Just before Helder Seabra was to begin architecture studies at the age of eighteen, a friend invited him to a contemporary dance performance in his home town of Porto. Under strong protest from the home front, he immediately changed course, in the direction of dance. Choreographer Helder Seabra likes to throw himself into his work. Not only in his productions – virile rituals around loss, renewal and new life – even if he faces challenging choices. Only three years later, in 2004, Helder Seabra himself was on the big stage in Porto, notably as a performer in the company of Ultima Vez/Wim Vandekeybus. The home front saw that it was good.
Choreographer Helder Seabra likes to throw himself into his work. Not only in his productions – virile rituals around loss, renewal and new life – even if he faces challenging choices.
Vandekeybus had already plucked him away from P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, the dance programme of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, after two years. After his time with Ultima Vez, a period follows of hopping between different projects and companies. In 2009 he was with Eastman, the structure around Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. With his clear view on the placement of bodies and movement in space, he assists Larbi as choreographer in among others Dunas, Puz/zle, Noetic and It 3.0, a duet between Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wim Vandekeybus. Seabra also dances for Cherkaoui among others in Babel (words) and TeZuKa.
In 2013, a new phase follows in which Helder Seabra, together with Karen Feys – former business manager at Eastman and Ballet Vlaanderen – will set up his own company Helka. Again he dares to jump. For his first production When the Birds Fly Low, The Wind will Blow, he gathers five dancers and two live musicians on stage: quite ambitious when you realise he had to make do without a project subsidy. However, he could immediately count on the De Warande cultural centre in Turnhout. There he was given workspace, the big stage and, already at the première, a standing ovation from a strikingly young audience. De Warande has become a permanent partner, invaluable for Seabra in the often unpredictable Flemish subsidy landscape, where anno 2017 a positive evaluation from the assessment committee for a project does not necessarily mean actual money in the bank.
In the meantime Seabra with Helka has four productions to his credit. The first, When the Birds…, he today views as a searching movement, a sketch. “After I had explored all corners of the dance field, I loved being able to position myself in the middle and tighten the reins from every angle: the theoretical approach of P.A.R.T.S., the raw energy of Wim Vandekeybus and the smooth lyricism of Larbi”, he says. Conversely, he now uses this centrifugal force to feed his work with fresh impulses and insights. His third production Lore from 2016 is a good example. In Salzburg when teaching 27 dancers from the SEAD (Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance), he is able to develop with them some of his original ideas for Lore. “I only really understood there why I would have liked to work with many more dancers for Lore, that the production revolves around group rituals in the first place. Salzburg was the starting point for a new thought process. How could I still allow that specific group energy and colour to penetrate to the smaller cast of Lore? Back home I started working with other scenographic, dramaturgical and movement choices, and everyone was immediately enthusiastic: it was spot on.”
Lore is a protracted ritual for seven performers and two musicians. Musician Stijn Van Marsenille is the shaman on duty. Together with Elias Devoldere he stirs things up, and determines the rhythm. The scenic objects used are short (drum) sticks, two per performer, which they are given only after an intense initiation rite.
For Lore, Helder Seabra invited actress and dramaturge Mieke Laureys on stage to experiment with text and theatricality. By a happy coincidence she was pregnant at the time of this performance, a dream theatrical sign for how rituals on stage repeatedly usher in each new phase. Whereas previously in the production the performers took over each other’s tasks – the musicians danced, the dancers played music and the actress was the master of ceremonies everywhere – in this last scene, everyone returns to his or her base. With fragrant burning cedar, Mieke Laureys illuminates both the dancers and the text about turning points in life she recites a bit later. It immediately becomes clear how much her text directs the gaze of the viewer to the dance: I realise how differently I looked at the dancers before: an open view on movement material that feels fresh, playful and searching. I experience profit (from an interesting text), loss (from openness) and again profit (through the combination).
The close interaction with music is also an opportunity to introduce a new audience to the excitement of dance. Helder Seabra himself was asked by one of his musicians to dance during a rock concert.
From his first production, Helder Seabra has worked with musicians Van Marsenille and Devoldere. He explains why he doesn’t compromise on live music. “I read a lot about the relationship between man and machine. For me, human contact prevails, everywhere, always. To the dancers and musicians I say: do not just perform, experience what you do from who you are. From that point, we can start to feel each other and it becomes interesting. It is exciting for the dancers to interact with live music. It has a much more direct impact on their movement than a recording. I also like to work with the physicality of musicians. Imagine a drummer without a drum set and watch his movements: he is dancing. That human element of music feeds what happens on stage. But ultimately it’s not the music, or the movement that interests me, but the underlying charge and how it entails a specific aesthetic.”
The close interaction with music is also an opportunity to introduce a new audience to the excitement of dance. Helder Seabra himself was asked by one of his musicians to dance during a rock concert. Helder Seabra applies the same open attitude to other disciplines. He does not hesitate when Laika, with their sensory theatre for children and adults, invites him to perform on an equal footing with two actors and a musician in their production De Passant. Again a learning process that he then recycles in his own work: it triggers him to experiment with text in a suggestive and inviting way, at the edge of narrative, without becoming explicit.
“In the collaboration with Laika I became intrigued by the differences between dance and theatre. During the working process of a dance performance, it is often the case that we simply begin to move, without knowing where we will end up. Then suddenly something interesting pops up, with which we can continue. Sometimes I ask to work around a certain quality of movement – ‘move like water’ for example – and in this way we might end up with something that looks more or less theatrical, but can also leave things open to the viewer’s imagination. It was new for me to see how in Laika each movement was given theatrical content. There was always an underlying meaning, a well-defined and purposeful motive, which was then constantly discussed. I also wanted to inject this kind of approach here to see what it produces for dance.”
In Absentia from 2014, features five male performers (two musicians, three dancers) in a ritual of loss, a fight between holding on and letting go. Their register navigates between tough, poetic and vulnerable. There is consolation and struggle, straightforward, without a hidden agenda.
In the excerpt you can see how Helder Seabra avoids dance technical perfection. He prefers his performers to be rough diamonds, who are allowed to show their individual body language and physiognomy, highlighted by the frontal arrangement of the three dancers towards the audience at the front of the stage. The counterpoint whereby each of them performs a different movement keeps this frontality alive. The arrangement also serves the transformation at the first switch in the lighting plan: via a primal scream we arrive in the atmosphere of a metal concert, where dancers and musicians incite each other. The lighting plan nicely creates a frame within a frame, in which a small light bulb keeps the pile of stones at the front of each side of the stage in the twilight. Then the light again accentuates a new phase: the roller-coaster of sound, gestures and emotions coincides with the music, only the exhaustion of the dancers is visible and audible.
The excerpt also illustrates Helder Seabra’s vision on scenography. Instead of a fixed structure, the choreographer prefers to use separate objects, which during the performance determine the space in changing configurations. Here the choreographer limited it to one kind of object, a pile of slate. The slate is a smart choice because in terms of imagination associations, it leaves much open to the spectator and at the same time can serve multiple purposes on stage – as a rhythm section, tombstone, dead weight – in a continuous interaction between object, imagination and movement. Helder Seabra: “I wondered what loss would look like. I arrived at dark, heavy and very present. Something that hurts and causes pain, becomes too heavy if you don’t let it go. So, stones. I love to let such a stone live its own life on stage – it completely changes the perception.”
Another recurring intervention of Seabra’s in which we see something of this, are the musicians who step out of their role to drag the stones around. Conversely, elsewhere in the performance the dancers go to work behind the instruments. Removing oneself and the performers from their comfort zone is a way for Helder Seabra to sharpen the concentration and keep the energy level high.
All of these projects mean a continuous weighing of artistic, financial and logistical implications, a process he shares with other choreographers in the same situation: how to fully commit to their own artistic choices without sufficient resources, how to work in foreign projects and yet remain embedded and visible in Flanders/Brussels?
Commissions are another way to stay out of the comfort zone. Here too Helder Seabra jumps in fearlessly. He accepts an invitation from Staatstheater Kassel to make a creation for their big opera house and audience in April 2018 with the 17 dancers of the house company. This collaboration resulted in an invitation to the new Berlin b12 festival. Again in 2018, there will be a proposal from Staatstheater Bremen for a full evening of choreography. Seabra can bring his own performers and musicians. It’s great that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – as curator of the Warande’s ‘18 -’19 festive season programme – at the outset is giving the production a venue after the renovation works there have been completed. There is also a project in the pipeline for 2019 in his home country of Portugal. All of these projects mean a continuous weighing of artistic, financial and logistical implications, a process he shares with other choreographers in the same situation: how to fully commit to their own artistic choices without sufficient resources, how to work in foreign projects and yet remain embedded and visible in Flanders/Brussels? De Warande remains a place of refuge for Seabra. It also invited the choreographer for its off-site programme during the renovation works: would he lead a hip-hop project in several churches, to organ music by J.S. Bach? The result is Urbach, a community project in which Helder Seabra works with some twenty dancers of different ages, amateur as well as (semi-)professional, and not just hip-hop. Indeed, the choreographer went for that little bit extra by scrutinising the mutual tension between the full range of urban dance forms and contemporary dance, while the church organ also received an electronic counterpart.
A sponge, that’s what he calls himself. Nice is the fact that for Helder Seabra, dancing on the tightrope between inside and outside, internal and external consciousness, the balance between your own artistic instincts and what you encounter on your way, forms the basis of his practice as a dancer, choreographer and pedagogue. In the workshops he supervises at home and abroad, he starts from the idea of Inner Core: how to allow yourself to be maximally infected by stimuli around you and to connect these as consciously as possible to your own core, with what you stand for as a dancer and as a person. Helder Seabra: “In classes, I use the image of an accordion to clarify a game played with your senses that you first stretch out like a bellow and then push inwards, as close as possible to your core. In order to make your own music from all these incorporated impressions.” This naturally means that he considers the uniqueness and input of each individual performer or participant to be of paramount importance.
Helder Seabra compares his career with the open ensõ circle from Japanese calligraphy that simultaneously encloses (empty) space but is never completely finished. “It’s a path that you tread again with each brush stroke, each time with a new attitude or approach because: the circumstances are different each time,” he explains. “What attracts me so much is that the circle is never really finished, you can never say that you have arrived. This is exactly how I want to continue to explore and deepen, in the same kind of back-and-forth as between, for example, SEAD, Laika, the commissions and my own work. With always that inevitable imperfection of the ensõ circle.”