Christina Beskou


Body Electric Drama & dance

July/August 2007, 1 ODYSSEY 91

by Maria Kostaki

As she walked onto the stage, the lights outlined every single muscle of her body, as if life had been infused into an ancient Greek statue. She began to move and it was immediately obvious that this woman was born to dance.

It all started on the streets of Hydra when Christina Beskou was three years old. When she disappeared from her parents' side, they knew exactly where to find her: just locate a clapping crowd of people and Christina would be there in the center dancing, singing, and acting our her productions. When she ran out of skits she would look at her audience and say, "Now, you applaud!" An American tourist had once watched Christina perform and asked her mother to take Christina to the U.S. with him hoping to create another Shirley Temple. "Are you crazy: take my child away?” her mother replied.

More than four decades later, Beskou is an established dancer, choreographer, and instructor — and crowds still gather to watch and Applaud. Her Seresta Dance Company recently gave the “lifestyle” performance in Athens , a fusion of modern dance and tango, in collaboration with dancers from Argentina and members of Seresta. "Seresta" was originally the name of a group piece that Christina choreographed and performed at Lycabettus Theater 1989 with composer Paquito Di Rivera. A year later she founded the dance company and named it Seresta, which means "a gathering of musicians in open air, jamming, and having a good time" in Portuguese. The company tours Greece , Europe, North America, and has made appearances in Argentina .
Beskou is a petite woman with dark, curly shortish hair and a grand presence. When she talks she stares straight into your eyes, her own shining confidence in her every word or with a sort of child-like interest and amazement at what you are about to reply. She walks a dancer's grace, head up, spine aligned, arms stretched to the side feet slightly pointed outwards. And she cannot sit still for a moment. Sprawled out on the couch in her house in Thiseio, she moves her arms, lifts one leg up in the air, changes, positions, sips her wine, answers her cell phone, and jumps up to buzz people in. Her Argentinean husband of almost two decades is in another room, making VOIP phone calls, and switching spoken languages as quickly as the pages on his screen upload. Cowboy, the boxer runs in and out of the room. Natasha, one of Seresta's dancers suddenly appears and takes a seat next to us, gets up, goes into the bathroom, takes a shower, comes out in a towel and eventually leaves, planting a kiss on her teacher's cheek. A friend-physiotherapist-amateur photographer appears to show me pictures of Seresta's recent performance. Her PR sits quietly in a corner. I take my notepad and lie down on the floor in the midst of this scene.

Beskou started dance classes at the age of twelve when she dragged her mother off the street and into Nelly Calvo's school in Athens .

"I went to Nelly and said 'I want to dance.' She said, well, it's June now, come back in September'." Christina recalls. And she did, though .against the advice of her parents who were worried about her anemia. "When my father finally saw her on stage that year, I told him that I want to be a dancer. He said 'Ok, but I will make a deal with you. I will help you until the day I die but you have to be a good dancer.' I said, 'dad, that's my deal'."

When Beskou was seventeen, Nelly Mazloum Calvo advised her to go study abroad. She went to the Royal Academy of Dance in London , passed the exams in fifteen days, and was told to take the teachers course because she would never be a dancer. But Beskou is not a person to he told what she cannot do. She passed the second examinations in six months instead of the usual two years and met Maria Fay, the internationally acclaimed Hungarian dancer, instructor, and the creator of the floor barre technique, and fell in love with her. Fay became her life-long teacher, mentor and friend.

“A Greek girl, Christina Beskou, stood out from, all the other students," writes Fay about her time at the Royal Academy of Dance in her book Maria Fay’s Floor Barre. "She had a better technique, possessed a strong personality, and an extremely pliable body. It was obvous that her foremost interest was not in teaching but in dancing, and she had the talent for it." A page later, Fay calls Beskou a "determined, stubborn fanatic."

Beskou followed Fay to the London Contemporary Dance School , waitressing and cleaning houses to pay for classes, took private lessons with her and eventually went back to the Royal Academy of Dance to complete her diploma. By the age of twenty she was a demonstrator and teacher of ballet. The phone calls and invitations from Greece began to roll in. After shuttling between Athens, London, and Amsterdam, Beskou returned home in 1982, to a country whose dance scene was-and still is, though to a lesser extent-very weak, in part due to lack of funding and sponsorship, bureaucracy, and in part due to a lack of high-standard training of dancers. (The recent resignation of world-renowned dancer Lynn Seymour from the post of artistic director the Greek National Opera Ballet due to "unproductive work environment stifled by public sector-type complacency" brings the point home.

"Greeks are lazy, they have no discipline," Beskou says. "Once with Nelly [Calvo] I left my shoes in the dance room. She told me to go get them immediately and didn't let me rehearse the next day. You must have character and discipline, otherwise, don't waste your time. Everyone notices if you make a mistake on stage. If you change the choreography or make a choreographic mistake, nobody notices. But if you mess up due to lack of training, everyone knows. It's better to do everything right and then fall down, at least you are still secure that you did everything else right. You have to work for this security and it comes after a lifetime. This is what I try to teach my dancers."

Suddenly, she gets up and struts into the kitchen screaming back at us that she is going to boil some pasta for the sauce that she'd taken out of the freezer. "The point is to be an artist, not just a well-moving body," she says walking back through the door. "You have to communicate your feelings. I come out there [on stage], that is my home, I want to communicate, that is my life. Nothing goes through my mind, I'm in a different world. Once I stop dancing all the insecurities of life hit, but when I'm up there, it's so important that nothing else happens. It takes guts, it takes the life out of you, but if I didn't do it this way, I'd rather stay at home." she says. " And as far as choreography goes, I know I'm not going to change the dance scene, I'm not trying to do something new, I'm doing what I can do." Beskou exercises and rehearses every single day since she began to dance except for the few months after her father passed away four years ago. She doesn't hire dancers based on their technique. She believes more in character, in will, and in their strength to fight for what they want. "You can't imagine what it's like to make a dancer out of nothing, watch them perform and then hear the people clap."

'Alie, plie, plie, plie, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, it does not work without breathing," Beskou rhythmically instructs as a class-full of amateur dancers lie on the floor of her Seresta Dance Studio moving their legs in a sequence of floor barre exercises. The floor barre was developed by Maria Fay when she realized that injured dancers can actually exercise to keep up muscle mass and fitness even while their leg is in a cast, minimizing the recuperation period from what could be a career-shattering two years, to a mere few months. Fay introduced the floor barre to Beskou one summer on Hydra. when Beskou was injured and insisted on rehearsing anyway.Fay was horrified and promised that she would let her continue to do so, but under her jurisdiction. The next day, in the midst of a sweltering summer, in the middle of the living room, Beskou was told to lie on the floor and begin a sequence of movements that resembled ballet. Beskou was of course furious at first. But her leg eventually healed much quicker than expected. Later, during her time in Amsterdam , she would do Fay's exercises as a warm up; other dancers noticed and began to ask her about the routine. As a result, she rented a space and began to teach the floor barre, not only to injured dancers, but to those who wanted to improve their general technique. She continues to teach it, not only in her studio in Athens , but all over Europe , hoping to take it all over the world to help dancers. In 2003, Maria Fay's Floor Barre was published along as a video, both featuring Beskou as the demonstrator of the exercises-an honour that she almost lost due to injury but refused to let a broken foot stop her from having. "You know, Christina, I could have the best dancers of the world do this," Fay had told her when Beskou had called her to tell her she wouldn't be able to do the video. "I know," Beskou answered, devastated, lying in her bathtub with her foot in a plastic bag, "bur that's just my luck." The next day Fay called back. "Ok," she said, "I want you to do it. Come to London and if your foot is not ok we will do it later and if I die and we have no time, I will leave the script to you and you do it alone."

"So that's when I said to myself, I will do it," Beskou says, suddenly sitting upright on the couch. And she did, laughing through the pain.