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View, 9-1: Happy Birthday! You're History
Ballet Gulbenkian, RIP?
By Kevin Irving
Copyright 2005 Kevin Irving
Nearly 20,000 dancers
and others from the worldwide dance community have signed a petition calling on the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
to reconsider its abrupt decision to terminate the prestigious Ballet
Gulbenkian of Portugal. On July 5, without prior notice, a foundation
official interrupted a rehearsal in the company's Lisbon studios
to inform the dancers that their company no longer existed.
After a season celebrating the 40th anniversary of this ground-breaking
troupe -- the only Portuguese company with any kind of international
stature -- and just days before the start of the summer holidays,
the foundation explained, in a letter read to the dancers and reiterated
in an official communique, that it was restructuring its dance activities,
in response to the altered dance landscape in Portugal.
The Calouste Gulbenkian
Foundation, which defines itself as a private institution of public
utility, has operated the ballet company since 1964. It also maintains
the Gulbenkian Museum, an orchestra, and a 100-member chorus; funds
education and social welfare programs; and distributes prizes for
artistic achievement through branches in Portugal and the United
On a day and in a period
when only a few of the company's 29 dancers were actually present
in Lisbon, a representative of the foundation's board read aloud
a statement detailing a fait accompli: all activity related to the
functioning of Ballet Gulbenkian would cease immediately and all
future scheduled performances had been cancelled. It seems that
the idea of closing the ballet company has been bandied about for
up to 10 years in the higher echelons of the foundation -- and yet
the decision itself and the rapid manner in which it was carried
out caught the dancers and the local and international dance world
in general completely off guard. In fact, it was just two years
ago that the foundation hired Portuguese choreographer Paulo Ribeiro
as artistic director, a move which was seen by some in the Portuguese
dance community as a sign of renewal. Ribeiro, who has his own company
in Viseu, Portugal, has said in published reports that the foundation
informed him of its decision just two hours before foundation official
Teresa Patrício Gouveia told the dancers -- after the news had already
been leaked in local media, where many dancers read about it for
the first time. The foundation had apparently released the news
to the media before ensuring that those most affected by it had
already been informed.
Gouveia, director of
the foundation's music service (which also has responsibility for
its dance activities), told the Portuguese daily Publico that the
decision does not reflect discontent with the performances of either
Ribeiro or the company, but rather, the foundation's intent to redefine
its "core policies." The foundation needs to ensure, she said, that
its resources are used in the most efficient manner possible. "Life
is dynamic and so are institutions," she told the newspaper. The
foundation has provided some insight into the analysis behind its
decision, saying in a communique that it plans to direct resources
to training programs for young dancers and choreographers, as well
as outreach and support for audience development outside of the
larger urban centers in Portugal. However, it has yet to provide
any specifics. Gouveia told Publico that a new action plan for dance
will be part of the planning for 2006, although she seemed to rule
out the possibility of having any one person overseeing this new
kind of "dynamic interaction" with dance in Portugal.
Even if one recognizes
that the foundation's analysis has many salient points, this drastic
change of course and the speed with which it is being carried out,
coupled with both the lack of a clear direction forward and lack
of sensitivity towards the actual dancers employed by the company,
indicates an almost complete, and shocking, disregard for the artists'
accomplishments over the past 40 years. And perhaps for the art
form in general: While many points addressed in the statement from
the board do have merit, they fail to address the irony created
by supporting the development of dancers, choreographers and audiences
while at the same time disbanding one of the very few professional
companies that could serve to further these worthy goals in a meaningful
way in Portugal.
In reaction to the company's
abrupt dissolution, a group of dancers and staff quickly swung into
action and set up a website for the petition. (Click here to see it.) They also organized demonstrations
and started speaking to the media. Paulo Ribeiro, meanwhile, returned
to Viseu and his own company. He also dismissed as an election-year
stunt Lisbon mayor Santana Lopes's suggestion that the city might
create a new company out of the ashes of Ballet Gulbenkian.
The dancers managed
to organize a farewell performance in Lisbon's Teatro Camoes on
July 31 -- choosing, of their own accord, to honor the memory of
the institution to which they have devoted themselves for years.
This emotional evening, free to the public, was by all accounts
a wonderful celebration of a truly unforgettable era of dance in
Portugal. To accommodate the many fans who were unable to get into
the packed theater, the dancers even continued the dancing out into
the streets! The foundation, meanwhile, is apparently even more
generous than Portuguese work laws demand, and will pay dancers
and staff through July 2006. A paycheck, however, is not the only
thing that matters to a dancer. These fine artists will be hard-pressed
to find employment at this late date, as most companies have already
filled their vacancies. So that leaves them with little beyond knowing
that the Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian plans to send each of them
a thank you note for their years of service.
In addition to the newspaper
Publico, sources for this article include the Portuguese daily DN
and dancer interviews.
Kevin Irving is from Long Island, New York. As a dancer, he appeared
with Elisa Monte Dance Company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and
Twyla Tharp. From 1993 to 2002 he was rehearsal assistant and artistic
coordinator for Nacho Duato's Compania Nacional in Spain. He has
also staged Duato's ballets for many companies all over the world.
Since 2002, he has been the director of The Goteborg Ballet in Gothenburg,
Sweden. Kevin had the pleasure of assisting Elisa Monte in the staging
of "Life-Time" for Ballet Gulbenkian in 1983.
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