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Greta Mendez: “I love to dance, because dance is my saviour. Dance is my soul, my spirit.”

Image: Photo of Greta Mendez by Alexis Shepherd

Ahead of performing her new show ‘Who Am I…. F#@k!’ at A Time To Breathe festival, Greta Mendez MBE talks to Rosemary Waugh about curating the programme, the healing power of dance and finally making an intensely personal piece of art.

Rosemary Waugh: So when you first knew that you were going to be curating A Time To Breathe, what was your vision or feeling for what the festival was going to be like?

Greta Mendez:
Well, it all started because somebody asked me to dance. I used to be a dancer and now I'm an old woman, and I'm fat and can't touch my feet. But this person said to me: ‘I want you to dance in my theatre’. And I'm going: ‘Oh my god!’ But I believe in the philosophy of: What is dance anyway? And I think once you have something to say it's okay. So I phoned a few people who I knew who are expressive as women and have created history. And then, from there, I took on the curation of the project.

RW: There’s a lot of dance and dance-theatre in the programme. Given your own background in dance, could you talk me through a couple of dancers and choreographers you've decided to programme and explain like why you chose them?

Everybody I chose had to have some sensibility of dance within their being. We're not talking about dance from a Eurocentric point of view, we're talking about a body that is very expressive. So, for example, there is Carol Leeming, who is a choreo-poet. I was mesmerised when I met her a few years ago. I wanted people who have lived a life and she has a very essential sensibility, along with a political sensibility. We don’t see enough big women on the stage and she's quite a wonderful size. We also have Gerrard Martin Dance doing a piece. We also don’t see enough black on black male love. When I saw it, I thought: ‘How wonderful to see that love’. And then there’s Yassmin Foster who is talking about the dance styles of Lovers Rock, because we know the music but not so much about the dancers and what a profound impact it had on the society in which we live.

RW: Both when putting together the programme, and more generally, what draws you to other dancers’ work?

I am drawn to anything that moves me. If it's purely aesthetic, like ‘legs in the air and look at how beautiful my body is’, I am bored. I’m drawn to people who dig deep into their soul to manifest something when they dance. I come from a culture where you dance for the rain, you dance for birth, you dance for death, and that still lives in me. I need to feel the vibrations of the earth and that they have enough vibrations. And passion: I love passion.

RW: Can we now talk a little bit about ‘Who Am I…. F#@k!’, the work you’re going to be performing at the festival?

: I used to be one of those dancers who could get her legs in the air and have amazing pointe, and amazing control. I was very skinny, verging on anorexic, but I had a lot of power. But then, of course, from the lack of eating and a bad love life, I collapsed. And my body acquired this fat that it refuses to give up. I love to dance, because dance is my saviour. Dance is my soul, my spirit. So when I'm not dancing, I'm deeply unhappy.

I have resisted making this piece for many years because it's very personal. It's my own story about my childhood and the rage that still goes on in my belly from it. So that’s why the title is: ‘Who am I?’ Because after all these years, I still don't know who I am. As soon as you are born, so many things are put onto you and you have to peel all that away to find out who you are. But there's also a lot of laughter in it, because that's how I am – I can be raging one minute, and smiling and seducing you the next.

RW: Have the physical changes you’ve experienced in your body as you’ve gotten older led you to discover different versions of physical expression and dancing?

GM: To be very honest, I’d don’t sit comfortably in the body I have. I don't feel it's me. Maybe I'm in denial, but I don't feel it's me. I don't think I eat enough to have a big belly and I have a huge tummy. So what’s that all about? I do feel I carry around a lot of the pain and I think it has externalised itself. But once I start to move it in space, and dance in it, I forget all of that, because I'm working from inside out. And so yes, I have had to find different ways to move because I can't do what I used to do. And in a way, maybe what I used to do wasn't really an expression of me. When I danced when I was younger, it was really about other people's stories, whereas this one is about me.

RW: One final question: we’ve talked a lot about dance and individual transformation or storytelling. But your work in general over the years has had a very strong social or political edge to it, and you recently contributed to the book ‘Creating Social Engaged Art: Can Dance Change the World?’. Do you feel like dance can have a transformative effect on society?

: I know it can. Dance saved my life and I when I teach I see it healing. Because I don’t teach dance to put things on top of people, I try to draw their dance out. And I see and feel the growth. I know we can't totally change the world but, incrementally, you can change people's lives. And then hopefully, like a ripple effect, it builds. The only way we would really see a healed world is if everybody stopped at the same moment. All the politicians, all the bankers, all these people stopped at the same moment and just started to stamp, and touch their feet onto the earth and develop the rhythm of their spine. Then we would start to look at ourselves, and see what our needs are and how much we are connected to this universe, and how much we are interconnected and cannot survive without each other or the planet. I say dance your dance, not anybody else's - yours. 

Greta Mendez MBE
Who Am I?... F#@k!
Wednesday 27th October 2021

A Time To Breathe Festival
The Theatre
208 Wandsworth Road
London SW8 2JU


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