Deviating with Difference

Starting August 1 this article will also be part of the print version of Magazin im August, available for free at all festival venues.

Text: Claudia Galhós

If we want to be able to speak of a world in which prejudices have been overcome, in which we no longer live under the constant threat of regression, we need new names, new words. The dance company Dançando com a Diferença(Dancing with Difference) still bears the same name under which Henrique Amoedo founded it in 2001. However, the premiere of La Ribot’s “Happy Island” in 2018 is a clear sign that the company has moved a long way from where it first started off. And while the company has had to deal with the fragility that comes with economic uncertainty, they have also been able to make use of the beautiful, poetic and natural fragilities of human beings seeking to fulfil their potential whilst remaining true to themselves. Today, the notion of ‘inclusive dance’ is just a distant idea that marked the beginning of the company’s journey. 

The company has come a long way. Despite being situated in contemporary dance from the very beginning, one of the first artists to have been invited to work with Dançando com a Diferença was Ivonice Satie, who has a background in classical dance, having danced with the São Paulo Ballet and the Geneva Ballet. In 2003, she choreographed the piece “Passion”. Soon afterwards, the artistic director and founder of the project, Henrique Amoedo, created “Menina da Lua” (The Girl From the Moon), a piece that would ultimately be emblematic of the company’s identity. In just five minutes of immense tenderness, the piece depicts two people discovering each other. Each gesture reveals the presence of the other, as if a simple caress could unleash the force of recognition. “Menina da Lua” is a poetic and somewhat ethereal evocation of two bodies, two entities discovering each other, while at the same time articulating the possibilities of a dance that is still to come. It was a delicate and tender beginning. Set against the sweetness of the glances and gestures exchanged and the dramatic contrast between the imposing figure of the man (Henrique) and the fragility of the child (Bárbara) as they feel out uncertain forms of approaching one another, the piece depicts an ordered chaos overflowing with care but devoid of any kind of false rapprochement. Right from the beginning, the tender and the perturbing were present.

When the piece was first performed, Bárbara Matos was 9 years old and diagnosed with trisomy 21. Often she would withdraw into herself. But dancing – along with all the other challenges Henrique developed around it – allowed Bárbara to open up. She developed a practice of revisiting past experiences and, even if charmingly ungainly, learned to master the game of repetition, which is also the game of performance. On stage, Bárbara radiates. This sweet little girl has blossomed into a dancer. Now 25 years old, dance’s game of permanent transformation has since become familiar terrain.

Henrique Amoedo created “Menina da Lua” in 2003, as a duet for him and Bárbara. He no longer dances, and has been replaced by Telmo Ferreira, who also joined the company as a dancer at the age of 11. Today he is 29, with a life story that could provide material for a whole host of plots – something you wouldn’t intimate at first. He made a place for himself in the collective both as a dancer and as an assistant director – as was the case for the piece by La Ribot – and is now president of the Dançando com a Diferença association.

Zwei Performer*innen im Stück "Happy Island" von La Ribot

By the time Henrique Amoedo founded Dançando com a Diferença in Madeira, he had already gained practical experience working on the project Roda Viva Cia. de Dança, which he co-founded and directed from 1995 to 1998. Amoedo complemented his practical knowledge with theoretical study, carrying out research at the Faculty of Sports Science at the University of Lisbon, where he developed his concept of ‘inclusive dance’. At the invitation of the government of the Autonomous Region of Madeira (through the Regional Directorate for Special Education), he then took the project to the island of Madeira.

That a project with such perseverance and vision could develop this kind of international impact from the small and isolated archipelago of Madeira may seem surprising, but for Henrique it is totally natural. It is the product of a pioneering special education programme on the island aimed at developing strategies and techniques for working with people with disabilities. “They were already working with musical therapy”, recalls Amoedo, “as well as theatrical and visual arts therapy.” He added the dance strand and proposed a model of inclusion that would put an end to the segregation and isolation of people with disabilities by also incorporating people without disabilities. “This element represented a major change to how things were being done in Madeira, and it ended up contaminating work in music, theatre and visual arts in a positive way, which then started to be more inclusive as well.” Nowadays the idea of inclusion is being taken up right around the world. The geographical context of Madeira, its isolation and scale (741 square kilometres of rich flora and fauna positioned in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean) was also advantageous for Amoedo. The small size of the island meant that I could reach more people more quickly.

The 2005 premiere of Clara Andermatt’s “Levanta os Braços como Antenas para o Céu” (Raise Your Arms to the Sky Like Antennas) marked a new turn. “It was the first great shock, the moment when we departed from notions of what is recognised and accepted by the audience as dance. Clara exposes bodies, exposes people.” While developing the piece, she kept repeating one request: “Less dance, less dance, I want you on the stage.” Today, it’s clear to Henrique Amoedo that the artistic result of this request “means that the dancers come to reveal more of themselves.” Back then the audience of Dançando com a Diferença was still small and local, mostly made up of people from Madeira. Andermatt’s piece was a shock for that audience.

Interestingly, “Levanta os braços” proved itself through its longevity, having been performed all the way through to 2013. “It’s as if after an initial sense of bewilderment”, says Henrique Amoedo, “people grew accustomed to the language, to seeing the bodies expressing their identities.” There were other turns and detours that he tried out along the way, working with Portuguese choreographers such as Paulo Ribeiro or Rui Horta, before eventually ending up with La Ribot. “‘Happy Island’ is exuberant, but it also reveals the dancers’ feelings, their individual dreams. We didn’t stop working with individuality, we didn’t stop trying to communicate what is most profoundly theirs.” The acceptance of the singularity of the individual bodies had already been achieved. “Now it’s a different deviation we’re embarking on,” he continues, "It's about discovering what else we can dismantle and reveal within this language we are sharing with the public, what other asthetic spaces we can explore." That also implies looking at the makers of the works, asking what each dance-maker brings to the table that will enrich everyone involved.” But in order to arrive at the delirium, desire, eccentricity and sensuality of La Ribot’s “Happy Island”, they first had to pass through the combination of expressive exuberance, distancing and exquisite, colourful humour of Tânia Carvalho’s 2017 piece “Doesdicon”.

Right from the outset the company has had a tendency towards deviation, which is brought to a point in Tânia Carvalho’s work. Henrique calls Carvalho “constant deviation, deviating with difference”. She delivers a world of her own, a new strangeness within the strangeness of those bodies, resulting in a masterpiece of contemporary dance. “Tânia is unlike anything else. I’ve always associated Tânia’s work with a kind of darkness that forced me to try to understand what was hidden within it. The question I had in inviting Tânia was how will she work with the dancers of Dançando? I expected her to work with them individually, to remove the veil that covers each of them, and to go beyond that which had been shown in previous productions. I knew it would be different.”

While reminiscing on his encounter with Tânia Carvalho, Amoedo has a realisation: “The beauty of hidden meanings also exists on other levels.” He goes on to explain: “When Tânia told me what the title of the piece would be, it was like we were speaking different languages. She said to me: it’s called ‘Doesdicon’. I was confused and asked: what does that mean? Patiently, but without wanting to reveal too much, Tânia let slip: Henrique, it’s hidden. I don’t get it, I insisted. Tânia remained unmoved and repeated: it’s hidden ...” In recalling this conversation now, he has a mini-epiphany. “For me, Tânia is the thing that’s hidden, the exercise was to extract from each person what was hidden within them, and in the end, Tânia named the play ‘Doesdicon’, which is an anagram of escondido (hidden). This association just occurred to me right now.”

The company Dançando com a Diferença is a one-off in the dance landscape, and besides the singularity of the personalities of Henrique Amoedo and all the dancers that make it up, one of the rarest aspects of its history is the company’s capacity for continuity. Not so much the continuity of the project itself. Though it is worth noting the huge investment that the company makes in the on-going development of its dancers, patiently giving them the chance to flourish on all levels of their being. Which is a huge achievement considering the adverse conditions of our throw-away society, in which in dance, too, the ultra-virtuosic and agile bodies of performers are pushed to their physical limits only to be turned back into profit. Of course people do come and go, in no small part because Dançando com a Diferença is subdivided into different groups, each with radically different characteristics and forms of physical expression, but there are many dancers who have had a long history with the company. The size of Madeira allows Henrique to be more ‘daring’ and autonomous, which in turn has positive effects for the performances. “For example, I can tell a father or mother that they should let their child come to rehearsals on their own, that they should put them on the bus and let them travel by themselves. I even joke with the parents, saying that if their child gets lost we just have to wait for the time it takes them to get off the bus and get to the sea. The geographical factor makes a difference because everything is closer, everything is smaller, this produces a kind of security. I can be daring not only in my everyday activities but also when it comes to the repertoire, because there is another form of total security the parents and families believe in.” At the same time, this confined scale has already been expanded, because as of 2017 the company now has an offshoot operating outside Madeira, in Viseu.

In 2012, Henrique Almoedo’s piece “Endless” also expanded the context of Dançando com a Diferença. The piece reflected on the Second World War and the Holocaust. Once again the audience of Dançando com a Diferença was pushed out of its comfort zone. When he was asked whether, as a group including people with disabilities, Dançando com a Diferencia ought to address this topic, his answer was “Why not?” After all, “It’s not as if disabled people weren’t killed in concentration camps.” And he recounts how enriching the process of creating the piece was for all involved, with part of the group even visiting Auschwitz.

La Ribot mit Dançando com a Diferença

Happy Island

29.–31.8. | HAU2
German premiere


With La Ribot, there was a different kind of audacity. For Amoedo, La Ribot was the name of an unreachable myth that culminated in a historic encounter. Their meeting was brought together by a twist of fate by the name of Paz Santa Cecilia, a friend and producer of La Ribot, who served as the ‘matchmaker’. “‘Happy Island’ brought something new. The audience reacted very well to the piece, but they sense that this is a new language, which I think has something to do with the way La Ribot stages things. It’s her language, but it’s also that of the dancers, their everyday lives, their dreams, desires, eccentricities, which people don’t usually associate with people with disabilities. So basically the audience ends up wondering: ‘What is this? Where am I?’”

As such, La Ribot is introducing a new phase for Dançando com a Differença, which is now nearing 20 years of activity. The name, Dancing with Difference, and the notion of ‘inclusive dance’ (or inclusive art more generally) no longer suffice. A form of art that is sullied by humanity and desire is imposing itself, demanding the institution of another level of aesthetic and erotic equalities (or differences). “It’s obvious that there is a political stance here that raises other questions”, says Henrique Amoedo. When you allow people with disabilities to take over this territory within the world of dance without applying a label to them, they are opening up a new space, they are conquering a space that until recently would have been off limits to them. It’s only logical that we would want to stretch things a little further. I think this is one of the main goals of our work, to make space, to create conditions for ourselves and for those who will follow in our footsteps. Today the concept of inclusive dance can no longer be just a bunch of people with and without disabilities dancing together and putting on shows. For me, inclusive dance provides dancers with a foundation. And I’m talking about technical and artistic matters here. But it also involves each person working to better themselves, to gain their autonomy, their independence, to form an opinion. In bringing all of this together, I’ll end up with a better dancer and a better person, who can then go about the usual business of any dance company, with a challenging calendar involving international tours, as we now have.” And this is just the beginning of the story ...