PRINT February 1997


Vera Montero

Repeating gestures and words until they are distilled to their very essence, Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero reveals the absurdities and sorrows of everyday life. Drawing on Tadeusz Kantor’s “theater of images,” Mantero’s work differs radically from the “postmodern” American tradition, eschewing formal experimentation to probe distinctly unsettling territory. Strange things happen in Mantero’s performances: in one, a dancer continuously fires a gun at her head in order to know “how the world would be without me”; in another, a dancer hideously contorts her body as she crosses the stage, aging before our eyes. Mantero’s approach to dance as an art of memory and of the uncanny, of silence as well as words, seems to give critics a very hard time. Reviewing Mantero’s performances at The Kitchen last spring, The Village Voice dismissed her work as “too subtle.” Such criticisms arise, no doubt, from her emphasis on the disturbing detail, on what we usually try not to see.

An extraordinary dancer and performer, Mantero began choreographing in the late ’80s, in workshops held by Lisbon’s neoclassical Ballet Gulbenkian, with which she danced for four years. But it was her solo Em Corpo com Som (In body with sound, 1988), and particularly the quartet As Quatro Fadinhas do Apocalipse (Four little fairies of the apocalypse, 1989) that captured the attention of critics at a time when some were heralding the beginning of a new direction in Portuguese dance—one spearheaded by a generation of choreographers who, in technically hybrid performances, emphasized language and explored theatrical techniques to create an avant-garde dance movement in postcolonial, postfascist Portugal.

Mantero attracted international attention when, in 1991, Bruno Verbergt, then director of the Klapstuk Festival in Belgium, convinced her to “present something” despite her insistence that she had nothing “to say or dance.” By that time, she had left the Gulbenkian ballet and spent a year in New York studying acting, contact improvisation, and voice. Drawing on this research, and on her almost paralyzing doubt, Mantero responded to Verbergt’s invitation by creating Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards. The title, a reference (with a gender twist) to a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, also reflects the piece’s improvisational nature; here, Mantero dances to a repeated Thelonious Monk tune, treading the fine line between ritual and madness.

Since Perhaps . . . , Mantero’s solo work has increasingly tended toward a delicate kind of performance art—although with none of performance art’s attachment to autobiography, and with an emphasis on the body’s presence and motility more characteristic of dance. This shift in direction was evident in Foda de Morte (Death fuck, 1996), a reflection on Sade conceived for painter Julião Sarmento’s exhibition of drawings for a German edition of Justine, as well as in uma misteriosa Coisa disse, e. e. cummings (a mysterious thing, said e. e. cummings, 1996). In the latter, Mantero, precariously balancing on top of goat’s hooves, effects an uncanny overlap of the grotesque and sublime femininity, evoking at once a dancer on pointe, the mythical Portuguese figure of “a woman with goat hooves” (seducer and killer of men), and a whore (referred to in Portuguese slang as cabra, or she-goat). The hypnotic repetition of a few sentences in uma estranha coisa . . . makes explicit what has always informed Mantero’s choreographic career: a fierce desire to pierce our “atrocious blindness.”

Andre Lepecki is dance critic for Ballet Intemational/Tanz Aktuell and a doctoral candidate in performance studies at New York University.