Take a look at the city and what do you see? A mix of sound, light, colour and motion. An array of actions and interactions. A set design of gigantic proportions. The city is a stage, and you’re in on the act.
Of course, we don’t usually see it like that, we just get on with our lives and filter out the rest of that sensory overload. But for Ana Rita Barata, director of the annual Lugar a Dança festival which took place in Lisbon in June, performance can transfigure the city environment. “Architecture is made for us to live in,” she says, “and dance can make us experience and remember that space in a different way.”
Organised by the Associação Vo’Arte, Lugar a Dança began three years ago at the Lisbon Expo, part of a growing international network of outdoor festivals under the banner ‘Cities that Dance’. The idea was initially sparked by the Dies de Dansa festival in Barcelona, and Expo 98, with its vast expanse of new architecture and massive influx of visitors, provided the perfect opportunity to experiment in Lisbon. Since then, Lugar a Dança has spread to other parts of the city, this year including also the Cultural Centre at Belém, the gardens of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the uptown Largo do Chiado and the downtown Largo Martim Moniz.
In addition to Portuguese performers, the final selection of 25 companies came from France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Brazil, Germany and the Czech Republic. Some, such as Parisian Bruno Dizien, were invited in advance to conduct workshops towards the creation of site-specific events. Others arrived a week beforehand to adapt their pieces to particular environments, while the remainder made do with little advance preparation at all.
the performances that worked best took account of the environment and the public
A festival of this kind is by nature erratic and unpredictable. For me, the performances that worked best seemed to be those that took account of the environment and the public. Given the transient audience and the open performing spaces, the more theatrical or narrative pieces – such as MO.TIV’s overblown www.NelsonRodrigues.com or Amélia Bentes’ confusing Mascarhome 0 – do not work well. It can’t be assumed that passers-by will be in at the beginning, remain attentive, or stay till the end, so it’s best not to rely on plot developments or portrayals of complex scenarios or emotions.
Pieces that worked with imagery, spectacle, display and audience interaction fared better. Several performers lifted themselves above the crowds for effect. Barcelona’s Cia Vai-Vai hooked themselves onto trapezes and swung above our heads, while Sylvie Guillermin from Grenoble hoisted herself atop a pole and swayed in the wind. Bruno Dizien’s project had five dancers suspended from hooks high up on the side of a building, which was visually very arresting – though it didn’t keep our attention, as the dancers couldn’t really do much once they were up there.
Finland’s Virpi Pahkinen is visually arresting all on her own. With her shaven head, stark cheekbones and narrow catwoman eyes, she performed an appropriately alien insectoid solo, elongating her limbs into oddly angled antennae. What a strange creature she is. Much more entertaining was Johanna Keinänen’s convivial troupe, also from Finland. Their whimsically humorous Greetings From Afar – a mix of folk and contemporary dance spiced with a little audience involvement and served up in eye-scorching costumes – went down a treat.
Of the more ‘proscenium’ style pieces, Peter Michael Dietz’s Versão: ‘Live’ was one of the more successful – in part, at least, because the audience was in a more enclosed space, a courtyard in the Chiado district. Dietz’s semi-improvised performance saw him gently doodling along to live music by Carlos Barretto, who plucked out soft bubbles of jazz from his double bass. The performance wove a quiet spell, leaving its audience hushed.
But perhaps the most popular pieces of the festival went for exactly the opposite effect. Using social or popular dance forms, aiming to impress with bravura feats and binding the audience with hypnotic rhythms, the displays of capoeira and hip-hop garnered the most enthusiastic responses. The Escola Brasileira de Capoeira Mestre Oscar showed off a breathtaking array of tumbles, turns and somersaults, the capoeiristas finding an astonishing spring and elasticity despite the hard ground. The French ACA company showed some engaging hip-hop, but it was LUNION, another French hip-hop troupe, who hit a high point with their amazing back and head spins, moonwalks and heaps of cool-dude attitude.
Ana Rita Barata is certainly not in the pedagogical business of “bringing art to the public”, an old-fashioned and frankly patronising stance. She does, however, believe that a festival such as Lugar a Dança can create new and unexpected encounters between dance and the public which can enliven, personalise and revitalise the experience of our urban environment. In terms of both style and quality, the festival is inevitably a very mixed affair – but Barata’s thinking about its aims remains admirably clear.