While researching the archive of choreographer Paula Massano at the National Museum of Theatre and Dance, I came across the file “Proposal for the Organisation of a Minimum Support Structure for a Workshop”. This document was sent to the National Ballet of Portugal (CNB) a year after its foundation, in 1978, as an attempt to establish a permanent choreographic experimentation project. The document opened with a description of what a workshop is, a term that wasn’t used at the time: “a workshop is a place where a group of people gather around a common work with the aim of, within a given field of artistic practices (in this case, dance), developing it in order to discover new forms and necessarily, new content.”
Paula Massano’s proposal was not adopted by the CNB. Was it discussed? It might have seemed radical, on the one hand, or naïve, on the other, at a time when the company had just been founded and was trying to become, essentially, a classical corps de ballet. If we propel it into the present, this proposal prompts a reflection on the mission of a state dance company. Although CNB’s statutes have always ensured a coexistence between classical and contemporary dance, this balance has always seemed complicated. What could a permanent movement research workshop do for the company, in particular, and to dance, in general?
The history of Estúdios Victor Córdon (EVC) is inextricably linked to the CNB and emerged as a project by Luísa Taveira (director from 2010 to 2017), with the intention of promoting the career transition of dancers who were no longer performing. Opening its doors in 2016 under the coordination of Bruno Cochat, EVC began as an “educational, community and creative centre” with dance classes for children and adults, masterclasses, workshops and other projects. In 2017, the choreographer, former dancer and CNB special projects coordinator Rui Lopes Graça was appointed to lead the project. Despite maintaining a concern for the dancers’ professional transition, another direction was set out.
Described as a “platform”, Estúdios Victor Córdon are a place for practice, research, experimentation and choreographic creation without a defined aesthetic line. Being one of the few places in Lisbon with the right conditions for dance practice – i.e. spacious studios with wooden flooring, sprung floor, linoleum covering and heating –, the EVC provide vital support to the independent dance community by offering proper studios to work and rehearse.
One of their core initiatives is to offer daily dance classes for professionals at a fee of three euros. The classical dance classes are usually taught by former dancers from the CNB and Ballet Gulbenkian, among others, ensuring intergenerational transmission. The classes are attended by a wide variety of people, and in the same studio you might come across a retired dancer from the Paris Opera who has bought a house in Lisbon, a choreographer of the New Portuguese Dance movement, a young dancer who has just graduated from the Conservatory, a former student of Forum Dança, a researcher at c.e.m – centro em movimento, an amateur doing a PhD in sociology, a dancer who works abroad, is on vacation in Lisbon and is attending a vogue ball in the evening, dancers who either are between projects, have an audition or want to warm up before rehearsing. The contemporary dance classes are taught by a younger community – active dancers aged between 20 and 40, who also have the opportunity to share their practice with others. With a pedagogical and professionalising focus, the EVC have also been working to create opportunities for young performers, either through collaboration between dance schools across the country and foreign choreographers, or by establishing collaborations between art schools from different fields, such as music.
The EVC have understood that, in order to have a comprehensive discourse, it can't always be the same people doing things. Power cannot be pyramidal; on the contrary, it has to be shared, to be a dialog, to be a bridge. Part of EVC’s programs involve inviting different people to curate, opening up the spectrum of collaborations to do what might not have been within their reach. What comes out is not the voice of a director, but different voices that show and nurture the diversity of the dance scene in its multiplicity. This openness should also be seen as a space of responsibility for when, occupying places of power and decision making, institutions pursue the task of continuously repairing the structural injustices that continue to divide the world in two.
The world needs new and renewed institutions. Institutions that make us believe in them, that are transparent, open, with spirit, and that inspire us, represent us and make us want to be represented. Institutions that aren’t machines for sucking up heads and taxpayers, nor launching pads for their directors. The EVC have become a home for many. They are a place where we know we are well looked after, where we feel welcomed, appreciated and respected, regardless of the kind of dance we practise. This transversal dimension, promoting different perspectives, fosters communication between peers who often don’t cross paths, no longer cross paths or don’t want to cross paths. It’s a place of encounters, where one can meet new people or people we admire but never actually see. We never know who’s going to cross the hallway and that brings us a mixture of flutter and excitement.
Many of EVC’s actions are invisible and involve muscular, psychological and legal support or, in other words, care. Care which isn’t protocol, but that comes from an experienced team who are devoted to their daily practice: dance. This attitude proves that institutions, despite being created by decree, are made by people and out of love, attention and dedication. Although the EVC emerged as an attempt to solve a problem within the CNB, it became an inspiration for the dance scene in general, and an example of what a national dance project could be. That project would be, in addition to a corps de ballet, and in Paula Massano’s words, a place to develop the field of dance permanently, in its form and substance. Through the actions of the EVC it is possible to see a large spectrum of the dance field, its networks, subjects, aesthetics, concerns, desires and needs, but the way it operates allows us more: it allows us to collectively imagine how to make of an institution one other space.
João dos Santos Martins