A Continent Dreamt By An Island

A talk with Gelu Barbu Each artist who fulfils his destiny up to the zenith of glory becomes the founder of an island nostalgic about the continent. The creator does not represent a boastful, empty oneness but "a world within a world". His original formula is achieved thanks to the very feeling of belonging to an entity and the possibility of raising an echo.The actuality of an experience – that of ballet dancer Gelu Barbu who settled in Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, in 1969, to assert himself in all the sectors of his profession, first as a soloist, then professor-founder of a ballet school and company, and choreographer – allows us to learn more about this inevitable nostalgia. He fled to the West in 1961, and after 1990 he returned several times to Romania as if desirous to reunite himself with the world he once belonged to. After the revolution, Romania, deploying considerable effort and hope, is trying to get integrated into the civilized continent. In his turn, Gelu Barbu wants to retrieve his life of a European artist, the missing span, the experience of Romania. How important is this period of time for an artist whose soloist activity in Romania represents just a brief interval in his over 45-year career? Here is what we discussed with Gelu Barbu, freshly arrived in Romania to stage Daphnis and Chloe on music by Ravel, and in his own choreography. "Don't allow fate to deny you your childhood." (R. M. Rilke) Mr. Gelu Barbu, now when there is such a pressing need to step in line with the civilized countries we are suggested to come up with European assets likely to facilitate this undertaking. How close at hand are they after the dramatic historic experience undergone by this country for so many years? Gelu Barbu: In 1961 when I decided not to return to Romania the biggest shock I had was in Munich and Nuremberg. Compared to what I had left behind that world rose fantastic, glittering, formidable. It was also a period when artists from all over Europe came to the German stage. But then I immediately realized that, in a society which I found so civilized, to be deemed an alien was tantamount to being nobody, a poor wretch. "What does this miserable Eastern foreigner want?" In a sort of hierarchy of disdain, the standings looked like this: Spaniards, Turks, Greeks, and last came the folks from Eastern Europe, the scum. Look, the first dancer of Romania, the soloists of Yugoslavia, the prima ballerina of Vienna…big deal! They didn't not like Vienna either, they used to look down on persons hailing from there. I told them in reply: You, Germans, can't dance… You're fit only for the corps de ballet! If ever! What entitled you to say such things? A good knowledge of the European cultural assets, at the time when Romania had not yet been excluded from the flow. I knew that time before the Germans had been very good, bringing something new through Mary Wigmann, who had started modern dancing, free from clichés, and the German expressionism that had set a trend. Two of my ballet mistresses, Delia Birlea and Edith Potoceanu with whom I had had the first lesson in my childhood, at Lugoj, had learnt the ropes with that celebrated ballerina and also Harald Kreuzberg. An aunt of mine, Iris Barbura, also a former student of Wigmann's who had danced in Germany for a while, tried to spread this modern, highly expressive trend in Romania too. Young, looking like a dark-haired Greta Garbo, my aunt was the great love of Sergiu Celibidache for 17 years. A little before the war they left together for Dresden, where he accompanied Iris in her recitals. They stayed in Germany. When Celibidache began to make a name for himself as a conductor, her popularity was already waning. They split and she left for the United States where she inaugurated a modern ballet school at the University of Ithaca, for a time performing also in various shows with Jose Limonte, a great master at the time as far as I remember. I knew all these things from back home at Lugoj so how was I to stand being snubbed by any German who thought himself the hub of the universe? It's not secret that you have such a soft spot for your native town. What made you think that looking at things from the vantage of a Banat province boy was the exact measure to judge the world, broadly speaking? At Lugoj, my childhood friends came from different ethnic backgrounds. We did not pay any attention to that when we chose play partners or confidantes for our little problems. That was what was going on among children, true. But then that was also the way grown-ups behaved, my family, and their friends too, who were not all Romanian. For instance father received from Ion Vidu the baton of the famous Vidu choir singing in the Romanian Orthodox Church. Later on the big shots of the Jewish community invited him to come with the Vidu choir at the synagogue, on Saturdays, there being too few Jewish choir singers. On Saturdays father was a conductor in the synagogue while on Sundays he took everybody – Romanians, Hungarians, Jews, Germans – to the Romanian church. It didn't matter some were Romanian Orthodox, others Catholics or Calvinists. The important thing was that they sang harmoniously together. Nobody was surprised by what Filaret Barbu did. It was thought all too natural. Then, in 1950, a year after my debut as a first soloist of the Bucharest Opera I was sent to Leningrad, to the Vaganova Ballet Academy (the former Imperial Academy of Sankt Petersburg) where Pavlova and Nijinsky had taken lessons). In the groups of students coming from Romania there were two Jewish girls. One evening one of them came beaten black and blue, the poor thing. The director of our school did not find that too amazing. "My dears, her nose is crooked," he said. "It's clear she's Jewish. And this is something dangerous. She'd better not walk alone in the street." "But why? The Soviet Union is the homeland of internationalism. Lenin was half Chuvash, Stalin is Georgian." "Sure, that's true, but just the same she'd better not walk by herself." All day we were told about socialist morals being the most advanced in the world, the latest achievement of the century. But my morals, assimilated back home, said something else and I believed that message to be generous and tolerant. The Founding Spirit Your father, composer Filaret Barbu is deemed the creator of the Romanian operetta. Do you think your experience in the Canaries comes in the line of your family tradition, of its founding spirit? Attracted by folklore, my father pushed this so-called light genre to an acme. When he brought it to the national stage, the genre was not deemed Romanian: this music was close to that of Smetana, to the composers of the Russian School, Mussorgsky first of all, and Grieg by whom father was fascinated. In fact, if I included my paternal grandfather, Iosif, a member of the Banat delegation to the Great Union of Alba Iulia, I could be counted as the third generation boasting a founding spirit. When I came to Romania in 1991 they had memorial plaques set on the houses where I used to live, in Lugoj and Timişoara. I was standing there with the mayors, the citizens of those towns and I felt hugely thrilled. Excitement overwhelmed me. I said to myself that justice was finally coming into its own! Father suffered a lot because of my departure. Spiritually and professionally. Now when I walk downtown Lugoj I feel almost a child again, protected by those around. People still meet on the corner of a street like for an assembly, as it used to happen once, and now the names of the streets are Filaret Barbu and Ion Vidu. Next lies the Tiberiu Brediceanu Street, and further off I see the name of his father, Coriolan, a friend of my grandfather's, Iosif, of Valeriu Branişte and Gheorghe Dobrin, a great national fighter, member on the delegation of the Banat sent to Alba Iulia.Do you think that a street in Las Palmas will carry your name sometime? This is something customary with the Spaniards, they are not very rigid. There is a street bearing the name of an opera singer, Oran, much loved by the public. Similarly, a widely liked folk singer, too, in the genre of our Maria Tănase, has a street named after her. When I walk into the lobby of the opera in Las Palmas I inevitably pass by the bronze bust of the famous singer Alfredo Kraus, a tenor of world stature, still alive, and very appreciated by generations upon generations of spectators. I have a special feeling for him because whenever I climb the stairs at the Opera I feel less alone seeing the bust of a contemporary classic, already prepared to go down into eternity, as much as we can rely on this eternity which the public memory affords us.Are you considered a cultural founder in Gran Canaria? I had the chance of reaching a very receptive public, made up of painters, composers, literature professors, art critics. It was a propitious moment both for myself and for the others. Nobody had thought before of creating a ballet school. Perhaps there hadn't been a perfect man to do it. It so happened that I came up with this idea, and as I am very stubborn I carried it through. I was lucky to do what I wanted in a pure, clean still virgin environment. There was nothing to remake. I set my own line which was received with a fresh spirit. By now there are about 30 former students of mine who have set up their own ballet schools. In Spain, this island is known as a genuine dance school. Some of those I coached are part of the national ballet of Madrid, others work in France, in Holland, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and another of my students founded his own ballet company in Paris. At the shows given in Bucharest there were also two soloists from the Grand Canary isle, Wendy Artiles and Miguel Montanez, and former students of mine from Romania, Francisc Valkay and Florin Gavrilescu also joined in the preparations.What could the years in Romania mean to your celebrated international career? A summer day on the Viilor Hill of Lugoj when I decided on my future. Or it decided for me, I cannot tell because I was very young at the time. Almost all the friends of our family had villas there. Ours stood next to that of Tiberiu Brediceanu. He had a piano, and we too had one. Father and Brediceanu used to sing to each their latest compositions. I was listening to them and suddenly I rose up and started to dance. The music stopped but I kept on dancing, with no music. I had discovered a feeling of extraordinary freedom. I was actually floating. "What is Gelu doing?" father asked. Tiberiu was the first to realize what was going on with me and he asked father to play Sibelius' Finlandia, a symphonic poem that I found entrancing. I continued to move freely, dancing. Lucian Blaga and Cornelia, his wife and Tiberiu's sister were present, and also aunt Jeni, Tiberiu Brediceanu's wife and Mihai's mother, who was watching me attentively: "I think the boy has got something. Bring him to Bucharest and we'll send him to Floria Capsali to see what she says." They were my first public. Was is the most refined too, judging by the worth of each of the personalities present? Could be. When I began my career as a choreographer in Oslo I staged the performance Jeu Dansant on music by Stravinsky, and had a resounding success. After the official show on the national day of Norway, at the reception held at the place in the presence of king Olaf V and the entire government I was handed over the Medal of the Constitution for artistic worth, as the prime minister put it on the occasion. The Canary granted me the title of adopted son from Las Palmas. I received the distinction from king Juan Carlos. Believe me or not, from these important days in my career I do not remember as many details as from that day spent on the Viilor Hill. I always get frightened of too much formality that could arouse in me a whisper of vanity. The day on Viilor Hill, essential for my destiny we could say, is the supreme moment of freedom, of delicate floating, natural and simple. The Homecoming How was the first meeting with the Bucharest public after three decades? For a very long time, my biggest utopia was to see myself dancing one more time on the Romanian scene. In the seven years spent at the Opera after going back to study I had been through the entire repertory of the time. I was lucky to dance with exceptional partners: Irinel Liciu, the unsurpassed Magdalena Popa, Valentina Massini, Simona Ştefănescu, Ileana Iliescu, special persons each of them. First soloist Gabriel Popescu was a stage colleague of mine, and the huge talent of modern choreography, Stere Popescu, was my master at a time when my style was still on the make. I was carrying in me the image of that golden team when I arrived in Romania at the end of September 1991. At the time of the second rampage by the miners? Exactly. I had brought with me my ballet company from the Canary with the show Waiting for Godot which had premiered on December 20, 1989, in Las Palmas! We had been invited by Mihai Brediceanu to participate in the Enescu Festival. We had been assigned the Romanian Rhapsody Hall, since all the others were all taken up. Seeing what was going on downtown, Mihai told me that if I wanted I could cancel the show. Almost all the events of the Festival were disrupted. I asked my girls and boys what to do. "Once here who knows if we can return a second time. We will dance even if there is nobody in the hall. We dance for you and for the Romanian spirit you talked so much about." I asked for the doors to be kept open, no tickets, no nothing. On Lipscani Street the miners chased people like mad. We could hear shouts, thumping noises, and the smell of gas tears was overpowering. To get from Lipscani to Ştirbei Vodă where he lives Anatol Vieru needed two hours on foot, taking cover every fifty meters. At the end of our show the public was weeping, all my dancers had tears in their eyes, and I felt like I was dreaming. Tugearu jumped on stage and cried as hard as he could: "Gelu has taught us a lesson of contemporary spirit!" România literară no. 34, August 27-September 1, 1997

by Tita Chiper