Today we’re having a chat with Maria Jose Sales, Soloist at Barcelona Ballet. Maria trained in Valencia, Spain, before moving to England to take classes at English National Ballet School. After graduating, she danced principal roles with the Santamaria Compañia de Danza in Spain for 2 years before heading back to the UK to expand her classical repertoire with the renowned English National Ballet.
Maria tells us more about her story and how Spanish people need to fight to keep ballet a part of their culture.
Maria Jose Sales. Photo: Patrick Baldwin
Hi Maria! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We’d love to know more about your passion for ballet. Where is it coming from?
MJS: My passion for ballet started when I was 11 years old. At the age of 7, I was seeing ballet more as a hobby than something that I could actually live off. But later on, when I started watching ballet videos of Barishnikov and Harvey, Don Quixote…etc., I realised that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I love to play different roles, take the audience to a different world and make them forget real life for a moment.
Can you talk us through some of the differences between the training you received at the Valencia Center of Dance with Mari Cruz Alcalá and at the English National Ballet School with Alicia Markova?
MJS: If you want to be a professional dancer you have to go abroad. When I was at the Conservatoire of Dance and RAD, I was taking one ballet class a day of about 1hour 30 minutes. Then I had music, A level dance…etc. I graduated when I was 13 years old with the superior title of Choreographer and Classical Ballet Technique but this wasn’t good enough to join a company. Mari Cruz Alcala decided that it would be a good idea to do an exchange with Russian ballet dancers so we could see how ballet worked elsewhere. A group of students from our school went to Moscow. That was hard! The kids there were amazing! I told my parents that I didn´t want to keep studying on the side so my teacher at that moment - Ana Maria Campos - organized an audition for ENB school. When I joined, I was so impressed; the students had pas de deux classes, tap, pointe work, 2 hours classes, contemporary, character, A-level art, notation... we started at 8:20 a.m and finished at 7p.m every day. There were only 9 students in my year so you could not hide from the teachers! We had the chance to see the company classes every morning in between classes. In a way it was motivating but the whole thing was really exhausting. It was the first time I was living on my own and on top of that I didn´t speak a word of English! Hopefully with the new school that Angel Corella is opening in Barcelona, the new generation of children that want to be ballet dancers won’t have to go abroad and that will make it a bit easier for them.
What was the best piece of advice your teachers gave you and that you’d like to share with the new generation?
MJS: If you don´t believe in yourself, no one will believe in you. I was very shy when I first starting dancing so my teachers kept telling me to believe in myself.
Prior to joining English National Ballet, you worked for 2 years with Juan Carlos Santamaria, dancing his entire repertoire. Which ballets and roles did you enjoy the most?
MJS: When I graduated from ENB School, they offered me to stay three more months at the school and then join the company. So I was one of the lucky girls that got to perform with ENB while still being at the school. Unfortunately I had to keep paying and it was too much money. Also it wasn’t clear to me whether or not I wanted to live there and be a part of this world; it is very competitive and I´m not like that. I like to enjoy what I’m doing and learn from others but I hate competing. So I went back to Spain and gave up ballet for a year! I finished my studies while taking ballet classes in Madrid. Juan Carlos Santamaria got in touch with me as he needed a girl to play the role of Clara in his Nutcracker tour. I joined his company and I loved it. Juan focuses on emotions in all his ballets. They’re essential to the dancing. I like his entire repertoire really but Sonidos and Lágrimas were my favourite ones. He was the push that I needed to complete my learning about ballet. I had the technique from England and the feelings to play roles from J.C Santamaria.
You even had a role created for you: “Aariko” pas de deux. Can you tell us more about it?
MJS: It was about the mistreatment of women. It’s really hard to play a role when you don´t understand why people do that. How can these women stay with this kind of person? I had to watch movies about it, to pass on to the audience the feelings I had when I saw these movies. I didn’t want the audience to clap at the end of the pas de deux so that they got my message! I was really impressed the day that I danced it for the first time: there was a huge silence at the end and little by little you started hearing one clap and another one and then everyone. I had made it!! That was a big experience for me.
It sounds like such an incredible experience. Can you tell us more about working with Juan? What was it like?
MJS: Juan works a lot with feelings. I really liked working with him because he made me understand and feel ballet in a different way. Sadly I eventually had to leave the company because we weren’t getting paid much. I didn´t want to ask for more money to my parents so I decided to audition somewhere else.
Maria Jose Sales. Photo: Fernando Bufala
Your time at English National Ballet seems to have been another stepping stone in your career. You danced many principal and soloist roles. What would you say has been your biggest breakthrough?
MJS: When I joined ENB I already knew some of the people there so I didn´t feel too strange. I studied in Markova House during my first year at the school so it was like hello again! My first six months in the company were about catching up: I was coming from a new classical contemporary company so joining one of the most important companies with a classical repertoire was difficult. Getting used to pointe shoes again was also very hard! My first principal role with ENB was during my second year in the company. I was the Fairy God Mother in Michael Corder´s Cinderella. I was the last one listed in the cast. I had Daria Klimentova and many others in front of me. I never thought that I’d get the role but Corder wanted to see me on stage so they gave me the chance. They were really happy with me after the show and me too! After that they started giving me more important roles to dance.
Who did you enjoy dancing with while at ENB?
MJS: I really enjoyed dancing with Fernando Bufalá. He is now first soloist at Barcelona Ballet. It wasn´t an important role but we had so much complicity that it made it very easy. I also loved working with David Dowson when we were rehearsing Million Kisses to my Skin; he really pushes you to the limit and I love his ballets.
After 7 years or so at ENB, you joined Corella Ballet (now Barcelona Ballet). Why and how did this move happen?
MJS: I moved to Corella Ballet because I needed to move on in my repertoire. The season coming were ballets that I had danced before and that I wasn´t too excited to dance again. At the same time I had always wanted to dance in my country, Spain. There are too many Spanish around the world dancing for other companies; our country needs to fight for dance. I decided to resign from ENB and stand up for Spanish ballet companies. Spain needs it! People need to know more about ballet. There are still people out there who think ballet is not a profession. They are too much into football and Formula 1, yes! Pretty sad! I felt I needed to really stand up for Angel Corella´s project and give my support.
What are your first memories of Corella Ballet?
MJS: I’ve been very happy since my very first day with the company. Everyone is very nice. We used to go out almost every day and then the next morning everyone was in class, rehearsing, giving 200 per cent of themselves and the energy that Angel transmitted. Having Makarova rehearshing me was also like a dream. I have really good memories.
Within just a year, you were promoted to Soloist. A title much deserved! What did this promotion signify to you?
MJS: When Angel promoted me to Soloist it meant that he believed in me and it was the recognition of all these years of work. I was really thankful.
Maria Jose Sales and James Forbat in Les Emotions. Photo: John Ross
Do you remember your first role as a Soloist?
MJS: I remember perfectly my first important role! It was the main pas de deux (blue) in David Richardson´s Bruch Violin Concerto.
Did you feel more nervous for this role in particular?
MJS: I have to recognise that I was very anxious to dance it.
Speaking of being nervous, what are your best tips to keep calm and stay focus?
MJS: I always think that if your director puts you on stage, it’s because you can do it. It is just about enjoying your moment because the work in the studios is done.
Now that you’ve been with the company for a while, do you feel like it’s a great fit for you?
MJS: I´m really happy with the decision I made in 2008. Angel and Carmen Corella believed in me and that made me grow a lot as a dancer. It really feels like home.
What do you hope to achieve next season? Are there any roles or ballets in particular you’re looking forward to dancing?
MJS: What I´m looking forward to dancing next season is the Merry Widow but that will not happen until the government of Spain realises that ballet is a way to educate. They need more funding. Ballet cannot disappear! The people of Spain want to see ballet!
Maria, thank you for your time. We’re hoping we will see you in the Merry Widow very soon!
Maria Jose Sales. Photo: Fernando Bufala