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Flash Dispatch, 10-12: Sintra --
A Waking Dream
A Dance Festival Blooms Amongst the Castles, and A Dance Scene Emerges in Portugal
By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 Darrah Carr
SINTRA, Portugal -- The first person
I met in Portugal described his hometown of Sintra as "a place of mountains and
mist. You wake up in the morning, surrounded by mist, so that you slide into your
day as if you are still dreaming." Indeed, Sintra embodies a dreamy, magical fairy
tale. The town of 20, 000, nestled in the hills just 28 km northwest of Lisbon
and about a half hour from the Estoril Coast, was once the royal family's Summer
retreat. It boasts three castles that are visible from nearly every vantage point
in the area. The foreboding ruins of the Moorish castle snake along the hillside;
the fanciful, incredibly extravagant 19th century Pena National Palace dominates
the opposite mountain top; the elegant 15th century Sintra National Palace presides
over the town center.
In addition, numerous villas dot
the hillsides, looming behind every curve of Sintra's winding roads. The most
fascinating of these, Quinta da Regaleira, was built in the early 20th century
for Antonio Carvalho Monteiro, a Brazilian mining millionaire linked to freemasonry
and mysticism. His lush gardens hide a secret initiation well that drops 30 meters
to reveal a labyrinth of underground tunnels and water passages. Further along
the road, one finds the Palacio de Seteais, a luxury hotel whose gardens are home
to Sintra's annual, international dance festival, Noites de Bailado. Under the
artistic direction of famed Portuguese dancer Armando Jorge, the festival presents
a wide range of classical and contemporary dance, including the following companies
during the 2001 season: Paul Taylor, Monte/Brown, the Scottish Ballet, Russian
Theatre Ballet Grigorovich, Aterballetto, and the Ballet Deutsche Oper am Rhein.
Among the performances I watched
was the Ballet Deutsche Oper am Rhein's interpretation of A Midsummer Night's
Dream. Artistic Director Youri Vamos dedicates himself to re-interpreting the
classics on a continually deeper level, rather than experimenting with new dance
vocabulary. In his opinion, "The object is not to make new things. Because, what
is new today? The question is not about new steps, but about how deep you can
go. If I write a book, there is not one word I use that is new -- it is (about)
how I use the words. In ballet, it is how I use the classical vocabulary. If I
try to go deeper, I see the possibilities within this language."
Living up to this philosophy, Vamos
created the most provocative dance version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that
I have seen. The story-line was clear, the delivery was humorous, and the dancers'
technique was flawless. Vamos choreographed two identical Pucks to deploy the
mischievous antics of the plot. Similarly, when Oberon was angry, his role multiplied
to include six identical, enraged Oberons. Increasing the number of dancers in
order to mirror the increasingly complex emotions of the plot proved to be a highly
effective choreographic tool. At other times, Vamos relied on gesture to convey
the twists in the story. In doing so, he managed to interweave pedestrian movement
and classical vocabulary with great ease, so that neither movement style appeared
disjointed in sequence.
The evening was not only a pleasing
blend of pedestrian and classical movement, but also a stunning match of setting
and story. Armando Jorge deliberately chooses companies whose work can be well
integrated into the beautiful setting of the palace's gardens. The festival's
mission was perfectly fulfilled in this case. Sintra being a place of misty forests
and waking dreams, it is ideal for an outdoor performance of Shakespeare's "A
Midsummer Night's Dream."
While the Noites de Bailado are certainly
a highlight of the Portuguese dance calendar, considering the high caliber of
companies invited to perform in such a spectacular space, there is a wide range
of dance activity happening in and around Lisbon as well. During my stay, I was
privileged to attend rehearsals of two vastly different, but equally compelling
choreographers: Vasco Wellenkamp and Joao Fiadeiro.
Wellenkamp, who was the resident
choreographer of the prestigious Gulbenkian Ballet for twenty years, founded the
Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporaneo in 1998. It is a lovely company,
of sixteen inspired and inspiring dancers. Watching them rehearse reminded me
of all that is both graceful and soulful in the art of dance. I especially enjoyed
Wellenkamp's Dancas Portuguesas set to Portuguese guitar music by Carlos Paredes.
Six women arched, curved, and spun throughout the piece, reverberating like the
plucked strings of the featured instrument. His Sinfonia de Requiem set to Benjamen
Britten's score, is a tribute to victims of the Holocaust. The dancers cut through
space like birds of prey until they eventually reached a peaceful resting place.
I was also impressed by young choreographer Rui Lopes Graca, who just finished
his first piece for this company, a fast paced work set to Japanese Taiko drumming
and filled with innovative partnering.
Joao Fiadeiro is another a young
choreographer, whose work has gained much notice, particularly in Portugal and
France. The rehearsal for his new work, Aicnetsixe, was highly experimental in
nature, incorporating text, improvisational elements, and interesting choices
of props. His five performers explored issues of gender roles and sexual identity
through various means, including cross-dressing and explicit sexual gestures.
I regret that I could not understand the Portuguese text, for the work was highly
provocative and I imagine it would have been even more so, had there not been
a language barrier for me.
Fiadeiro is a leading figure in the
intellectual life of Lisbon's modern dance community. Since 1993, his company,
RE.AL (Resposta.Alternativa) has organized the "LAB-Moving Projects," a series
of events designed to provide space and time for experimentation, to encourage
philosophical debate, and to share contemporary artistic thought. The results
of these labs were recently published in an interesting, bilingual (Portuguese/English)
book, "DOC.LAB." Fiadeiro's insights are also featured in "Dez Mais Dez," a publication
of the Lisbon-based dance service organization, Forum Danca.
Noting the relative newness of the
contemporary dance scene in Portugal (its been developing rapidly since the late
1980s), Ezequiel Santos, Director of Forum Danca, describes the organization's
goals as evolving with the changing needs of a growing community. He explains,
"In 1990, our founding goals were to raise the level of theoretical debate within
the community and to bring dance to populations that were not familiar with it,
including the elderly, children, and special needs audiences. Through education
we prepare audiences of the future." Forum Danca publishes a community newsletter
and maintains an important documentation center. It is currently trying to secure
its own dance studio, in order that it may offer technique classes and host choreographic
showings. Another focus s dance writing and how to provide specific training to
It was interesting to catch a glimpse
of Lisbon's experimental modern dance scene and find it thriving alongside the
country's appreciation for classical ballet and traditional folk dance. Shortly
after meeting with Santos, I wandered over to Lisbon's oldest Fado house for a
taste of traditional song and dance. Fado, a musical genre indigenous to Lisbon,
is often regarded as Portugal's national music. It is frequently melancholic in
tone, featuring songs that deal with disappointed love or betrayal. Between these
haunting melodies, six dancers entertained an audience of mostly tourists with
traditional group dances. In bright costumes, they interlaced with pleasing figure
dances. The men really caught my attention, however, with a form of hard shoe
step dancing that looked similar to Irish dance. Could it be the next "Riverdance"?
Maybe a 'Tagusdance"?
Back in Sintra, one finds that the
modern is also establishing itself next to the historic. The town is host to Portugal's
first contemporary art museum, which opened in May of 1997. The Sintra Museu de
Arte Moderna houses the private collection of Jose Berardo, an impressive trove
of 700 pieces including works by Miro, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol. Plans
are in the works for the museum to be attached, both literally and philosophically,
to Sintra's brand new theater facility, the Centro Cultural Olga Do Cadaval, named
in memory of a beloved Italian patron of the arts who married a Portuguese marquis.
The state-of-the-art facilities include a spacious 980 seat theater with full
orchestra pit, a more intimate 300-seat theater, multiple vocal rehearsal rooms,
and every dancer's dream of a dance studio. The space boasts a gorgeous sprung
floor and one wall of glass doors that not only let in the sunlight, but let out
onto a terrace overlooking the mountains.
The gleaming facilities are under
the direction of the Sintra Quorum, a newly formed organization charged with promoting,
organizing, and managing the town's cultural activities. It is a great responsibility,
as well as an high honor, for Sintra was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage
site in 1995. It is a well-deserved designation, for within the natural beauty
of its hillsides, the town cradles an incredible array of historic sites and cultural
events, one of the most notable being the Noites de Bailado. Indeed, the Palacio
de Seteais is one of many gemstones on Sintra's mountain fingers; the dancers
who grace its gardens make it sparkle.
(Editor's note: Travel and lodging
assistance provided by the Portuguese Tourist Bureau.)
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