A few years ago I was holidaying in Lisbon and had the opportunity to see some new Portuguese dance at the spick and shiny Cultural Centre in Belem. I forget the names of the choreographer and the piece, but I do remember parts of the programme note, because though it was in Portuguese some of the words were all too translatable: alienation, eroticism, subjectivity, desire, the Self, the Other. It turned out to be an ensemble piece for one woman, one man, and many, many beer glasses. The man and the woman rolled a round on the floor. They ‘encountered’ each other. They encountered the beer glasses. They rolled them around on the floor, and sometimes smashed them up. After a while I left. I was on holiday, dammit, and pushed off to a neighbouring bar overlooking the River Tejo where I put beer glasses to better use.
So it was with some misgivings that I went to see four Portuguese choreographers at this year’s Turning World festival – especially as three of them were showing at the South Bank, perilously close to bars overlooking the Thames. Still, the first of them was at The Place Theatre, well away from any scenic views. This was Paulo Ribeiro’s Azul Esmeralda, an energetic hour-long piece for seven dancers (four women, three men). The title translates as ‘blue emerald’, which cues us into the underlying idea of absurd juxtaposition (since emeralds are green).
Two men start off with some rhythmic step-dancing, like a little clogging competition, but playful. Then the women come slink about. Or they howl ‘a-zul, a-zul’ at an imaginary moon, for no reason other than to be odd. There’s also a showbiz set-piece, an MC ushering in the other performers in turn, who sashay and shimmy downstage, all glitzy costumes and beaming smiles.
Amidst these various absurdities there is a recurrent motif, a zippy militaristic dance in group formation, arms jabbing the air, hitting the beat. One of the men starts ‘conducting’ this dance, a drill sergeant orchestrating movement. There’s an altercation with another man, and the drill sergeant shoots him – to no effect. But then the drill sergeant acts like he‘s been shot, leaving the other to take over the conducting.
Possibly this was supposed to suggest that violence against another is violence against oneself. Or that drill sergeants may change, but the drill remains the same. But if so, neither message was very effective. And in fact there’s one frankly distasteful moment when the drill-dancers do a Hitler-salute – distasteful because it seems gratuitous, excessive: the piece is too flimsy to bear the weight of such a loaded gesture.
I can only think that Azul Esmeralda isn’t one of Ribeiro’s better pieces, for he has several awards and commissions to his name. The surreal juxtapositions do generate an edgy energy, as do the whizzy, pounding machinations of the dancers; but the sound and fury amounts to little. Azul Esmeralda seems to aim for absurdism – but it never quite makes it to the ‘-ism’ bit, and winds up being merely absurd.
Far more interesting – the best of the bunch, as it turned out – was João Fiadeiro’s solo I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now, a compelling study of alienation and dissolution. It begins with a bare set, a chair in one upstage corner, a photocopier in the other, the lights illuminating them alternately – like a sparse, after-hours office lit by a flashing sign outside. Fiadeiro enters in loose white clothes, wooden clothespegs incongruously clustered across his back. He marks off the front of the stage with a strip of masking tape at eye-level height, a flimsy barrier between the audience and the stage, and sits on the chair. A disembodied voiceover begins: ‘I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now.’ Does the room mean the stage rather than the auditorium? Or the room where the voice was recorded? That depends on who the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ is. Either will do, for the strength of the piece is in evoking an atmosphere of unknowing, uncertainty.
As Fiadeiro sits immobile, the voice continues, its careful enunciation pocked with occasional stutters. It explains itself: the tape will be repeated until any semblance of speech is dissolved, except perhaps for the semblance of r-r-rhythm. As the tape loops on, we do begin to forget the words. But it’s not just a loop, it’s a spiral, each turn of the cycle gradually, imperceptibly fuzzing up the speech with electronic distortions until by the end it’s an eerie, echoing memory of a voice that once had something to say.
Fiadeiro gets up from his chair, tapes strips across the floor, judders into a tense, ungainly dance, stiff limbs windmilling awkwardly. A body at odds with its self. He photocopies his f ace, and pegs the A4 to his belly, pointing at the open-mouthed image in bewilderment. He copies an enlargement of the copy, sticks the first one onto the eye-level tape; then repeats the process again, then again, each enlargement more grainy, less recognisably a face – a powerfully effective visual analogue to the soundtrack that’s still cycling on.
Against this audio-visual backdrop, Fiadeiro fumbles with the pegs on his clothes, arranging them in a line down his front until he looks like a mutant stegosaurus, one peg quivering tremulously, painfully, on his blinking eyelid. He removes the pegs and clusters them around his heart; they look like parasites.
At the end, he breaks the eye-level tape and holds each broken end, his body finally merging with the set. He winds himself into the tape, which binds up his eyes, his mouth, and finally swathes his face with its own distorted paper copies. He falls to the floor, body tensed, head crowned with crumpled self-images. The soundtrack pulses on like an alien.
a spooky, mesmerising study of the dispersion, the dissolution of an identity.
I am sitting in a room is a spooky, mesmerising study of the dispersion, the dissolution of an identity. The reason it works so well, I think, is not only the sustained intensity of Ribeiro’s performance, but also the close integration of the aural and visual devices, effectively simple structures within which Ribeiro unfolds his uncanny drama of entropy and loss. My only criticism is that the danced segments seem almost extraneous to the work. Certainly, they establish an edgy, alienated quality at the beginning, but they remain undeveloped, somehow outside the cycle of dissipation and decay.
It was a hard act to follow, especially by another male soloist. On the second part of the programme, Francisco Camacho’s Our Lady of the Flowers failed to match Fiadeiro’s intensity – at least to my mind, though many of the audience clearly felt otherwise. The piece involves some cross-dressing, some churchy music and some grapes. Camacho, in a dapper suit with a fetchingly frilled shirt front, enters in darkness. The music is antique-religious. He’s gradually lit up, and he reaches upwards and falls back, like he’s aspiring to the unattainable. He kneels down and flutters feathery fingers in front of his face, making kissy-kissy sounds as if tweeting along with an imaginary nestling.
It’s not very fulfilling, so he strips to his underwear and brings out a bunch of grapes which he mouths, squelches onto his face and pushes into his briefs. But he’s still unsatisfied. So he rerobes into a dress covered with flowers, wrapping the long trains of the sleeves round his head like a cowl. This allows him more scope with the reaching-up/falling-down, as the costume now becomes part of the spiralling movement, its trains unravelling in sensual swirls behind him. But little else has changed: there’s more grape stuff, more tweeting.
Now he hoicks up the trousers underneath the billowing skirt and dons the jacket over the dress, more bivestite than trans. The best of both worlds? Not quite: he still reaches up and falls back. But on the other hand, he caresses his face and arms, a little tremor of autoeroticism that has no need of grapes. The grapes themselves he liberates, throwing them up over his head in showers of abandonment. At the end Camacho doubles over, reaches his arms behind his back – a broken-winged Dying Swan in a big frock – and plucks the flowers from his dress.
perhaps you have to be a Catholic or something
There’s plenty of imagery hinted at in the piece: a swapping and a merging of gender; a (failed) struggle against the body towards transcendence of the spirit; the juxtaposition of religious and sexual pains and pleasures: even self-deflowering (okay, I’m pushing it). But perhaps you have to be a Catholic or something, because for me (atheist, born and bred) such themes remained submerged possibilities not realised in performance.
Flowers were also in evidence in Vera Mantero’s The Fall of an Ego, for her company of six dancers and many props. It opens with three men and two women dressed in smart suits, each holding a bouquet of flowers. They play around with the bouquets, splatting their faces into them, wearing them like hats, stuffing them between their legs and sniffing each other up like vegetarian dogs on heat.
Other props include sweeties dished out by the sixth dancer (Mantero herself), which the performers unwrap, suck and spit out. Then there’s a suitcase containing little cardboard scenery (farmhouse, sun, cloud, horse, chicken), an electric fan covered in gold tinsel, a cowbell, twigs (some times used as if divining for water, sometimes just stuffed into mouths), pinwheels, big model machine guns, an inflatable globe. The stage becomes a bizarre adventure playground – or, when one of the men upends a bag of sand to skid around on, a sandpit – for the performers to romp around in.
I guess it was a surreal, childlike counterpoint to their besuited adult garb. But for the most part I was reminded of my college days when we did improvisation classes. ‘Today- props!’ our teacher/facilitator announced, and we frolicked gleefully like tiny tots in a giant playpen. It was fun to do, and boy, we kept going for the best part of an hour. But I don’t think it would be fun or necessarily even interesting to watch. And an hour in, these performers were still at it. Still, there were moments. For example…
Most delightful prop: model soldiers. When Mantero arrives she’s carrying a plastic bag that whirrs and clicks and pulsates. A bag of trinkets and goodies and yum-yums? She opens it up and it turns out to be a sackful of battery-powered soldiers. They hit the floor, a troop of tiny invaders elbowing their way randomly across the stage, guns at the ready. Some of them invaded so far they fell off the edge of the stage, which I found rather touching.
Sweetest prop: water pistols. Two of the performers squirt water into their own eyes, and then burst out crying in a way that seems genuinely sad, like a child who’s hurt himself by playing too hard. Then they do it again. Then they do it to each other. It was quite funny, actually.
Best prop/dance integration: one of the men starts waltzing around, and in between steps, turns and swooshes, he picks up random props that litter the stage and dances with them too. Mantero tries to copy his dance, scrabbling for appropriate props as she tries frantically to match his steps, like a neurotic shadow that’s no good at its job. That was funny too.
But the piece didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Memories came back of Paulo Ribeiro: absurdism not making it to the ‘-ism’ part. There were also memories of Camacho’s crossed-genderplay, as the cast formed three couples twining on the floor: two men, two women, one heterosexed. A few people walked out… memories of holidays in Lisbon.
But I stuck it out – and it was worth it. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but after a (long) hour or so the piece began to realise its potential, darker undercurrents erupting from beneath its playful surface. Perhaps we needed that long build-up; perhaps it’s because the imagery became more animalistic. Whatever the reason, the stage began to tip over from fantasy fairground into an arena for nightmares.
The music changes to a pulsing, violent rock score, more sinister than the previous oddball collage; the lighting dims. The stage is strewn with assorted clothes; already a mess, it now looks like a bombedout jumble sale. One man dons a leopardskin outfit, another kangaroo-hops across the back of the stage. A woman strips off her top, covers her breasts with a judge’s wig. She’s hoisted onto the shoulders of a kneeling man who’s poked his head through her legs; he is wearing a giant chicken-head mask, and the image is genuinely disturbing. The chaotic activity continues relentlessly, unpredictably, more anarchic, more savage than before.
Until the action seems to exhaust itself, and the performers pile up the rubble to the back of the stage, a gesture towards a semblance of order. Two of the men have a post-mayhem cigarette. The woman in the wig-bra recites a snippet about walking, about wandering from no place to no place. The stage quietens until we can hear our heartbeats slowing.
Yes, the ego has fallen.
Yes, the ego has fallen. Where Fiadeiro’s drama had told of the loss of self through dissolution, Mantero’s plumbs its Freudian depths to reach a zone of dangerous drives and irrational fears. Her theatre of the absurd works (finally) not by reaching the level of an absurd-ism, but by pummelling that possibility out of our minds.
What do these Portuguese have in common? A taste for the surreal. An interest in personal identity – yes, all those themes of eroticism, alienation, the Self, and so on. Also, a lack of concern with being ‘dancey’: they use whatever theatrical devices they feel appropriate. Cross-genred. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but they take the risk. With Fiadeiro’s piece, that risk paid off. Mantero’s too – well, the last section anyway. It even piqued my curiosity over what I might have missed in Lisbon by opting for a nice cold beer.