“Dance is my mission in the world”

A choreographer, director and performer from Porto, who allowed Portuguese dancers to finally get the professional training they deserve.

Isabel Barros is one of those people that instantly fill a room with joy and excitement. Always a big smile on her face, Isabel’s delicate and gentle way of moving makes it impossible to overlook her long and successful history in dance. When she was only 18 she co-founded Porto’s Balleteatro, Portugal’s only professional dance school, and since then played a decisive role in establishing dance in Porto’s cultural program.

For someone who has worked with dance her whole life, as a choreographer, director and performer, you would imagine it had been her dream to become a professional ballerina since a very young age. But not so in Isabel’s case. It was actually her doctor who made her take ballet lessons.

“I started dancing when I was 8 years old. Back then I had a problem with my feet, so my mum and I went to the doctor to get help. He told me that I should start to do ballet and walk on the sand at the beach, to make my pain go away. And this is how I started to dance and continued to do that for all my life.”

There was something about her first dance lesson that made Isabel stick to it, no matter what. “I have a very clear memory of my first dance lesson. I just felt very comfortable and immediately fell in love with dance. And it never changed.”

“When I was 15 I still felt the same way about dancing as when I was 8 years old, so I continued. It was a natural path for me to continue to dance. It felt like that was the place I needed to be, the place where I felt the most comfortable, almost like dance is my mission in the world.”

When it comes to describing her own style of dancing, Isabel feels that “style” is a far too narrow term to describe her work. “I’ve worked in so many fields, like in theater, in dance, and also in puppet theater. And while I was doing that I was working with so many different people: with actors, dancers, but also with communities that have no experience in performance, like the gypsy community or prison communities. So I think my work doesn’t have a certain style. I would describe it more as poetic, because it’s very diverse, and not very narrow.”

When Isabel had just turned 18, she was one of the founders of Portugal’s only professional dance school, the Balleteatro. “In 1983, when Balleteatro was founded, Porto was a very different city. Back then, there were no structures for working with contemporary dance or theater, and therefore very few people that had training in it. But because we had been traveling a lot, we wanted to create that kind of community and those kind of institutions that we saw abroad in Porto. We wanted to have our own community that could develop this experimental approach to dance and theater.”

The entrance of Balleteatro in Porto.

Since Balleteatro was founded in 1983, it has grown a lot. What started as a small structure, that was mainly devoted to dance and theater creation, turned into a professional dance school six years later.

“The training aspect of Balleteatro had already been developed a few years after its founding, and has had a very strong presence in the structure of Balleteatro ever since. It is still very important for us, to maintain that presence of training and to consolidate the presence of the school and the company in the city and in the country in general.”

“We now also work with dancers and actors that had been trained in Balleteatro in the past, and are now staring their careers. So our aim now would also be to strengthen this new component of Balleteatro, apart from the school and the artistic creation.”

With the Balleteatro, Isabel created the “Corpo+Cidade” program, that is now also part of the “DDD – Dias Da Dança” festival. “Corpo+Cidade” is a dance project for public spaces, which has the aim to reinvent the city and to create new urban experiences through dance.

So as the co-founder of Balleteatro, Isabel not only played a decisive role in establishing dance in Porto’s cultural program, but also created with “Corpo+Cidade” a new and alternative method of bringing life to the streets of Porto and exploring the city’s public spaces in a whole new way. The idea for it came to Isabel more or less as a coincidence, when the Balleteatro was temporarily moved to a new building in 2013.

“One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet, is that although Balleteatro has developed a lot over the last few years, we are still struggling with financial support every year. So when Balleteatro had its 30th anniversary in 2013, we had to move temporarily to a new building, that had been renovated by the city hall for various artistic structures. In the new building, the AXA building, Balleteatro was placed in the fifth floor, looking over the main avenue where the city hall is situated.”

“Being on top of that building and looking down at the city every day, I started to think about space in a new way and suddenly wanted to develop a project that could be presented outside, in a public space. So now that I had the main avenue in front of me everyday, I started to create some pieces that could be presented that way. And from those first experiences, I developed the idea of the “Corpo+Cidade” program that could show these kinds of works for public spaces every year.”

Isabel with her dancers after a performance of the “Corpo+Cidade” program.

Apart from the “Corpo+Cidade” program, Isabel developed many other very challenging projects during her career. One of them is working for the Puppet Theater of Porto.

“For the first time I had to combine puppet theater and dance in my work. It was also a project that I developed with my husband at the time. He had been working for the puppet theater for many years already. So there came two challenges together: first, on a personal level, working together with him, and then also working in between dance and puppet theater for the first time.”

But her most challenging project was two years ago, when she directed a very big performance in the House of Music in Porto with a gypsy community. “There were over 100 people on stage, dancing and playing music at the same time. And the people from the gypsy community had no experience in dance at all. So I had to combine all of that on stage.”

So during her career, Isabel has worked in many different areas, be it in dance, theater or puppet theater. But this wandering between the three disciplines was never something Isabel actively decided to do herself.

“For me it’s not so much of a choice or a decision between dance and theater or dance and puppet theater. It is more of an impulse, something I needed to do at that moment. So when I get an impulse for a show, I do that show how I think I need to do it, either in theater, in puppet theater, or in dance.”

“Sometimes also other people offer me a challenge to do something in either of the three. So it’s not a very rational decision for me of what to do next, but rather a response to those challenges.”

After working with dance for all her life, Isabel still doesn’t think about giving it up. At the same time, she feels the thirst to try something new. “I feel like I will work in dance for some more years. But I hope that, during my lifetime, I also have the time to work for many years in a different kind of project in a very different area. It feels like this idea is still a very distant project. So it’s not very well thought through yet.”

“But I feel like it might be something connected to nature, and also to helping people in some way, for example some kind of solidarity project. I still have time to think about it. But it will be something that has nothing to do with the arts.”

(The interview was translated by Patrícia do Vale, who runs Balleteatro’s Documentation and Communication Center)