer and teacher, what are your aims and hopes for the future?
I am open to suggestions and to changes; I would like to continue to create my own work, as well as to work with others, to teach and to perform. I want to continue to choreograph and work more with the people in Colombia. I would love to get more involve in film, making or been part of it….
In general, I would like to be productive and continue to do my job, which I love and feel very passionate about, for as long as I can.
For more information and contact details please visit Tanya Cusan-Espinosa / UK Choreographers Directory, www.tanyacusanespinosa.co.uk or contact Alice Firth at Dance UK on 020 7713 0730 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .