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Flash Flashback, 9-1: Sintra -- A Waking Dream
A Dance Festival Blooms Amongst the Castles, and a Dance Scene Emerges in Portugal

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001, 2005 Darrah Carr

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Flash Review Archives. This Flash Dispatch originally appeared on October 12, 2001.)

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 critics.

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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