Moving Without the Colonial Mirror: Modernity, Dance, and Nation in the Works of Vera Mantero and Francisco Camacho (1985-97) - Chapter 3

Chapter 3:The Shattered Mirror - The Dance of Existing

Sarma 1 Jan 2004English

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Contextual note

This is chapter 3 of André Lepecki’s doctoral thesis in performance studies (New York University, January 2001), Moving Without the Colonial Mirror: Modernity, Dance, and Nation in the Works of Vera Mantero and Francisco Camacho (1985-97), of which chapters 1, 2, 3 and 6 were prepublished on Sarma. The dissertation analyzes the work of Portuguese choreographers Vera Mantero and Francisco Camacho as cultural interventions into Portuguese national identity after the loss of the colonial Empire (1975), the end of fascism (1974), and the inclusion of Portugal in the European Union (1986).
Through Michael Taussig’s notion of the “colonial mirror of production of reality,” the dissertation locates dance as instrumental for an understanding of post-colonial Portuguese society. Through Eduardo Lourenço’s notion of “imagology,” the dissertation identifies the works of Camacho and Mantero as unique critiques of the images generated by the Portuguese about their own cultural and political identities.

Section I, “Outlining Positions,” shows how the history of Portuguese theatrical dance in the twentieth century failed, until the mid-1980s, to generate an avant-garde movement. It locates this failure in the history of Portuguese fascism, its colonial policies, and their impact on the arts, particularly in dance. It discusses how Vera Mantero and Francisco Camacho’s choreography was immediately perceived as exceptional, particularly by their innovative uses of the body as a positive point of departure for a critique of contemporary Portuguese culture.
Section II, “Mirrors,” analyzes a solo by Mantero and a group piece by Camacho as choreographic deconstructions of colonial desire. When discussing Mantero’s solo, it introduces the notions of “cultural anesthesia’ (Allen Feldman) and of “still acts” (Nadia Seremetakis) to show how memories of the colonial war (1961-1974) are inscribed into everydayness. Through the Derridian notion of “adieu,” it identifies in one of Camacho’s group pieces a critique of colonial nostalgia.
Section III, “Agents,” reads contemporary Portuguese society as politically driven by the desire to attain modernity. Modernity is described as a amnesiac, metamorphic, and choreographic Sate project. Three solos by Mantero are analyzed in terms of their critique of gender and race within this drive for the modern. Two solos by Camacho are analyzed as critiques of the forced sexual identities modernity seems to bring to the contemporary Portuguese body.

Thirteen years of
colonial war, abrupt
collapse of the
empire – those were
two events that
seemed destined not
only to generate in
our consciousness a
deep trauma – independence – but a
deep re-thinking of
the totality of our
self-image and of our image before the mirror of the world.

Instead, we all
witnessed this
surprising spectacle:
neither one nor the
other took place.
Eduardo Lourenço, O Labirinto da Saudade.

Not to know
Not to read
Not to know a thing
About the world
Vera Mantero, A Dança do Existir.

The Sunday edition of the Lisbon daily Diário de Notícias of September 21, 1997 carried only one headline, running across the entire front page: “Thirteen years of war.” An odd front page for a major daily on a sunny Sunday morning in a content Western European capital at the end of the twentieth century. Mostly, because the war the headline referred to had been over for twenty-three years. I bought the paper. Below the spectacular headline, a large sepia photograph occupied almost the rest of the page. It was the photograph of a Portuguese soldier, in profile, wearing full combat fatigue, the butt of his distinct Portuguese-made automatic “G3” rifle resting on his right shoulder, barrel pointing downwards. Beyond him, the African bush. The soldier’s eyes avoided my eyes, aimed as they were to an undisclosed place somewhere beyond the frame of the picture. However, another pair of eyes did meet mine, straight on, drawing my gaze right into the photograph’s force-field. It was not only a rifle the anonymous soldier held on his shoulders. An African child (two, perhaps three years old) sat quietly on the soldier’s shoulders, her long arms gently embracing his neck, her chest leaning against his head, her wide eyes staring straight at me, as they stared at the army photographer three decades ago.

The large photograph and the boisterous headline supplement each other in a spectacularly unexpected return of the colonial repressed on an autumn Sunday morning in Lisbon. Unexpected, because the date of publication did not coincide with any significant anniversary of the conflict, nor with any independence anniversary; spectacular, because the image chosen to depict thirteen years of war was that of an African child embracing a Portuguese soldier as he takes her somewhere, supposedly safely. Thirteen years of war are summarized in a photograph in which the violence of both colonialism and war are quietly tamed by the means of a (quite blunt) recycling of colonialism’s patriarchal undertones. Indeed, the photograph bespeaks a phrase often heard in Portugal, today as well as back then – “We were there to take care of them.”

This palliative effect of representing a cruel colonial war as noble humanitarian rescue mission for the sake of the “children of Africa” is further emphasized by the fact that the photograph’s caption reads as following: “From 1961 till 1974, more than eight thousand military died, and about 30 thousand were wounded.” The military referred to are, obviously, only the Portuguese, depicted here as carrying and caring for Africa’s future. Not a single word (in the front page or throughout the rest of the newspaper) mentions the thousands of Africans killed, tortured, mutilated, displaced, raped, and assassinated before, after, and during those thirteen years of war.

The slim column of text alongside the photograph does not help to clarify the unexpected eruption of colonial war imagery in a September morning, twenty-three years after the unconditional cease-fire and Portuguese retreat, and twenty-two years after all of the ex-colonies became independent. It tells us only that Diário de Notícias was starting that morning, and for the duration of one year, a special weekly supplement on the colonial wars, “signed by Aniceto Afonso and Carlos Matos Gomes, two army officers, specialists in military history, and who lived the war in the terrain.” The terms are clear. It will be a “history” of war, not of colonial occupation. This focus on war allows the editors to add that

next Tuesday, a special supplement titled ‘The Heroes of the Empire,’ in 24 full colored pages, will publish the names of all of those who were decorated while serving the armed forces during the 13 years of war.

There is no irony in the capitalized use of the word “Heroes” next to the word “Empire.” In the editorial and in the three different page-long articles printed in the paper, we constantly find expressions such as “theatre of war,” “descriptions of battles,” “historical research on the war the Portuguese fought in Africa.” As for clarifying, naming, or portraying who “the Portuguese” fought against for thirteen years this is something hard to discern in this particular history of the conflict. The “Empire” may have been dead for a while but its “heroes” were now being resuscitated.

Remarkably, Diário de Notícias is what can be called a moderately “centrist” newspaper, not at all affiliated with the extreme right. Even more remarkably, this initiative to publish on the colonial war was unprecedented in Portugal. One can read a certain nervousness in the writing, a certain defensiveness, as if the editors and journalists felt the need to apologize for this intrusion of the past into the quiet days of content post-fascist consumerism. Prominently, the newspaper announces, also in its front page, that we are before “a historical printing in the life of DN ”, meaning 180 000 copies -- almost quadrupling its average daily printing. Inside, we are given a listing of several stores in the Lisbon area that would be “specially open” on Sundays to guarantee the paper’s distribution.

Despite its highly problematic, paternalist, and neo-colonialist tones, the “historical” initiative of the Lisbon daily was the first major “outing” of the colonial wars in the Portuguese media and it generated a huge public response. If there had been thirteen years of colonial war, it had taken twenty-three years of post-coloniality for the war to re-enter, timidly, and only through a rhetoric of heroic militarism, and explicit self-absolution, the public sphere.

I am interested in the dynamics of this collective silence but also in this silence’s counterparts, which are the rhetorical and imagistic strategies under which narratives on colonial violence erupt in contemporary Portugal. My interest is twofold. Portuguese philosopher and cultural critic Eduardo Lourenço noted already in 1978, three years after the independence of the ex-colonies, that the depth of this collective silence regarding the brutality of war and the end of the Empire is close to a widespread social amnesia. If that is so, it becomes crucial to investigate those moments in which this cultural amnesia is foregrounded, exposed, and critiqued. One of those moments of critique and exposure is the subject of this chapter – a solo piece by Vera Mantero titled A Dança do Existir (The dance of existing, 1995). In this dance, as we will see, the repressed violence of the colonial past and this violence’s undercurrents in today’s Portugal are deeply probed, illuminated, and subverted.

The two epigraphs that open this chapter tell us about a crisis of the senses and of memory in contemporary Portugal -- symptomatically revealed in the Diário de Notícias treatment of “thirteen years of war.” In the first epigraph, Eduardo Lourenço describes the recent and visceral experience of violence during the colonial war, and the abrupt end of this violence in the context of the radical historical transformation that the country experienced in 1974, as being collectively perceived as non-eventful -- as if the after-shocks of warfare and the massive tectonic rifts brought by a monumental social and political change had deflated rather than generated psychic energy and historical force. For Lourenço, this predicament of simmering silence and apathy is intriguing. How is it possible, he wonders, that

an event as spectacular as the downfall of a five-hundred-year old “empire” – whose possession seemed so essential for holding our own historical reality and, even more, for holding our own corporeal, ethical, and metaphysical image as Portuguese – ends without drama[?]

Other Portuguese intellectuals have commented on the same oppressive silence and historical numbness Lourenço identified in 1978, four years after that oddly deflated event took place. Philosopher José Gil, as recently as 1998, states, while considering twentieth-century Portuguese performance and literature (including contemporary dance) that “there are limits which stop us from speaking and expressing intensely -- it is as if there were no text in Portugal, because there are very strong limits.”

One of the symptomatic aspects that may shed some light on the contours of those limits preventing intense expression is outlined in Lourenço’s and Gil’s comments – after the end of the colonial empire, after the end of the colonial war, the country seemed (and seems) unable to produce and sustain a discourse of self-representation. Lacking perception and lacking text, what seems to be in place is a general crisis of historicizing Portugal’s own recent past and of narrativizing its current predicament. Blind to its own violence, Portugal cultivates a certain deafness, autism, and aphasia -- not only regarding its own history, but regarding its own present. Such is the crisis of the sensorial and of the mnemonic facing a theory of contemporary Portuguese forms of expression, and particularly in body-based art forms such as dance.

The epigraph by Mantero (“not to know, not to read, not to know a thing about the world”) bespeaks of this self-closure, of this collective perceptual shutting down to the world and to self-auscultation, at the same time that it poses the basic sensory level against which performance practices have to struggle. In their autism, her words reflect and supplement the observation made by Eduardo Lourenço on the surprisingly numbing “uneventfulness” that surrounded the “abrupt” fall of the empire and the end of the colonial war. Mantero’s words also outline what anthropologist Allen Feldman calls “cultural anesthesia”:

The banishment of disconcerting, discordant and anarchic sensory presences and agents that undermine the normalizing and often silent premises of everyday life.

What are the “silent premises of everyday life” which are banished from most public discourse in contemporary Portugal? Generally, they regard the country’s mnemonic (mis)management of its colonial violence and its current de-sensitization to the present manifestations of this violence. In 1998, Eduardo Lourenço revisited the premises he first outlined in his 1978 book on Portugal’s crisis of identity after the double ending of fascism and colonialism. And, just as in 1978, again Lourenço identifies the same forces of forgetting and cultural anesthesia in operation, that massive collective repression of the Portuguese colonialist, fascist, dictatorial and violent past:

Not in Italy, not in Germany (with its heavy cross) not even in the Soviet Union (today Russia) -- all places where the temptation to bury the past under a layer of forgetting has been a sort of national duty or reflex -- have we seen the production of such a phenomenon of posthumous non-existence.

Non-existence indeed, but only at the level of its conscious, or public, manifestation. For the undercurrents of violence and colonialism have always been there to be felt, tasted, and palpated quietly, insidiously, beyond the veil of cultural anesthesia -- suburban skin-heads murdering blacks both in Lisbon and Porto, organized militias of “good” citizens in the inner country expelling gypsies from their towns at gun-point, constant mistreatment of blacks by police forces, the simmering composting of quotidian racism. And also the occasional eruptions of colonial nostalgia, which, in the early 1990’s included the tele-marketing of video-tapes containing film-footage of the “unforgettable” night-life in Angola and Mozambique in the 1950’s and 60’s. The televised adds showed footage of casinos, white beaches, urbanized cities while a voice-over announced, seductively: “To remember the good old days.” Despite the insistent public and governmental discourse on Portuguese “racial and cultural tolerance” one needs only to stand still for a moment in downtown Lisbon, where dozens of African men gather during the day at the steps of the National Theatre waiting to be picked up for any sort of cheap hand-labor white contractors give them, and soon the fibrillating spasms of buried violence start rushing up one’s nervous system, vibrating against one’s temples, exposing ever more loudly the pervasive violence contained within this collective historical silence.

“Not to know, not to read, not to know a thing about the world.” I heard Mantero’s words first in 1995, as they opened a fifteen minute dance that she titled, quite appropriately, A Dança do Existir (The dance of existing, 1995). Immediately, that piece made a huge impression on me. It is a dance that exists mostly in darkness, happens overwhelmingly through sound, and begins and ends in stillness. I saw it only once, precisely on its opening night, and, despite its physicality, my revisiting of it throughout the years has been exclusively sonic. For, despite the dancing that does take place in this solo, my memory of it is mostly an acoustic one. Throughout its fifteen minutes of duration, we witness a subordination of Mantero’s visual presence to a complex soundtrack composed by musician Sérgio Pelágio and by Mantero herself. Immediately after the premiere I asked Pelágio for a copy of their intricate, sliced-up, polyphonic soundtrack, and since then I have occasionally listened to it, always more than once at a time, inadvertently mimicking in my attentive listening an important part of the action Mantero performs in the fifteen minutes of the solo’s duration. For me, the audio tape is The Dance of Existing -- and, in this dance’s displacement of the usual sensory organ for witnessing dance, the eye, to the ear, I find an instance of resistance against cultural anesthesia.

In the analysis that follows, I weave back and forth between my sonic remembering of that dance solo, and the impact of a temporally displaced newspaper headline hovering over a mnemonically blind photograph of the colonial war. Sound, montage, dance of existing, news headline and still photo all create a constellation of forces in deep tension with each other, generating an unexpected opening for historical and cultural insight. By following the sensory and mnemonic displacements, replacements, and manipulations performed by Mantero’s solo dance (which takes place in darkness, insists on disappearing the body that should be giving itself to dancing, and foregrounds the sonic rather than the visual, memory rather than presence) I hope to show the development of Mantero’s critique and challenge not only to dance spectatorship and theory, but most importantly, to a collective state of cultural and historical apathy and generalized sensory and cultural anesthesia. A Dança do Existir asks for a radical displacement of the optical while proposing, from the start, a rather intense listening -- of a body of a woman that gives herself to a carefully choreographed covering and uncovering of the collective past of colonial violence by the means of stillness, motion, and sound.

The dance starts with Mantero standing still, downstage right, at the edge of the stage, next to the wings. Hers is an incongruous figure. An old, stained, half-destroyed green T-shirt covers her torso, a glamorous blue silk ball-dress from the 1950s balloons around her waist covering most of her legs, bits of a white tutu sprout from underneath the dress, and a pair of beaten up, dirty sneakers complete her costume. Her hair is long, wiry, and untamed. In absolute concentration, she listens attentively to her own recorded voice describing, in a conversational, casual manner, what she is wearing that night. What we learn is that each piece of her garment, the glamorous, the banal, the old, the dirty, carries with it a camouflaged history of violence. Mantero’s taped voice informs us that her ball-gown is from her mother. She used to wear it in the 1950s, in the glamorous balls of Lisbon’s high society. Those balls were notorious for their cinematic chic -- their excesses stood in stark contrast to the dire predicament of the majority of the population: they were the régime’s way of performing normalcy against a background of utter misery and repression. The T-shirt is from Mantero’s teenage years, one that she loved wearing so much it can now barely hold itself together. The T-shirt is ripped, she tells us, because a male friend who is “slightly violent” pushed her a bit harder than usual one night and ripped her shirt off. The dirty sneakers were originally her mother’s, Mantero’s voice off informs. Another male friend gave her mother the shoes but they were too big for her. The mother passed them to Mantero. They were also too big for her but she kept them anyway since she had no other pair like that. She took them to Croatia to visit a friend, during the war, in 1993. He wrote during the day and she worked. At the end of the day, they would run in the fields. She thought she could hear the bombings some nights, she met refugees and shell-shocked fighters. It was a most beautiful place for vacations. The sneakers became red with the dusty, rusty dirt typical of that peaceful area at the edge of horror and she never washed them again. At this point, Mantero’s recorded voice ends the description and states: “At this moment, I am not here.” And the stage goes totally dark.

In this darkness a different soundtrack begins. Instead of Mantero’s clear, vivacious, voice, we hear a complicated, overwhelmingly verbal, hyperbolically fragmented soundtrack filling every corner of the theatre with its continuous flood of diverse voices. This is the soundtrack that starts with the words “not to know, not to read, not to know a thing about the world.” After Mantero’s initial stillness, while she attentively listened to her own narrative of hidden violence in everyday pieces of garment, the soundtrack echoes strongly in the dark, and the audience is put in the same condition of attentive stillness the dancer had just performed on stage. In this specular role reversal, it is time for the audience to engage in an archeology of quotidian violence. Sitting quietly on our seats, we enter into our own dances of existing. What the audience is given to listen to throughout the piece (and what Mantero gives herself to listen to as well, for she often assumes a posture of listening, interrupting her dancing) is not that obvious. Different voices, different modes of speech (sometimes poetic, sometimes colloquial, sometimes confessional), different accents, are all interlaced and edited with odd sounds, abrupt cuts, musical interruptions of different genres. The verbosity of the soundtrack does create a kind of high-level semantic and acoustic barrage and Mantero’s body is literally effaced by this overwhelming linguistic and sonic object that flirts, in its intricate montage, both with signification and derision. Despite being heavily grounded on language, the soundscape does not define a realm of communication, or of representation, but rather proposes a language of, and in, disarticulation, short-circuitry, free association. There are voices that are clearly “staged” (Mantero’s and Pelágio’s assuming different characters while they read from a variety of sources – poems, pornographic catalogues, rambling free associative speech), while others are clearly “documentary” (extracted from talk shows, and radio and street interviews). Glenn Gould gives way to rock, themes, words and voices come and go, like radio-waves buzzing in a frenetically tuned receiver.

Throughout the ten minutes of its duration we hear, among many others: the voice of Pedro Paixão, a Portuguese novelist asking himself many questions on love, God, death, and his mother; his voice overlaps with the voices of Mantero and Pelágio reading from Glenn Gould’s biography, specifically on his phobias, his love for structures, his chanting to the animals in the zoo; all this is interlaced with voices of traumatized soldiers of the colonial wars, telling of the misery in Portugal in the 1960s, of how they had been trained to kill and nothing but to kill while yelling like mad dogs how beautiful the army was, and how they were taught to be proud of their death trophies; and this is overlapped with the voice of one of the veterans breaking down, sobbing, unable to talk about the tortures he applied to the African guerrillas back then, and we hear in the background a fragment from Bach’s Passion According to Saint Mathieu right when the choral sings a verse demanding God’s mercy for the tears we have caused, and all of this is interlaced here and there with a delirious stream of consciousness poem by a young woman whose life started in Africa, then moved over to Brazil after the independence, and ends up in Portugal, and there are more voices and texts and textures added continuously to the track, from pornography to William Blake’s praise for energy as eternal delight…

After about four minutes in the dark, the soundtrack reaches a point in which we hear, consecutively, dozens of different voices saying, simply, the words “descobrir as regras.” Men, women, with different accents, all repeating the sentence that, in Portuguese, may have slightly different connotations – to “discover the rules” but also to “uncover the rules.” Moreover, the word “regras” (rules) has also a double meaning – it signifies the menstrual period as much as the norm. It is at this moment that the stage is flooded with a bright light which uncovers Mantero center stage already moving for the first time. Before describing what she does while she moves, it is necessary to consider all that preceded this moment of (literal) illumination and dancing. It is crucial to consider at this moment the role of sound and stillness that prefaced Mantero’s uncovering by light. For now, let us consider the task of sound and of the quotidian object in (collective) memory and cultural anesthesia.

What is striking in the first part of The Dance of Existing is the vivacious, colloquial tone of Mantero’s taped voice as it clashes against the content of what she is saying. Each piece of clothing she wears carries with it not only a history, but a history tainted by acts of violence or a historical context of violence. Her figure emerges as a composite of these histories, passed down to her through objects she inherits from her mother, objects destroyed by violent lovers, objects that threaded along the dusty paths of historical transformation and war. It is not irrelevant that she listens to her own voice in stillness, and that this stillness is expanded beyond her standing body, as its perception is transferred to the audience when the lights go out and one is made totally aware of being sitting in the dark listening to incongruous stories of love and voices of those who perpetrated colonial violence. What could be the purpose of Mantero’s choreographic strategy in A Dança do Existir of visually self-erasing her presence, of emphatically playing with a sensorial displacement from the visible to the invisible, of consciously privileging the sonic, all in the context of a piece that is also, and explicitly, a post-colonial critique of the undercurrents of violence within contemporary Portugal?

In his essay on cultural anesthesia, Allen Feldman notes that one of the most widespread conceptions in the theorizing of violence in modernity derives from the influential work of German sociologist Norbert Elias The Civilizing Process. For Feldman, Elias’s notion that “modernization entails the progressive withdrawal of violence from everyday life in tandem with its increasing monopolization by the state” must be challenged. Feldman proceeds to exemplify several cases in which the state actively “democratizes violence” by the means of underground funding of militias. Such is the case of Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia. What I find appealing in Feldman’s critique of Elias, is that under this light, violence must be repositioned from the “verges of civilizational processes and European modernity” back into the very core of both “civilization” and “modernity.” It is this shifting of perception that Mantero enacts in her narratives on what covers her body in the dance of existing. The almost comical effect caused by Mantero’s first apparition in her ragged T-shirt and rounded silk ball-dress and dirty sneakers is radically undermined by her telling us the micro-history of each piece of her garment. The violence layered in the diverse pieces of clothes that make up Mantero’s composite body (the merciless violence of fascism, the brutal violence of lovers, the blasting violence of war, the normative violence of training) are not presented as exterior events, somewhat outside the normal flow of history and everydayness, but as that which holds everydayness within its own logic of being. One always wears violence, even if one chooses not to listen to its crackling noises.

And what about the choreographic strategy Mantero chooses to perform in order to dramaturgically underline this uncovering of the violent lying at the very core of banal objects of everydayness? Why is it that Mantero stands still? Why is it that she chooses, at this moment of historical auscultation, not to move? Here, it is useful to invoke the notion of “still act” proposed by anthropologist Nadia Seremetakis, in her important critique of the senses in modernity. For Seremetakis, the “still act” is not a freezing of the subject into the rigidity of statues. Rather, it is a moment of cultural interruption in which the subject suspends temporal, narrative, and ideological hegemony by the means of a quiet interpellation of history. For Seremetakis “still acts” are those moments of pause and arrest in which the subject -- by physically introducing a disruption in the flow of temporality -- interpellates “historical dust.”

Against the flow of the present, there is a stillness in the material culture of historicity; those things, spaces, gestures, and tales that signify the perceptual capacity for elemental historical creation. Stillness is the moment when the buried, the discarded, and the forgotten escape to the social surface of awareness like life-supporting oxygen. It is the moment of exit from historical dust.

The perhaps too poetic notion of stillness as resistant act becomes more literal and more physical once one takes into consideration bio-medical definitions of movement. Indeed, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, movement is defined as “an intricate cooperation between nerve fibers and muscle that produce the means by which an organism interacts with its surrounding environment.” If that is so, then it must follow that when the environment itself enters into fibrillation (as in moments of historical convulsions), it is the whole system (organism/environment) that becomes convulsive. As we know from the psychology of trauma, the body absorbs all the shocks, only to release them later on, in another time-space, as unforeseen motions, reorganizing, as much as outlining the distribution of violence in the nervous system. In certain junctures this distribution of violence within the body is manifested through stillness – as in extreme bodily responses to shock such as catatonia. However, once stillness is released from its symptomatic value it may assume symbolic force and expressive autonomy. This is when the question of its value and of its uses in dance becomes more pressing. The symbolic and expressive qualities of stillness clarify the phenomenological nature of this (resistant) act of arrest. It is not synonymous with freezing. Rather, what stillness does is to initiate the subject in a different relationship with temporality. Stillness operates at the level of the subject’s desire to invert a certain relationship with time, and with certain (prescribed) corporeal rhythms. Which means that to engage in stillness is to engage into different experiences of perceiving one’s own presence in the force-field of history.

By resorting to the use of stillness as she listens to her won voice calmly uncovering violence in the banal, Mantero enacts sensorial resistance. More important, this sensorial resistance as mnemonic re-organization is then transferred into the audience’s bodies. For, after a while, Mantero’s body disappears and it is the audience who is put into darkness under a sonic barrage of voices. It is the audience that takes the active role of stillness.

While going through Mantero’s notes for the creation of A Dança do Existir , I found the following fragment, that illustrates Mantero’s ideas regarding the uses of sound, darkness and stillness in her dance of existing:

To listen to a text, sounds, and music in the darkness is to depart into the world of the invisible (…). To speak in the darkness is an opportunity of saying things that implicate the others, it is a chance even to penetrate into their inner world, almost to enter into their dreams as a character, instead of giving them something more visual and exterior (to them).

By choosing first not to dance, and then actively to disappear from sight, Mantero solves a choreographic question for an ethics of rememoration and of sensory resistance. One that puns and plays with the possibilities of re/membering, i.e., of re-organizing and re-distribute the body and its parts, the senses and their channels, in order to generate a new, imaginative, creative, provocative, and historically critical body.

A radio receiver being frenetically tuned into different stations is a good image for the overall effect of the soundtrack in A Dança do Existir. Writing on experimental radiophony Allen Weiss titles his chapter “Broken voices, lost bodies,” which is a perfect description of this solo’s uses of darkness, stillness and sound. Also befitting to the solo’s overall sonic effect is Weiss’s insight on the effect of montage in radio. For Weiss, montage is not only an aesthetic device for generating new sounds, but, more importantly, it is a technique that “proffer[s] the fantasy of a new, unthought of, unheard of body.” And it is here, in this body that has yet to be heard, this body that has yet to be thought out, to become present, that Mantero’s A Dança do Existir clashes against Portuguese narratives of self-righteousness in order to present, through montage, “an unheard of body.” This is the “unheard of body” Weiss writes about that falls out of the dominant ideologies and narratives portraying Portugal as “exemplar colonizer” (to use an expression by Eduardo Lourenço commenting on the Portuguese public discourse regarding its role as colonizer ) despite decades of atrocities in war and fascism. Against narratives of exemplarity, everything that is said throughout the dance’s soundtrack proposes rather that what weaves the fabric of everydayness is the thread of explicit, pervasive violence.

What is interesting and illuminating is the choreographer’s suspicion of the visible in its capacity to uncover this layer of violence under the skin of the days. It is interesting, because it proposes a rectification of choreography as essentially visual art-form. This move has a double theoretical consequence. First of all, it endorses dance historian Mark Franko’s insight that when considering dances that are “politically resistant” one must take into consideration that they are, quite often, “asymmetrical and nonillustrative practices.” For Franko, this “nonillustrative” quality of politically resistant dance bears important epistemological implications, namely the need for the dance theorist and historian to question “how much of dance practice materializes as visible, or should be understood in visual terms alone.” Franko’s question is particularly relevant for the present discussion, in the way which his project for expanding the sensorial fixation in dance studies from the narrow field of the visible (what he calls the “visual fallacy in dance history”) precisely engages Mantero’s understanding of the uses of the body in dance. In 1993, two years before creating A Dança do Existir, Mantero stated in an interview for the daily Público that “by only using the body, dance can not tell everything.” For Mantero, the body is secondary in her work in the sense that it must know when to efface itself in order to tell more effectively.

In its many layers, permutations and strategic fragmentation, Mantero’s Dança do Existir probes one of the most silenced episodes in recent Portuguese history, the colonial war of 1961-1974, and how the war may be over in the field but is still present in the everyday life of post-colonial Portugal. Most shocking for the Portuguese audience, is listening to the almost never heard narratives of the colonial war veterans, whose history, as Eduardo Lourenço notes as late as 1998, is yet to be told.

Walter Benjamin, in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History, tells us that to “articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Listen to how Mantero articulates a history that “is yet to be told” by creating an atmosphere of urgency, in the dark, giving voice to those who had been otherwise pushed away from historical memory. Memory flashes up as an articulation of history by the means of the urgent pacing, the clashing sounds in the background and the testimonial nature of the statements we hear. This is a fragment of what the audience hears in darkness, about a minute after Mantero’s still figure had plunged into invisibility. Imagine a nervous pace to it all:

[Voice of writer Pedro Paixão]: "I mean, I can't imagine anything, I can't invent anything."

[War veteran #1]: "I didn't study, I didn't do any physical exercise.”

[War veteran #2]: “I finished elementary school when I was ten.”

[War veteran #1]: “So, I was a perfectly normal boy, man, I would play, I would fool around, I wasn't taught physical exercise, I didn't practice sports, I had nothing."

[Mantero whispering maniacally]: “African dances. mathematics' pupils. learning to walk. cars. people crying. someone who gets dressed. someone who writes and is not sure of what he's doing. someone who goes out and leaves the stove switched on.”

[Interlaced voices of War veterans #2 and #3]:
: "…for the marines, our training, as you…"

: “Me, personally in terms of physical and mental education, I…”

: “…probably all know, was a training in…”

: “…was prepared, physically and mentally…”

: “…which it was inculcated in us the spirit…”

: “…as an elite troop…”

( and #3 together):

[Sequence of anonymous people, different ages and accents]: To find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules, to find out the rules...

It would be unfair to say this is a solo about the colonial war. That would mean a reduction of its explosive polysemy and of its radically liberating fragmented ramifications. But it is fair to argue that it is a solo about those forces at work in contemporary Portugal that perpetuate the same old colonial relations and racial tensions, thus recycling and re-energizing (albeit imperceptibly) the simmering violence resulting from those years of war and terror. In this sense, it is a solo about the repressive nature of silence as it percolates the social body, generating its neo-colonial nervous system. It is only under this light that we can understand why Mantero, in a short text for the opening night program of A Dança do Existir, calls it (against the obvious impact of its continuous mass of sound) “a dance of silence.”

Initially, I was puzzled, given the sonic and linguistic barrage that almost completely displaces and effaces her body from view. Now, we can understand her reasons. This is the dance that probes that silence that thrives precisely under the most deafening verbosity, visibility and noise. That silence revealed itself in the blasting front page of Diário de Notícias, contained in its anachronistic headline and self-redemptive photograph, and manifesting “cultural anesthesia,” that capacity, according to Feldman, “to increase pain upon the Other [and] to render the Other’s pain inadmissible to public discourse and culture.” It was thanks to the chance encounter with that odd headline that, in a flood of remembering of a sonic dance of stillness, I was able to fully grasp the relationship Mantero’s piece established with collective silence, and silence’s implications for a post-colonial critique of contemporary Portugal.

How is it that one listens to the discarded voices of history, under the collective amnesia brought by the shattering of the colonial mirror? Here, under the guidance of the aural, we pose a choreographic question – for this listening is also a matter of preparing the body, conditioning it, tuning it to a specific position within (historical) time and (social and political) space. The senses endure historical transformation. Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Alain Corbin, Michael Taussig and others have shown how such transformation is not Darwinian in nature and inevitably implicates the subject within a network of perceptual stratification. The stratification of the senses involves the ways by which each historical moment negotiates, validates, and discards what it considers to belong to the realm of the (in)significant and of the (im)perceptible.

It is in this line of thought that one must understand anthropologist Nadia Seremetakis’ argument when she states that “the imperceptible has a social structure based on culturally prescribed zones of non-experience and canceled meaning.” For Seremetakis, it is at this juncture that “a politics of the senses is brought into play.” As for the dynamics of such a politics of the senses within a historically charged social field, Seremetakis identifies in the “numbing and erasure of sensory realities” those crucial indicators of moments of social and historical transformation. This numbing creates a challenge for critical interpretation, requiring a certain re-focusing of the senses as well:

These moments [of historical transformation] can only be glimpsed at obliquely and at the margins, for their visibility requires an immersion into interrupted sensory memory and displaced emotions.

I am particularly fond of Seremetakis’ notion of oblique glimpses, allowing an immersion into an “interrupted memory” or a displaced (even repressed) emotion. Those oblique glimpses are so many deviant looks, treading along the margins of the senses and of history, picking up at the edge of the perceptible moments of collective numbing and traces of the continuous erasure of sensory and social experiences. It is worth pursuing this deviant path. First, it seems to be the most phenomenologically adequate for the work that is under consideration here. After darkness, a series of diverse voices say the sentence “Descobrir as regras.” To discover or uncover the rules. It is at this moment that light floods in, and we find Mantero dancing center stage in her composite costume. It is a fragmented dance. Moreover, its fragmentation seems to ask for continuous, oblique glimpsing. The “dance” section of A Dança do Existir lasts for about six minutes. It is in those six minutes that the most disturbing voices of colonial memory emerge, including the sobbing veteran, unable to tell of his past as torturer. Also, we listen to the most hallucinatory free associations:

[Veteran #3] "So the aggression, I remember, it's still present in me today, his aggressions towards my mother...

[Pedro Paixão] "I mean, I have already died several times"

[Vet. #3]: “...including a blow with the foot I once got from him...”

[Mantero and Pelágio]:"close your eyes"

[Vet. #3]: “ prevent my mother from getting it herself...”

[Mantero and Pelágio]: "Close your eyes"

[Vet. #3]: “...and that bad life, the poverty, the misery there was, for we were all living in one room...”

[Mantero reading from poet Ruy Belo]: “God is walking by the water, his pants rolled up How a man lies down, how a man gets up We are children made for big holidays.”

[Pelágio reading from Gould’s biography]: “The notion that all sounds are worth of attention.”

[Mantero whispering quickly]: “friends undeceiving each other, failing encounters. encounters. refugees. north. hunger. pleasure, disgrace, sun. brazil. big events. pain, gymnastics, minds. disavowals, pleasure. close encounters of the 3rd kind. doing everything not to fall in the hole. tiredness, headaches, happiness.”

[Vet. #1]: "...for instance, like: ‘crawling up to me!’, and the guys crawling... ‘everybody crawling, get those butts down, get those assholes down, that head, crawling up to me, up to me, near me!!’. All of us there, jumbled up, some over, some under. ‘The army is beautiful? Yeah! The army is beautiful!... You sons of bitches, come on, crawling up to me!!’"

Meanwhile, Mantero dances as if her body were discontinuous. She keeps her torso straight, rarely bends her back, her arms and legs rotate in their joints like pendulums, keeping straight angles. She keeps a concentrated demeanor, as if that abstraction was part of a most articulated, meaningful activity. She sidesteps, she does not stand in one place for more than an instant. There is no fluidity in her constant movement; all is made out of discontinuous, segmented and isolated parts, just as the movement of a film sequence is made out of discreet still photographic images. It is impossible to have a feeling of completion – of a whole dance, a whole body. My eyes jump here and there trying to follow her body, and mostly giving up because my ears want to focus all my attention on the spliced up soundtrack, and one listens better when the eyes rest still. Oblique glimpses then, once and again towards the stage, mostly missing her, because she had meanwhile already moved someplace else. As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, my memory screen of this dance is only sonic. When I first started to write these pages, I could not recollect the dance at all. I asked Mantero for a video tape of the piece. She sent me one, made by a professional videographer. I put the tape in my VCR and let it run. The nervousness of the camera is almost pathological. There is not a single second in which the camera is not moving about Mantero’s body, zooming in and out of the stage, capturing insignificant body parts, falling into random sequences, as if searching in its frenetic zooming for a body that, after all, is right there. I gasp as I recognize that even though Mantero is not dashing across the stage, she constantly escapes optic fixation. Just as she had promised at the beginning of the piece “Tonight I am not here.” Her discontinuous motions provoke the absolute failure of the documental, but also the distracted effect the dance had on my optical unconscious. The video recording of Mantero’s dance of existing is the mimetic register of that dance’s radical sensory manifesto.

Yet another aspect of Seremetakis’ notion of “oblique glances” is of instrumental relevance for this discussion. While researching this dissertation, I increasingly found myself foraging half-lit vestiges of the empire as they occasionally surfaced in public discourse in contemporary Portugal. I strained to listen into the uncanny silence surrounding the memories and narratives of the colonial war. And I marveled at one spectacularly odd eruption of this past made out of violence and warfare under the guise of an anachronistic newspaper’s headline in a sunny Lisbon autumn morning. For a while, my foraging had no aim and no consequence. The problem was that I had also been subjected to cultural anesthesia.

I do have vivid memories of those last years of the colonial war. I remember its dreadful presence, even when I was a child -- in the fear of the draft in my friends’s older brothers, in the popularization of a new dictum in which we all celebrated the birth of every new baby girl by saying “Felizmente é menina!” (fortunately it is a girl -- no need to worry about the draft). I had seen my mother’s clothes stained with blood when police would, by the early 1970s, regularly cordoned off Lisbon’s University and beat the crap out of the students. I had experienced the increasing negative effect of what José Gil calls a collective “absence of text” denying collective expressivity. I had witnessed the disappearance of the country’s deeply embedded self-image as Empire after the colonial mirror exploded into minute shards (even if the blast had been almost immediately muffled by suave narratives of self-redemption). I had sensed the numbing effect of the rapid historical transformation from colonizer to an utterly underdeveloped nation at the tail of Europe trying to become “modern.” And then, I had listened to the self-redemptive narratives of “exemplary colonialism” and even more “exemplary de-colonization” that emerged soon after the revolution. In short: I was within the grasp of that same discursive force-field generating sensory numbness and forgetting throughout the social tissue.

Until I chanced a glimpse at the margins. It took the viewing of a solo by Vera Mantero to find a moment of historical suspension, of interruption, of breakage, a moment illuminating the margins of this repressive field of historical silencing and dust. The catalyst for my oblique search into these displaced images, perceptions, and emotions had been a dance I mostly remembered as sound. As I move along to the next chapters, still probing the effects of the shattering of the colonial mirror upon discursive representations of post-colonial Portugal, the sensorial realignment Mantero’s dance provoked in me will be more deeply outlined. One of its main effects was to make me refocus my attention towards yet another dance, this time by Francisco Camacho, a group dance that powerfully tells yet other tales of what had remained silenced under the thick, cozy blanket of post-colonial cultural anesthesia.


(1)See, "Treze Anos de Guerra." Diário de Notícias, September, 21 1997, 1.
(2)Throughout the colonial war, the Portuguese press had guidelines from the bureau of censorship to refer to the African guerrillas as “terrorists.”
(3)The (certainly unconscious) attempts to dissolve guilt in this front page are quite striking. Significantly, the only other piece of news printed in this front page, located at the bottom left corner, announces that “The International Red Cross Witnessed and Silenced the Nazi Holocaust.” Its presence seems to suggest a self-exculpatory line of thought such as “If the Red Cross could do it then, why can’t we now?”
(4)Diário de Notícias, p.1.
(5)Ibid., p.1.
(6)Although my political stance is generally more to the left than Diário de Notícias’s overall political position, the newspaper does have an editorial culture of tolerance. I felt comfortable enough when I started my writing career there, in 1990. I contributed for two years for DN’s science supplement with a column on cultural criticism and anthropology -- subjects rarely welcomed by right-winged publications.
(7)Lourenço, Eduardo. O Labirinto da Saudade. Psicanálise mítica do destino português. Lisboa: Publicações Dom Quixote, 1991, p.43.
(8)José Gil expands on this difficulty of expression in contemporary Portuguese dance in a published conversation with Vera Mantero. See Gil, José, and Vera Mantero. "Richness of Spirit , Intense Movement." In Theaterschrift-Extra. Intensification: contemporary Portuguese Performance, ed. André Lepecki, 38-59. Lisboa: Edições Cotovia, 1998, p.55.
(9)Ibid., p.49-58.
(10)Feldman, Allen. "From Desert Storm to Rodney King via ex-Yugoslavia: On Cultural Anesthesia." In The Senses Still: perception and memory as material culture in modernity, ed. Nadia Seremetakis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p.89.
(11)Lourenço, Eduardo. Portugal como Destino seguido de Mitologia da Saudade. 2 ed. Lisboa: Gradiva, 1999, p.67-68.
(12) Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. New York: Urizen Books, 1978.
(13)See Feldman, Ibid., p.87.
(15)Seremetakis, Nadia. "The Memory of the Senses, Part II: Still Acts." In The Senses Still. Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity, ed. Nadia Sermatakis, 23-43. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
(16)Ibid., p.12
(17)Ibid. The notion of “historical dust” is from Walter Benjamin. For Benjamin, the nature of the commodity society was captured in the image of the ruin – therefore the importance of dust. Dust, as dialectical image, expressed how the imperceptible layering of historical events anesthetizes the senses, in a quiet collective process of repression as sedimentation. For Benjamin, “History stands so still it gathers dust ”writes Susan Buck-Morss -- but also, one may add, history produces dust in order to perform its busy spectacle of progress. Contemporary Portugal suffocates under these two visions of historical dust.
(18)See “Movement.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. On-line edition.
(19)Vera Mantero, choreographic notes for the creation of A Dança do Existir. Notebook titled “O Meu Trabalho.”
(20)On the theoretical implications of this re/membering, particularly in contemporary dance, see Brandstetter, Gabrielle, and Hortensia Völckers, eds. ReMembering the Body. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000.
(21)Weiss, Allen S. Perverse desire and the ambiguous icon. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994, p.137.
(22)Ibid., p.138.
(23)Lourenço, 1991, p.44.
(24)Franko, Mark. Dancing Modernism / Performing Politics. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995, p.xii.
(26)Fazenda, Maria José. "Apenas com o Corpo, a dança não consegue dizer tudo." Público, October, 15, 1993, p.28.
(27)Eduardo Lourenço writes, “Throughout thirteen years of colonial wars in Guinea, Angola and Mozambique, thousands of conscripted students, medical doctors, intellectuals were mobilized for the last, absurd crusade against the African independent movements. The history of such massive mobilization (…) has not yet been written.” See Lourenço, 1999, p.69.
(28)Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, 253-264. New York: Schocken Books, 1969a, p.222.
(29)See Taussig, Michael. The Nervous System. New York and London: Routledge, 1992., particularly the Introduction and Chapters 7 and 8.
(30)See Feldman, Ibid., p.90.
(31) “The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” See Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, 217-251. New York: Schocken Books, 1969b. Benjamin’s insight precedes archeological explorations on the senses by Michel Foucault, and most notably Alain Corbin.
(32)Foucault, Michel. "The Eye of Power." Semiotext 3, no. 2 (1978): 6-9.
(33)Corbin, Alain. The foul and the fragrant: odor and the French social imagination. Leamington Spa, UK ; New York: Berg, 1986.
(34)Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity. A Particular History of the Senses. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.