In the sculpture garden at Porto’s Serralves Museu de Arte Contemporânea, there’s a work by Anish Kapoor, the creator of Cloud Gate. Sky Mirror, the sculpture at Serralves, is instantly identifiable to anyone who’s been to Millennium Park. It’s a large, concave mirror tilted toward the sky, reflecting a distortion of the sky that shifts as the viewer changes their perspective.
Nebula, a solo dance choreographed and performed by Vania Vaneau, made its Portuguese premiere at Serralves in April’s Festival Dias Da Dança (DDD), an international dance festival. A similar concave tool was used by Vaneau, though it was a lens instead of a mirror. Early in the piece, she held it in front of her face in an otherwise pitch-dark theatre, reflecting stage lights back into the audience but illuminating nothing. Thus began Vaneau’s exploration of the space and its environment, which also included incense, charcoal, water, and crystals. Above the stage, the ambient glow of an eclipsed moon, comprised of an empty ring of LED lights, barely penetrated the darkness.
Wielding elemental forces, Vaneau emerged onstage as a figure from a ravaged world. The first movement of the piece was a taxonomy of smoke: from incense, haze, and clouds of charcoal dust. Then water doused these fires, metaphorically at least. Vaneau sipped from a bowl of water as if it was a libation, then spat it out, wetting the charcoal dust. She smeared the wet charcoal over her arms and legs, and then disrobed and continued to streak the charcoal across her torso. Her metamorphosis continued as she covered her hands and face with gold foil, the metallic surface completely covering her eyes, nose, and mouth. Chimerically filthy and glittering, it was hard to imagine how she was able to breathe. She moved like a chthonic being, like the earth itself, coming for revenge.
Vaneau is Brazilian (though currently based in Europe), and transmogrified she recalled a despoiled rainforest incarnate. The irony wasn’t lost on me that though I was seeing this piece in Porto, back in 2021—the year Nebula premiered—illegal gold miners in Brazil camped on the reserve of the indigenous Yanomani people across land roughly the size of Portugal.
There’s another installation at the Serralves park, an interactive work that the viewer can walk inside. It has plexiglass walls covered with translucent trees, so that when I encroached, I was simultaneously in a real forest and a fabricated one. This double-visioning helped me see both the art and reality with new delight and attention. It felt a little magical.
Similarly, there are two versions of Nebula, one developed indoors for a traditional theatre space, and one performed outdoors. Much of the indoors version of the piece hinged on the revelation of new materials from the darkness. I wish I could have seen the outdoor version. In the clip I watched, the opening exploration with the lenses creates an illusion that Vaneau’s head sprouts into a tree, or rather the whole forest. It is light instead of dark. I wonder if the ending transformation offers more hope, or at least a greater contrast to the piece’s apocalyptic messaging. Utopia is possible. The magic is already here, around you, if you can step inside it and realize it.
The following week, I returned to Serralves for the world premiere of Guilherme de Sousa and Pedro Azevedo’s Karpex. It was almost contrapuntal to Nebula; both works were highly theatrical and apocalyptic in their preoccupations, but diverged from there: while Nebula made one of the biggest messes I’ve ever seen onstage, Karpex was obsessed with cleanliness. Its subject was the relationship between labor, cleaning, and automatons. Entering the theatre this time, I was led through the house and directly onstage with my fellow audience members. Before we entered the performance space, we were asked to place light blue hairnets over our shoes to protect the immaculate blue carpet we sat on.
The two dancers entered the space as approximations of Roombas. Heads down, they crawled on hands and knees making quiet whooshing noises, sucking invisible dirt off the carpet. When one of them looked me directly in the eye, it terrified me: both performers wore white contacts that blanked out their irises. Their dehumanization was complete. The dance’s DNA was a series of repeated, synchronized gestures, which gave me plenty of time to contemplate the labor strikes going on in Portugal and throughout Europe and the deluge of think pieces about AI eliminating millions of jobs from the workforce.
The tedium was interrupted when an actual vacuum cleaner descended from the ceiling as spiritual music blasted through the space, though the poorly executed strobe lighting made it difficult to watch. The vacuum cleaner seemed like an archetypal totem from a fairytale, but the dance resumed more or less as if it had never appeared. Of all the research references the creators cited as inspiration, I was most intrigued by the presence of Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel. I wish I’d seen more dark fairytale whimsy onstage, translated through the lens of the dancers’ Blade Runner-esque androids.
Cleaning is a highly charged political act, with race, gender, class, and ability encoded within it. This piece had a compelling concept, and I love monotony onstage when it serves a dramaturgical purpose—in fact, I’d love to see it onstage in Chicago more often. In this case, however, the dance didn’t utilize it to either defamiliarize or shed new light on the familiar political discourse. The labor of meaning-making was placed on the audience, without enough support from the performance. Both Nebula and Karpex unapologetically paraded monstrous beings before the audience to show us the perils of our possible futures. But I missed the mess of Nebula, even when it haunted me.
Choreographed and performed by Vania Vaneau
Set design Célia Gondol
Lighting design Abigail Fowler
Music Nicolas Devos & Pénélope Michel (Puce Moment / Cercueil)
Stage direction Gilbert Guillaumond
Created and directed by Guilherme de Sousa & Pedro Azevedo
Performed by Guilherme de Sousa, Pedro Quiroga Cardoso
Set design and costumes Pedro Azevedo
Lighting Teresa Antunes
Sound and operation design support Mariana Leite Soares
Wardrobe Ana Fernandes, Pedro Azevedo
Outside look Maria Luis Cardoso