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Graça Barroso: Portugal’s “complete” dancer

A hugely influential figure on the country’s ballet scene, Barroso has died at the age of 62.

Graça Barroso (above) founded the Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporâneo (CPBC).

Although professional ballet has had a relatively short history in the Iberian Peninsula, there have been a number of performers who have sought to elevate this art form, including Graça Barroso. Considered one of the finest Portuguese dancers of her generation, the former principal dancer for Ballet Gulbenkian and founder of Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporâneo died in Lisbon on June 11, aged 62 after a long illness.

The niece of actress and activist Maria Barroso, Graça was born in Lisbon and trained with Anna Ivanova and David Boswell at the Escola do Teatro de São Carlos. By 1968 she was working with choreographer Walter Gore at the Ballet Gulbenkian. She left Portugal for France in the early 1970s to work with noted American dancer and instructor Rosella Hightower in Cannes as well as with Jean Babilée at Strasbourg’s  Les Ballets du Rhin, only to return to the Ballet Gulbenkian a few years later where she became principal dancer.

She was eulogised by former colleagues for her grace and technique. In an interview with Público newspaper, former Ballet Gulbenkian director, Jorge Salavisa described Barroso as a “complete” dancer and among the reasons for his decision to return to Portugal in the 1970s.

With her husband, choreographer Vasco Wellenkamp, Barroso founded the Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporâneo (CPBC) in 1997. The company made its Portuguese debut at Expo 98. Although based in the Lisbon area, the troupe has since performed throughout the country and much of the world.

Portugal and Spain were among the last of the European countries to develop professional ballet. According to some historians, careers in the theatre arts and dance were viewed as questionable and thus prevented the development of a dedicated tradition of ballet in the Iberian Peninsula. This did not stop dance from developing altogether nor did it prevent foreign artists from touring and working in the region. One notable example includes the tenure of French choreographer and Ballet Master Arthur Saint-Léon at Lisbon’s Teatro de São Carlos during the 1850s.

By the latter half of the twentieth century, there had been a number of concerted efforts in Spain and Portugal to establish ballet schools and professional companies, with varying success. In 1965, the Ballet Gulbenkian (disbanded in 2005) was founded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, which along with the establishment of the Companhia Nacional de Bailado (CNB) in 1977, began to address gaps in both classical and modern ballet in Portugal. But it was not until the 1990s that the Compañía Nacional de Danza (founded in 1979 as the Ballet Nacional de España) would succeed in fulfilling the Spanish government’s desire to establish its own national company.

The period of social change in Portugal during the 1970s and 1980s was also reflected in numerous changes to arts-centred education. Examples include the closure of the Centro dos Estudos de Bailado at the Teatro de São Carlos and the integration of dance at the Escola de Dança do Conservatório Nacional by 1987, where Barroso was an instructor.

She also taught at the Escola Superior de Dança and according to Maria José Fazenda who teaches there now, Barroso “was a reference point, in terms of performance, for her own generation and those that came after.”

© Iberosphere: Spain News and Portugal News – Information and Analysis