Sunday, 25 September 2016

Naming the impact: it may be Telmo or Rafael or Gustavo…

Telmo Martins, member of the Orquestra Geração (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

A few years ago, I saw the documentary Waste Land. It is about the work the Brazilian visual artist Vic Moniz created together with garbage pickers at the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Moniz said that he wished to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials they deal with every day. So, together they used garbage to create large-size portraits of the garbage pickers, which were later sold in auction and the money was distributed among the garbage pickers. The works were presented in exhibitions in a number of contemporary art museums.

One of the most memorable scenes for me is an argument between Vic Moniz and his wife. She is totally against the idea of taking one of the garbage pickers to the auction in London. She is telling him that he is “playing with their heads”, that he is being cruel in showing them a world that can never be their own and that once all that is over, they’ll have to go back to their previous lives, possibly having to deal with frustration and depression. I could totally understand her concerns, still, just like Vic Moniz, I thought that opportunities may come up in every person’s life and it’s up to each person to decide whether they wish to grab it, even if it’s a once in a lifetime thing, or leave it. In the end of the documentary, we are informed that all but one of the garbage pickers decided to leave their work at the dump and try something different with the money from the artworks. Their association also managed to improve living conditions in their community by founding a medical clinic, a day care centre, a training centre and a library.

The heated discussion between Vic Moniz and his wife often comes to my mind when we are reflecting on the impact of certain artistic and cultural projects in the lives of people and the ways of measuring it. Perhaps “measuring” is not the right word, as it seems to refer only to numerical measurements. Perhaps “evaluation” is a more appropriate term, as it largely refers to very diverse indicators, including qualitative. Including the small, lesser known, personal stories.

When I first saw a piece by Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues (it was Pororoca in 2010, at Culturgest in Lisbon) I also found out about her Centro de Artes da Maré, an arts centre situated in one of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest slums, the Maré. This is where she also co-founded, in 2011, the Escola Livre de Dança da Maré (the Maré Free Dance School), offering free dance lessons to approximately 300 people, of all ages, living in that neighbourhood. The school aims to share with those people the knowledge of a professional dance company. And it uses the language of dance, as the school coordinator Sílvia Soter explains, because it is an artistic manifestation that came from the people’s desire to do it (video with English subtitles with teachers and students).

Rafael Galdino e Gistaco Glauber, students of the Maré Free Dance School (image taken from the website Redes da Maré Photo: Iuri Carvalho)

Two young men, Rafael Galdino and Gustavo Glauber, were students of the Maré Free Dance School. This year, they flew to Belgium, two of the four Brazilian chosen through a very tough audition to attend the international studies programme of PARTS, one of the best contemporary dance schools of the world. They are the first students who leave the Maré Free Dance School to go directly to a European school (read the article).

Rafael talks about his experience at the school in Maré as something that was much more than dance classes: “I was still very young when I came here, a teenager, all that phase of discovery, uncertainty and a lot of insecurity. So I think that, not only as a dancer, but also as a person, I developed most of what I am here, in this school, Lia Rodrigues talks a lot with us, pulls our ear, guides us, it’s not only about the dance.”

Classes in Belgium are in english and the two young boys were not ready for it. Gustavo says that he had French classes at the Maré, a partnership between the association Redes da Maré (Maré Networks) and Alliance Française, which will come handy in Belgium. But now, they are both learning English. Rafael adds: "The difficulty with English made me refine my attention with regards to the dance moves, to the movements of my teacher's body."

Telmo Martins with Orquestra Geração at the Centro Cultural de Belém (image taken from the blog

At the time I read about the two Brazilian boys going to PARTS, I also found out about a young boy of the Orquestra Geração (the Portuguese version of the Venezuelan El Sistema) who had passed an audition for an internship with the Gulbenkian Orchestra. I was interested to know more, to understand where this boy came from, what the orchestra meant to him and how he decided to make music his profession.

It was a joy to meet and talk to Telmo Martins this past week. Finding out about the Orquestra Geração was, as it is often the case, mere chance. At the time he was 12-13 years old, repeating the 7th grade, and a friend who was playing double bass invited him to her class. That was it. He became part of the orchestra, just like all his siblings, except the eldest. The double bass was perfect for him, he wasn’t interested in the usual – piano or violin or guitar. From listening to only one kind of music on the radio, Telmo discovered the richness of being exposed to more, different genres. In the last three years, he’s travelled to England to be the mentor of younger children who are taking their first steps in the Sistema England Orchestra. And Tomorrow he’ll be starting his first year as a double bass student at the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa (Lisbon’s Higher School of Music).

The rest comes in his own words:

“The Orquestra Geração has given me the music, but also friends around the world, opportunities to learn more and to help others. Overall, I’ve become a better person, I learned how to listen and talk, to respect and to be disciplined. This is not obvious right away, as we grow older, we tend to value these things and this is what I am trying to transmit to the younger kids.

When I was much younger, at school, I used to tell the English teacher I didn’t know what English was for. Later, when I had classes at the Metropolitana Professional School I realised English was fundamental. When I decided to apply for the Higher School of Music, I spent three years working on my music, but also on my Portuguese, which I had neglected. When my double bass teacher told me about the audition for the Gulbenkian Orchestra internship, we decided together to give it a try, although the vacancies are usually for the students of the Higher School of Music. I didn’t pass, but it was one of my best experiences. I was very nervous in front of the jury and at a certain moment I thought to myself ‘Well, you better enjoy it’. There is no need to be sure that we are going to make it in order to try, to take the risk. When we gave our concert in July in the Grand Auditorium of the Gulbenkian Foundation we were very surprised to find out that tickets were not for free, they would be sold. We were treated like artists.

The students of the Conservatoire are not very happy about all the support the Orchestra Geração is having and all the opportunities its members are getting. I’ve talked to them, I understand them. They have taken the normal way and they are paying for their classes. But what I tell them is that, if it hadn’t been in this way, I would have never had access to this opportunity.”

Impact is not just about numbers. Just like access is not just about ramps and disabled toilets. We need to talk about the human stories behind our professional bla-bla and go beyond the checklists we are asked to tick in order to prove our ‘success’. We know the stories, but we don’t talk enough about them. But it’s precisely these stories that will allow more people to become part of our world, help funders understand the kind of return we all get on their investment. Impact has got a name; it has actually got many names. We should all know them. They are the reason we do what we do. They are the true meaning of the numbers.

More on this blog:
Places of encounter

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