Corpus Suche:

Songs of the deliberating will


Von Sabina Holzer

It matters what matter we use to think other matter with,
what stories made worlds and
what worlds make stories.

(Donna Haraway)

Vera Mantero, the intriguing Portuguese choreographer and dancer who hasn’t been to Vienna for much too long, created another solo performance. The Caldeirão Highlanders was commissioned in 2012 for the Encontros do Devir festival in relation to the desertification / dehumanisation of Mount Caldeirão in the interior of the Algarve in southern Portugal.

On seeing this solo performance now in spring 2019 at the Tanzquartier Wien, the work shows great actuality in terms of content and presentation. Reading the program, one could expect a kind of documentary performance, underestimating the “exercises in fictional anthropology” announced in the title.


As we enter Tanzquartier’s Halle G, Vera Mantero is already sitting at the side front of the stage with a conductor’s desk in front of her. She is looking at the audience and her papers in a silent, welcoming way. When the lights fade, she starts to sing a Portuguese song. It is a folk song with this special flow of notes and melodies going straight to the heart, especially when sung by Vera Mantero. Her voice, which always has been part of her dancing-thinking body, developed a profound depth and virtue through experimenting with Jazz and Fado tunes in many different ways over the years.


A mountain road

She continues by telling how the piece came into existence. In the background, on a big screen, we see parts of documentary videos of the area. Images of a mountain road, deserted hilly grounds and big rocks mysteriously cast in the landscape or atop each other. Some of them seem to be the ruins of buildings for people and animals. Mantero says something like: “In the beginning I did not find anything in these mountains” and “I saw a lot of silence and I saw there was no-one” …


In the course of the performance she interweaves films of the French ethnomusicologist Michel Giacometti [1] with a poem of the poet and anarchist Jacques Prévert; a text by the great radical reformer, director and actor Antonin Artaud; and her own process of creating the piece. She lets her voice be informed by other voices, merging them with the recorded voices and images of these fabulous mountain people. She shifts with grace and ease between the different formats of speech: commenting, narrating, reflecting, reciting, singing.


How a different life is possible


We hear of this disappeared folk, who had a strong connection to their work, their ground and the environment they so directly depended on as farmers. Their ways of life are told through different stories. For instance: they were singing during their work – “Are people nowadays singing while working in the bank or at the supermarket?” Mantero asks. To confirm these thoughts, another film of Giacometti is shown: shepherdesses guard and chase their goats chanting with loud and beautiful voices, calling and singing at the same time. The images carry a charming black and white beauty. Giacometti portrays the mountain farmers with respect and dignity. They seem to show us that a different life is possible.


Or at least that it was. Not so long ago, also here in Europe – which was not united 50 years ago. But in this southern land under a dictatorship administrating the nation, some people may have managed to live a simple life keeping up their dialogue with the country. Maybe there also was this “confusion between humans and animals and plants” (as Vera Mantero says in the Performance) manifesting in a co-existance of and interdependency between these different species. Now the question of who we are and how we want to live with our world is nagging at the Western fundaments of our post-capitalist, post-human [2] world. Our Western time of cognitive capitalism [3] often looks to some faraway indigenous people to get inspired by their alternative ways of living.


“The time when man was a tree without organs or functions”

The current discourse of the Anthroprocene sneaks into the performance, with its profound and reasonable doubts about (among others) the actual benefits of the separation of culture and nature, questioning the constitution of the subject and its relation to the environment. The complexity of this misgiving unfolds beautifully in a well-dosed embodied citation of a text by Artaud from 1947. He, the protagonist of those who wanted to free the body of the domination of text and the dictatorship of the logo-centric rational way of thinking, has influenced many artists and philosophers. Here, invoked by Mantero, he talks to us.

The time when man was a tree without organs or functions,
but passed of will,
and a tree of will, which walks
                                will return.
It has been and it will return.
For the great lie has been to make man an organism,
thus creating a whole order of hidden functions, which are outside
the realm of the deliberating will;
that will that determines itself at each instant,
for it was this that the human tree that walked,


Mantero has chosen a quite exquisite companionship of artists and intellectuals to think with in The Caldeirão Highlanders. They create a sustainable subtext, singing their stories of critique and resistance quietly with her. Even John Cage passes by – coincidentally: when she had to set up her new computer, Mantero tells, accidentally photos of “the man who invented silence to recognise later on that it did not exist” appeared in the Caldeirão Highlander folder. He entered the performance “just like this”. She shows a photo of Cage with a tremendously friendly, trustful smile on his face.

Besides obviously embracing coincidence, Mantero perhaps also applied the carrier bag method for her fictional exercises, proposed by the great science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin [5]: collecting the “good stuff” and the “small technologies” which help us to imagine how to live and die in a good way. [6]


There is another sequence of positioning, where she shows herself in relation to the hollow bark of an cork oak tree from the area which is on stage with her all through the performance. She comments what she is doing, and so frames what the public sees: “A woman standing behind the tree … A woman looking for the best place to plant the tree… A woman with a tree horn. A tree face. … A woman trying to be Napoleon …” as a subtle hint at the conceptual threads carrying her work. It ends with “A woman who is smashed by the trees” and she is lying on the ground, the piece of bark over her body. On the screen some highland men start to sing. The scene is subtitled The songs for the soul. Suddenly the dead are alive on the screen, singing for the dead who are live on stage.


Not everything is as she told us

Vera Mantero’s humour and striking unpretentious precision unfold fictional spaces that quietly manage to escape the usual nostalgia pretending that in some bygone time everything was better. During the applause there is some kind of hopeful saudade [7] – as paradoxical and ambiguous as this combination of words indicates. And then, Mantero suddenly lifts her arms gesturing for silence, and announces that she still has something to say. “Well”, she starts, “I just wanted to say: not everything is as it seems, as I told you.”  She mentions which sources she put together, because they just really fit so well. They inspired her, and so she hoped that they would inspire us, too.

This epilogue opens up the whole performance into the multiple ways facts can be interpreted and how beliefs are created, especially when they connect to the deep wishes and desires of those addressed. Fiction and facts tumble and melt into each other in this semi-documentary performance. We are confronted with the same strategies by the creation of fake news which daily undermine our liberal democracies. They promote neoliberal global capitalism as the only way, by stipulating that we have no choice but to turn to violence in response to the violence we are exposed to.

Vera Mantero, though, resolutely points in another direction with The Caldeirão Highlanders: she calls upon our powers of imagination. An invitation that we all  “can collect the forces of the earth and of each other, and propose and enact other kinds of worlding in resistance and invention”, [8] as Donna Haraway maybe would say. A call to keep exercising story telling for earthly survival. [9]


  1. ^ From 1970 to 1974, together with the director Alfredo Tropa he produced for RTP the television series Povo que Canta (People That Sings), in which he presented the traditional folk songs, customs and stories of some far-flung villages. The series not only brought television viewers in the cities closer to forgotten traditions, but also showed a distant and backward Portugal living in precarious conditions. Giacometti, who was connected with the illegal PCP, was thus also an encouraging figure of resistance to the repressive regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. The series influenced and encouraged directors such as António Campos to draw attention to the hinterland of Portugal with its rich tradition and its poverty at that time.
  2. ^; last accessed 2019-03-22. 
  3. ^ Cf.; last accessed 2019-03-22.
  4. ^ Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. Edited and selected by Susan Sontag. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1988, p 515.
  5. ^; last accessed 2019-03-29.
  6. ^; last accessed 2019-03-22.
  7. ^; last accessed 2019-03-29.
  8. ^; last accessed 2019-03-22.
  9. ^ Film by Fabrizio Terranova: “Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival”, 2016.