A citizen of the world and an artist without frontiers. He has danced on Europe’s biggest stages and played both Andy Warhol and King Lear. In between, he has swum with sharks in the southern Seas. Portuguese theatre has beckoned more than once.
One could quote Bruce Chatwin’s anatomy of restlessness to put a name to the story of this Australian, whose Polish descendents escaped post-war Europe and headed for the Antipodes. His parents went south until they came to Melbourne and settled by the sea. Their youngest son made the opposite journey: at 20 he flew northwards to the capital of the United Kingdom, for love, “a classic case”, he says. The love faded, but he stayed. It was the early 1980s and London was still the place where everything was happening. He trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and then the Laban Centre for Contemporary Dance, and his place in the dramatic arts was – and has remained – like his place in the world, one without frontiers. Anton Skrzypiciel moves between performance, dance and theatre and those who have seen him perform know that this constant motion is the perfect reflection of a perfect creator-interpreter.
He arrived in Portugal aged 43 in the summer of 2003, and headed straight to Montemor-o-Novo in the Alentejo, where Rui Horta (choreographer and compagnon de route) had created a centre for residential and performing arts in an old monastery. It was not the first time Anton had visited the country – in the 1990s he remembers a holiday “in an apartment in the Bairro Alto” – but this time he stayed, a man who had spent so long at sea.
To be or not to be
He didn’t plan to stay, it just happened, as always. “I’ve been a foreigner all my life. I’ve assimilated the condition”. The condition of the eternal wanderer, always absorbing new experiences. Joyful, exhausting, with no end in sight. Even in Portugal. “A person can never really change what they are. I am me, fundamentally, an Australian”. Growing up in Australia gave him a directness which is very often in conflict with the average Portuguese. “The Portuguese are circumnavigators by nature. They discovered the sea routes and rarely know how or want to get to the point”. Something which, depending on his mood would enchant him, entertain him or irritate him. Until he discovered that this trait was came out in some Portuguese writers’ wonderful capacity for invention. “I am doing a play at the moment which is inspired by The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa (see inset). It is a fantastic text but very difficult to learn, because it is entirely comprised of this circumnavigation of ideas of which the Portuguese are masters. I’ve also worked with another Portuguese writer, a genius called Patrícia Portela” (author of Flatland, an award-winning trilogy, whose interpretation earned Skrzypiciel his nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Theatre Actor), “which also contains texts which are difficult to learn and all composed of that circumnavigation of thoughts and ideas. I didn’t have this problem with texts by Shakespeare or Warhol, for example”.
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Dances with sharks
Portugal is not the only example; Anton collects observations on countries he has adopted and which adopt him. Thailand for example, where “people like to know where they belong. You cannot and should not treat everyone as equals”. He learnt this while he was teaching diving in Phuket. Before he had been in Borneo, in Lyang Lyang, where he learnt ancestral recipes (we have this conversation as he cooks a Thai green curry). A radical change, after spending a decade in Frankfurt dancing with S.O.A.P, the company Rui Horta founded in Germany. It had been 20 years since he left Australia. “I think I was tired of being on stage”. And so he went to the southern seas to swim with sharks. Skrzypiciel will spend hours telling you what incredible creatures sharks are. But it was with human beings that he refined his experience as a diving instructor: “Giving yourself to people is very good, making them feel safe is even better. I had some memorable experiences with people who were afraid of water but wanted to learn to dive.”
We reach the summer of 2003. The rainy season was starting. Because the world is small and the internet is forever bringing people together, Anton discovered that Rui Horta had returned to Portugal. He made contact and was invited to one of his first experimental labs in Montemor-o-Novo, Espaço do Tempo, a meeting place for artists from various fields and countries who had been working in collaboration for two weeks. The project was called COLINA. He met several creative spirits, including Portuguese João Garcia Miguel, with whom he co-created Especial Nada, a solo version of The Andy Warhol Diaries (which went to the Edinburgh Fringe for a month). Then Rui Horta asked him to replace one of the ballet dancers in LP and redo an old solo piece, Bones. Each time a run was over he thought about going back to being a diving instructor, until one day he just phoned up and quit.
A strange way to be
He likes to be ironic about his “Portuguese” experience: “I’ve been trying to introduce something called the ‘Australian goodbye’ to my Portuguese friends. When the time comes to leave the person says goodbye …and leaves”, he says. “But the Portuguese goodbye is a little different! It involves remembering something extremely important at the moment of departure or making plans for the following day or …” he explains. “To do it well”, he continues, “the whole thing should last at least 20 minutes and take place in the middle of the pavement, blocking the way for other pedestrians”.
Anton has discovered another Portuguese trait. “There’s the land that time forgot, right? Portugal is the land that forgot about time. Here time is a flexible thing, it’s not linear, it doesn’t have just one dimension there are several, all piled on top of one another”. I get the picture.
He also argues that the Portuguese are more similar to the Germans than the Spanish, “they inhabit some kind of private reservation”. He has learned to like this reservation, which he found strange at first, but he still doesn’t understand why the Portuguese seem to “carry the weight of the world”, a “nostalgia that comes from history and very often recent history”. He appreciates more that it is country from which many emigrated and they “are waiting, always waiting. There is a sense of anticipation in this country, it’s constant. It’s a fascinating feeling. Even when nothing happens”.
He says the idea of leaving Portugal would break his heart: “I love the wonderful decaying air of old Lisbon. I adore living in Lisbon. It’s small, compact and cosy, there are wonderful places you can just walk to. Being at the Graça viewpoint having a coffee and looking at the city all around is extraordinarily beautiful. And Porto? A gorgeous city. Sitting at a pavement café in Gaia sipping a port and looking across at the city is one of those unforgettable images. I love the idea that a good deal of European history happened in Portugal. I like good red wine and I am addicted to Alentejo bread! Living near the sea and being able to go for a walk on the beach in November… Ah! Such happiness.” But if I ever leave it’s the people, the friends that he will miss. Saudades. That old Portuguese thing.
By Maria João Guardão
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