Connecting Cities Through Dance

At the beginning of May 2017 the “Dias Da Dança” dance festival is held in three cities in the North of Portugal: Porto, Matosinhos and Vila Nova de Gaia. With the festival comes a very special aim: to connect the three cities through dance.

We all know the moving walkways in airports that make you feel like you’re walking faster than everyone else around you, like nothing can stop you, almost like you’re moving with an extraterrestrial speed. Walking through the streets of Porto at the beginning of May gives you exactly the same feeling.

There is a certain atmosphere about the city in those two and a half weeks between the 27th of April and the 13th of May: an atmosphere of movement, creativity and bubbling excitement, that makes you want to walk faster, move faster, and spin around almost like you’re dancing.

It surely doesn’t need a careful observer to find out where this atmosphere is coming from. All across the city, there are people with backstage passes hanging around their necks, moving in that elegant, upright and floating way, like only dancers can.

And imprinted on their passes are the three big D’s that are accountable for that special contagious spirit of movement in the streets of Porto: DDD – Dias Da Dança, the sign of Portugal’s largest contemporary dance festival.

The sign of Portugal’s largest contemporary dance festival “Dias Da Dança”.

In those 17 “Days of Dance”, over 55 dance performances are held at 12 different venues in and around Porto. And the focus thereby is indeed on the “around”, since the festival is not only organized by the Municipal Theater and town council of Porto, but also by the town councils of Porto’s two neighboring cities, Matosinhos and Gaia.

The festival was, in fact, created in the context of the so-called Atlantic Front, whose aim it is to strengthen the relations between the municipal councils of the three cities. So the aim behind the “Dias Da Dança” festival is not only to give visibility to local and international creators, but also to create partnerships between the theaters of the three cities and to thereby build a cultural connection between Porto, Matosinhos and Gaia. With that in mind, the festival was created in 2016, and is now coming back with a bigger, second edition in 2017.

“The idea of ‘Dias Da Dança’ is how we can organize a dance festival that can contaminate other cities and other theaters,” says Tiago Guedes, the artistic director of “Dias Da Dança” and head of the Municipal Theater of Porto. “In the Atlantic Front it is usually more about the political relationships between the three cities, but it is very nice to now put a cultural zone in between and to do such a large project, like the dance festival, in collaboration.”

The collaboration of the three cities is essential not only for providing the necessary economic viability to the festival, but also to give the smaller theaters of Matosinhos and Gaia the chance to improve their cultural program with international artists from the dance scene.

An advanced cultural program could also attract more foreign tourists to the theaters around Porto. Many foreign visitors already know the cultural programming of Porto’s Municipal Theater and could, by the means of the festival, bring a broader cultural audience to the not so internationally known theaters of Matosinhos and Gaia.

A public space performance of the “DDD out” program at a square in the city center of Porto.

With the aim of making not only locals but also international visitors wander more between the three cities, a bigger cultural zone could be created, that could give Porto an advantage in terms of national competition.

“You also have to consider that Lisbon, for example, is very big. Porto is not as big as Lisbon, but Porto, Matosinhos and Gaia are even bigger. So that’s the idea behind the festival: to link the three cities and to put the metropolitan areas of Oporto together”, says Joana von Mayer Trindade, who directed and performed at this year’s edition of “Dias Da Dança”.

To achieve their aim of connecting the three cities and encourage a wandering of the public between them, the 12 festival venues are distributed in between the three cities. So in one day, for example the last Friday of the festival, people can see a public space performance of the DDD out program in Matosinhos at 4:00 p.m., a dance show in Gaia at 7:00 p.m. and then come back to Porto for the last performance at 9:30 p.m.

But as a visitor to the festival, you soon discover that there are not only different places and venues to see, but also very diverse and unique forms of dance. The public space performance in Matosinhos, called “A Legardère” is presented at the entrance of the “House of Design” and is focused very much on improvisation. So dance, as well as music, is completely improvised on the spot.

The few performance tasks the four dancers get are shouted at them by the director while they are already performing. This makes it not only very exciting and unpredictable for the audience, but also for the performer. Hard to believe that a dance piece could work out without even one rehearsal in advance, but in the case of “A Legardère” it sure did.

The improvised piece “A Legardère” is performed in the “House of Design” in Matosinhos.

This public space performance stands in hard contrast to the theater show at the end of the day in Porto. In Jonathan Uliel Saldanha’s “O Poço”, movement is presented in a whole new way. In fact, the audience watches a performance from high up on a framework around the stage, looking down on a ground of sand where dancers perform in circular motions and even a motorcycle is included in the show. (If you want to see more of that, scroll down to my vlog, where I visited the Saturday’s staging of Saldanha’s piece.)

So the opportunity of wandering between the different performance venues while discovering a diverse dance program is definitely given, but in how far is there a cultural connection created that brings the three cities closer together?

A strong basis for the cultural connection of the cities builds the already existing social connection between the people from Porto, Matosinhos and Gaia. “People know each other. There’s really a relation of courtesy, sympathy and empathy between them”, says Né Barros, lecturer at the department of theater and cinema at Porto’s school of arts ESAP, and choreographer for the festival.

“In cities that are very close you can usually find a lot of competition between them. But we don’t feel that with those three cities. There is neither rivalry, nor social or cultural fractures. There is enough of an affective connection that makes the festival work.”

Actually, the three cities are used to benefit from each other on many levels. While Porto acts not only as the geographical, but also as the economical and cultural center of the metropolitan area, Matosinhos and Gaia extend the area and enrich it with their own city values.

While Matosinhos is famous for its fishing industry and, apart form that, also attracts many visitors and locals to the sea and the beach in summer, Gaia contributes to the metropolitan area with its large Port wine industry, which has become the international trademark of the whole Porto region.

In fact, the connection between the three cities seems to be strong enough to make the cities almost work as one, with each city simply acting as an extension of the other. “The cities are very small. For us Matosinhos, for example, is part of Porto. It’s not a different city,” says André Mendes, dancer from Porto who performed in both of the two editions of the “Dias Da Dança” festival. “There are many people that are working in one city and are living in the other. It’s a very natural flow between the three cities. The connection is already there.”

A public space performance of the “DDD out” program at the municipal library of Porto.

Another important factor is the already existing large dance audience in and around Porto. Porto’s Municipal Theater, for instance, relies on 50 percent of its total program on dance. “There really is an audience for dance here in this theater. So we thought that maybe, if we can work with other venues that are not so connected with dance, we can really convince them and thereby increase the dance audience”, says Tiago Guedes.

As a matter of fact, there is already a long time value of dance in Portugal. Through it’s long tradition, many generations of dance exist in the country. But the various forms of dance that were incorporated in people’s daily lives since the very early forms of folk dance always had one thing in common: their socializing aspect.

While folk dance traditionally brought people together to celebrate for many centuries, people still make use of that socializing tradition nowadays and incorporate dance in their daily life, be it while going out to the club, celebrating with friends and family or still using traditional Portuguese folk dance as a matter of socializing.

Since dance was always incorporated in people’s daily lives, the big interest in dance shows nowadays in Porto might come from the lack of a sustainable dance program in the years before the Municipal Theater reopened in 2014 under the direction of Tiago Guedes. “I think it’s such a success because there were many years without a dance program. So there really was the need to see dance, international dance, in Porto”, says Guedes.

Joana Mayer Trindade even calls it a bloom of dance over the last three years in Porto. “I think people are very interested in seeing dance, because in the years before there were just a lot of theater companies around and a big gap on dance shows. But now it’s in bloom and people are very curious. They were thirsty for dance.”

Visitors of the “Dias Da Dança” dance festival dance in front of the entrance to the auditorium.

This thirst for seeing dance performances combined with the already existing social connection between Porto, Matosinhos and Gaia, seems to offer the perfect precondition for a greater wandering between the cities and a strong cultural connection, encouraged by the means of the festival. But does it work in reality?

“Of course it works. Last year, we went for the first time to see a show in the theater in Matosinhos. I am from Porto and I didn’t know this stage. So it was symbolic”, says Joana von Mayer Trindade. “Now I know that I can go there to see a show or that I could create something with that community in the future. Now, there is a sensibility for it. I feel more confident.”

But there is a certain limitation that still has to be considered while talking about a possible stronger connection between the cities: The fact, that it is only the second edition of the festival, makes it difficult to even speak about such a long-term development like a cultural connection. “I don’t believe that two editions of the festival are enough to create an intricate, good relationship between the three cities”, says Né Barros, “but it’s a very important beginning.”

So although some immediate results are already visible and stressed by creators such as Joana von Mayer Trindade, it is still too early to make definite statements about a strong and established cultural connection between the three cities. Bringing the metropolitan areas of Porto closer together, also in cultural terms, is a high aim that requires a long-time process, and not only two editions of a dance festival.

But still, it is an aim that is set to be accomplished, and definitely can be. “Dias Da Dança” offers the perfect starting point for creating something big. It has the potential to get the ball rolling for a big cultural development, and a new form of connecting metropolitan areas through dance, that other cities should definitely keep an eye on.