PORTUGAL: dancing against all odds
From an individual point of view, dance is an artistic process, most of the time, motivated by a physical and (or) a psychological necessity. As a national Art, dancing has become, in many countries, not only a cultural asset but, in many ways, also an economic factor.
Portugal, the oldest European country – recognized as a nation by the Roman Catholic Church in 1143 – has a very strong tradition in folk dancing, with many different dance groups from North to South, as well as in the islands of Madeira and the Azores. The country has a very unique singing form called Fado (fate) – which was danced in the past – however, when compared to its neighbor Spain, it hasn't a dance style such as the powerful export, the “gipsy” flamenco.
The approach to dance, whether it is developed under the roof of a concert hall or in an open air space, seems to have been very different for the Portuguese. If the popular forms had been part of many festive and cultural events, theatrical dance found an uneven role in the Portuguese court, unlike countries such as Italy and France.
The opening of the beautiful São Carlos Royal Opera House, in 1793 - which is still, to this day, one of the most beautiful theaters in the World - started a new era for the performing arts in Portugal. In spite of the fame of the theatre and the will of its artistic directors to show the best dance created and danced in Europe, it’s known that the most important “romantic ballerinas” danced in Madrid but did not reach Lisbon. Artists as Bernardo Vestris and Arthur Saint-Léon worked in Lisbon but, basically, all the others were second rate choreographers and ballerinas, who entertained the public and Lisbon’s high society gossip. From the end of XIX century (when dance went through a strong crisis) until World War I, not much happened in Lisbon, where most all the theatres were situated and had very political and economic bad times. The visit of the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to Lisbon, in the end of 1917, found the Opera House closed and a revolution on the streets. According to several writers, the bad conditions and the lack of audiences made the dancers feel they gave the worst performances, even though, they stimulated many artists and intellectuals of the Portuguese capital, but almost no seeds were left behind.
Only 30 years after the fall of the monarchy in 1910, Portugal established its first professional dance company – The Verde Gaio Dance Group – inspired by the “nationalism” of the Russian Ballet and directed by Francis Graça. In spite of the success of this “adventure”, which was well received in Paris, the company did not survived more than five years, as a creative and consistent project.
Margarida de Abreu (1912-2006), who studied with Jacques Dalcroze in Switzerland between the two World Wars, is considered the “mother” of the Portuguese dance, nourishing, for decades, a small company out of which came several generations of professional dancers. The foundation of the Portuguese theatrical dance can be traced to the work of both, Ms. Abreu and Mr. Graça, because some of their pupils would became the teachers and the artistic directors of schools and companies which appeared after the “Verde Gaio” (1940).
In the early sixties a classic based company (Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado) was formed in the São Carlos Royal Opera House, but folded in less than two years. At the same time, the private Grupo Experimental de Ballet, started with almost all the best professionals available in the Portuguese dance community. In 1965, the new and rich Gulbenkian Foundation, absorbed this fragile company which, in a few years, became the Grupo Gulbenkian de Bailado and, latter, the well known Gulbenkian Ballet.
With a legacy from the oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian – an Armenian who chose Portugal to live after the World War II – the company found a place in the headquarters of the new Gulbenkian Foundation, a non-profit organization.
For many years, from the beautiful building in the center of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, the Gulbenkian Foundation imposed itself as a kind of Ministry of Culture. During the dictatorship (which lasted until 1974, the year of the “carnation revolution”) the Gulbenkian money helped many artists and scientists to study and develop their work abroad, establishing an important and powerful position in the artistic and scientific community.
Even without a solid tradition (of hundreds of years of dance teaching and choreographic production) and without a profit target which also could have helped to promote Arts, Culture and Tourism (in a country visited by millions), a Portuguese contemporary dance company – the Gulbenkian Ballet – and a few artists became rather well known worldwide.
It may seem strange that today, certain choreographers as Vera Mantero, Rui Horta and João Fiadeiro, are more known abroad than in its own country!
All of them are “children” of the Gulbenkian Ballet, a contemporary company that showed the best dance in Portugal, regularly and consistently, for 40 years. This remarkable institution was “killed” in cold blood in 2005 by the Foundation board of directors which, against many important opinions, decided to dismiss not only a fantastic group of dancers, but also, the best dance structure in the country. The company had not only one of the biggest repertoires in the world but an amount of scenery and costumes that could easily have become the basis of a fantastic dance museum as well.
Dance more accessible and less distant
Finally, in 1977, the government through the new Ministry of Culture, created National Ballet of Portugal (Companhia Nacional de Bailado/ CNB) directed for 15 years by an ex-principal dancer and choreographer of the Gulbenkian Ballet, Armando Jorge. From its inception, it never found a “national” profile or a consistent quality. The deliberate versatility of the repertoire and the lack of well trained classical dancers (which the National Conservatoire had been unable to provide), led the company to a deep crisis, after the dismissal of Armando Jorge, reinforced by the sloppy work of the last four artistic directors.
Not so long ago, the names Carlos Trincheiras, Armando Jorge and Vasco Wellenkamp were very popular as the main choreographers featured in the Gulbenkian Auditorium, along with many famous foreigner artists. In the past decade they were replaced by Olga Roriz, Clara Andermatt, Paulo Ribeiro and Francisco Camacho. All are dancer-choreographers who direct their own dance companies, granted by government funds. With different backgrounds, they all seek inspiration in the “Bauschian dance theatre” or in the “new French dance”. Some of them also studied in the USA and follow the courses of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. A younger generation of solo artists, even more iconoclastic, is formed by dancers such as, Sílvia Real, João Galante, Filipa Francisco, Cláudia Dias and Tiago Guedes, who call themselves “performers”, rather than dancers. The “non-dance” stream has its own gurus and followers but all of them tend to rely on public funds, because their inter-disciplinary works with movement, sound, words, and new technologies can be very inventive but very seldom reach wide audiences.
Today, Lisbon is a city where one can watch the best dance groups from all over the world perform, while the native production is still rather insufficient.
All kinds of dance, including the entertainment forms, in the XXI century have become more accessible and less distant from the audiences, but “serious experimental dance” somehow seems to have difficulties finding a place in the heart of the Portuguese. As in many countries in Europe, in Portugal, dance, at the same time, is also more vulnerable to opportunism and mediocrity because of the growing interference of politicians in the destiny of the Arts.
The Portuguese Culture Ministry has been strongly criticized not only for its uneven money sharing for “official” dance and opera theatres – both depending on the same management institution, OPART – but also for the funding of projects with little visibility and arguable criteria, through the new General Department of the Arts.
Unfortunately, several professional dance groups have folded recently due to the instability of the market and the lack of real support from the Culture Ministry.
Thanks to a new “web” of municipal theatres, many town halls have spared money for their own projects and help to circulate many dance events and contemporary performances which, almost always, started and finished in Lisbon.
In terms of dance research Portugal has, at this time, not much to offer. A very small amount of dance literature is printed and dance magazines are not published in the country.
If Portugal is a country of poets and sportsmen – Fernando Pessoa and Cristiano Ronaldo are world known – succeeding in arts and sports which need no more than a pen and a pair of sneakers, it still lacks good schooling available to many and long lasting plans to reach a strong artistic future. The private school offer is still not good enough and the official schools and universities are far from supplying many strong and creative artists.
All the Portuguese are very proud of a great pianist, Maria João Pires, an inventive contemporary composer, Emmanuel Nunes, a literature Nobel Prize, José Saramago, and a genius painter, Paula Rego, but these four choose to live abroad.
Just like some talented young Portuguese dancers and choreographers who have left the country to pursue their studies and refuse to come back home because of the lack of working opportunities.
see also FORA : "Carta de Lisboa" in Revista "Dance Talk" (Israel)