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For the sky to not fall

In Brazilian Lia Rodrigues latest works, she presents a suggestively fable that goes to the heart of Brazil´s and the world's problems, based on the visions of the Amazon Indians.

Lia Rodrigues For The Sky Sammi Landweer 9837
Photo: Sammi Landweer

Lia Rodrigues is one of the big names on Brazil's dance scene. After a career spanning forty years as a dancer and choreographer, and after receiving several awards for her work, she is visiting Oslo with the performance For the sky to not fall. The piece was recently voted the best dance performance in Brazil in 2017.

An artistic work of social commitment
Lia Rodrigues grew up in São Paulo during the military dictatorship,  a time of much resistance and many opposites. In the early 1970s, while the hippie era flourished, the dictatorship was in its most oppressive period. As a university student of  history  it felt impossible not to engage.

- It has been there since the beginning. It is a principle as human being, as a citizen, not just as an artist. Brazil is a society of extreme injustice, with racism and sexism. Even though I was born with many privileges and raised in a white middle class family in São Paulo, I feel I have to contribute where I can.

The background of the alternative dance scene in São Paulo in the 70's has also contributed to shaping her view of the role of dance in society. Throughout her career, she has been concerned with the context of the world around art and the artists. The art can not be separated from the society in which it is a part.

-This thought has been with me in the dance all the way through my career. We always asked why we were dancing and for whom. What is the meaning of what we are doing?

Moved the company to a violent favela After a few years dancing in Europe, Lia Rodrigues moved back to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. In 1990, she founded the company carrying her name, Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças. Two years later, she started the festival Panorama, Rio de Janeiro's most significant dance festival, where several Norwegian companies have performed throughout the years.

- In the first decade, the company had no fixed studio or place to be. But in the early 2000s we joined the re-building of an old house in the center of Rio. We stayed there for a few years before we became nomads again. That was when the opportunity in the Favela Maré appeared.

Favela is the Brazilian word for slum anddeprived areas. Rio de Janeiro is notorious for the favelas stretching across the beautiful mountain sides of downtown. But most of the favelas are further out, in the less picturesque areas north of the city. Favela da Maré is one of them, and many Norwegians have probably drove past it on their way to or from Rio International Airport. Favela da Maré has 135,000 inhabitants, but did not have a single space  for art.

- I was invited there by the organization Redes da Maré who worked in the favela. We wanted to create a dialogue between the dance and the organization's social projects, and together we found an old, abandoned warehouse. We refurbished it, the company's production processes moved there and started to give free dance classes for locals. In 2009, we established the Centro de Artes da Maré Art Center, which is also the company's base.

- How has this affected you and your work?

- It completely changed me. Today, all I'm doing is permeated by the favela. The favela is a constant changing place, there is no predictability as in Europe, where you always know how things work - such as taking the subway from A to B. In the favela you have to re-orientate all the time. I live south of Rio, and I think it's amazing how completely different a favela is organized. The favela is very intense, there is always a lot going on at the same time and the noise level is constantly very loud. Everything is up for debate. It forces you to be creative and flexible all the time, and it requires a huge amount of concentration. I think these experiences affects our creative work in one way or another. But wthat said… today it is impossible to distinguish one thing from the other. I'm in the favela daily, it's become my everyday life. Today, I do not think so much about it.

At the art center they have now started a youth company where the young dancers are making their own productions. They also get the opportunity to work with Lia Rodrigues' company. Several of the current dancers in the company come from the favela themselves.

  -Last week we had a dance class while there was a shooting incident nearby. This is not something we experience at a distance, it changes your life.

Photo: Sammi Landweer

Military forces occupied the favela during the Olympics
A year ago, Rio de Janeiro hosted the summer Olympics. The plans for after-use were good, but unfortunately many of them were never realized. The Olympics became a mega event with a mega-bill that most people now have to pay. Today, the State of Rio is almost bankrupt, and teachers and police officers are not paid their proper wages. Many of the sports facilities, including Maracanã - the legendary football stadium, are due to decay. A number of politicians and business leaders are imprisoned, suspected of major corruption in connection with construction work of the Olympic facilities.

-An Olympic Game is a very short-term way of thinking urban development. It´s a completely wrong priority. Most people do not live where the investments were, most people need schools, hospitals and infrastructure, such things that binds society together. The stratospheric costs of the Olympics did not benefit the population.

One of the most profitable measures to ensure the so-called "legacy after the Olympics" was to clean up the favela around the city centres and build sports facilities. The method was to scare away the drug gangs that ruled the areas, inserting special peacekeeping police forces into the areas, known as UPP, and increase investments in social measures and basic infrastructure. In short, include the favela with the rest of the city, and make sure that the state and municipality were properly present with basic services. Many places Rio succeeded in the period leading up to the Olympics, but today the focus on continuing this has failed because of the lack of resources and ever more violent clashes between the UPP forces and criminals. Occasionally innocent passers-by are killed or injured in police actions, and sometimes common people are being harassed and imprisoned, even abducted and killed by the police.

-The entire UPP initiative has grounded. They have failed to implement what was the thought: less police and more investment in society. In Favela da Maré there were never such police forces. The favela was occupied by military forces both during the Olympic Games 2016 and the World Cup in 2014.

Brazil's democracy is in crisis Today, after twenty years of growth, Brazil is in a deep political and economic crisis. Unemployment is record high, the economy is decreasing and last year, the elected president Dilma Rousseff was thrown from power, after a dubious arbitration case. To top it off, the world's largest corruption case is unfolding. Hundreds of billions of dollars are gone, and many of the country's most powerful politicians and business leaders are imprisoned. The government of the new president, Michel Temer, consisted exclusively of white, rich, middle-aged men, and in the autumn of 2016 they sought to close the Ministry of Culture. Brazilian artists protested loudly. Lia Rodrigues was among them.

- Brazil's democracy is in crisis right now. I do what every conscious citizen should do, I protest against the illegitimate president Temer. The national court case was a disguised coup, and now the new government is tearing down much of what we have built in Brazil in recent years. But, of course, sometimes I feel totally lost. How will we manage to give the young hope in such a situation? But then it's often the young people who give me hope, with the enormous creativity they have.

How does today's crisis affect the artists in Brazil? - Everything has become much more difficult. It has never been easy, of course, we have always had to fight for space, recognition and money. Now all public funds are turned over again. This year, the municipality of Rio has dropped to pay grants already awarded and project support already granted. At the state level, there is zero to collect, the same at the national level. Some private sources still exist and, for my part, the international tours help finance my work in Brazil.

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Favela in Rio de Janeiro with the legendary football stadium Estádio do Maracanã. See textbox - Photo: Mario Tama

There is no bridge! It's one and the same world!
The performance For the sky not fall is a study of rituals. It retrieves its title from a leading indigenous leader and shaman of the Amazon, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. According to the worldview of the Yanomami Indians, the sky is falling down because of all forest fires, all pollution and all deforestation in the Amazon. The Yanomamies strive to keep the devastations at bay and to keep the sky up, not just for its part but for the whole world.

When asked  about what is the bridge between the sky and our urban world, it comes spontaneously from Lia Rodrigues:

- There's no bridge! It's one and the same world! The Yanomamines keep the sky up for all of us.

For some, such statements can give a sense of new age and superstition, but today's climate scientists confirm the argument. The deforestation in the Amazon has already led to major changes in the climate of South America. It has contributed to extreme droughts in southern Brazil and large floods elsewhere. Climate research shows that there are “river-heavens” over the Amazon, giant systems of moist air masses that are transported from the rainforest and south to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and South Brazil. Lesser forest in the Amazon means less humidity in the air, and consequently less rain in the areas of South America's grain chambers. When we also know that the rainforest is best kept in the areas of the Indians, it is actual true the words of Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, that the Indians keep the sky up for all of us.

To Oslo with an exploration of rituals
After watching the performance on video I was left with several strong and partly contradictory feelings. I saw community and affection, proximity and distance, strength and vulnerability. I ask Lia if it's an artistic choice.

- No, we have not worked with an intention of contradictions. Your perception is based on your experiences, each one will see their things. We have been working around the idea of rituals, and the dancers have been involved in the creative process all the way. We sat with a lot of material and had some issues finding a good structure for the performance. But when it was close to premiere, we had a run-through, and then it just worked.

Lia explains that there are many different types of dance in the moving material, it is African inspired, it is Brazilian folklore, it is even a ballet pirouette.

-It's a mix, a mixture like the world itself, she concludes. We dance to the rhythm of machine guns and cars, helicopters and sirens, we dance in rain and storm and burning sun. We dance to move the air and to expand, to dream and visit dark places. We dance to become fireflies, to get weak and to endure. We are dancing to find a way to survive.

For the Sky not to fall, 8.–10. September 2017

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