It is well known that Nuno Silva is a fine dancer. If you saw him in Arthur Pita’s God’s Garden you’ll also know he is a talented singer of fado, a style of music originating in nineteenth-century Portugal. He has now directed a new project, choreographed by Dam Van Huynh and performed alongside dancers Stephanie Dufresne and Matt Lackford and onstage musician Sabio Janiak, in which he engages head-on with the spirit of fado. But what is that spirit?
I have a theory about that – based on grammar. Bear with me while I elaborate (I promise it will reconnect with the choreography). Of all Latin languages, Portuguese uses the subjunctive most fully. What is the subjunctive? It is the counterpart of the indicative, which is everything that is, has been or will be. The indicative is what you can point to; it is about presence. The subjunctive is about absence: everything that could be or might have been, that you imagine or that you wish for. It is the world of dreams, desires, memories, doubts, hopes and regrets. Both indicative and subjunctive are called “moods”, for they are emotional spheres as well as grammatical ones. The subjunctive mood is linked to feelings of yearning, missing, longing – what the Portuguese call saudade.
No wonder the music swells with such melancholy and disquiet.
Such is the mood of fado. Listen to its lyrics and they often point to very particular locations – usually, neighbourhoods of Lisbon – and at the same time conjure unbounded images of seafaring or the flight of gulls to invoke the mysteries of the ocean and the sky, of destiny. They may be love songs – but they are about the idea of love, not about lovers. In lyric terms, land and lovers are indicative, while sea, sky and love are subjunctive, fundamentally ungraspable. No wonder the music, inflected with the minor key, swells with such melancholy and disquiet. That is the spirit of fado.
And so, to Silva’s Darker Shade of Fado, which recasts the indicative/subjunctive distinction into a story of craftsman/artist and lover/muse – all hinging on the symbol of a guitar as both an instrument of wood and wire and a medium of music and imagination. The craftsman is Matt Lackford, whom we first encounter in his workshop, fashioning a tear-shaped Portuguese guitar. Stephanie Dufresne is at times a character – a woman who Lackford dances with, with whom he interacts – but more often represents something more elusive: an unobtainable idea, a vision who is tantalisingly, troublingly out of reach.
he knows that absence has a more powerful tug than presence on the heart and the imagination.
Silva himself plays the spirit of fado, a shadowy, almost vampiric figure only intermittently visible within Guy Hoare’s moody lighting scheme. He haunts and unsettles the stage, his voice as strong and as mobile as his body. Lackford and Dufresne form the story, but Silva holds the power: when the couple seem almost harmonious he sows disquiet, planting dissatisfaction into Lackford’s chest with a beat of his palm; when Dufresne leaps headlong towards Lackford’s arms, Silva catches her in mid-air and pulls her away, withholding fulfilment. It’s as if he knows that elusive absence has a more powerful tug than tangible presence on the heart and the imagination.
The contemporary dance style is full-bodied but not full-blooded: Lackford has a solid presence but the others often seem to melt into air like phantoms. It’s a highly atmospheric piece, but dramaturgically it could be sharper: the swings from one scene to the next are sometimes hard to follow. And there’s a strange lurch in tone when Lackford emerges in horns and a harness and Dufresne swirls her long dress like a cape. Suddenly the scene taps a whole different dynamic, bringing forth the bullfighting metaphors of blood and battle that form such a strong seam of imagery in flamenco – but not fado.
The music also strays far from fado. Onstage musician Sabio Janiak is a skilled and dynamic presence, switching between acoustic and electronic instruments, and always alert to the action. But the score itself, by Adel Arez, is a bit prog-rockish, sampling some of the timbres of fado without capturing its feel. It need not imitate fado, but it should touch its soul.
Overall, though, A Darker Shade of Fado is a powerful mood-piece, its scenes like a series of nocturnes, some stormy, some hushed, all mysterious. So it was a pity that the one-night only performance at Greenwich Dance, which included Portuguese food and traditional fado singers as part of the evening, failed to work. Actress Carla Vasconcelos as compere was a jokey, vivacious presence – mis-setting the tone of the evening. Singers Maria Cristão and Gonçalo da Câmara Pereira, accompanied by guitarists Paulo Valentim and Bruno Costa (all excellent) shifted the ambience more appropriately, their music casting a spell over the audience, who were gathered around tables as at a cabaret. But the food was disappointing and the pacing mismanaged. The event had the feel of something pulled together rather than thought through. Given the artistic talent present, and the subtlety of some of the art, that was a real pity. Or to express that more subjunctively: would that it were otherwise.