Next Future logo

The presence of Latin American and African Performing Arts in Portugal since 1974

Tiago Bartolomeu Costa

A history is either based on facts or else it doesn’t amount to anything more than supposition. The history that, at this moment, it is possible to piece together from the list of shows produced by people from Africa and Central and South America and presented in Portugal since 1974 is still only a rough outline. In fact, what is being presented here is nothing more than a compilation of the somewhat scattered documentation that is available, and with which, in view of the interest that it may arouse, we have managed to arrive at a series of histories that together can constitute a History.

Difficulties have also been encountered because of the lack of properly archived documentation at the respective institutions operating in this area. Nonetheless, it has proved possible to compile sufficient information to write a text that can “historise” these shows and point to some of the more interesting questions that our  permanently updated research has ended up turning into the starting point for a series of different investigations.

It is important to understand that the relationship that Portugal has enjoyed with African and Latin American countries, at the artistic level, is the result of particular programming models that changed quite substantially after Portugal joined the European Union. The privileged relations that History has provided largely justify the relationship of greater proximity with countries such as Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, and the consequent presence here of companies originating from these places.

This phenomenon takes on even more significance when one is aware of the difficulties of digesting a colonial past, and perhaps it is the explanation for the absence of shows from the Portuguese-speaking African countries. In fact, in the period between the Portuguese revolution and the country’s accession to the European Union, we can see that there was a greater frequency of shows coming here from South America and, sporadically, from Africa, a trend that began to decline when we were ‘assailed’ by European productions from the moment that we started to host large-scale events in Portugal, such as the European Capitals of Culture, and to organise world expositions.

Networks began to appear for promoting the circulation of shows, leading to the possibility of overcoming years of backwardness in relation to the regular presentation of foreign productions. Coupled with the need to respond to standardising aesthetic considerations that were less dependent on a relationship of distance caused by exoticism and some political compromises, this situation may have led to a division that, for the first time, can help us to create a better framework for considering the shows that have been presented in the national context.

We therefore propose the following division:

-         1974 to 1991

-         1992 to 2005

-         since 2006

The reasons for this division will become evident:

1974 to 1991:

- The first period stretches from the Revolution of 25th April (a symbolic date determined by the nature of the study that, centring on contemporary production, leaves to one side the earlier presentations made by artistic companies, especially those theatrical companies that, for example, came to the Lisbon theatres from Brazil in the summer periods) to the Europália event, at which Portugal was the guest country and which afforded Portuguese dance the chance to first enjoy direct contact with its counterparts abroad. This is also the period that saw the birth of the International Theatre Festival of Iberian Expression (FITEI), in Porto, in 1978, and the Almada International Theatre Festival (FITA), in 1984.

By comparison, FITEI is a paradigmatic case. At the very first festival, four South American shows were presented: two from Venezuela, performed by the Taller de Teatro La Barraca, one from Mexico, by the Mímica del Oprimido, and one from Chile, by the Teatro del Lautaro. It was, in fact, through FITEI that shows originating from almost all of the countries of the South American continent first began to be presented in Portugal on a regular basis, in the form of street and stage productions, children’s theatre, adaptations of classics or the presentation of contemporary texts. It was also through FITEI, and later from 1987 onwards through FITA, that we began to see the main lines of development of a theatre that was concerned with the same questions as literature, with its magic realism, as cinema, with a strong interest in the social dimension and the confrontation with reality, or as the visual arts, with a powerful symbolic content. The work developed by the two festivals (even though, in the case of FITEI, this was contained in its original formulation and, in the case of FITA, no clear distinction was made between the proposals) means that these were amongst the events that offered the best possibility for responding to a logic of non-thematic programming. Yet, even so, these were programmes that continued over some time and were therefore panoramic in their outlook, giving the idea that we may be talking about shows that, according to European standards, do not reflect all the genres of each country and consequently do not provide us with the possibility of interpreting that performative reality as a whole. The fact is that our wish to paint a comprehensive and intensive picture over the course of the different editions is thwarted, when we understand that the countries taking part were (taking the case of the Almada Theatre Festival as an example) far from amounting to even a third of the African continent, in an event that brought us shows from Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola.

In this respect, Central and South America were better represented, with theatre from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. But, in neither case is it possible to determine the criteria that lay behind the choices made, since the variety of the proposals put forward was not expressed in the form of theatrical groups or themes.

Also in the first period, it is important to mention that the experience brought to Portugal by directors such as Adolfo Gutkin (Argentina) and Augusto Boal (Brazil) enabled the country to recover years of backwardness in relation to theatrical techniques. This meant that, immediately after the revolution, it was possible to expand our theatre’s capacity for embracing what might best be described as the ‘Brechtian cause’.

1992 to 2005:

The second period immediately makes it possible to include the central year for the Commemorations of the 500th Anniversary of the Portuguese Discoveries. Curiously, there is no compendium available containing precise information about the different shows that were supported, produced, programmed or curated as part of these commemorations, just as it is impossible to detect the logic of continuity purportedly followed at the institutions to which the programme alluded. This was a period that was marked, in 1992, by the opening of the Centro Cultural de Belém and, in 1993, by the opening of Culturgest, which became fundamental elements for the programming of events that were increasingly centred upon a dialogue of contemporaneity and proximity to European patterns and standards.

In that sense, Culturgest was to take responsibility for the organisation and presentation of a contemporary discourse alert to the notions of contemporaneity that extended beyond European borders. The “Extremes of the World” programme, in 2000, for example, was designed to “contribute to the creation of a public activity that is more critical and more enlightened about the cultural events taking place in our midst, especially those that, because of their stranger nature, cause us some perplexity”.

So, there has always been a struggle with the exotic, which is why it is very important to relate the presentation and reception of theatrical performances with what was being presented in the world of dance.

1994 was another important year because it was the date when the Festival A Sul (Festival in the South) began in Faro, organised by the Algarve Performing Arts Centre, becoming a regular event that was interrupted, in 2007, because of a lack of public funds. Over the years, there were various shows performed with different notions about what exactly constitutes the South (the last edition in 2006, for example, was dedicated to Japan). Most of the shows that this festival brought to the Algarve came from North Africa, accompanying what was happening in France, with production structures entering into the budgets of small African companies, many of which took advantage of the situation to upgrade from a semi-professional to a professional regime.

It was this circuit that gradually began to be formed at that time and which, to some extent, could be seen at the Festival Danças na Cidade (“Dance in the City” Festival). Later, it would become known as Alkantara, which first started in 1993. In 1997, The Festival Danças na Cidade initiated the cycle known as “Dançar o que é nosso” (Dancing what is Ours). As was explained at the time, its aim was “to strengthen and promote artistic exchanges between artists and cultural organisations from Europe, Africa and Latin America”. The festival commissioned works from the Cape Verdeans António Tavares and Mano Preto and invited the Brazilian Marcelo Gabriel to live and work in Portugal for almost a month. Two years later, the festival organised an international conference at the Centro Cultural de Belém, with the participation of organisers and producers from Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde and Mozambique and their European counterparts, in order to debate working methods. The results of this conference were published in book form, in 2001, and are fundamental for understanding the points of contact between artistic practices in different countries. The book comprised the papers presented in 1999 by cultural creators and operators from Angola, Cape Verde, Brazil, Mozambique, Portugal, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain and the USA, with the aim of reflecting on “their work and the way in which this is affected by the challenges of multiculturalism”, being divided into four main thematic areas: Local v. global, Strategies for intervention (or not?), Cultural exchanges and post-colonialism, Contemporaneity.

The festival’s change of name from Danças na Cidade to Alkantara, thus adopting the Arabic translation of the word bridge, took this relationship of exchanges even further, expressed through membership of international networks that made it possible to co-produce shows in Mozambique, such as those of Panaibra Gabriel, or to create artistic residences in partnership with the Festival Panorama Rio Dança, in Rio de Janeiro.

These networks of contacts between Portuguese companies and those from other countries with which Portugal has historical roots go some way towards compensating for the fact that it has proved impossible to establish a genuine artistic and professional presence of the African communities in Portugal. Although such considerations are beyond the scope of this current research, this is why it is important to determine in what ways the sparse presentation of such shows on the country’s main stages has contributed either negatively or positively to the development of that same African community’s presence on the artistic and professional scene. We are talking here about effects that are reflected in a real presence and that are not just simply bound up with a cult of the exotic. One should, for example, consider the case of the stage director Rogério de Carvalho, perhaps the one person who has built most bridges between Angolan and Portuguese theatre, and who, in order to stage “Os Negros” (The Blacks) by Jean Genet at the Teatro Nacional São João in 2006, with a totally black cast, as the play required, had to travel to African countries to hold auditions, as he couldn’t find sufficient professional actors available in Portugal. Or, also, one of the few examples of a genuine attempt to work on this relationship of distance and proximity, the Associação Regresso das Caravelas, which, over the years, ended up getting lost along the way. One of its plays, “Museu do Pau Preto”, was performed at Culturgest, in 2000, and focused on the wish of Portuguese adolescents to form a relationship with their African roots, from which they had become distanced.

This was something that could also be found in one of the most important projects developed for cultural exchanges between Portugal and Africa: Cena Lusófona.

The work that this group began in 1995 merits particular attention because it belongs to another line of logic, no longer involving the simple presentation of shows, but based on an effective reflection about the creative potential to be found existing between Portuguese companies and those from Portuguese-speaking African countries. Companies such as Teatro O Bando, Centro Dramático de Évora, Teatro da Rainha and Escola da Noite were able to work with companies from Mozambique (Mutumbela Gogo, Casa Velha, Olá Produções, Hala ni Hala), Angola (Elinga Teatro), Cape Verde (Grupo de Teatro do Centro Português do Mindelo) or companies (Capitango) and artists from São Tomé and Príncipe, under the form of co-productions, involving a pooling of resources and, most importantly, exchanges between writers, directors and actors. Besides these co-productions, Cena Lusófona organised and supported tours undertaken in Portuguese-speaking countries by various shows and companies from other Portuguese-speaking countries. Another important aspect in this regard has to do with the fact that most of the Portuguese companies supported by Cena Lusófona, or those with which the African companies began to work, were located outside Lisbon, giving rise to another type of geography, one that also pointed to the absence of networks permitting regular performances. For this very reason, it cannot be said exactly how these exchanges, mainly coming to Portugal from abroad, were necessarily expressed in concrete events, nor in what ways a deeper and more continuous relationship was established between companies and audiences.

At root, looking once more at the introductory text to the “Multiculturalism and Miscegenation” cycle presented at Culturgest in 2000, “we are faced with the difficulty of understanding some of the presuppositions of its creators – who are ruled by other aesthetic codes and artistic intentions – with the sense of strangeness that some creations may arouse in our audiences and, mainly, with the lack of instruments of analysis and public discussion about the fact that these works are now touring the world on an increasingly constant basis.”

It is, therefore, important to stress the decision of the Teatro Nacional São João to invest in mini-festivals, such as Portogofone, which sporadically brings shows from Brazil and Angola, sometimes including them in FITEI, or sometimes presenting them on their own account. This is what happened in 2004, 2007 and 2009. And it is precisely this aspect, together with the change of name from Danças na Cidade to Alkantara, as explained earlier, that enables us to close this second period in 2005.

Since 2006

The change in direction taken by Culturgest, in 2004, and the beginning of the Gulbenkian Programmes, such as “The State of the World”, “Distance and Proximity” or the current “Next Future” programme, already belong to a different context, in which one can begin to note a series of proposals coming from some South American countries, such as Argentina, with Gerardo Nauman (Alkantara 2010), Federico Leon (Serralves 2008) and Daniel Veronese (FITA 2010), Chile, with Guillermo Calderon (“Next Future”, 2010) and Brazil with Lia Rodrigues (at Culturgest since 2002), or else coming from Africa, such as the Congolese Faustin Lyenekula (Alkantara/CCB, 2008) and the South African Nelisiwe Xaba (“The State of the World”, 2007). These have already gained a foothold in the circuit of European programming, and so what they essentially retain is the discourse and not the production conditions. They can now be seen at festivals of different sizes, or even outside these, only importing something from their origin if their discourse depends on it. A discourse that, generally speaking, points once again to a game of social, political, geographical and cultural identification, which befits a certain logic, in this case an archivistic one, tending towards the documentary and sometimes hyper-real.

And, at the end of this essay, just a brief note to say that a great deal of the information made available has been graciously provided by the institutions themselves for the first time, having been expressly requested for this research. I should like to express my gratitude to all of them, and it must be admitted that they are indeed many in number.