Choreographer Vladimir Angelov: Dancing makes us move, life makes us dance
This is a universal language that transcends bordersSiyka Lapachka
Dancing is like the wind - it appears suddenly and disappears quickly. Unexpected and uninvited, surprising and short-lived, dancing cannot be captured, kept, imprisoned or owned. The only thing that is left in its wake is a memory. The dancing body is a sculpture of movement, a shaping of the space around us, a drawing of symbols, poetry in motion that shouts. Dancing connects the human form to other bodies, the thought with other thoughts, and the heart with other hearts, says choreographer Vladimir Angelov in this remarkable interview.
What made you choose dance as a career?
What I like about dancing is that it is a universal language. It is a language that transcends borders. Some of my youth friends went into theatre and some of them became excellent directors. In theatre, your means of communication is the art of speech, everything needs to be verbalised - words convey feelings, sensations, experiences. There are no words involved in the art of dance - the body does all the “talking” in a universal language that requires no translation into Chinese, English or Polish. This was an immense draw for me - the fact that I could “say” something with a couple of moves and my message would be understood without translation.
When did you first feel this way?
There was no specific moment. It is just a feeling in me that expanded over time. I have always been curious about other cultures. As a kid, I wanted to visit Japan and thirty years later I not only travelled to the country but also worked there and married a Japanese woman. Another childhood dream of mine was to visit the US. I did that too - I have been there for so long now that I have spent more of my life there than in Bulgaria. The fact that I was so open to other cultures, other sensations and experiences made dancing the perfect fit for me.
When did you get serious about dancing?
I was in fourth grade and that was the point when students got admitted to the ballet school (National School of Dance Art) in Sofia with choreography, so I had to do fourth grade a second time and was therefore older than my classmates. I was 12 or 13 years old.
Did your family support you?
Oh, yes. My mother is an intellectual, a philologist. She used to make me read books I did not even understand - by Goethe, Blaise Pascal, Francis Bacon, etc. My classmates would read books far easier to understand, but my mother had this broad outlook on life. She gave her permission for me to study at the ballet school in Sofia right away, even though we lived in Plovdiv at the time, where I was brought up. I was in the capital by myself, I stayed in the dormitory of the art schools - it had these large 12-bed rooms located on two huge floors. The first floor was reserved for the girls and the second floor for the boys. I shared a room with 12 other boys who were anywhere from fourth to eleventh grade - from the ballet school, the school of music, the high school of arts. It was a very interesting experience, the boy sleeping to my right played the oboe and the boy to my left painted portraits. The boy to my left is now a famous artist, Nikolay Nikolaev. I have even posed for a portrait. “I'm playing The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky,” the oboe player, Evgeni, would tell me. And I would go: “Yeah, I can dance to that if you want me to, I can improvise something.” The only time I would see my parents was during spring break and summer vacations. I grew up with boys who were into other areas of art and that had a great impact on me. I never stopped being interested in fine arts, music… I picked up painting at some point around seventh or eighth grade, Nikolay was my teacher.
It seems like a valuable time in your life, which taught you about independence, courage and discipline. Was that so?
That was what my mother told me when I had to take the train to Sofia for the first time that long-ago September in order to start fourth grade for a second time. “You have no choice but to manage on your own,” she said. It was good for me - I had to find ways to handle my problems with classmates and other people, to wash my own clothes, to do my homework. My parents thought it an achievement for me to move to a bigger city. But I had loftier ambitions - to go to another country, on a continent different than Europe. Nowadays, an achievement would be to go to another planet - Mars, the Moon. Aspirations change along with human progress.
What made you decide to study philosophy after ballet school?
My mother used to inundate me with various books that were meant for people older than me. Interestingly enough, I still remember some maxims by Blaise Pascal. Philosophy is the science of sciences and the thought of all thoughts. It is the field of study best encompassing different issues. Philosophy was my number one choice at university. I did distance learning while dancing with the Ballet Arabesque dance company. My time was spent in the “Bermuda golden triangle”: from Ballet Arabesque at the Musical Theatre - to the National Library - to Sofia University. Three closely located buildings on three different intersections of the same street. The logistics were pretty convenient for me.
Tell us about your time with Ballet Arabesque.
I wanted to be a choreographer from the moment I joined Ballet Arabesque as an intern under Margarita Arnaudova. She saw the talent in me and took me as an intern - I was ninth or tenth grade at the time and she needed young male dancers for her company. For me, it was interesting to not only tackle different styles of dancing but also learn Margarita Arnaudova's incredibly exciting and exhilarating style as a choreographer. I can safely say that she was my first inspiration to try choreography. I was 16 when I did my first solo - not for me but for my classmate Antoaneta Aleksieva. She danced it at a national competition and won an award for her performance and I won for choreography. Coming out of ballet school, I knew, without a doubt that I wanted to be a choreographer. Watching the way Margarita Arnaudova worked, I was able to learn the tricks of the trade. Since there was no ballet production specialty in Bulgaria, I chose the next closest thing in my opinion - philosophy. I decided I could find a way to apply the philosophy I would be taught at university to the philosophy of dance. That step set off an interesting process for me, which lasted for 30 years. I wanted to put into words what dance meant to me - a one-page description of my view of dance. After 30-35 years, I was finally able to write this page. My manifesto is a mixture of a philosophic treatment of the subject and a prayer; my sacred truths about dance. Here are some of them - the human body is a physical destination where the soul, thoughts, ideas and passions can take on a physical shape called Dance. Dancing is our only path to finding the truth and sharing it with the world without saying a word. Dancing is like wind - it appears suddenly and disappears quickly. Unexpected and uninvited, surprising and short-lived, dancing cannot be captured, kept, imprisoned or owned. The only thing that is left in its wake is a memory. The dancing body is a sculpture of movement, a shaping of the space around us, a drawing of symbols, poetry in motion that shouts. Dancing connects the human form to other bodies, the thought with other thoughts, and the heart with other hearts. Dancing makes us move, life makes us dance.
When did you decide to leave Bulgaria and how did you end up in the US?
I had the chance to travel to Austria. Arabesque had a summer tour in Bregenz, but the young members did not travel with the dance company. Around that same time, my mother decided to leave Bulgaria - she had friends in Austria who invited her and she left to go there. She reached out and said: “Come to Austria.” I packed a suitcase for what was supposed to be a long weekend and never came back. I worked odd jobs in Austria because I did not have a work permit, it was very hard at the beginning. I worked at a restaurant kitchen, I cleaned the streets, I worked as a gardener and a carpenter's assistant… I finally got the permit and started with the ballet dance company of the theatre in Klagenfurt, moved on to Graz for a while, then Vienna, different projects, then travelled to Munich and Paris and things started happening for me. I had an acquaintance who lived in the US, a professor at the University of Richmond - the school had a dance production programme. It took me about two years and a lot of effort to procure a visa and find a way to study there. I got to Richmond only to discover I could not enrol because I did not speak English. I had a suitcase, $250 and altogether four phrases that I knew in English. I had to go through a long and extensive language course in order to be allowed to study academically. Meanwhile, I got an invitation to do a major in dance choreography at the American University in Washington, DC. And so, in 1994 I moved from Richmond to Washington, where I finished my major in 1996. I did a one-act ballet as my graduation project and it had great success. Word spread quickly - a young and extremely promising choreographer. From 1997 until 2001, I was with the Kirov Academy of Washington DC, which has a partnership with the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg. I did choreography on a monthly basis, two or three ballets a year. I received more invitations - the US has 50 states, each with three ballet companies. It affords a wide range of opportunities and I was not lacking for work. In 2001, I met Maestro Placido Domingo through a dance critic who introduced us. “This is Vladimir Angelov, he is from Bulgaria,” he said. “There are pretty good opera singers in Bulgaria,” Placido Domingo returned, to which my friend said: “Bulgarian choreographers are not bad either.” A month later, I started working with him and did choreography for many of his productions - he was both the general director and conductor of the Washington National Opera. He would ask me about the pace of a ballet in a particular opera by humming the tune. After Domingo left the Washington National Opera, he was replaced by an Italian woman who had her own choreographers. However, I continued to be very busy and I work in Mexico, Brazil and Japan. Japan oscillates between the two extremes of exceptional traditionalism and radicalism - they do things there that I have not seen anywhere else in the world in terms of art and aesthetics.
Vladimir Angelov graduated from the National School of Dance Art in Sofia in 1986. While with the Ballet Arabesque dance company, he was also a distance-learning student at Sofia University, majoring in philosophy. After immigrating to the US in 1990, he completed his Masters of Arts degree at the American University in Washington, DC, in 1996, with contemporary choreography as his specialty. As a choreographer, Angelov has created one-act contemporary ballets for a number of American and international companies such as Alberta Ballet (Canada), Ballet Manila (Philippines), National Ballet of Mexico, Tokyo City Ballet (Japan) and the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg (Russia).
From 2003 until 2009, he was chief choreographer of the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center under the management of Placido Domingo. From 2009 until 2014, Angelov taught at the American University in Washington, DC. Since 2015, he has served as executive director of the world's first international choreographers' organisation and networking services - the Washington-based Dance ICONS, Inc.