Prata da Casa
At one point, Mário Afonso says that his life went through a period where he “lost his body”. A few days after our conversation, there is a wide arm movement crossing my mind that is precisely attached to that idea: the one of forever keeping the bodies that have choreographed contemporary Portuguese dance.
The idea of something similar to Prata de Casa emerged in 2004/05. Mário was invited for an artistic residence in partnership with a plastic artist, which made him reflect on how “lonely the artistic creation is and the feeling that we are always breaking new ground and, sometimes, we aren’t actually working on the same things, but on things that touch each other.” And he felt the need to try to understand what other artists were doing, thinking, reading.
In 2008 he produced the show Entre Vistas, inviting 23 artists from different fields – dance to cinema, literature to theatre –, where they would ask him questions. “It was like a therapy office”, he says between laughs, but subjected to the idea of artistic creation. The project was divided into three objects: the show itself, an installation and a book where all those interviews would be registered. The first two happened, the last one didn’t, but, yet again, Mário found himself dwelling on the conversations about what it is to be an artist and he wanted to materialize it.
One of the main issues – and almost a point of honour – was how to create an object of this nature that did not need to be bought, while reaching everyone. After plenty of twists and turns, he got a concept of documentary videos that would be uploaded on an online platform. This time he did not want a Q&A format, as “sometimes the answers simply confirm the questions without adding much more. I wanted to know more about the people, their career paths, what had made them turn left instead of going right or straight ahead. To reflect on those personal moments that are decisive in one’s life and career”, he explains.
He invited two friends to test the formula: Miguel Pereira and Sónia Baptista. This emotional proximity gave him more freedom for a trial & error approach. He began by having a conversation with both, off the record, explaining that he wanted a first-person speech, without his own involvement. He wanted to know how they started to dance, the way they developed their tools as dancers and choreographers to reach the place where they were at that time and their feelings on today’s dance.
The formula indeed worked. So the limits would have to be set. Where does one start and finish what Prata da Casa will register? As a starting point, he would go for the New Portuguese Dance. Born in the early 90s, it coincided with the appearance of the first associations that prompt the growth of an independent community of Portuguese contemporary dance. This manifesto also served as background for Mário’s first steps as a dancer.
Adding to Miguel Pereira and Sónia, Baptista, some of the names were obvious: Vera Mantero, João Fiadeiro, Francisco Camacho. Together with Sílvia Real, Sofia Neuparth, Carlota Lagido, Margarida Bettencourt and Gil Mendo, they make up the list of names so far recorded by Prata da Casa.
And this question must be put now: where does the register end, what is the place of the newer generations? “The newer generations are doing an extremely important work of translating the present moment, the contemporaneity. They are reading their own time. But my interest is historic, with a different sedimentation. There is a lot of room [in the generations] for questioning, which can turn everything around. Not that we ever stop questioning ourselves, obviously. Nevertheless, I think that the new generation will have time to create that sediment and somehow become the “old generation” until I finish interviewing the names that I still have in my portfolio”, explains Mário Afonso.
The next step is to leave Lisbon. The next confirmed stop is Oporto in September to talk with Né and Isabel Barros (founders of the Balletteatro school), Joana Providência and some others names that may come up. In Lisbon or beyond it, he has been supported by just one thing: the footage from Terra Treme.
Alongside Prata da Casa, there is Carta Branca, the association created in 2009 by Mário Afonso. In a period when his work was at a peak, there was logic in creating a structure where he could give to others what he had always found in the people he worked with – freedom (or carte blanche [i.e., carta branca]) to make a mistake.
Albeit created in 2009, Carta Branca only started to rev in 2013. Halfway through there was a crisis that spared no one and Mário joined Universidade Nova. First as an external student of Filomena Molder (with whom he has worked several times over the years) in the Philosophy department of the Aesthetics course and then as a master’s student. Even though it was a very enriching experience, he felt a cut between the head and the body. “It was just body all of a sudden. Any gesture I made to initiate any choreographic project was deeply questioned by me. I had lost my body. And I devoted myself more to training. If it was 5% of my activity, it then became 95%”, he explains.
As the financial crisis subsided, the body began to awake and, with it, the willingness to know if the Philosophy teachings were now in his fingertips. Nowadays, Carta Branca has an office at Fórum Dança and Mário joins the rehearsals quite often. He’s trying to grasp the way his body breathes now.
He still runs workshops for dancers and choreographers, but also amateurs. From 3 to 80 years of age, so he can perceive the different pulsations that make the body move in each and every part of life.