Moving Without the Colonial Mirror: Modernity, Dance, and Nation in the Works of Vera Mantero and Francisco Camacho (1985-97) - Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Experiments on the Subjectivity of Modernity

Sarma 2 Jan 2004English

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Contextual note

This is chapter 6 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.

[T]he female body in
representation has
emblematized both the
obsessive terrain of
representational fantasy
and, as empress/impress of
the vanishing point, that
which escapes or is beyond
the representational field.
Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance

In a world like the one
in which we live, where so
much functions so badly, I
have the impression that
instead of saying “to
dance” it would be more
appropriate to say “to
gesticulate desperately.”
Vera Mantero, Personal Notebook, April, 18, 1993.

Writing on the role of modernity in the construction of gender, Buci-Gluksmann argues that modernity announces itself by the means of a redistribution of the feminine and the masculine. While Buci-Gluksmann is referring to the earliest stages of European modernity (notably nineteenth-century Paris), more recent sociological studies seem to support this redistributive model whenever there is a drive for modernization. It is useful to invoke here the astonishing study by Edgar Morin on the modernization of Plozevet, a small hamlet in Brittany, conducted in the 1960s. Morin’s study has particular relevance to Portugal, for the impact of modernization and industrialization described by Morin for Plozevet follows the same sociometric patterns and cultural modifications found in Portugal in the early 1980s. Confirming Buci-Gluksmann’s insight, Edgar Morin shows how modernization requires a metamorphosis of old models of gender relations based on traditional peasant society. According to Morin, this metamorphosis attaches the modern to woman, in a logic similar to the one identified by Walter Benjamin for nineteenth-century Paris. In his Arcades project, Benjamin proposes that woman’s subjection to modernity is camouflaged under the guise of woman’s agency as consumer of commodities. The site of this subjection (for Benjamin) is woman’s body. For Benjamin, this inclusion of corporeality in the equation of modernity’s commodity culture contains woman’s agency within a double role: woman as consumer of commodities insofar as she is also commodity. It is precisely this perverse dynamic that Edgar Morin sees taking place in Plozevet’s metamorphosis into modernity. Morin calls this aspect of modernity’s push towards bodily metamorphosis 'l’esthetisation féminine'. This is a process of aestheticization of women, in which a new culture of consumerism defines women’s double role as buyers and showcases of (new, fashionable) commodities. In a perverse loop, woman’s agency in modernity must be confined to the boundaries of commodity culture, notably to the (historically) petrifying dynamics of fashion. Thus, by means of an ideological tautology, in the redistribution of feminine and masculine roles imposed by the metamorphosis of modernity, woman becomes (in Edgar Morin’s expression) an 'agent of modernity' only as long as she occupies the double position of consumer (of modernity’s always renewed commodities) and of image to be consumed (i.e., as commodity herself).

I would like to emphasize the term 'metamorphosis' Morin uses to describe this process of entering into modernity. 'Metamorphosis' implies that the changes modernity brings forth are not solely of redistributive nature, as suggested by Buci-Glucksmann. Rather, the redistribution of gender roles brought by modernity must be quickly followed by naturalization and reification of those roles. Gender redistribution in modernity is predicated upon a radical destruction followed by a swift re-figuration of the body itself. This destruction and reconstruction happens in a most literal fashion: in new habits of dieting, grooming, making-up, working out, dressing up, pacing up. Those new habits and signs of 'progress' are so many spectacular surfaces imprinting themselves onto the bodies of women. Those surfaces are not necessarily superficial in their effect -- they sink deep, and not at all on a metaphorical level -- they sink into the organic, the perceptual, the nervous system, producing morphological and physiological changes. This new woman, imprinted by the fetishistic and optic signs of the modern, walks down the streets like on a runway, obfuscating the passers-by with the promise of (at least) a glimpse of her flesh. Woman’s flesh is the organic stand-in for the so much desired (but never achieved, at least in Portugal) embodiment of modernity.

In which ways is the implementation of modernity as national project reflected in the theorization of embodiment and the re-figurations of gender that always underlies choreographing? And how do the echoes of Portugal’s colonial past redistribute gender in this theatre of modernity -- a theatre casting woman as modernity’s 'allegory', and predicated upon the fetishistic fixation of the racialized other as the eternally feminized primitive? Those questions are particularly relevant to the works of Vera Mantero discussed in this chapter: her solos Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards (1991); Olímpia (Olympia, 1993); and uma misteriosa Coisa disse o e.e. cummings (a mysterious Thing said e.e. cumming, 1996).

The onset of what Eduardo Lourenço identified as a 'cultural metamorphosis of rare intensity' in contemporary Portugal is manifested in Mantero’s work by a literal re-figuration of her body as dancer, as expressive agent in an overcharged representational context. This re-figuration manifests Mantero’s explicit concern with modes of visibility and agency for women and their bodies. Mantero’s choreographic explorations have a direct connection to the palpable transformations of the image of woman in recent Portuguese society. In what follows, I will analyze how Mantero -- in a moment in which she had to perform, like Camacho, for the 'European eye' at Europalia 91/Portugal -- decided to find (and to found) a radically new body for her dance. It was a body predicated upon a radical undermining of the naturalized and reified normative role for woman brought by modernity as glittering spectacle of flesh, standing between the fetish of the commodity and the exoticism of the primitive.

Just as Camacho’s O Rei no ExÌlio was a response to a lost (national and personal) body pushed to the margins of history, Mantero’s solo for Europalia materalized only after a deep, extremely painful and quite literal process of destruction and reconstruction of her own expressive body. This reconstruction had all the force of a resistant act.

The audience walks in and the set is already moving, although imperceptibly. Four feet made out of white wax are suspended from the ceiling. Hooked to contorted, silver wire, they define a large square on the stage. Each foot hovers two inches above an oil lamp, slowly melting away. A dim overall green-blue light contrasts with the four flickering yellowish flames from the lamps. Silence is occasionally interrupted by a brief hiss as melted wax meets flame, and the small black box smells like any Portuguese Catholic church (quite appropriately, the wax feet were bought in a devotional store in downtown Lisbon; these feet are usually used as 'ex-votos' (gifts) to a Saint or to the Virgin for healing a foot affliction). The stage has no backdrop -- rather, its brick wall is fully exposed and on each of its edges we see two wooden doors, just dimly lit. The audience settles down, and, after a moment of silence, the general stage light fades out, the lamps seem brighten a bit, the smell of melted wax and kerosene by now definitely has reached the noses of those in the back rows of the theatre. Presently, one of the doors opens and a young woman steps in. She has a greenish dress, nothing fancy. She looks almost like a housewife, except perhaps for her wild hair. She has a calm demeanor. She looks around her, and quietly goes through each one of the lamps, raising their flames. The wax feet start melting at a faster pace. She then steps into the square defined by the four oil lamps and the four melting feet. Immediately, she initiates a gesture right hand index finger leading the arm all the way up to her face, capturing her gaze. As if surprised, she grimaces. She looses her balance as fast as she recovers it, she moves about the stage following the momentum of her body just to contradict it right away. She reveals at times an unexpected quietness and then an unsuspected savagery.

All of the first movements and steps happen in silence. The woman’s face is as active as her limbs. And face and limbs, occasionally, quite briefly, spasmodically contract -- abruptly interrupting the otherwise released flow of her movement -- as in a depiction of Charcot’s hysterical patients at La Salpetriere. After a few minutes of this silent dance, the sound of Thelonious Monk playing Ruby, my dear fills the theatre. Aurally, the twenty minute dance solo will oscillate between silence and the uncanny repetition of Monk’s three minute recording. Movement-wise, the piece will waver between very subtle gestures, absurd grimaces and desperate bursts of energy. Throughout, the wax feet melt beyond recognition, some eventually dropping off to the floor, formless.

This dance first took place in October 1991, in a blackbox theater in Leuven, Belgium. The woman in the green dress was Vera Mantero performing her improvised solo commissioned by the Klapstuk Festival on the occasion of the international exhibition Europalia 91/Portugal. In the previous chapter, I discussed the importance of Europalia 91 and Klapstuk Festival in the context of a performance of the nation eager to promote a new Portuguese self-image of 'modern European nation'. Just as with Francisco Camacho’s solo discussed above, Mantero’s solo work for Klapstuk also marked a significant turning point in her choreographic career, both nationally and internationally. This solo also marks the starting point in the development of Mantero’s relationship to a politics of the female soloing body in contemporary Portugal. Her soloing body soon became a scandalous one.

The solo’s title is already provocative, indicating in a way that the dance that it names positions itself right at the center of a problematics of gender and agency: Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards, originally in English. The use of English was an attempt to increase the chances for some of the viewers to recognize in the title a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot -- with the necessary gender adjustment. Since a title is both a work’s preface and a work’s destiny, this particular reference to Beckett immediately locates the solo aspect of the piece into a referential context of loneliness, if not desolation. It certainly puts the work within a certain self-derision edging on despair. The title also posits the piece within the semantic field of radical doubt. Indeed, the word 'perhaps' casts its shadow throughout the entire piece, as if containing in itself the justification for all the sudden changes of moods, interruptions, grimaces, that go through Mantero’s body and also the silences and the monomaniacal repetition of a love tune. Most notably, the impact of the word 'perhaps' upon the fluidity of Mantero’s movement (a fluidity that, one soon realizes as the solo progresses, is an impossible state for that body to achieve) provokes a profound questioning of the very material basis of her dancing. Signs of doubt abound in the dance. And Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards becomes a literal verbal translation of those physical paradoxes and subjective incongruities this solo insistently enacts. As opposed to Pozzo’s viewing (in Waiting for Godot) of dancing as 'naturally' preceding thinking, with Mantero the pressing question in her solo is -- what must take precedence when woman is dancing, movement or thinking?

North-American dance critic John Martin once wrote that "the unforgivable thing for a dancer to do" is to "mak[e] you think." Mantero’s solo is unforgiving -- it allowed Mantero effectively to challenge the role of the dancer as 'entertainer', as mindless mover, particularly when that dancer happens to be a woman. Perhaps allowed Mantero to take her first steps into innovative and thought-provoking staging methods that would intervene and agitate not only the Portuguese dance scene, but Portuguese society at large -- and some, as we will see soon, have not forgiven her for that.

Although thematically Mantero’s political and social concerns can be more explicitly identified in her work created after Perhaps, formally, at the level of the choreographic play between embodiment, movement, subjectivity, gender and presence, it was Perhaps that allowed Mantero to create a dance that could effectively disturb the representational field trapping a woman dancing solo, moreover a Portuguese woman dancing solo. It was Perhaps that opened the possibilities for Mantero to rethink her relationship to the female body, to woman’s movement and presence, in order to create a series of performances that can be seen as small manifestoes for

another culture, one that is awaited and desired (and that we do not know yet if it is an artistic culture or a life culture, since both seem to merge), one that is in opposition to an institutionalized and dead culture.

Dancing sometimes in silence, sometimes with Monk, trapped within the sonic repetition of a love song and the spatial boundaries defined by devotional wax feet melting slowly beyond recognition, Perhaps initiates Mantero’s use of the solo form as privileged form of social laboratory.

These issues were quite present back then, in 1991, during rehearsals for the solo. Mantero had asked me to design the set for a still untitled solo. However, she did not allow my presence in the studio under any circumstance. Not once. In trying to figure out what she wanted to create we had numerous, endless conversations about her doubts, her terrible doubts, her paralyzing doubts. I used those doubts as an inspiration for the set, which included found elements from a Portuguese reality, not at all 'modern', nor 'new', but were elements absolutely contemporary to the piece and at the same time elements that were being rapidly condemned to cultural anesthesia, to certain anachronism, by the means of an ideology of the new, 'modern', European Portugal. Those scenic elements should also tell of Mantero’s doubting of dance as necessary art form. Therefore the melting feet. Therefore the smell. Therefore the flickering lamps that cast shadows and scent more than illuminate.

Mantero’s doubt soon became a melancholia and then a deflation. Her body and her voice were mute, incapable of articulation. Not the world, not life, not the body served her as sources of movement. It seemed to Mantero that all that surrounded her was a huge, empty space, in need of being filled with time -- a space where silence had landed. With her mouth shut, in silence, sitting daily in a studio, doubting dancing, she decided to listen. So she listened and she waited. And, as Mantero told the story many, many times, chance broke the chain of silence and provoked movement. One does not know why, but it was Monk’s Ruby, my dear that my dance was waiting for, she told me later on. Literally, Monk’s three minute tune was the only thing that made her move (and because nothing else made her move, the song was repeated randomly throughout the solo, whenever the technicians felt she needed a boost, usually three times each performance). What is essential though, is that when Mantero finally moved, her body danced differently. Her movements were not limited to the anatomical mechanics of dancing she was able to explore so masterfully in her previous works and also while dancing the works of others. Something happened for the first time that became essential for her future perception of the dancer’s body in performance -- movement left the body and went all the way up her face and reconfigured what, until then, had been her expressive field -- the charged, gendered, scopic field in which the female soloist dancer enters representation. This animation of the face, this desire to improvise, this doubting, this desperation all contributed to a solo in which the dance became filled with presence -- the irreproducible presence of a woman casting off the scopic armor of the spectacular, shedding off what Peggy Phelan has called 'the ideology of the visible' constraining and containing women’s images every time woman presents herself as spectacle.

It is interesting to see how this strategy by Mantero of shedding off the spectacular actually generates a sort of invisibility. This is quite visible in critical reviews of her work, filled by gaps of memory, blind spots, slippages of the pen. Her dancing body disappears, as if its presence were condemned beforehand because it does not find itself in conformity to the rules of women dancing under the ideology of the visible.

This vanishing act was performed in a review of Perhaps printed in the Village Voice, on May 7, 1996:

[Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards] is delicately nuanced, subtle work, perhaps too subtle for me, given I hit the Kitchen straight from a garment district fashion show where the designs of Anne Bowen are exhibited on topless models whose breasts have been elaborately adorned with frosting by pastry chef Jill Rose from Lespinasse. My first exposure to the wattage of the runway leaves me open-mouthed (); the mixture of aggression and eroticism, of specialized female flesh and exquisite fabrics draped so as to barely conceal that flesh, compares to the average dance performance as a conflagration compares to a candle.

Note the interesting slipping (away) of the review’s subject: from two lines on Mantero’s 'too subtle' dance (those two lines are the entirety of her solo’s review!) to a paragraph on the aggressive eroticism and bombastic performance of 'female flesh' exposed under the spotlights of the runway. Note how the reviewer moves swiftly from signifier to signifier in order to replace an image of a woman by another image of femininity. From Perhaps and its subtleties in the Kitchen, a chain of culinary associations leads the reviewer salivating before delicious female bare breasts, giving an interesting literal twist to the Brechtian expression 'culinary theatre...' What becomes transparent in this fascinating, fast-paced motion of associations, in which Mantero’s presence is swiftly erased by glaring 'female flesh' walking down a fashion show runway is that one image of woman (the aggressive-erotic-culinary-commodified 'female flesh') definitely obfuscates the image of another woman whose dances are categorized as 'too subtle' and therefore beyond perception and writing. It is precisely in this tension between subtle dances flickering like a candle and culinary obfuscation that Mantero’s work reveals its profound efficiency as reconfiguring the representational field within which woman is allowed to dance and be present.

An address to the Academy, Lisbon’s Universidade Nova, March 14, 1995:

There are dances that are not a literal translation, gesture by gesture, of a text (as I showed in my solo on Nijinski), nor the result of a reflection upon the meaning of a text (as in my solo Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards). Perhaps we could call these dances the translation of a more general idea. Therefore, the idea of a 'Dance of Subtleties,' created as gift to offer to someone.

This is Mantero, talking on her work. Immediately, the question springs forth: how is it that one creates a dance as a gift? Mantero’s answer, particularly in Perhaps, is: by emphatically inscribing dance in the present time in which dance gives itself to vision that is, by improvising. How is it possible to think of the gift as a dance? Her answer -- she told us already -- is: by making dance absolutely subtle.

Interestingly, gift and subtlety are two elements Jacques Derrida associates with the possibility of revolution any time a woman dances while improvising. In a conversation with Christie McDonald, published under the title 'Choreographies', Derrida proposes that the improvised impulse -- because it necessitates plunging into a certain forgetting, and because it is predicated upon a lack of registering -- is the necessary condition that allows giving to take place. The associative chain forgetting / improvisation / gift derives from Derrida’s reading of Marcel Mauss’ classic study on the gift. Derrida argues that what Mauss called 'gift' (le don) should more properly be called 'exchange', or 'economy' since -- as Mauss has shown -- the gift always generates the obligation of retribution. In this sense gift initiates economy, for it is trapped within a never ending circularity grounded on the register of debt. For Derrida, in order for a gift that does not demand retribution to happen (i.e., a 'pure' gift), there would have to be no symbol, no marking of the act of giving, no registry. For symbol already implies a return, a reflexivity, a circularity, that is, a registry and a history. Hence Derrida’s call for a radical forgetting. Derrida, in a step already choreographed by Nietzsche, identifies this forgetting with the dance of 'certain women' who stepped outside economy’s circularity and outside the reproductive forces of history. "This step only constitutes a step on the condition that it challenge a certain idea of the locus [lieu] and the place [place] () and that it dance otherwise," writes Derrida. He continues by noting that such a challenging step is "very rare, if it is not impossible, and presents itself only in the form of the most unforeseeable and most innocent of chances." It is precisely this unforeseeable challenge that is intensified by the means of improvisation -- the performance strategy that continuously surprises not only viewer but also performer, and moreover may generate innovation.

While thinking about her dances that 'could be offered to someone as a gift,' Mantero added to the improvisational operations of chance the strategy of subtlety, by the means of a certain microscopy of gesture, in which what is given (through the dance) does not announce itself in the culinary, spectacular 'conflagrations' of woman’s body exposure under the logic of the hegemonic gaze. Portuguese philosopher José Gil wrote on the subversive phenomenology of this microscopy (that Gil calls 'small perceptions') from which 'everything endures change' stillness becomes movement, and the stable, unstable. For José Gil, Mantero’s dances are the only case in Portuguese choreography in which this 'intense movement' of microscopy takes place. For Gil, Mantero’s dances of subtleties are not weak dance, nor frail dance. While conversing with Mantero about her work José Gil tells her:

Up to now, the Portuguese have always had a small macroscopic vision. But we didn’t have the microscopic. And art nowadays works in microscopy, in small perceptions. What you do is microscopy. [And] microscopy is the intense movement.

These considerations illuminate the ways by which Mantero creates her dance of resistance by reconfiguring her body as it steps onto the unstable national stage. By entering into the realm of active doubt through her improvised dance of subtlety, Mantero fully embraces a constant state of instability and offers it (without, however, publicizing her giving) as potential subversion. Subversion of the expected image of a female body dancing (in which what matter is not the 'conflagration of the female flesh' exposed in order to satiate the sexual, or optical appetites of the audience), subversion of the dancer’s corporeality (in which what matters is less its control but the flickering of the body in a presence as vibratile and as grinding as a Thelonious Monk love tune), subversion of a certain political desire to build a 'modern' Portuguese image (by surrounding herself with markers of the past as crucial landmarks of the Portuguese present).

The intensity Gil identifies in the microscopic subtleties of Mantero’s works can be quite effective in its impact upon the social context in which it erupts and against which it works. Just as Jacques Derrida is quite explicit about the literalness of his image of the improvising female dancer as one who disturbs (if not revolutionizes) the economies of history, pedagogy, nation, patriarchy, Mantero’s dances quite explicitly disrupt the place of woman’s dancing within a certain pedagogy of gender and national identity. Derrida wrote:

The joyous disturbance of certain women’s movements, and of some women in particular, has actually brought with it the chance of a certain risky turbulence in the assigning of places within our small European space.

Similarly, Mantero’s solos after the breakthrough that was Perhaps , have been subjecting the small Portuguese rectangle to continuous turbulence.

With Perhaps Mantero found a new, expressive body, one that allowed her to say what could not have been otherwise expressed. Perhaps, in the words of Portuguese art critic Alexandre Melo, showed the Portuguese audience the uncanny possibilities of an intensification of the corporeal by the means of disturbing female physicality. A physicality close to the visceral, stepping into the uncertain, generating a subtle subjectivity -- claiming agency beyond the glare of commodity and consumerism. Mantero’s following solos, in which the subtle fierceness of Perhaps is always somewhat present, would further intensify the questions that woman’s visibility and woman’s movements provoke within the confines of a 'new Portugal'.

A performance on the eve of the revolution’s 19th anniversary. A young woman pulls with a thick rope a very heavy nineteenth-century ottoman. The young woman is naked. She holds a book in one hand, the rope in the other. She reads from the book, mumbling a bit. Her hesitant, intrigued voice projects provocative words on cultural control, the responsibility of the artist, the fetishization of art, and on the artist as parasite of Power. When the naked woman reaches stage right, she sits on the ottoman. She puts her book down. She lies over the golden drapery. She strikes a pose -- absolutely familiar. She looks at us right in the eyes. After a while she falls back with a silly thump.

Vera Mantero performed her ten minute solo Olímpia for the first time in 1993, in a politically motivated event: a 'dance marathon' demanding a national cultural policy, governmental funding for the arts, and fiscal recognition of the profession of dancer.

The piece starts with Mantero entering the stage from the wings, stage left. She is naked, and in one hand she holds an open book, from which she reads, mumbling, frowning, as if trying to understand the meaning of the text. In her other hand she holds a thick white rope. As she slowly walks in, her pace is suddenly arrested by the rope’s tense resistance to her motion. She pulls hard, the audience hears a dragging noise --something heavy is clearly at the other end of the rope. Mantero resumes her reading and, as the action of stopping, pulling, and dragging is repeated a few times, an ottoman appears at the other end of the rope. The presence of the book, Mantero’s concentration on the act of reading, and the labor of dragging that which will be her place of final rest immediately unsettles any expectations of a 'tableaux' rendition of Manet’s original. Here, we have the ottoman as ballast, the rope as tool for mysterious labor, and the book as focus of OlÌmpia’s gaze. Rather than silently staring at the spectator, this OlÌmpia is occupied by action and immersed in reading. It could be that the open book, the open white book, stood in for the 'vulvic' bouquet. However, rather than offering itself to the viewer as sublimated symbol, the book is a source for a constant stream of provocations.

The reading ends as soon as Mantero finds the proper spot for her ottoman on the stage. She lies down on it assuming the famous pose. After a few seconds of stillness, her body slowly starts to shift backwards, and in deliberate manner, she eventually falls on her back with an inelegant thump. Lights go down. Instead of seduction, we had matter. Instead of an icon, iconoclasm. Instead of the spectacle of the (female) flesh we had an introspective gag.

Mantero’s contribution to the agit-prop event in one of Lisbon’s Municipal theaters was performed under the sign of subtlety. This time, Mantero added a new element that would recur in her future pieces: her 'explicit body in performance.' Mantero’s solo is based on an impersonation of Manet’s Olympia, visually quite faithful to the notorious 1863 painting of Victorine Meurent, a well-known Parisian courtesan. Mantero’s hair-style, her sandals, the black ribbon on her neck, the large flower decorating the left side of her head, even the embroidered silk cloth over the ottoman she drags on stage are all quite similar to the ones in the painting. The careful use of props and make-up augment an uncanny similarity between Mantero’s features and the 19th century model, creating the impression of historical authenticity. But it is in the impersonation that the resemblances between one work and the other end. The introduction of elements of difference transform Mantero’s Olímpia into (once again) a provocative performance.

Mantero cleverly uses performance in ways which add to representation, ways which are phenomenologically foreign to painting. By moving, Mantero animates Olympia, thus implicating immediately a certain use of temporality in the rhetoric of the image she is (re)creating; moreover, she uses her voice. This Olympia reads, and this totally capsizes the frame under which this specific figure has always been rendered in its multiple inhabitations throughout the history of the avant-garde.

One of the most famous inhabitations of Olympia by a woman is that of American performance artist Carolee Schneemann in visual artist Robert Morris’ 1964 installation piece Site . Performance theorist Rebecca Schneider discusses Manet’s painting at length in terms of woman’s agency and in terms of the place for woman’s sex(uality) in representation. Schneider’s discussion prefaces her analysis of Schneemann’s collaboration with Robert Morris. Schneider tells us how Schneemann felt 'immobilized' in the performance, due to Morris’s "apolitical ‘framing’ in which [Schneemann] felt re-fixed." Schneider imagines what would have happened if Olympia became flesh and fully claimed the authorship of her own explicit self-representation.

When Olympia defies the validating signature of the male artist and steps out of his frame to authorize her own framing, perhaps stretching out live in the museum or gallery and claiming space as art and artists, she not only directly challenges the terms of demarcation between high and low, but unearths the gendered dynamics in that relation. The sexually active woman as both (low) object and (high) artist straddles and challenges a deeply ingrained gender divide in which active, or overt, or “virile” female sexuality is conceived as inherently animalistic, primitive and perverse.

This stepping out of the frame of the male artist’s 'validating signature' is exactly what Mantero did in her own becoming Olympia. Mantero did not know until quite recently that Morris and Schneeman had done a piece based on the painting. In Mantero’s notebooks, three weeks after the first performance, she writes simply: "What was Olímpia? A text, a desire to say it in a certain fashion, the exploration of a work of art." Just as in A Dança do Existir, the sonic rendition of text (text as the dancer’s prosthetic extension to express something that is urgent) generates a sensorial tension right at the surface of the moving figure. Naked, Mantero reads fragments of French visual artist, anarchist, and founder of the Art Brut movement, Jean Dubuffet. Mantero reads as if she is trying hard to understand them, and while apparently struggling with their meaning, she quotes one of Dubuffet’s most important political claims within Art Brut precisely the need for undermining the 'high' and 'low' classification of art and artists that Schneider identifies as the challenge brought by the performance of “virile female sexuality.

Olympia is therefore a title charged with unruly connotations -- both in the history of the visual arts, and in the history of representation of the female body. For Rebecca Schneider, despite the scandal surrounding Manet’s painting and the historical revision invested in Morris’s Olympia, both works only flirt with the idea of woman’s agency – each reveals and toys with the possibility of this agency, but only to contain it, to frame it within the aesthetic. In Morris’ case, as we saw, containment happens by the silencing and the passivity of Olympia. As for Manet’s painting, Schneider concurs with most of the scholarship by affirming that the scandal of Olympia was provoked by the letting down of conventional representational strategies as they framed women’s (naked) bodies.

In the same tone, Yve-Alain Bois recently reinstated Georges Bataille’s reading of the painting’s profound impact as something derived less from Manet "flouting the decorum of Titian’s Venus of Urbino () because Manet painted a woman who was obviously a prostitute" but mainly because, in Olympia, "Manet refused the various ideological and formal codes regulating the depiction of the nude, whether erotic, mythological, or even realistic." An often cited example of this breaking of formal visual codes framing woman’s representation and sexuality within 'the ideology of the visible' is the prostitute’s direct interpellation of the viewer’s (male) gaze. However, as Rebecca Schneider argues, this interpellative gaze is still trapped within the confines of a male gaze, and therefore as mute as Schneemann posing as Olympia in Morris’ installation:

Olympia’s ostensible challenge to the viewer was undermined within the painting itself. [] Olympia’s suggested defiance and self-possession thus become deeply suspect in that the scene of her sexuality is displaced beyond her person onto the symbolic bodies of a black servant and a black cat.

In Manet’s Olympia, three elements surrounding the main figure define the field of signification for what Carolee Schneemann called the depiction of a 'promiscuous beast.' Those elements are, the black maid, the luscious 'vulvic white floral bouquet' the maid holds, and the black cat at Olympia’s feet. These key elements in Manet’s painting are missing in Mantero’s piece. The black maid is of considerable importance for the economy of desire in the painting for, as Schneider points out, "the black woman is the stand in, the double, for the vanishing point of Olympia’s own genitalia," a situation "redolent with racism." As we will see, this racial element of black femininity as stand-in for white women’s sex and desire is postponed, rather than forgotten, by Mantero. It will reappear powerfully in another of her solos, which I see as functioning as a diptych with Olímpia -- her piece on Josephine Baker uma misteriosa Coisa disse o e.e. cummings (a mysterious Thing said e.e. cummings, 1996). I will discuss this solo in a moment; for now, it is important to emphasize that the absence of the black maid from Mantero’s Olímpia is central for the very sexual economy of the piece for, in Olímpia , there is no metonymical stand in for white woman’s genitalia. Mantero stages (her) sex and her body not as symbolic displacements. Such staging can be seen as the very cause for the piece’s turbulent effect in the several days after its first performance in Lisbon.

Georges Bataille wrote that while Manet’s Olympia may not be the first modernist painting, it is certainly "the first masterpiece before which the crowd fairly lost all control of itself." Before Mantero’s Olímpia , the Lisbon crowd did not quite riot -- but this living, talking, humorous Olímpia did provoke other quite symptomatic losses of control. Most notably, it provoked a complete lack of stability between name and referent, signifier and signified on the writings for the press that commented the piece. Quite literally, Mantero’s Olímpia disturbed the field of signification that tried to describe/contain her within a certain narrative of the explicit feminine body in performance.

The issue of Monday, April 26, 1993, of the Lisbon daily tabloid A Capital, features in its customary brightly colored front page the required picture of a naked young woman. This time however, the naked woman was not the usual British blond fox, but a distinctly Portuguese looking woman. Also, the pose was certainly not within the genre of tabloid erotics. Examining it, one would see that it was actually an exact reversal of its usual components: the nakedness of the woman was full and frontal (usually tabloids suggest nakedness without full disclosure, breasts are covered by the model’s hands, a tiny bikini covers her sex), and most importantly, the woman was not gazing directly at the reader. Rather, she looked away, and her legs, slightly apart, revealed her sex. The woman sat on what appeared to be an old-fashioned ottoman, instead of the standard beach-towel or bicycle-seat. The title insertion on the photo was even more unusual than the picture -- it read 'Protest in Dance'. The caption under the young woman’s image expanded a bit more on the nature of this protest:

For about twelve hours, and in 21 different works -- including the closing “performance” by choreographer and dancer Rosa Mantero [sic] (in the photo) -- the professionals of contemporary dance staged in Teatro Maria Matos a marathon of protest against the lack of official subsidies for dance.

Later that same week, the prestigious, high-brow, weekly Expresso published in its 'Cartaz' (the paper’s section on cultural events) a short article on the same dance event at Teatro Maria Matos -- Maratona para a Dança(The Marathon for Dance). Once again, the article was accompanied by a (different) photo of the same disrobed young woman. And, once again, there was a curious disturbance regarding her name. This time, she remained unnamed, unidentified. In a very rare lapse for the rigorous weekly, the photo was printed without a caption. In both newspapers, the title of the young naked woman’s performance of 'protest' had been curiously suppressed (re/pressed).

The relationship between what was absent in the newspaper articles and the images the newspapers had decided to show during the mediatization of Mantero’s body in Olímpia is symptomatic of the effects Mantero’s 'explicit body in performance' produces in the Portuguese social unconscious. It is an example of the disturbance a 'dance of subtleties' can produce, of how the quiet presence of female flesh operates its destabilizing power against the culinary expectations of otherwise more spectacular types of feminine disrobing. In the case of the provocative photo in A Capital, the effect was that of a significant displacement of the function of the title and of the author’s name. Writing, as performative assignment of name to referent, and authorship to work, underwent interesting, uncontrollable fibrillations. The absence of the title indicates some resistance in accepting the work in question as 'serious' art (a resistance emphasized by the inverted commas around the word performance in A Capital’s A Capital’s photo of Rosa’s unnamed 'performance' performs is an optical fixation enduring denial. From Vera to Rosa, signifiers slip symptomatically on the front-page of the Lisbon tabloid, indicating by this movement what could be seen as the unnamable punctum of the photograph -- the semiotically explosive element in the photographic surface that, according to Roland Barthes, is both 'wound' and 'prick.' The punctum, as the rose, pricks and bleeds, and such bleeding is the pricking of semantic excess, of provocation, a piercing wounding that exposes and re-opens the scars of social silencing. The punctum, the rose, woman’s threatening sex, all take over the field of the face, of identity, of personhood as Vera insists on looking away, and stares us down with her body, pressing the media to attach its gaze on her nameless sex.

There is something powerful happening here, in the capturing of that pose by the photographer, in the choice of the photograph for the front-page of A Capital, in the overflow of rose over truth. Something powerful enough to be silenced in the field of discourse is being performed by Mantero’s Olímpia. But this silencing is also the effect of the punctum for "once there is a punctum, a blind field is created." Isn’t this blind field the vanishing point in which woman disappears in scopic representation? In this field, Mantero’s body can only be consumed, renamed, and silenced. There is an effect of defacement in this double gesture, even as the face of Mantero is appropriately reproduced by the photo-journalistic apparatus.

What remains unnamed is that which must remain unspoken, secret, segregated from the social sphere, invisible. Which is, according to Michael Taussig precisely defacement’s labor:

For characterization of defacement can never confront its object head-on, if only because defacement catches us unawares and can only be known unexpectedly, complicit with the violence of daily life.

It is not by chance that after relating defacement to the quiet violence of daily life, Taussig identifies one very specific function of defacement, a function that further illuminates the slippages regarding Mantero’s explicit body while performing her Olímpia . "Defacement", Taussig writes emphatically, italicizing the sentence, "becomes equivalent to covering the genitals." Showing (the genitals) while covering (the name of) the face becomes then an act fraught with symbolic contradictions and anxieties -- anxieties tied up with the absence of representations of the body in Portuguese art, and the conflicting need, identified by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality, of modernity to make sex public in order to cast it as the secret. These contradictions powerfully collapse onto the bodies of women, who emerge in modernity as the site/signs/sights of modernity itself, particularly through the figure Mantero inhabits in her 'dance of protest' -- the figure of the prostitute.

It is at this point, in which a performer whose piece based on an image of a prostitute is publicly defaced with the same discursive violence reserved to prostitutes, that the manipulations of Mantero’s images while performing Olímpia start to gain a broader significance. It is a question of agency, of who inhabits the image from within, torques it, re-shapes it, undoes the image’s ballast. It is also a question of who resists that agency and who fights it so as to keep images (of women) as they are. Thus, we must discuss for a moment the theoretical links between the terms in discussion " 'image', 'woman', 'prostitute' " and their political resonances within the context of the modern, and more specifically of the Portuguese modern.

Woman’s (naked) body as site of contention, and the convoluted movement between the repression of sex and the expression of the face, are all aspects that Vera Mantero has been exploring in her solo work. The most problematic 'image' of woman as commodity and, moreover, as image of the modern, is that of the prostitute. This collapsing of the image of the prostitute as theater of the modern derives from Walter Benjamin’s readings of Baudelaire and nineteenth-century Paris. For Benjamin, the prostitute is the complete example of the 'dialectical image', collapsing and illuminating all the contradictions of nineteenth-century capitalism as she "synthesizes the form of the commodity and its content: She is ‘commodity and seller in one". Elin Diamond explains Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image as "a montage construction of forgotten objects or pieces of commodity culture that are ‘blasted’ out of history’s continuum." Given its collage nature, the dialectical image gives itself to the 'materialist reader' only through a flash of recognition in which past and present emerge as one. It is undeniable that the figure of the prostitute (pre)occupies the field of women’s representation in modernity.

What needs be added to Benjamin’s insight is that this figure (woman, prostitute) as dialectical image remains passive before a materialist reader. This is Rebecca Schneider’s critique of Benjamin’s notion of the prostitute as dialectical image. She writes,

Benjamin’s dialectical images seem to wait passively for the intervention of a historical materialist who, discovering them, is viscerally struck by a flash of insight and proceeds to interpret the images as mysterious runes []. Benjamin’s object awaits the capacities of a gifted materialist observer who, like some Great White Emancipator, can invest it with the ability to look at us 'in return'[] as if that object did not possess a 'look' of its own, whether we are habituated to recognize it or not.

By identifying what Elin Diamond called Benjamin’s “maculinism” in the gender dynamics underlying the readership of the prostitute’s body as dialectical image, Schneider provides us with an insight that may clarify the confrontational potential unleashed by Mantero’s Olímpia . Mantero’s use of Olympia’s image activates the figure of the prostitute beyond her overdetermined position as commodity and seller. It is in this sense that one may suggest that Mantero’s inhabitation of Olympia’s image participates in a double mimesis, what Elin Diamond calls "a strategic re-imagining of the images themselves" in which the feminist performer occupies the images from within only to twist them and throw them into new relations.What is interesting in Diamond’s identification of strategic re-imagining in feminist performance is that this strategy, by undoing its 'masculinist' origins, re-claims, or re-invents, Benjamin’s dialectical image’s potential for political critique. The image is again (re)invested with a potential for political critique, that Diamond assimilates to the Brechtian gestus. It is also in this gestic manner that Mantero builds her Olímpia -- an image clashing against a collective, prescriptive 'look' (to use Benjamin’s term), a look eager to fixate woman’s image within discourses in which woman giving herself to view as commodity and seller is the very banner of the modern condition.

What became clear to Mantero from her experience with Olímpia was that the naked surface of the female body is of extreme importance for modernity and its logic of commodification (of women). Thus, Mantero’s skin assumed an unsuspected compositional importance in her future work. It is the emphasis on the body’s surface as theatre of fashion that attaches the new role for woman to the logic of the commodity and turns women into commodities. This loop in modernity’s choreography of gender as a struggle of surfaces over women’s agency leads us right to yet another of Mantero’s solos in which her skin becomes a theatre of quiet provocations.

A quiet precariousness is precisely the choreographic devise Mantero uses throughout her solo uma misteriosa Coisa, disse e.e. cummings (a mysterious Thing said e.e. cummings, 1996). Mantero's twenty minute piece was commissioned to be a "tribute to Josephine Baker." As I wrote above, I am proposing that this solo operates as a dyptic with Olímpia. There are some structural and compositional similarities between the two works. Uma misteriosa Coisa is the only other Mantero solo in which she uses her naked body; it is her only other solo without music or soundtrack, and, also as in Olímpia, it is a solo in which Mantero uses her voice to interpellate the spectators directly. Despite these similarities, the elements that I want to consider in pairing up the two solos as a dyptic are those which contribute to explicitly push forth the question of woman’s visibility and agency in contemporary Portugal. In uma misteriosa Coisa the question of woman’s (in)visibility is addressed by Mantero in her 'blackening up' (we will see exactly how, in a moment). It is through this blackening up that Mantero presents woman’s body as site of a permanent tension in modernity. A body in which woman’s subjectivity and identity are predetermined by a racialized discourse, under which white femininity becomes visible only through the erasure/abjection of an othered body, the black woman’s, 'standing in' for white woman’s sexuality, and against which white woman’s body gains status as 'civilized','proper','visible.'

As usual in her working process (whether for her solo or group creations) Mantero spent quite a few months researching Baker, reading biographies, watching her movies, looking at rare footage, and listening to her songs before stepping into the studio to start constructing her piece. As she had done previously, in 1989, for a similar commission to create a solo on the figure of Nijinski, she approached her "character" by deconstructing her most recognizable gestures and mannerisms into short movement sequences, organized around certain themes in this character’s life. After amassing about an hour of dance material for what was supposed to be a 20-minute piece, and just a few days before the premiere in Lisbon, Mantero decided to throw away everything she had. What she decided to do instead, was of remarkable simplicity.

The stage is dark as we enter the theatre. Lights go down, and darkness becomes complete. Time passes and we hear some hesitant knocking sounds on the wood floor. The knocking is uncertain, and it moves about the stage. It soon stops close to us, center stage. Slowly, a faint trace of light, a very narrowly focused spot, reveals a wide, very white woman’s face, with very red lipstick on her lips, and very long eyelashes and sparkling blue shadow on her eye lids. It is an hyperbolically staged face, a mask, a mask of a white woman performing a clichÈd image of certain vaudevillian seduction. The face, however, does not smile, nor seduce. It is calm yet alert. Under the faint spot light, the face seems to hover, bodiless. After a while, the very red mouth opens, and endlessly, calmly, quietly, starts to recite, with a few discreet accelerations and interruptions, a litany. She says, in Portuguese: uma tristeza, um abismo, uma no-vontade, uma cegueira Atrozes. Atrozes. (A sadness, an abyss, a non-willingness, a blindness Atrocious. Atrocious.) As time passes, the spot gradually widens its field of action and Mantero’s body becomes increasingly more visible. As the very white face gains a body, we realize that it is a racialized body, the naked body of a white woman who decided to cover most of herself with make-up in order to create the illusion of blackness. It is a self-conscious illusion this one, for it is not only the face that remains white, but the hands are also not blackened up. Thus, the dark brown paint works not as a minstrelsy device, in the sense that minstrelsy 'caricatured blacks for sport and profit', but rather as a gestic marker of an hyperbolically, artificially constructed body.

While discussing Carolee Schneemann’s performance with Robert Morris based on Manet’s Olympia (Site, 1964), Rebecca Schneider notices how

The erasure of the black female body in Site was also deeply problematic. Without a black body to distinguish it, whiteness in white culture appears to be invisible (a white body is not read as marked by race), and because the black serving woman was vanished, Schneeman’s whiteness, in her claiming agency, appeared unmarked. As already standing in for the vanishing point in Manet’s painting, the re-vanishing or double-vanishing of the black servant in Site was not remarked, and any agency Schneemann may be read to have claimed would have been claimed across the black woman’s explicit erasure.

What we have with Mantero’s use of make-up in her blackening of her body is precisely the marking of both whiteness and blackness as forces of tension within the construction of white woman’s identity, and particularly of white woman’s sexuality. The darkened skin points, as in a Brechtian gestus, toward Mantero’s overtly theatricalized whiteness, while the white skin indicates blackness as an abjected outside in the theatre of identity. Once we add the third element in Mantero’s 'costuming' of her body in uma misteriosa Coisa, we have an even more complex figure, disturbing the binary opposition of whiteness and blackness. This third element appears first in the piece aurally, with the knocking sounds about the stage; it is then visually indexed and supplemented by Mantero’s lack of balance (while the light is still too dim to disclose her body fully), and, once her body is finally fully revealed, it becomes the visual punch line of the performance: Mantero is standing, precariously, strenuously, on goat’s hooves. Thus, this doubly racialized woman is again doubled -- her body is also bestial. The beast is the lurking danger of woman’s genitalia, it is the 'savage' animalization of the body in the racist view of blackness, and it is the savage image Mantero chooses to use in her explicit body in performance. The resulting image of the animal she chose to incorporate prosthetically with her nakedness has a very specific connotation in Portuguese -- a connotation that ultimately makes this solo bend over itself in its stream of signification as it gets layered on Mnatero’s composite figure and how this figure imbricates itself with Portuguese colonial history, and with Portuguese current predicament of lurking after modernity. The she-goat is, in Portuguese, a 'cabra', the coarse synonym for whore. Here, signifiers loop around the feminine force-field in the ideological terrain of modernity and emerge in Mantero’s choreography as a literal, visceral representation of Benjamin’s dialectical image of modernity, Buci-Gluksmann’s 'allegory of the modern', Edgar Morin’s 'agent of modernity': woman as commodity and consumer, that is, as whore.

By replacing the ballerina’s point shoes with animalesque hooves, Mantero stages two powerful visual statements. Choreographically, she proposes for Josephine Baker a dance of unbalance and pain (she has to stand for over 25 minutes on demi-point, thus foregrounding dance as strenuous labor). Semantically she brings us back to the figure of the whore, back to Olímpia and her scandal (which is the scandal of female sexuality under woman’s radical agency). Again, a third element must be added to the composition Mantero’s quiet litany, repeating itself endlessly, calmly, matter of factly, insistently, hovering between factual statement, minimal poetry, and blunt accusation.

This solo is no happy "tribute" to Josephine Baker. Mantero, while never loosing her focus from the figure of the African American dancer, does not attempt to re/present Baker. Rather, she carefully constructs a figure in which she animates not a historical Baker, but Baker’s resonating presence as central in the collusion of dance, primitivism, and race in the body of women. Just as in Olímpia, the inhabitation of an over-determined image from within takes place. This time an extra ethical and choreographic care is required -- the image is not that of a painting, but of woman. Again, Mantero’s compositional strategy is based on a certain mimesis. However, Mantero can not just embody the semblance of Baker as she did for Olympia, not with all the history of minstrelsy, of appropriation of the black woman’s body by white women, not with the recent Portuguese colonial past. Mantero takes pain to undo the mimetic machine of racism and minstrelsy -- but she does so by indicating precisely the mechanism by which mimesis does bodies. In every extremity of her body -- face, hands, feet -- Mantero disrupts the illusion of the mimetic. Hers is a gestic mimesis, as described by Elin Diamond, as "a strategic reimagining of the images themselves". If Michael Taussig is right in identifying in Josephine Baker’s dance a 'disorganizing' of racism by her brilliant parodying of racism’s mimesis, then Mantero’s disorganizes the ways by which her own relationship to Baker is both complicated and facilitated by the uses of mimesis.

Rebecca Schneider argues that "a feminist explicit body artist cannot employ primitivism, as her body itself has been linked to the lure/threat of primitivity." Marked as "already primitive" the explicit body feminist performer "deploys or re-plays her primitivization back across her body in a kind of double take, an effort to expose the cultural foundations of shock." If Mantero "blackened up" her body, it was just to perform the unmasking of that blackening up in the center of her performance. She chose doing that by the means of pain. Pain happens in the piece by the means of Mantero’s insistence in keeping her balance while standing on her improbable goat feet, and by her choreographic decision to stay put in one place, that is, by her decision to not to move as one expects dancers to move. As Mantero tries to find balance in her grotesque bestial hooves (something only her refined classical technique could allow) thus expanding and exploding with definitions and expectations of what is 'dance',she activates yet another gestic agent in the field of mimesis and representation (of the racial other). As she strains, as she recites, as she stands put under the spotlight, streams of sweat quietly streak down her body. If aurally she provokes with her sad recitation, visually she disturbs the field of dance by making sweat an explicit agent of meaning. Sweat signifies Mantero’s labor when apparently there is none (she seems not to be giving her audience its money’s worth). As her physical strain increases, sweat also subtly removes the dark paint from her skin, opening white scars in her body, showing it is all a fiction, an image, an image of women-whores condemned to dance to certain tunes whistled by someone else’s lips.

The subversion of the representational field is absolute. The dancer is hyperbolically naked in front of us, sweating, masked. She is a whore, she is an enchantress, she is an accuser, she is in pain, she is monster, she is beautiful, and she moves at the vibratile threshold of dance. She prefers to stand still, but that is the most excruciating physical task. She tells us of our blindness and stares right into our eyes. We can no longer rest neutrally in our places. Her pain and her repetitive recitation summon us into the timing of the piece she carefully weaves. We cannot avert our eyes from that body under strain, trapped within itself, trapped under its double layer of skin, each skin as historically overdetermined as the other. In this exacerbation of presence by means of stillness, aurality, and pain, the audience is marked as utterly contemporary to that lamenting body. The naked body of a female dancer becomes not the moment of voyeuristic jubilation, not a vehicle for the reiteration of racial divides, but the trigger of an uncanny nausea drawn by a sudden revelation: in its unveiled presence that woman-whore-beast body is crying out a history of blindness and mis-encountering, a history of untold violence and labor, a history of destruction of bodies.

This is a moment Nadia Seremetakis calls an 'exit from historical dust' by the quiet invocation of the historically, culturally discarded. This is when Mantero’s composite body reshuffles the ground upon which spectatorship and dance stand. We are not seeing her, Josephine, despite being there. We are not seeing Mantero, despite her exposure. Her naked body transpires opaqueness, literally, as her dark coloration becomes sweat, streaming down her skin and revealing a white body under the overdetermined body of the dancer whore.

Ultimately presence is deferred: throughout the solo, the spotlight that first illuminates only her face and then, in a twenty-minute fade-in, gradually reveals the rest of her body, operates a reverse effect of illumination. For the more light is shed onto Mantero's body, the less we are able to see her, the less we see Josephine Baker, as what fills up our sensory is sweat, tremor, but mostly her voice. What is left of this dance by Mantero is an acoustic image. It is as if light blinded the scopic field only to enhance the aural field. In Lisbon, when I saw the piece in 1996, Mantero’s recitation provoked an increased and quite raucous amount of discomfort in the audience. The plural form of 'atrocious', the word that adjectifies every other one in the piece, is in Portuguese, 'atrozes'. As Mantero stood on the spot trying to balance herself, telling us of the abyss, the blindness, the bad-faith, one member of the audience, a middle-aged white woman, talked back to Vera, loud, disaprovingly 'Artrose! Artrose!'(Arthritis! Arthritis!).

It is most notably in her solo work that Mantero pushes and disrupts the boundaries of representation and presence to their absolute limits. From the start, Mantero’s solo performance caused a disturbance in the fabric of the Portuguese society. For six months after her Olímpia, and the publication of her photo in A Capital, Mantero was subjected to harrassment and daily anonymous phone calls threatening her with rape (Mantero later included some of these calls, left on her voice mail, in the soundtrack of A Dança do Existir). Following this experience, she forbade the press to photograph her body in her Josephine Baker piece. Such was the disturbance provoked by a woman’s body challenging the regimentation of both 'Portugueseness' and of modernity, particularly of modernity’s pressures to a certain performance of femininity.

Philosopher José Gil, in a conversation with Vera Mantero, tells of his reaction the first time he saw Mantero’s work on the stage, in the early 1990s. Says Gil,

Regarding your choreography, the first time I saw a piece by you, I left the theatre asking myself, ‘But where is she coming from? Where is this Vera Mantero coming out of?’ Of course, one always comes out of somewhere, there is always a gap, a black-hole, tiny openings in the fabric of the society from which certain people emerge. Which is strange ().

Peggy Phelan writes that performance’s ontology implicates the present by the means of presence. Mantero’s solo works, always performed by herself, implicate her body fully within the Portuguese cultural landscape, one in which, as we saw, not only the body is absent, but, moreover, one in which women’s bodies are highly regimented, are visible only by and through this regimentation.

This is Mantero’s own political agency as citizen, as woman artist immersed in a social context that must be probed, provoked, questioned thoroughly and consistently. It is telling that in an interview for the Lisbon daily, while discussing the role of technique and of training for the dancer, Mantero proposes a multiplicity of techniques in dance, acting, voice, and beyond, so that the dancer becomes less of a professional and more of a 'person'. The reporter then asks, "And the body, how do you use it?" And Mantero replies, "I use it to exist(laughter)." This existence creates shock-waves in the social tissue. Mantero’s body literally becomes a rupture of the limits of desire and social control upon a woman’s agency.