The Malta Independent 9 May 2021, Sunday

Lets Do Lunch - Francesca Abela Tranter

Malta Independent Friday, 27 May 2005, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

She has just come back from Cyprus where her Contact Dance Company once again successfully performed at an international contemporary dance festival. Josanne Cassar meets the indefatigable Francesca Abela Tranter for lunch at Chez Philippe in Gzira

In the world of dance, contemporary dance is perhaps the least understood.

It is outside the mainstream, which means that large audiences don’t immediately flock to watch performances. So it is quite understandable that anyone in Malta who wishes to push the envelope of this art form is doomed unless they widen their horizons.

“When I formed Contact Dance Company in 1999, I was concerned about how my craft would stand on an international level,” explains Francesca Abela Tranter. “Before that I used to choreograph locally and people would say to me: ‘Yes, it’s of a good calibre’ but I don’t think you really know where you stand until you really put your work out there,” and she waves her hands to indicate what “out there” means to her.

Away from the island, away from the limitations, away from the almost stifling atmosphere of a tiny country which is so brimming with talent in the Arts but which provides so very few opportunities.

We are sitting at Chez Philippe, an appropriate enough place for someone as cosmopolitan as Francesca. It is a place where different cultures have fused – Philippe is the French owner and on his walls he has paintings on exhibit by two Malta-based artists: the German Ebba von Fersen and the British Jeni Caruana.

As usual, it is busy for lunch, with regular patrons whom Philippe greets in his inimitable Gallic style. As is his custom, he drops by and gives us a list of today’s dishes, from light salads to more hearty plates such as chicken and beef. Since the last time I came here, he has also added a cheese counter displaying a wide range of fresh French cheeses from which one can choose to make a platter.

He insists that we taste a Turkish white wine, Oremus, and then brings us some bruschetta and dips as starters.

Francesca is the youngest of four children. “My mother was in her 40s when she had me, so I came as a bit of shock!”

She had a very happy childhood, and was especially close to her father.

“He used to drive me everywhere, taking me to all my lessons. Whenever my friends came over, he always gave them sweets and they all remember him to this day,” she says fondly.

Her older brother and sisters had all tried out an instrument or gone into ballet but eventually lost interest, so by the time Francesca came along “my parents didn’t bother with me.”

Ironically, she was the one who really loved music, dancing, painting and sport. It wasn’t until she was 12 years old that she was sent to lessons at Tanya Bayona’s school. It turned out to be a lifelong association, as Francesca spent ten years there as a student, and the next ten years as a teacher.

“Although she has technically ‘stopped’ teaching, Tanya’s spirit is everywhere. From her school there have emerged dancers who today have their own schools. I owe a lot to Tanya, because she introduced me to the world of dance. One year she brought over Vivienne Fielding who introduced me to contemporary dance and that was it! There was no turning back and I thank her to this very day. As soon as I started moving in that way I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

But then, at 17 Francesca shocked her parents by packing her bags and going to Kuwait.

“I wanted to leave Malta, I was fed up, and it broke my mother’s heart. My friend was supposed to come with me but her mother locked her up in the bathroom so I went alone. I joined a British company as a rep. and lived in various countries – Dubai, Bahrain, Egypt, Athens. I turned 18 while living in Jordan.”

On her return to Malta, Francesca began working as a sales rep. with an import company. Even then she seemed to juggle a myriad of commitments, fitting in classes during her work break and rehearsing late into the night.

“It makes you wonder how I met my husband, and how I had my children,” she jokes. She got married at 29: “I wasn’t in a hurry, and I didn’t feel like I was ready before that.”

She worked and danced until she was eight months pregnant (“they made me stop”) and was back in the studio three weeks after each child was born.

Rather than slowing down, her drive and determination seemed to increase.

In 1996, she decided to bring over a company of six male dancers to perform here. A one-woman whirlwind, she did all the media promotion for it herself and ended up with a packed house.

I looked up the interview I carried out with Francesca when she had just formed Contact Dance Company and recalled how her enthusiasm was almost infectious.

“I first started applying for us to attend youth festivals, at which they would just cover our accommodation expenses. The idea was to expose the name of my company and Malta, and from there I started networking. I established a repertoire which I felt was pretty good and began applying to dance festivals for up and coming dance companies like us. It’s been quite an exciting ride, although we’ve had our ups and downs.”

One of their most challenging performances took place in Turin, Italy, just after the terrorist attacks on 11 September.

“We thought no one was going to come and watch us. We had to dance outside; it was very cold and raining. But people came and we really danced from the heart, dancing for the losses in America. We had a very good response – I mean for the Italians to get up and say ‘Bravo’ is really something!”

Another challenge came in Liverpool – which one associates more with pubs than contemporary dance. There they had to dance at 2pm, outside in broad daylight, in a square and on a stage with no frills.

“It was just us and our bodies, but they loved it! Well, obviously there was the fact that we were seven women on stage in just bra and pants so…! But it took guts as well to pull it off, and they performed quite well.”

Francesca has brought an impressive pile of programmes of festivals in which they have taken part, as well as favourable reviews in dance magazines.

“Dance theatre has really moved into a completely different direction, far way from traditional dance. You really go into the deep end, sometimes you go there just to watch, and you don’t know what you’re going to see. I’ve never felt ‘my God I can’t compete with this’. I just say ‘I’m so lucky to be here’.”

Francesca’s company attempts to explore the use of visual imagery, projection and various theatre dialogues, working with musicians, actors and technicians to broaden their performance aspect and to remain at the cutting edge. She has collaborated with composer Ruben Zahra and, more recently, with percussionist Renzo Spiteri who is also travelling with the Company.

Francesca’s seven female dancers all come from an extensive, highly trained, dance background and once they join Contact Dance Company they know they have to work very hard. It is a rigorous, unrelenting five-days-a-week grind of rehearsals, which start at 9pm because everyone has a day job or is a full-time student.

“My dancers are all individual, which is what I like about them. We work on contact, on improvisation, and our upper body has to be as strong as our legs – we do all the lifting ourselves because I have no men. I have tried to teach them not to be inhibited, that it’s a learning process and you can never learn enough. As for the audience, sometimes people will like your work, and sometimes they won’t; I don’t feel insulted. You have to be objective about your work,” Francesca points out. “However, I do get offended when people think of dance just in terms of entertainment.”

The Company has just come back from Cyprus.

“We performed in a modern, recently renovated theatre which seats 400 people. It was a perfect venue and the whole thing was supported by their Ministry of Culture so we could really learn a lot from them,” she adds, loading her words with meaning.

Francesca has quite outspoken views about the Arts and the support (or lack of) by the government.

“I could never be a politician’s wife,” she says with a laugh, “I just don’t know how to keep my mouth shut. My father always used to say to me: ‘You shouldn’t have been born in Malta, you are too spontaneous, too blunt’.”

She agrees that it is harder to get funding for something like contemporary dance.

“We still have a long way to go before the general audience learns to appreciate it. It is a matter of education – after all, dance in Malta is only about 70 or 80 years old. And what we have is inherited dance, such as classical ballet and so on, so we are still finding ourselves.”

Where do you get your inspiration?

“When I was younger I had more energy; now I’ve become more practical. I only work on one project a year so that I can do it well. My methodology is very different, sometimes it is a piece of music which inspires me, or a situation, or something that I’ve seen that has affected me. But dance doesn’t always have to ‘mean’ something. I feel that choreography is an area where we have become a bit ‘stuck’. Anyone interested in choreography needs to expose himself by going to workshops overseas, because that’s how you grow. You have to keep searching within yourself.”

Philippe is disappointed with us: we have hardly touched the starters because we are too busy talking, so we promise that we will make up for it with the main course. Francesca had the pulpetti with Parmesan cheese while I had the beef tower with a rocket salad.

The last time Francesca performed on stage was five years ago.

“I cannot do everything,” she says matter-of-factly. “I feel I can only be a master of one thing at a time. To be at the level of the platforms that we are going to, you have to be young, and not someone my age. I don’t really miss the stage that much actually and I feel proud to see my work being performed by other people.”

Apart from her work as choreographer, Francesca also teaches contemporary dance. Unlike other disciplines, there are no exams. She prefers to focus on teaching students how to develop and find their own way of moving.

“With my students it has to be a combination of discipline and fun. I used to teach jazz dance but it doesn’t give me as much pleasure, it is much more stylised, but I do use influences from jazz in my work. Through the contacts I have established over the years, and also through our website, I get approached by a lot of choreographers from abroad who want to carry out workshops here and I immediately grab at the chance. I strongly believe in exposing our dancers to different influences. I encourage people, even those who have never danced in their life, to come and try it.”

As the years have passed, Francesca has learned to be more flexible, even when it comes to her company – dancers have come and gone and she has learnt to accept this as a natural process, “whereas before in my head I used to think that if a particular dancer leaves, then that’s it. The fact is that there are always new dancers coming up and that is understandable when people want to move on.”

Despite her success, there have been sacrifices, and it certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing. When she started the company, her two children were still very young.

“I have always worked at night, sometimes till midnight, every day. My family and social life were put on hold. I have a very tolerant husband and I must say thank you to him. Funnily enough, I thought that, as they got older, my children would be more understanding, but now they want me at home even more. My son is nine and my daughter is 11 and they are always asking me: ‘Do you have to go to work, can’t you stay at home tonight?’ I wish I could get to a point where I can delegate more to someone I really trust and be more of a consultant. While dancing is a big chunk of my life, I’m also a mother and I have to find a balance.”

That free spirit which as a teenager took her to far-flung lands is still there in the way she refuses to conform. She will wear what she likes and what she feels comfortable in, even if everyone else shows up dressed formally. Francesca is one of those women who will wake up one morning, decide she is fed up with the colour of a room and paint it by herself in one day. With her gregarious nature, she has a natural knack for telling anecdotes.

“I change my furniture around all the time… my husband is always bumping into things because I’ve changed their place.”

While Alex, her supportive hubby, takes over when she is abroad, she admits that the household continues to run smoothly in her absence because she is super-organised.

“I cook for the whole week, label all the food with careful cooking instructions and lay out all the kids’ clothes for a week… otherwise they would be eating takeaways and who knows how he would dress the children!” she says with mock exasperation.

Surprisingly, she says that, even at 42, she wouldn’t mind having another child now.

As for her company, her goal will always be to take her work abroad, “I have to, because there’s not enough for us here. How many times can I show the same thing? It takes me so long to create a piece that it doesn’t make sense to just perform it once. Now I have built a large enough repertoire that I can leave something for a few years and go back to it, especially when new dancers come in. I have videotaped all our dances so I have a record of everything.”

Apart from the need for new audiences, Francesca also needs to leave the island for her own motivation.

“I need space and inspiration, so I need to get away occasionally. I like to be anonymous when we are performing because you always want to hear what they think of you. I feel like an ambassador sometimes. When we are abroad we become very patriotic, it is the only time we sing Maltese songs – we even came up with a rap version of Lanca Gejja….!” she laughs.

She dreams about one day seeing a full-time university course which leads to a degree in dance.

What keeps you going?

“I’m not saying I’ve never wanted to give up, because I’d be a liar. I felt very bad when I lost my father in February of last year. I was the apple of his eye and I think I went through a bit of a breakdown. Nothing felt right and the way I was looking at things changed. It was a process I had to go through. Shortly afterwards I had a total transition in my company – four dancers left and four new dancers came in. My company was like my family, we were very close, so it was hard. Today, when I think about it, I say things happen for a reason. There were new energies, new faces, they were younger. Now I deal with things differently – if something doesn’t work, it’s time to move on.

“I’m very blessed because in my life I’ve been able to do everything. What I’ve always wished for, however, is for some kind of grant, because that way I could afford to employ my dancers during the day, and live a normal life. Trying to be creative at 9pm is not easy – how I’ve managed and how my dancers have put up with me, I don’t know. I’m very hard on them but I have to be, otherwise you can’t take your work abroad. I know I have to go prepared.”

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