Interview: Maria Clara Irisarri, NeoBallet’s director

Thursday 1st November 2012 | Annalisa

NeoBallet will be performing their show Life! on the 5th and 6th November at The Place.

I have to confess that when I was reading about your company I pictured you as being much older, but considering you started at such a young age, it makes sense that by now you have a promising company. It seems you found your “element” really quickly. Do you remember the moment you made the decision to become a ballerina?
I decided I wanted to be a professional dancer when I was ten years old. I have always done ballet- since I was five, but I also did a lot of other things. I used to play hockey, kitesurf, I used to be a swimmer and go to competitions from a very young age, but whilst still doing ballet, jazz, hip hop and stuff. But when I was 10 I was spotted by a choreographer who came from France, and when he saw me, he admired my flexibility, high, slim, proportioned body, and told me that I could be a ballerina. He suggested my parents send me to a school two hours away from home. So it took me 6 months to make the decision: ‘Do I want to travel for 2 hours to another city to be auditioned for a new class?’ and I did. It was the first time that I was in front of professional ballet dancers and I loved it. I was like: “Oh my God! Is that what ballet is?” I was dancing next to amazing 12 year old and 13 year old girls who were very strong dancers. And seeing these young people dancing that way, made me realize that that’s what I wanted to do.

How did all the other skills that you developed from your many different hobbies help you in your career?
I think they helped me a lot because they made me versatile- even though I can dance ballet, I can do many other things. Sometimes ballet dancers can be quite restricted, you ask them to move in a certain way and they struggle, they can be technically squared, and this has helped me because I feel I can do so much more, not just ballet. I dance salsa, tango, capoeira etc., and it helps to play characters as well, because it’s not just about dancing, it’s about performing and if you have experienced many things in your life, that comes across on stage, so people can relate to you.

Your company is formed by dancers of many different origins. Which qualities do your dancers share?
I look for that thing that you cannot teach- that sparkle. Someone can be technically perfect, but if I don’t feel anything from them, then it doesn’t work, because the audience isn't going to feel anything either. I target an audience who knows about ballet, but one that knows very little about it. People don’t care much about technique, but about how they felt when they see it. I look for the typical: flexibility etc., but it’s about this aura, this magical force surrounding them. The dancers in the company are all technically strong, but they also have this. I guess it comes from experience.

How did this project Life! get started?
I wanted to start my company for two or three years, but I got distracted by jobs, I went travelling. In addition a lot of people told me I was too young to start my own company, I was 24. I worked in Barcelona, New York and stuff, but I wanted to create my own thing. I was like: “I don’t care I’m young!” And I always have this idea of doing something that people can feel related to, about emotions and feelings, a new story. So I was thinking: “I’m going to do a new show, it’s going to be called Life!, it’s going to have 3 acts, it’s going to be like this because I want it to be…” And every time I was travelling I was picking ideas from things that I was experiencing, getting inspiration to create something new.


Is it difficult to make all the decisions?
I guess naturally I’ve always been a leader- it comes from my family. Both of my parents are very independent people. It is a bit hard because I know what the dancers are thinking, because I’ve been and I’m still in that position. When the choreographer says something you don’t really want to do, you think: “Oh my God…”. So whenever I tell them to do something really difficult and they give me those faces I say: “Ok, let’s see how it feels…” But I enjoy it, it’s a fun experience and I’m learning a lot from it. I’ve never been the boss to so many people before, but it’s interesting.

What’s the most difficult part in bringing a show to life?
It’s all the technicalities behind it, because I’m doing all the marketing, the light and the sound, the insurance, and that takes a lot of time. It’s not only choreographing, I need to find the costume fittings, design them, designing the flyers, that’s what I’ve never done before. I’m completely confident about how to create the show, but when it comes to lighting, or all those little things, I’m not so sure about that. But I’m just learning.

What influenced you to mix ballet with House and Drum ‘n’ Bass?
I think dancers can sometimes get a little bit bored. When you have been dancing for a long time, and have seen the Swan Lake a hundred times, it’s like, “Ok, it would be cool to do something new”. I really like to fuse new things with ballet and, as I’ve done so many things, I want to bring all of that into my show to make more than just ballet. I want to enrich people and make ballet popular. I think if you don’t know about ballet or classical music, you might feel a little bit intimidated. So I think, if we give people modern music and mixed it with ballet, it can get into their system easier. They are subliminally watching ballet, while they are having fun with other music that they might feel more comfortable with. It’s about engaging more people.

Do people have misconceptions about Ballet?
Definitely, this is it. People have this idea of really skinny ballerinas. At the end of the day, the show is purely ballet, the technique is hardcore ballet. For people who don’t know about it, they would say: “it isn’t ballet”, but it is, it’s just that the music is a little bit different.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
I get inspiration from everything, from just being alive. I’ve always felt older and I feel like the hours of the day aren’t enough, I always want more and more. I´m very driven. The story could be autobiographical, though. Life! is about a young girl who grows up, and becomes a mature woman in the world. The show is in 3 acts: birth, life and death. Birth is portrayed as something sterile and then Life is about, you know “you’re left alone now, it’s busy, we have to deal with it”, and there is love and there is passion, temptation, betrayal...etc.  And then death. I wanted to end it on a high note, I wanted to portray that, “yeah okay, people leave, but things go on”. For me it´s about the fact that when we get older, we let go, we become free. Sometimes it’s too late, perhaps you didn’t speak to someone for years because of a silly argument, and then you’re old, and you’re thinking: “was that worth it?” and then you let go, and you live.


Is it difficult to match emotions with music? To find the right melody?
Yes, it took me a while to find the music I wanted, but at the end of the day, music has, I feel, different things. When I listen to a track, music tells me straight away which emotion to feel. So I don´t choreograph and then try and fit the music according to the emotion I want to portray. I let the music tell me what to feel. So I just listen to the music, and if it’s the part that is down, then the choreography goes down, and if it’s high, it picks up. Music is related to our senses and emotions, so it’s quite easy to match.


Which way, in your opinion, is the best way to re-define the typical conception of ballet?
I’m trying to make this company very commercially appealing, to make a brand. I want the dancers to seen almost like athletes, I want them to be recognised. I think there are a lot of negative connotations about ballet: that they are all skinny people, the environment is not great- and it’s not about that. We are really strong people; we train between five and seven hours a day, every day, just like athletes. We sacrifice a lot of things, and I want that to come across. I think people are really interested in sport because they recognize the physical effort, but maybe in ballet they don’t realise that, because we are meant to look fragile and light, but that in itself is an art. We are working really hard using our legs to look effortless. But people think it’s not that hard.

They say the ballet world is really competitive and hard, one misstep and you’re done. Which is your training philosophy?
I still want my dancers to work hard- that doesn’t change. The show is very different, but the discipline is still a bit tough. Even if you’re tired, you need to come to class. There is a saying that says: “If you stop dancing for a day, you notice, if you stop dancing for two days, your body notices, if you stop dancing for three days, the audience notices”. So this is the whole thing of dancers not going on holiday- because they won’t be fit enough. But the dancers in my company are very excited because this is new work: it’s very different, because it’s still ballet, but it’s something you will see more in contemporary dance. It’s tough to be in companies where you have to rehearse something that you don’t really enjoy.

How do fashion and theatre feature in the show?
I want to catch more people, the ballet audience, of course, but If you don’t follow us because you’re into ballet, follow us because you are into music. If you don’t follow us because you’re into music, follow us because you’re into film or into fashion. The costumes are designed by Christopher De Gabriel. Maybe you come to see that, and you get into ballet. Ballet dancers, we work with our bodies, so obviously we are very suitable for fashion and for film, photography…anything, we are trained to be artistic individuals. A lot of ballet dancers do modeling as well, and I want to bring that into the company.

Is the economic crisis affecting the dance world?
Yeah definitely, there are cuts in the arts funds, but I also think there is a lot of money around the world that goes to the wrong places. That shouldn’t be an excuse for people not to do things. The company is not founded at the moment; the money is coming out of my pocket. I’m an entrepreneur, I think if you believe in yourself, you have to invest in yourself. If you don’t do it, nobody else will. For me, it’s an investment at this stage. Money shouldn’t stop art.

How do you think culture can contribute to improving the world that we live in?
For me, culture and art bring beauty into the world. And people want to be surrounded by beautiful things, and this makes us happy and see things in a more positive way, or even dream more. The fact of seeing something that is not common in your reality. Watching a performance is like watching a dream because people are not dancing ballet in the streets. Portraying a fantasy makes people think that more things are possible. There are proved reports that say in beautiful cities there is less crime because people don’t want to break beautiful things. Art bring beauty into world and will help us to be more positive.

What ideas or feelings would you like people to take home after seeing the show Life!?
I would like them to be inspired, to be excited, to follow their dreams, to do what they like, not to hesitate or overthink. I want them to feel something. The way that the show is done, the energy picks up and up and I want them to get goosebumps and keep thinking or wondering about it. Make a change in their life just because they watched the show. Any little thing, maybe call an old friend, talk to a stranger, stop smoking…etc. I want to trigger something in people and make them stop hesitating and just let go and live.

Maria Clara Irisarri danced ballet for Beyoncé and Madonna in London, but while performing in NY, found the United States dance scene too superficial. Their only aim is to sell sex, and you don’t even need to be a prepared dancer to do that. So she chose to follow her principles and dreams, and create her own company, NeoBallet, whose aim is
to redefine the concept of ballet and bring it to the masses, but also
change people’s life, making them more positive, thanks to beauty, thanks to art, something that only real dancers can do.  

To know more about NeoBallet, visit their website:

By Laura Vila