The world that was out of sight was still in black and white when that moment when Benvindo Fonseca, just a child, took the first dance steps that he can remember was immortalized. Dance, not ballet yet.
It was hot, as is usual in the tropical climate of Mozambique, where he was born. And not even that could stop him from sweating on the dance floor – an old carpet. As a partner, he had a friend of his parents, an adult, and a doctor – because the emotion he was already carrying in his step was the talk of grown-ups. He remembers it being someone’s birthday. Although, for him, excuses were never needed to dance.
Everyone “thought it was funny” that dancing child who put emotion into the movements of his hands and feet. “I danced a lot, I imitated everything. And when there were parties they asked me to dance. ‘Call Fonsequinha’ – a name for the intimate ones and my parents, the only petit nom mine, since the rest are my grandparents’ names.”
But the day his shoes danced on that carpet, Benvindo didn’t expect to make history with one of Portugal’s most famous dance companies: the now-defunct Ballet Gulbenkian. There, he acted as First Dancer, but also as the first black man in this role, he recalls.
And why is it important to say this?
“Because people question themselves, for better or for worse. Not because it serves as a flag for him. “I don’t remember that. I’m not Benvindo with this color, I’m Benvindo. Period. Nor did the people I crossed paths with at the dance ever remind me of this.”
The first time he heard someone call him black, not with the best intentions, he was 15 years old and already in Portugal. “My parents calmed me down with their pride in me.”
A couple is always far ahead of their time. His mother didn’t question Benvindo’s bracelets, she cherished them. And making ballet life never even an issue at home. “I don’t think they wanted me to go through what they went through. That’s why I’m not afraid of people, just of emotions.”
The dream that was revealed on TV in Lisbon
We open the stainless-steel door that leads to the atrium of the building and we hear small, light steps coming down the stairs. Joshua, a cocker spaniel spotted in white and brown, is the one who welcomes us. And the dancer owner, at the top of the stairs, thanks us. He says, “come in” and does not prepare us for the view behind that small dark door: it seems that all of Lisbon has come together in this painting, with more Tagus than houses to point out. Behind, another canvas, the view to Ajuda Palace.
You would expect a passion for the city that welcomes you as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, but Benvindo’s story with Lisbon is not one of love.
He was born in Mozambique 58 years ago, the son of Cape Verdean parents, and the great-grandson of Portuguese from Portalegre and Indians. “He still has French and Jews on his mother’s side,” he says, stressing the mixture he is made of. His grandfather was a Jesuit priest who left Goa “and left a whole offspring in Cape Verde.” Maybe that is why,” he says, “I never felt like I belonged anywhere, and belonged everywhere.
If it is true that “he makes anywhere his home in three seconds”, it is also true that he doesn’t feel that every place is his. “I feel that Porto, the Alentejo, Seville, Granada, Madrid, and Mexico are mine. Lisbon doesn’t. It’s ungrateful to say, I know. After all, this is where he has spent most of his life.
He says he only stayed, first because of the Gulbenkian Ballet and then because Lisbon is still her parents’ home.
There is something about this city that doesn’t belong to him, but that inspires him. “Lisbon inspires in everything. To create, pain inspires, and in this, the city is a volcano of inspiration. It seems antagonistic.
But then Benvindo explains in the best language he knows, dance. He opens his arms like a bird in the air, at the same time turning the tips of his feet toward each other. And he goes on crossing movements, in what seems to be an embrace that never really happens.
“I imagine Lisbon as the place where I was embraced. This is the water lily flower, which means that from here I spin out into the world and keep going. It makes me dizzy, it keeps going around. But there is also [in Lisbon] a side with a certain cynicism, which I deal badly,” he finishes by leaning over the right side of his body and grimacing.
This is how Lisbon would be, for him, translated into a dance step.
But if Benvindo owes this strangeness to Lisbon, he also owes his first stages to it.
The seed is in Mozambique. “There, I used to go into the chicken coop and sing opera or something like opera. I would make some sounds; I have this image very present in my head.” And he said he wanted to be a Beatle. That is to say: to have a life as an artist – whatever his art.
The other dream was “to have a house with children and dogs – each one with his dog. That, he guarantees, is what he will do when he is 60. “Because Beatle I already have been.”
He owes it to the address he got at age 13, when he came to Portugal, Lisbon, he and his family – there were six of them. “My father was a cooperator for the Portuguese there in Mozambique. He was invited to the government in Cape Verde, but my parents didn’t think we’d be able to acclimate to Cape Verde.” So, the logical direction was to come to Portugal.
“I remember being on the plane, my mother next to me crying, the door closing, and realizing, ‘I’m not coming back here anymore,'” he swallows the memory dryly.
Lisbon smelled like fish and sounded like popular sayings. “It was always like that in the street, the ladies selling and those sayings… And I imitated everything I heard and saw,” he laughs.
First, the six of them stayed at Almirante Reis Avenue. Then, at the house of a friend of his father, in Cacém. “A building owned by Cape Verdeans who all bought houses there.”
At this time, Lisbon was not felt as it is today, it had a more serene image for Benvindo. It never embraced him, but that didn’t haunt him. Everything will have changed after his serious injury, which stopped his pirouettes, his tiptoeing, and soured his vision of the world, he admits.
Benvindo has collected several trophies throughout his life, among which are the Youth Creativity Award from the UN, the Career Trophy from the Primo-Canto Association, the Oeiras City Hall, and RDP Africa, a portuguese radio station.
When his address was still Cacém, dancing was still no more than what he had already experienced on that old carpet in Mozambique. Although dancing was already in the family: her sister did ballet, although she never intended to practice dance – she is a lawyer. “And I had a lot of muscle because I played basketball, tennis, and skating.
He, coming from a family of athletes, and ball players, at a time when playing soccer didn’t make so much money yet, had muscle and converted it to dance, in front of a television set in Lisbon, when he started watching the series Fame, in the 1980s.
“There was something about that possibility of dancing all the time, almost living in an art place, that I wanted.”
The dancer who wanted to die and was reborn
From TV, the leap to the Gulbenkian Ballet didn’t take long.
“There was an audition with Francisco Nicholson (actor, playwright, screenwriter, and director), at Parque Mayer, not to do a “Revista” (a traditional theater genre in Portugal). It was a musical. We rehearsed for three months, we got paid, and it never opened, because there was pressure not to do a musical when “Revista” theater was becoming fragile. But I got into the audition and started to have contact with this world.” I must have been 16 years old, he estimates.
And, “in the middle of all those people, Liliane Viegas offered to give me a scholarship so I could take classes with them and be part of the group Sétima Posição,” he says.
Now, in perspective, Benvindo can explain exactly what it was that amazing others. “I’ve always had dance as an intuition. I see and do. The most difficult thing in ballet, technically, is to jump in the air and do two turns. I would almost do three. The name I don’t know, being in fifth position (which is to close your legs) much less, but I would jump and spin. And I always spun with emotion”.
Meanwhile, Gulbenkian opens an audition, “auditions always with 300-something people” applying, Benvindo was among the last ten but saw his dream denied because “I was too fat.”
“So I trained and trained for a year and came back. I went in, thinner, to the Gulbenkian school, traditionally a transition to the Gulbenkian Ballet company.” It was the door to a dream that began by instinct and solidified in such a way that Benvindo dreamed of nothing else.
He joined the Lisbon Dance Company, traveled to New York, and, over here, he was already famous: “They used to say: ‘The Portuguese Leroy appeared’” – about the character in the musical Fame. “I think it has to do with this thing of being an animal, of there being no tomorrow when I dance. There’s a passion that I can’t explain because there I am whole.”
Benvindo has worked with world greats such as Mats Ek, Jiri Kylian, Hans Van Manem, Orad Naharin, Itzik Galili, Vasco Wellenkamp, Olga Roriz, Paul Taylor, Christopher Bruce, and Nacho Duato.
He was in one piece until his body gave out and threw him into what he says was the closest he came to death. “I had a fracture in my tibia. It happens to people who do a lot of ballet points. And I died. Then I died.” Because what a dancer feels when he loses his most basic movement “is death,” he says.
The health, physical and psychological condition he was in left him a month asleep, in a hospital, on IVs and medication.
“I woke up after that month and said, ‘Oh yeah, if it’s over, then we’re going to die.’ It took me ten years trying to die. I was depressed. I wanted to end it all, but not wantonly.”
And although all his life he had disowned the use of drugs, assuming them to be “terrible,” at a certain point in this recovery process, Benvindo tried cocaine and felt that this “could be the solution.” After all, “it dulled the physical and psychological pain, and I didn’t even have to buy it, they offered it to me.
From here, a serious addiction set in, “clearly to die every day”. He has undergone more than ten treatments for addiction and depression, and today he has been clean for 16 years.
“I even tried to dance, but only with emotion. No legs, no feet. And he did world galas using only that, “with people saying he was better than ever. But the pain was unbearable. Even for someone who sees art in pain.
“And then I was born again.”
He turned to the other side of the curtain and became a choreographer – a task that was no longer foreign to him. And he began to rationalize a dancer’s movements more so that he could pass them on to others.
The “magical being” who made a movie
In art, he says he did everything he wanted. And with the success he wanted.
Which earned him the watchful eye and an ode with the German Adrian Stolzle to the controls. The director dedicated a biographical film to Benvindo Fonseca. It is called “Cidade Lúcida” and will be released in 2021. In several interviews, the director recalled that this is the story of “a magical being”, on stage and off.
One day, recognition also came from the UN, which invited him to be an Ambassador. Not the well-known blue passport, but an award that was given to six people from different areas and to whom only one favor was asked: “Use your art to raise awareness”.
“That woke me up,” remembers Benvindo.
That’s also why he didn’t let life be reduced to big stages and went on to teach dance – and even painting – to the children of the Cooperativa Educação e Reabilitação de Cidadãos com Incapacidade (CerciOeiras), where he does volunteer work. On the walls of his home, he erects many of these works.
“It’s not because I’m a good Samaritan. If I don’t go, I get in pain, I get in such anxiety. I have to release my energy, I always have to be occupying my time with others. I’m never doing just one choreography, I have to be doing three at the same time. And I’m never reading one book, I have to be reading two or three at the same time. Now I’m starting to learn to stop.”Benvindo Fonseca
In the impossibility of continuing to be a Beatle, the time has come to move on to plan B: the house, the children, and the dogs. Just like that child in Mozambique once dreamed.
You can read this article in Portuguese.
If you like what you’ve seen us doing, if you get inspired by our stories, if you care about a new Lisbon, more engaging and liveable, if you see any use in this journalism, communitarian and close spare a little bit of your time and consider donating. If you want to be part of this community – join us!