It was dance that brought Sylvia Rijmer to Lisbon, and she was dancing while she waited for the birth of her son. She teaches, choreographs and dances for Olga Roriz (amongst others) and ten years after first setting foot on Portuguese soil, she knows her way round like a local. In fact, it turns out she’s never lived in the same place for so long.
We meet at the Padaria Portuguesa on Rua Pascoal de Melo. It wasn’t difficult to recognise Sylvia Rijmer, who’s half Dutch, half Japanese. Her smiling, almond eyes were all the introduction that was needed. After coffee and croissants, we continued our conversation at the Jardim Constantino. Daughter of a Dutch father, who wanted to lead his life outside Holland, and a Japanese mother from whom she “inherited her artistic side”, Sylvia was born in Nigeria in the mid-1970s and spent half of her childhood there before moving to Jakarta, Indonesia at the age of 6. Here she took up dance, a pursuit which would eventually bring her to Portugal a quarter of a century later. Her mother, possessed of an “infinite generosity” pushed her towards dance and let her go wherever it led her. At 14, she travelled alone to Amsterdam to study at the Nationale Ballet Akademie, followed by the Elmhurst Ballet School in England, before parachuting into New York to attend the Julliard School. “The school there was really serious. In our free-time we’d go and see other companies, have auditions, look around Soho or visit museums and at night we’d go to jazz clubs”. As fascinating as the city was, the European in her pined for a return home.
Her dancing career began at the Stadtt Theater in Guissen, Germany. From there, she headed to Switzerland, first Zurich and then Berne, where she started choreographing, at Bern Ballet. It was the famous and now-extinct Ballet Gulbenkian that brought her to Portugal and she remembers it fondly as a “really great company”. She was auditioned in 2001 by the Brazilian Iracy Cardoso, who would remain her friend for life, and debuted under the command of Paulo Ribeiro in 2003. “It was a company with such a strong energy. The women there were incredible”.
It was this international group of men and women that helped her settle in when she first arrived in Lisbon, a city with which she had no cultural or linguistic ties. 10 years later, she has a good understanding of Portuguese culture. “Now I can perfectly well read a newspaper, watch Portuguese TV, have a decent conversation or even tell a joke in the language of the country which has become my home. And I feel at home. Just like the Dutch, the Portuguese love the sun and have developed a huge sense of community spirit. When I was pregnant I was treated with endless warmth. I felt privileged to be bringing a new life into a world of such tenderness, in a country that loves its children so much”.
Nowadays, her son, Morgan Akira (meaning light of the sea) is 8 months old and Sylvia can get back to her projects. Apart from teaching contemporary dance at the Olga Roriz Dance Theatre and giving workshops in Japan, Sylvia is also preparing her next choreography which is inspired by Michio Kaku’s book, Parallel Worlds. She’s also eager to return to the Feedback Kolectiv project, an open artistic showcase which has already been held twice and allows young, hidden talents to get out there and show what they can do. “At the moment, I’m trying to attract sponsors; any help would be very welcome”.
Summing up, we’ve learnt that it was in Portugal that she finally managed to settle down and, after ten years of feeding on the energy of Lisbon’s light, she’s lived here longer than anywhere else. Even so, she still succumbs to tourist impulses: “I photograph the city as if it were the first time I’d set eyes on it. Lisbon’s got such a unique architectural character”.
by Maria João Veloso
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