This year marks a number of milestones for choreographer and performer José Navas. He celebrates 30 years of his dance career, 20 years for his company Compagnie Flak, and perhaps most significantly, Navas celebrates turning 50. Rather than take this birthday as a sign to slow down, Navas welcomes his fifties with 12 performances of a new solo show, Rites. With age, his body doesn’t necessarily move the same or have all the same capabilities it once did, but it is the tool Navas knows most intimately, and one he continues to push, with respect, to its limits.

José Navas © Valerie Simmons
José Navas
© Valerie Simmons

Rites is actually a combination of four solos set to Nina Simone, Dvořák, Schubert and Stravinsky. Between each section, Navas goes in and out of character before our very eyes. He returns to the chair set far upstage and changes faces as he changes clothes, slowly, ritualistically. We see him oscillate between the powerful and elegant performer we know him to be, and the humble, older man he is more personally. Everything about Rites feels like the coming together of these two sides of Navas, as if with age and experience he is able to find the sweet spot between on-stage and off-stage and simply be himself. Surely, by the end of the performance, I did not feel that I was applauding a particular work so much as the man himself.

He says he started from the music in creating Rites. Each melody resonates with him on a personal level and evoked memories and feelings before evoking movement. This choice process is obvious from the very first solo to Nina Simone’s “Ain’t No Use”. Stripping down to only his briefs and a bedazzled white shirt, the ease and joy with which Navas begins to dance reminds me of putting on your favourite song and dancing alone in your living room. This also speaks to Navas’ refined dancing style, his clean lines, architectural movements, and subtle fluidity, a style that looks as familiar on him as walking.

José Navas © Valerie Simmons
José Navas
© Valerie Simmons
In these same veins of familiarity and ritual, the actual choreography of these four solos is repetitive. Navas stomps the same ground, walking the same diagonals over and over. He spins every few seconds, who knows how many times in total, turning easily with his arms often swinging above his head. His body shows a bias to his right side, which often leads the movement. The tempo rarely changes. Again and again we see the same shapes, but only rarely does this repetition feel planned. You could say this old man’s body, because 50 is old as a dancer, has become a bit set in its ways. This is also a difficulty of solo dancing. In the end, you only have so many limbs and so many ways of moving them so it always looks fresh. With several bodies, the same movements can look totally different.

By the time we get to the Stravinsky solo, an excerpt of The Rite of Spring that Navas performed in full in 2013 with nearly 100 musicians of the Brussels Philharmonic, we can see the effort of the hour-long performance beginning to take its toll. Dancing as the Chosen One, the energy demands are still high. Instead of letting fatigue make him sloppy though, Navas becomes a bit smaller, but no less precise. He pushes himself, keeping up with the music and hitting every accented note exactly on time, but you can tell it’s become a race to the finish. He is more vulnerable now, dancing totally nude, and there’s no denying that he is sacrificing his body for his passion, for dance. When finally he collapses, it isn’t in death, like in the tale. He collapses like someone who pushes past the finish line of a marathon. It’s a great personal achievement.