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Flash 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 Kingdom.

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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