Compahnia de dança de Lisboa: Out of step

BLITZ 12 Feb 1990English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the Portuguese anthology. This text collection contains 100% of the writings of André Lepecki for the magazine BLITZ. Sarma could realize this project by the support of the Portuguese Institute for the Arts.
You can read more about André Lepecki and his poetics as a writer on the following link:


Editor Sarma: Myriam Van Imschoot
Editor Portugal: Monica Guerreiro
Research in Lisbon: Jeroen Peeters
Coördination: Steven De Belder, Jeroen Peeters, Charlotte Vandevyver, Myriam Van Imschoot
Translator: Clive Thoms
Financial Support: Portuguese Institute for the Arts
Thank you to: André Lepecki for the contribution to this anthology, BLITZ for giving consent to republish the texts on, Diana Teixeira (typiste)

There’s nothing worse than an empty house. With another sixteen people in the auditorium of the Teatro São Luiz, your reporter experienced a few uncomfortable moments on the first of February… when the Companhia de Dança de Lisboa presented another largely Portuguese programme. This was perhaps the only positive aspect of the misconceived and ill-assorted drivel served up to us on that depressing evening. Let me explain.

Ever since I started to write about dance in this scurrilous rag, I have sought to be as unbiased as possible about the institutions which put on performances. Whenever I have referred to them, it has been in relation to non-artistic issues (such as, for instance, the press invitation policy adopted by Acarte, which believes that you, the unwashed readers of BLITZ, being rock-crazed youths, lack the brains or the education to understand art with a capital A, and so don’t deserve to be informed).

I like to concentrate on the artistic work itself. I like to explore and explain its secrets. I think that’s my job as a critic.

But the programme now being presented by Companhia de Dança de Lisboa makes me think that, however much we want it to be, art is not immune to the institutions which pay for it. And what is clear from this performance – with its uneven selection of pieces, the choice of the wrong dates for presenting it, the miscasting of some of the choreographies and even of the venue – is that CDL is going through a particularly bad patch. We must of course remember that CDL has been one of the institutions most open to experimentation in Portuguese dance in recent years. It was CDL which had the courage to take risks with the new Portuguese choreographers who have emerged over the last few years, fearlessly inviting them to choreograph pieces for their regular programmes. Rui Nunes, Vera Mantero, Francisco Camacho and Paulo Ribeiro all had their big chance of working with the company. Carlota Lagido had the chance to start and develop a style as a costume designer. This is an achievement which no one can take away from the company. But right now, past glories are not enough.

First of all, CDL is currently lacking in direction. The painful failure to attract audiences should be seen as a sad reflection of this. In a company which has the resources to help Portuguese dancers find their way and to encourage serious work from most the big names in contemporary Portuguese dance, things cannot be allowed to stay this way for long.

The company urgently needs artistic leadership. This is because its unfocussed programmes risk giving CDL the image of a floating institution, content to tag along wherever it may be led by fashion, money or available venues. Which is not to say that this is the case. It just looks that way.

CDL started the year by presenting a choreography by Paula Massano at Acarte (which still has the best dance programme in Portugal, making it the most prestigious venue). That its second programme of the season should be this is an artistic nonsense, or a marketing, political or whatever-you-like nonsense. It is nonsensical because of the choreographies, on one hand, and the fact they are presented together, on the other. The second issue is a management problem which might be resolved with the appointment of Paulo Ribeiro as the company’s new artistic director. As for the first issue, let’s see...

1. Devias ter deixado a luz acesa (You should have left the light on), by Lionel Hoche

A man and a woman entwine themselves in the commonplaces of choreographies which illustrate the commonplaces of life/the tension which makes up a heterosexual relationship. I had already seen this danced by Maria João Pires and Paulo Jesus, who in my opinion are currently the company’s top performers. This opinion must also be shared by Paula Massano, as we saw in A Bailarina do Mar. So the casting of Victor Garcia and Cláudia Pereira for this piece was perhaps unfortunate. This is because the piece itself is rather unfortunate and uninspired, and not even very polished, and its only hope lies in the possibility of the performers constructing a dramatic web capable of giving form and consistency to the relationship between the “characters” in question (as the choreography fails to do this). And this is where we ran into an imbalance which undermined the intelligibility of the choreography: because although Victor Garcia managed to create and maintain a coherent personality, Cláudia Pereira was patently not up to the task. Cláudia Pereira conveys a sense of immaturity, which the contrast of ages with her partner accentuates. And she failed to exploit this fact to give any meaning to her performance, and consequently to the choreography.

Which is otherwise uninteresting. It uses a bare stage – not in itself ineffective – in an attempt to emphasise the exposure of the pair who reveal to us their passions, fears and drives, but the movement is hopelessly banal and put together without inspiration. The soundtrack of music by Eve Couturier, Jean-Jacques Palix and Elliot Sharp, with Humphrey Bogart in dialogue with Lauren Bacall (the one that goes “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just close your lips and blow”), is redundant. Lazare Garcin’s costumes are nasty. Quite wrongly, the programme fails to credit the sets and lighting (which are actually just what the piece needs).

2. Maravilhas de um país de Alice sem história (Wonders of an Alice land without a story), by Conceição Abreu

The best choreography of the evening, which is maybe not saying much. The piece was previously presented, with relative success, at the CDL Choreography Competition in May 1990. The finished product owes much to the carefully crafted visual designs and soundtrack. The costumes are successful (Conceição Abreu is a good costume designer), the soundtrack is skilfully put together (Nyman, Boccherini and Bach), the sets (once again not credited, which is unforgivable in every sense) refer us to the key elements of Alice’s wonderland, but what for me was unexpected in seeing the piece again was the curious phenomenon of how the piece has aged. Curious, because as a member of the selection panel for the CDL competition, I was one of its “supporters”.

It seems to me that Conceição Abreu has managed intelligently to get inside Lewis Caroll’s work, to draw on its key elements, and to reorganize them in a new universe of meaning using an extreme language (although structurally and psychologically close to the nonsense of the literary model), to give them a visual and sound setting, to create a script and… to lose her footing in choreographing her idea within a formal framework which at that time found favour (and still does, with varying degrees of success) with the young ladies graduating from the National Conservatory: a preference for minimalism and unison, relieving gestures of their dramatic content, meaning that the symbolism is reduced to the elements (normally few in number) of the stage design (shoes, chairs, fruit, glasses, cigarettes and things like that).

It was a style and a fashion. But it was also, and primarily, a starting point, as the framework it offers is terribly fragile. The mistake is to stick to it as an unquestioned artistic option. However hard the judges may clap.

3. A Preto e Branco com cores (In black and white with colours), by Victor Garcia

As a dancer, Victor Garcia is one of the leading figures of the Companhia de Dança de Lisboa, and indeed of the small Portuguese dance scene. And as a choreographer he has already proved inventive and creative, with a particular talent for exploring movement. So it bothers me to have to say it, but I must: this is a bad piece of choreography. The concept is simplistic and aesthetically the piece is rubbish.

There is something profoundly wrong about the extra-choreographic trappings of A Preto e Branco…, and this extends even to the dreadful costumes designed by Conceição Abreu (the same, whom I called a good costume designer!).

The row of transparent pyramids with their sound-sensitive little lights which are continuously carted from one side to the other, the counterpoint of voices-off (on one hand the dancers, anxious, desirous of a better world and life, and on the other the voices of journalists Mário Crespo and Carlos Fino reporting on real disasters in a terrible and cruel world), the metaphor of the fashion models summoning up human futility through movements based on Vogue Dance (referring us to another commonplace: the standardisation of Western dress, tastes and gestures) were doubtless all conceived by Victor Garcia with the best of intentions, on both the ethical and aesthetic levels. But they are simply a mess, and useless at conveying any message.

In terms of movement, there are some ideas here, and a measure of fluidity, but if Victor Garcia actually wants to be a choreographer, I think he should avoid the aesthetic approach he took in this piece. It couldn’t be worse.