Filipa Malva


In the Garden of Eden, the tale says, a man, Adam, and a woman, Eve, his flesh, lived in harmony with God and His creation, until they opened the door to sin and were driven away from paradise and into the world. The tale of the birth of mankind, as seen through the eyes of Judaism and Christianity, created many of our political, social and cultural guidelines up to today. Alongside them a set of specific aesthetic motives have developed in Western art. In theatre and scenograph we work with these meanings as a way to connect simultaneously with our history and with our time. In this essay I will analyse the way color, light, and shade were used as fundamental organising elements of all scenographic aspects of performance in the production I.L.H.A. (I.S.LAND - Ideas Slightly Hostile about the Future). These elements work around the mythology of the Garden of Eden. They helped define the space and time of performance, inducing conflict into the performers’ actions and structuring a new narrative around the myth of Genesis. I.L.H.A. - Ideias Levemente Hostis sobre o Amanhã was directed by Pedro Lamas, co-produced by Trincheira Teatro and O Teatrão, at Oficina Municipal do Teatro, Coimbra, Portugal, in October 2018. Actors were Hugo Inácio and Telmo Ferreira, set, prop and costume design was by me, light design by Jonathan de Azevedo, and photography by Carlos Gomes. This production was developed for the post-doc project Drawing and Performance: Creating Scenography, supported by a post-doc fellowship by FCT - Foundation For Science and Technology.1

Surviving Paradise

In I.L.H.A. we worked with and through the myth of Genesis. Two male actors shared a square of grass and a few objets laid onto it. In rehearsal, they were given no text, only the limits imposed by scenographic elements and their own bodies. They improvised ways to relate to each another, to organise their actions and to survive. The purpose of this exercise was to tackle the mythology and the traditions that have evolved from it. What would happen if the rules that we associate with the Garden of Eden were changed? How would that change our understanding of ourselves? Genesis 1:28 says “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’”. And this was our starting point. Two people are born into a garden and they are given rule over everything in it. They are new to paradise. They do not recognize even their own bodies until they see each other. Movement and gesture were all discovered, as was every object, every color, texture or shape. Once they recognizedd themselves and each other as beings, their aim was to survive. Once they had enough to survive, their purpose was to discover and relate until one of them realized power over the other allowed him control over the means of survival.

We decided on a square of fake grass as the space of performance, outlining a garden. During the rehearsal process, the performers were not allowed to move from it. They were told to approach each object as a young child would, and that they had no knowledge of language, just sound. And finally that they were naked. These rules of engagement provided improvisation with a set of limits that came from a reading of the mythology.

As rehearsal progressed, it became clear that every aspect of tradition in the mythology was being tested. Starting with the obvious factthat we were working with two actors, two men. We knew that –

myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. […] In it, things lose the memory that they once were made. […] A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance.2

We aimed at breaking the magic behind this trick asking spectators to entertain the possibility that a different story could be told. And in the process it could open up other social and political avenues of thought. We wanted myth to reflect the difficulties of building a connection between two people, of transforming the material and the immaterial into common ground, of sharing a space and a time. We aimed at transforming the image.[ii] With this in mind, the scenography was developed from three types of components: color, costume and objects. They were built from the original myth of Genesis as well as from Bosch’s triptych, Garden of Earthy Delights (Fig. 1) both of which set the spatial and pictorial rules of the conflict and offered initial links to performative representation of the myth.

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Fig. 1. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Hieronymus Bosch, Prado Museum.

Referencing The Garden

Bosch’s Garden deals with the creational mythology drawing from tradition but also opposing it in a number of ways. As Lynn Jacobs describes,

a main theme in the Garden of Earthly Delights is creation: this theme is clearly expressed on the exterior, which not only depicts the third day of creation, but at the top shows God the Father with a book, thereby evoking the concept of creation by the word. The Creator’s command to be fruitful and multiply is evident on the interior, which shows the joining of Adam and Eve at the left and has many references to fertility and procreation in the center. (…) The ambiguities of simultaneous and continuous action in the Garden of Earthly Delights may well represent a deliberate attempt by Bosch to express within one work dual representations, creation both in an instant and over time.4

The painting portrays a progression from Heaven, on the right, the Garden or the Fall, and Hell. The pictorial progression clarifies the contrast between a harmonious heaven and a chaotic hell, where saturated colors give way to mixed earthly dark tonalities. Pink, or light red, blues and greens, clearly attributed to godly creatures or constructions, and natural creation, respectively, are replaced by a range of browns, yellow and reds as Men takes over the decision making during the central painting. Even though the color choice and saturation is fundamental to this progression, it is the increase in action of the human figures that characterises the move from a balanced, almost symmetrical, composition of Heaven, to the multiple movements of the Garden in the middle. This development adds to the idea of self awareness and free-will as well as God’s mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.” On pair with multiple acts of sexual agility, the central panel has great examples of discussions and what can be described as conversations on the creation itself: there are several groups of people pointing towards the sky as if giving an example or presenting an argument. What sustains this activity are red fruits. They are used to tame animals and people. They are offered in trade for favours. They are used as shelter and as decoration, since some are oversized. They evolve from small pieces on a tree, in the Heaven panel, to oversized pieces. They are beautiful but fleeting as no human body can be sustained by such a fruit for long. And they are scattered around the panel, organising its composition, allowing our eyes to quickly roam from scene to scene.

The feel of the tryptic is of experimentation and acceleration in action up to the right-hand painting’s destruction of Nature. All blues and greens that characterised the first painting are almost gone. Any presence of blue or green is marked by strangeness, as if Nature itself has been transformed by men’s actions into unnatural hybrid beasts. Fires rage at a distance and specks of red mark the landscape. Consequently, the narrative properties of this painting along with its surprising scheme of colors were an important influence on the scenography and its performative characteristics. Bosch’s triptych presents an evolution of conflict between humanity, and its transformation of Nature, until almost nothing is as it was in the initial panel. This evolution was brought into the performance. We started from Heaven where “ the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden. […] The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:8, 9).

This choice organized the space of performance and colors attributed to props and set even when we changed the objects on stage. The green grass that limited the space was clearly plastic, the blue rocks and bin belonged more easily to a contemporary urban garden than to Bosch’s. And the pink tree stump reminded us of the proverbial tree of life with its central position on stage (Fig. 2 and 3).


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Fig. 2 Digital design sketch by Filipa Malva


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Fig. 3. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes.

The scenography was designed through the attribution of colors to specific objects that had specific functions in the dramaturgy, bringing forward some of the mythological and pictorial attributes of Bosch’s Garden as well as the object’s original features. As such, the scenography existed at the crossroads of two very different worlds connected by color and purpose and materialised into object and costume used by performers. Bosch’s genius in the portrayal of the creation myth lays in the overlapping of tradition and fiction. He overlaps well known representations of the Garden with his own, showing us the path he takes in this search but he leaves out any conclusion, opening up multiple possibilities for actions in between panels and within each panel. In fact,

Bosch conceals more than he shows. […] Coherence is achieved through  inference. We transfer the plausibility of the passages we see to ones we do   not see […] Bosch frames his drawing in a fiction of discovery rather than invention, where the strange is met at the far reaches of a long journey from here to there and back again.5

The performance strived to do something similar by using scenographic components as anchors for performance, layering meaning and narrative from myth to the everyday and vice-versa.

The relationship between the colors and shapes chosen, their organisation in the space of performance and their manipulation into action generated meanings relevant to this interpretation of the mythology. Joslin Mckinney explains how such a scenographic grammar of exchange is organised:

scenographic material [...] the sensuous, aesthetic and hermeneutic qualities of textures, colors and forms and compositional relationships between objects; scenographic construction refers to the spatial aspects of scenography; scenographic action occurs when scenographic material and processes of  scenographic construction act to stimulate in viewers experiences of iteration, intervention, transformation or disruption between the scenography and other aspects.6

The first aspect of this exchange had to do with addressing the necessity for nudity on stage.

Shaping bodies

Even though nudity was fundamental to this narrative, the nude in the Garden of Earthly Delights presents itself almost as asexual (Fig. 4 and 5). Men and women bare many resemblances, the male gender identified only by a subtle indication of genitalia. Slim, pink smooth bodies interact, sharing all actions portrayed in the tryptic. It is a somewhat nondescript nudity which we chose to use in designing the costumes as it placed action both in relation to the painting and to a general understanding of the mythology of the Garden of Eden: two original people, different but made of the same material arguing the possibilites of extending creation.

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Fig. 4. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

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Fig. 5. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

Nonetheless, assuming nudity as a theatre costume is a much discussed issue. Contrary to what one may think, on a stage nudity is not the opposite of wearing clothes, of not assuming a specific costumed body. As Aoife Monks explains,

We can see actors onstage without any costume on at all. [… their nakednessmakes actors seem even more present, even more available as actors to the greedy eyes of the spectator. Surely, nudity disproves the idea that the actor is inherently costumed? Perhaps. However, it is with the very peculiar effect that nudity has on presence […] clothing is at the centre of the effects of nudity: nudity is a form of costume.7

Calling attention to the specific features of our two actors was not our purpose. But rather to imbue them with the ability to explore the human body in its diversity of expression, shape and volume. The skin colored leotard allowed performers to be naked but not in their own skin, making it less personal. We started with the two actors on stage, their backs to each other. We could hardly see them in dim lighting. No differences between the two apart from their bodily mass; two beings apparently made from the same material and moving in unison. As the performance developed, the similar costumes onto two very different bodies, moving differently, helped to express the difference between them. As they used gesture to enact wants and needs, we could easily see specific manners emerging.

Another aspect of this false nudity was the possibility of undressing their second skin. The costume enacted nudity, allowing the neutrality of the leotard, in color and in texture, to eliminate some of the personal information we might associate with a specific person, while making apparent the superimposition of the character’s skin over the actor’s. As, “costume is that which is perceptually indistinct from the actor’s body, and yet something that can be removed, costume is a body that can be taken off.”8 This duality helped in the dialogue between the mythology associated with the Garden and the actors, as representatives of humankind dealing with it. This costume became a point of departure, which made this conversation ever present in performance.

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Fig. 6. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

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Fig.7. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

Another aspect of the costumes were their penises (Fig. 6 and 7). They were made as separate pieces, as actor’s props, attached by a simple elastic band around their waist enabling them to move or remove them. The option to make an obviously fake, enlarged, genitalia, arose out of rehearsal while devising the initial scene, as a response to the initial rule that stated they were new beings who tested the limits to their bodies. They used it as a plaything and a source of power and frailty, simultaneously. They were the single most obvious feature of the characters. They were moved around to suit each action, playing with an embodied experience of wearing we all have. As Jessica Bugg describes,

(the) shared embodied understanding of clothing and its relationship to the body enables us to take into account how the emotional and physical factors as well as the site of the body itself contributes to the making, intention and reading of clothing based work. [...] It is on this level that we can understand the significance of the body itself as a site and the clothed body as visual and embodied narrative.9

The embodied understanding of the actor’s body and his costume, moving together or moving against each other, allowed us to sense the everyday and the myth overlapping onto the same skin. Its colors were an important aspect of this scenographic exchange as we will see below.

Applying color

Colors were brought in from Bosch’s painting. The performance space was limited by a carpet of fake green grass. It was purposefully of bad quality, its plastic material showing proudly. The river rocks collected from a nearby farm were painted a deep blue. The tree trunk and branches are covered in shinny pink enamel. They were block, saturate colors, specific to a particular type of object, which formed a code for reading the garden. They were not naturalistic representations of the garden, providing a detachment from reality and a link to a well known imaginary. They aimed at triggering memories of representation which are part of western Europe art history and of our everyday grasp of what a garden is.

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Fig. 8. Prop shop photo by Filipa Malva

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Fig. 9. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

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Fig. 10. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes.

Changing a color of a recognizable everyday object, bringing forward its artificiality, also helps define a specific universe. As Wittengstein remarked, “in everyday life we are virtually surrounded by impure colors’. Pure saturated colors are mostly unique to the painter’s palette. As a consequence, ‘all the more remarkable that we have formed a concept of pure colors.”10

This concept, as an acceptable principle in Western art history and technique, creates a benchmark against which all colors we see are compared. A pure color is special because it is unpolluted and rarely used. It has not passed the test of time or belongs in Nature, but in Nature’s human representation. It is idealised color and even though it is Man’s creation, it is seen as the epitome of color. It has been developed over centuries and it has evolved from natural pigments. Some are the result of incredible violence over other species or other races. The search for pure color is also a search for a representation of the mythologic. By covering a simple rock with blue we superimpose our knowledge of the rock’s original nuanced color, even its river context, the flowing water which has most certainly carved it over time, with the symbolic knowledge associated with blue, and in particular Bosch’s use of it. Even if we cannot see the rock’s original surface, we recognise its original purpose and establish a link between our memories of similar objects and the action on stage. This process creates an experience of scenographic action as explained above (Fig.8, 9, and 10). As Pamela Howard observed,

Working with memory and recognition is one way to reach spectators very directly. Memory is often no more than a half-remembered truth. It can seem more real than the actuality. [...] Objects, colors, textures and smells trigger  memories, sometimes so strongly that one small clue can set off a whole world of remembrances that seem as real as the moment they happened.11

As a result, the fictional world becomes both an extension and an alternative to reality. The original mythology is developed following a different thread of narrative.

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Fig. 11. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

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Fig. 12. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

An example of the importance of color in the narrative was the correspondence in red between the apple and the penises (Fig. 11 and 12). One of the most well-known symbols of sin, the apple is the only natural object on stage and holds multiple meanings off stage. We chose to use it in its original color because we did not want to fight its symbolic history but rather to use it to our advantage in the retelling of the myth. It is a foundational object and it served as a reference against which the red penis were created. The apple was held and handled with care and fear by the actors until they accidentally ate it and realised its power. As in the original story, the apple opened their eyes to their own presence, their shame and their sexuality. And once they found the visual and symbolic correspondence between the apple and what they had dangling from their waists, this connection became the centre of movement between them and it precipitated a change in the rhythm of performance, accelerating the conflict between the two. They progressed from curiosity to happiness, suspicion and war. In performance, we were all assuming multiple meanings for the red objects. Given the fact that “the meanings of some colors, of course, are widespread: red is associated with blood and danger, among other things; white always has at least one of its connotations as purity,” as Gavin Evans comments. “Yet even when it comes to the definitions of colors, what one learns might depend on time and place. Once one moves beyond defining colors and naming things associated with them, and enters the world of symbolism, the associations become harder to pin down.”12

The correspondence of red between two distinct objects was the trigger. It drew from Bosch in the original Garden and added an association with their obviously enhanced sexual organs. The contrast between a natural thing and a fabricated prop is in itself cause for consideration. The fact they shared the color red generated a triangle of spatial connections composing a multitude of meanings in the narrative, operated by the performers’ actions.

Progression of action

The introduction of everyday objects in the performance responded to Bosch’s own use of realism. Garden of Earthly Delights searches for a tie with the day-to-day of its viewers. The consistency of this connection depends, as Joseph Koerner remarked,

[…] on the presence of objects that seem accidental to the scene: an orange, acrumpled pillow, a clay pitcher, the conformation of shadows and highlightson all of these. None are necessary to the subject matter, yet adhering to the picture’s consistent system of space and light, and corresponding to the randomness of the world in which the picture finds itself, these everyday things strengthen the illusion that what the picture shows is real.13

What’s more, in Bosch’s painting the original function of some of these objets, such as the oil lamp in the last panel, is transformed, its proportion to the human form enlarged. The intervention of performers in action transforms function but his transformation can also be suggested by scenographic materials. Such is the case of the garbage bin. It was present from the start of performance, on the upper-right and it was used as the source of all objects foreign to the initial garden layout. Objects on stage were divided into two categories: the ones already there when performance started and the ones they got from the bin (Fig. 13, 14, 15). After performers found the apple in there, it was clear that it was the source of all that was introduced into the space. Its original function, to store unwanted itens and to discard them, was reversed, becoming a place of discovery in the fiction. Howard notes that “An object when lifted from its normal context and re-presented, even transformed by the artist acquires a new life. It can enable the spectator to see something familiar, as if for the very first time. Moreover, by powerfully placing the object so that is useful to the text and performer, the empty space also becomes powerful and full of meaning.”14

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Fig. 13. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

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Fig. 14. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes

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Fig. 15. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes.

Contrary to Bosch’s triptych, though, objects in our recreated myth are not scattered around the garden but rather given to performers via the bin. This created a mechanism of performance where its presence was recognised at every step of their dispute. Its material characteristics suggested that a foreign, mythical force, operated it. The bin was painted in the green-blue of the landscape, blending together with the grass and the rocks. Once opened, it showed a golden interior. It was lit from above and the golden reflexes created a clichéd, obvious impression of power. The irony lay in this contrast between the ordinary, almost repellent function of a bin and its unusual purpose in performance. In addition, their salvation and their conflict was resolved or aggravated by whatever they chose to use from within it.

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As performance progressed, exploring narrative possibilities of the objects on stage was essential in order to set up turning points in the conflict between the two actors. They offered survival and power over the other, accelerating the conversion of the Garden into some sort of Hell. Continuous manipulation of the objects on stage transferred to the actors the decision power initially only found in the bin, transferring also the responsibility of maintaining or destroying it. At each point, their decisions pointed to a different possible outcome of the original myth, testing social forms of organisation. Once they uncover all possibilities of use and control of the objects found in the bin, they started tearing apart the grass floor as if it hid the final treasures of the Garden. Each square overturned limited their mobility in the performance space, until they ended up with a single square stage centre-front (Fig.16). The sequence of movements thoroughly destroyed the initial order in the garden, as one by one, objects failed to bring them appeasement. Once they were corralled into a single square of grass, they had no option but to inhabit it together. The multiple objects were opportunities for avoiding this outcome. As in the central panel of Bosch’s triptych, the acceleration of action and the destruction of the Garden brought the narrative to a dark place. At the end of performance, actors huddled in the small grass patch, destruction all around them, nowhere to go, we were left with the sense that their conflict was unresolved. The tension between them no longer had a concrete reason. The Garden was ruined. What existed was a tacit agreement to survive by avoiding discussion until time was right to begin again.

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Fig. 17. Performance photo by © Carlos Gomes.

Conclusion: Reinventing connections of myth and the everyday through color

I.L.H.A. explores visual and plastic links between the Garden of Eden mythology and action on stage, using color, costume and objects as triggers for proposed conflicts that establish turning points in the narrative. It connects the myth we know and recognise with what we were seeing in performance, opening up possibilities for resolution, arguing with and against the mythology inscribed in the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Scenographic materials structured this dialogue, expanding the realism of the triptych, as discussed above. A pink trunk placed center-stage was a direct reference to the tree in the Garden but its use as a throne opened up the possibility for a new painting. A single blue stone was enough to identify Bosch’s rendition of the Garden, working as an ideogram of the myth. Barthes defines “a Myth (as) a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation.”15 Similarly, on stage “there are places (referred spaces) in which actions that form part of the structure of events of a play may be understood to have occurred, despite the fact that they do not contain actors and objects; even though such spaces are not shown, they are nevertheless imagined as physically locatable somewhere offstage.”16

 What is seen and what is inferred, its balance, is what allows us to grow or face the mythology, creating new connectors with an old tradition. With I.L.H.A. we aimed at referencing not only the Garden of Eden’s well-known mythology but also at developing Bosch’s specific rendition. We worked towards a critique of the myth by bringing forward its possible connections with the contemporary everyday and advancing alternatives to its original outcome. The scenography worked on the tension between what was seen in performance, what is known as part of western mythology as interpreted by Bosch, and what is recognised as everyday. Scenographic materials, its color, shape and function, provided the starting point for such an exchange.

N o t e s

  1. https://drawingandperformance.wordpress.comback
  2. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972), 142.back
  3. “If myth is depoliticised speech, there is at least one type of speech which is the opposite of myth: that which remains political. […] There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, whenever he links his language to the making of things, (…) myth is impossible.” Barthes, 146.back
  4. Lynn F. Jacobs, The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch.” In The Sixteenth Century Journal 31: 4 (2000): 1009-41.back
  5. Joseph Koerner, “Impossible Objects: Bosch's Realism”. In RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 46 (2004)73-97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20167640, 78 and 90.back
  6. Joslin Mckinney, The Nature of Communication Between Scenography and Its Audiences. (unpublished thesis at the University of Leeds, used by courtesy of the author, 2008), 25.back
  7. Aoife Monks, The Actor in Costume (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 100.back
  8. Ibid.back
  9. Jessica Bugg, “Emotion and Memory: Clothing the Body as Performance”. In EBOOK Performance II (Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2012). Accessed March 2013.back
  10. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Remarks on Color. (Oxford: Blakwell Publishers Ltd, 1978), 69.back
  11. Pamela Howard, What is Scenography? (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 28.back
  12. Gavin Evans, The Story of Color: an Exploration of the Hidden Messages of the Spectrum. (London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2017), 545.back
  13. Joseph Koerner, ”Impossible Objects: Bosch's Realism." In RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 46 (2004): 73-97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20167640, 92.back
  14. Howard, 207.back
  15. Barthes, 126.back
  16. William Gruber, Offstage Space, Narrative, and the Theatre of the Imagination. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 8.back

Filipa Malva, from the University of Coimbra, is a scenographer and an architect. She has a doctorate degree in Art Studies/Theatre from the University of Coimbra and a Masters in Performance Space from the University of Kent, UK. She is a freelance set and costume designer working with several theatre and music groups around the Coimbra district, such as O Teatrão, Trincheira Teatro e Casa da Esquina. She is a founding member of the APCEN - Portuguese Association of Scenography and currently a recipient of a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Foundation for Science and Technology. She is also a full-time Integrated Researcher at INET-md’s Dance Studies Group at the University of Lisbon, and at the Instituto de Etnomusicologia - Centro de Estudos em Música e Dança.