Conversation with Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues
by Rossella Menna
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Lia Rodrigues – In 2004, you set up your dance company in Complexo da Maré, one of the largest favelas (Ed: slums or shantytowns) in Rio de Janeiro. You came from great international dance: before founding your company, you worked with artists like Maguy Marin. How did it happen that dance brought you to a slum?
I certainly didn’t plan it. I got there, step by step, as a direct consequence of the choices over a lifetime, to go after the things I believed in. I needed to get physically closer to the issues I had been discussing for years, so that my thoughts and actions would begin to coincide. I wanted to get closer to the ideas that were stimulating me so much.
Can you tell us more about these ideas?
It seemed to me that, in Brazil, contemporary art was something for the few, far from the majority of the population. I wanted to try to open a dialogue between people who did not read the same books, who did not follow the same philosophers, who led different lives. The dramaturg Silvia Soter knew the work of Redes da Maré very well, the association that works in the slum to guarantee fundamental rights, education, development, security, access to justice, art and culture to those who live there. Through her I entered this network.
What did you do once you got there?
Actually, I didn’t have a plan. I wanted to look around, listen, learn. I understood immediately that if there was ever going to be a project, we would have to build it from a meeting between Redes, Silvia and myself. Almost twenty years later, we are still there. All my work takes place in the slum.
Since 2003, you have done many things. Your company has won dozens of awards around the world. In 2009, the Centro de Artes da Maré was born, and then in 2011, also a real school of its own, the Escola Livre de Dança da Maré. A company, an arts centre and a school. Who manages so much work?
The company is run by me and an administrator, Gloria Laureano. Thérèse Barbanel and Colette de Turville work with us for production and international distribution, and Gabi Gonçalves for national distribution. When I have to write a project proposal to apply for state funds in Brazil, I work with an expert, Claudia Oliveira. The dramaturg of the company, Silvia Soter, helps me to think about the artistic project and how the company works. Amalia Lima, the assistant who has been by my side for over twenty years, helps me to think about how to organise my daily work, to think about our repertoire and the relationships between the dancers. I am surrounded by people who are truly very competent in different fields. In fact, my decisions are the result of many moments of confrontation and conversations.
And how does the school work?
The Arts Centre and the School are projects managed together with Redes da Maré. The school has a general direction, a pedagogical and artistic direction, a training coordinator and then teachers, naturally. The Arts Centre, on the other hand, has staff for cleaning, reception of the public and students and management of funds, as well as a general management team. Many of us work on the school project because it is divided into two sections. One is open to all residents of Maré and sees about three hundred people of all ages accessing it. The other, closely linked to my company, is dedicated to a selection of about fifteen young Brazilian students (mostly from the slum), who participate in a professional development path for which they also receive a scholarship.
By whom and how are all these activities financed?
As far as the company is concerned, in our country it is supported by the SESC of São Paulo (a very important institution that has the task of guaranteeing, at least in part, the survival possibility of artists) and by a series of theatre and dance festivals that do really important work for the arts in Brazil, including the Bienal de Fortaleza and the Festival de Curitiba. For about the last three years, we have also been financing our work thanks to our co-producers and tours abroad, in Europe above all. Among other things, I am an associate artist of two Parisian theatres, the CENTQUATRE and the Théâtre National de Chaillot, which support me in various forms. I also have many long-time partners throughout the rest of France and in Germany, Portugal and Belgium. The Centre and the School are supported instead by various institutions and foundations including the Hermès Foundation (Ed: French foundation), as well as a number of local partners. We are also developing a programme now with the Dutch Prince Claus fund which finances us through the Next Generation project.
How is it that two European foundations are funding an activity that takes place in Brazil?
Because they support my artistic work in general, they invest in the work of Redes da Maré and they trust our projects.
Haven’t you ever been afraid that the difficulties imposed by everyday life in the slum and the fire of militancy would make the needs posed by the dance world, technical as well as poetic, slide into the background from which it came?
I make no distinction between what is purely artistic and what is somehow related to the “social”. Saying what is art and what is not represents yet another way of exercising power. My dance is born despite, and in virtue of, certain conditions. To give a simple example: it is not that our company aims to solve the problem of the lack of water in the slum, but that problem imposes itself on the making of our art. The golden rule is so simple! Every artist is free to create how and where they want, because creating means inventing another way of being in the world and relating to others, and who can say which is the most correct way to do it? Naturally, the newest and most original ideas are coming to us from those who live and work outside of what we consider the “centre of the world”.
Do you think you can say that your work has somehow transformed the slum?
No, my work has not changed the slum. I’m the one who has been changed.
In the school’s mission, I read that the basic idea is that dancers and dancers who study at the Maré can go on to choose dance as a profession. Does that happen often? Are there experiences of people who started with you and then went to work with other choreographers?
Four of the students in our first class (which lasted seven years) now live in Brussels. Gustavo works with various other choreographers after studying at PARTS (Ed: a famous Belgian school of contemporary dance); Rafale dances in the company of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker; Marllon and Luyd study at PARTS; whilst Karoll, Andrey, Larissa and Ricardo are in my company. The others dance in Rio or study at University. We are now working with a new class of sixteen students. Much of our long work consists of questioning how we want the school to be, and for which world.
What is the situation in the Maré at this time of the Coronavirus emergency?
Obviously, it’s terrible. There are hygiene problems, drinking water is scarce and people live in spaces which are too small. Prevention is impossible, keeping your distance and washing your hands frequently are indications that cannot be followed. Redes da Maré has launched a major campaign to distribute food, water and alcohol, doing what is possible. In the meantime, the police raids have not stopped, which never respects the population.
In 2014, on the eve of the FIFA World Cup, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, started a process called “peace-making”, i.e. occupying the Complexo da Maré militarily. In the words of Cabral and the other governors, the installation of the UPP (Police Peace-making Unit) was aimed at “fighting criminal factions and restoring peace and security to the population”. It served to combat drug trafficking, in short. However, activists and non-aligned journalists immediately denounced the fact that the purpose of such a violent occupation, and the consequent abuses on the population, was in fact another: the slum being located between Avenida Brazil and the great communication artery Linha Vermelha, that area constitutes the obligatory travel corridor for anyone from the airport to the Cidade Maravilhosa (Ed: “Marvellous city” – a nickname for Rio de Janeiro) and therefore also for tourists arriving for the World Cup. The military, therefore, had the task of making that corridor safe and “clean” to protect the investments related to the World Cup. Is this still happening?
I would prefer that someone better prepared than me answers your question on these matters. In the meantime, I suggest reading Eliana Sousa Silva’s books and the reports on the murders in Brazil and Rio.
In the last two months, theatre, dance, and music have often been treated as entertainment “content”, to traverse the period of home isolation more serenely. Of course, we have also heard from artists, who have made different and important statements. Others, still, have preferred to remain silent. Do you feel you have a “duty” right now?
I am now extremely worried, and I have no intention of putting creations or anything else in the works. I dare not do or say anything. I need silence; we cannot repeat the pattern that has choked us so far, this all-capitalistic anxiety toward producing and consuming at a non-stop pace. In my opinion, we need to wait and accept this state in which we find ourselves and this idea of not being able to understand, to then interpret what is happening. I have nothing to say. I can barely keep my balance. The only duty I feel is to pay attention to those people who are doing hard, dangerous, badly paid jobs, without rights, who also allow me to stay calmly at home, and who are exposed to the risks of the pandemic without any form of safeguard. I want to think about them, about how badly our society is built, about the power system on which it is founded, I want to get out of my bubble of privilege and consumption to look outside and think about how we can do things differently from how we are doing them now.
Photo: Sammi Landweer