Lia Rodrigues is a Brazilian born activist and artistic director, trained in classical ballet in Sao Paulo in the 70s. Her work has won several prizes both in Brazil and overseas. In February 2011 she showed her latest piece »Pororoca« (2009) for the first time in Austria, together with a performance of »Such Stuff As We Are Made Of« (2000) at the Tanzquartier Wien. Her performance and dance style are inspired by the daily routines of Rio de Janeiro's favelas, constantly shifting the dancers' body language between familiar and exceptional expressions. (Foto: Pororoca 3 © Sammi Landweer)
I would like to start with some more specific questions and then deal with more general aspects of dance and performance. With regards to the piece »Such Stuff As We Are Made Of«, what is the symbolism behind the different scenes?
Lia Rodrigues: I created this piece eleven years ago. This was a specific moment in Brazil. It was the year of the »celebration«, you know celebration with entre guillements, of the discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese 500 years ago. 2000 was also the year of the beginning of the movement against the globalisation in Seattle, all these demonstrations against that. So we asked ourselves - I say ourselves because I always create the pieces together with the dancers - what does that mean today? And how are we in touch with European and American culture? How can we be more active in a political sense? Go to the streets and express our opinions there! I am part of the 70s generation, I am 55 years old. I studied history at university in Brazil during a time of dictatorship. I took part in this student movement, we had troubles with the police. This was a very difficult time in my life. All the slogans of Che Guevara were a part of me. I ask myself what the youth are fighting for nowadays. And in what way are they fighting?
We had a kind of struggle during the rehearsals because the dancers are much younger than me. They said it is too 70s for them. But for me it is not something far away in the past and done. We need to be fighters, that's the way we should be in life. My work may sometimes seem naive. But the words of Che Guevara still move me. We have to fight for our lives and beliefs. This was the second part where the dancers wear the slogans »in their bodies« in all the street movements. And it is also in our Brazilian nature not to be too direct, we like to play and have fun with certain situations. This is a sign of behavioural diversity in the world. That's the second part of the performance.
The first part we were working on for two years. We were looking for these very strange forms that our bodies, that seem so familiar, can have. How can you change it into a sculpture and an animal? I was looking for a universal picture for war when we created the naked, shaking bodies' scene on the floor, where they were piled up. You know the images from the Second World War and Africa for example. A lot of people think about fish on land, but the interpretation is up to you. I still present this now, but I try to actualize the slogans. So you see: The slogans are always the slogans - from May 68 in Paris to Brazil, Mexico to Cuba.
Why did the audience have to move during the first part, changing places for the different »sculptured naked bodies«-scenes?
This piece was a turning point for me changing the way I choreograph. I had a very moving experience with the visual artist Lygia Clark who died a long time ago. My company and I recreated her work. So it was also very important for me to rethink how to choreograph. She played a lot with space and tried to be very in touch with the people in the audience. This was a very important time in my life, realizing that I had to change something. That's why we chose this way to be much more in touch with the audience by letting them change places during the different scenes. But we don't ask the audience to be a part of the performance. We don't touch the audience physically. The audience does not have to participate. I don't like it either when I go and visit a performance and have to do something. In that respect I am a bit shy.
Have the reactions of the audience changed within the last eleven years?
Maybe in Europe people are more stuck in their place. You know, we have shown this piece at very different places: around Brazil, in very small cities, inside schools, in the north close to the Amazon River. More than one thousand times at least, can you imagine!? In public we don't show the naked bodies, the dancers wouldn't feel secure and it is not quiet and calm enough.
Let's talk about your recent piece »Pororoca«.
We began with improvisations but it is a completely written, choreographed performance. Poroc-Poroc is a Tupi word. In Brazil, we had more than 250 different Indian languages but a lot of these languages have disappeared! It means »a lot of noise«, a natural phenomenon when the Amazon meets the Atlantic Ocean. This noisy impact is a metaphor for the meeting of salty and sweet, the meeting of colours like dark and light. It is a meeting of unknown elements, a metaphor for the meeting of different cultures here in Brazil.
Can you explain your art project »Residency Resistance«?
I have had my company for 20 years and I also created in Brazil a dance festival in the 90s. I have directed for 14 years and been a professional dancer since I was 18 years old. So I am quite experienced as an artist and besides that I have a family and three kids. In 2003 I asked myself what I really want to do now as an artist. To whom am I going to show my pieces? I realized that the contemporary art and dance world is such a small world. I was tired of meeting the same people who read the same books and were interested in the same subjects. I felt so apart of the lives of other people in Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro is a huge city and I was wondering if it was possible to create a dialogue that was not a part of this contemporary art world. Or is my work only for the bourgeoisie, always the same festivals in Europe, touching the same people? I had a feeling that I needed to do something in this Brazilian society with this enormous inequality between the rich and the poor. I had everything because I was born into a middle-class family. I could travel, learn languages and choose to be an artist. So I needed to do something.
I worked together with a dramaturge called Silvia Soter who was involved with a social project in a big favela called Maré with 150 000 inhabitants. Because of its geographical situation - Rio de Janeiro has a lot of mountains - we have favelas in the city and not only at the periphery. In Rio it is very mixed, and imagine, we have 700 favelas there. This favela is between the airport and the centre of the city. You have to cross this favela when you want to get to the centre but you don't see the favela unless you know that they are there. You see only the beautiful city, so the favela people are kind of invisible. Silvia Soter introduced me to this NGO project in the favela run by people who where born in the favela and came back after finishing university. They created a kind of school where they prepare young people to be able to enter university. This NGO was from the beginning my partner in all my projects there. At the same time there were also a group of young dancers there and I paid a teacher for a few months. Then I decided that all the activities of my company had to move to the favela. So I built up a space for dance where I give classes for the young people and do rehearsals with my company everyday which I call »Residency Resistance«.
As an artist living in Brazil you have to resist, you have to be perseverant to be able to open a space for your work. It wasn't easy for me to be there because I didn't know anything about life in a favela. Is it possible to create a dialogue with people that are not used to going to theatre or seeing a dance piece? In the last nine years I have developed a lot of different projects. I went to another place and found a big place two years ago. This place had been abandoned for twenty years, completely destroyed. I am renting this place now together with this NGO and have called it »Art Centre for the Arts«. I wanted to put contemporary art on there.
Do you think it is a place where young people strengthen their body and mind so that sometime in the future they can escape the favela life?
I don't believe in anything like that. I don't believe that I am saving anyone from anything. I am there to create a space of art because in this part of the city there is nothing connected to art. There is no cinema, no theatre. I think it is necessary to offer something like that. There is a lot of culture in the favela but not this kind of contemporary art. We also have a lot of meetings and political discussions there with the inhabitants to create a sensibility for contemporary dance. We give free classes to the children and to older people, too. During a month for example we showed the people there the whole repertoire of our company. Two pieces a day, so the dancers had to dance for four hours. In between we would go to the bar and talk to the people.
So you must be well known inside the favela?
Not too much, they know us because we are different. We dress differently, sometimes the colours of our skin show that we are not from there. But we are very welcome there. The important thing is to stay there because they miss the people who stayed there. For example you get money to do a project to work in a favela for three months but then you never come back again. I think this is not good, you have to be able to build something that remains there. I decided to stay there, we have to persevere. Nowadays art projects are very fast moving. It is difficult to have something that lasts.
Who are the main activists and philosophers that you refer to?
I read a lot. Books are my favourite friends. I like to read poetry and philosophy a lot. All my artist friends I talk to influence me of course. I am a very curious person. I like to talk to people, to listen and to observe. I don't want to say names of authors or activists because when we say names we close doors. I don't follow any school of thought. I feel connected to Brazilian authors as much as I feel connected to European authors and authors from the United States. French cinema is another major influence.
Is doing research in general important for your work?
We do a lot of research. We read together, watch movies together. We do improvisations together. I don't even know sometimes what to do when I am alone, so I need to work with a group of people, to develop something together.
Do you have something like a kind of daily ritual to prepare for your work?
I like to read poetry a lot. It is so amazing, poetry makes me feel free. Always when I begin to work I read Lygia Clark who I mentioned before. Or the American poet E.E. Cummings. I like Jean-Luc Godard movies, I like to watch certain films several times. To prepare for the piece »Incarnat« that I showed here in Vienna I watched a movie from this Russian guy called Andrei Tarkowski at least ten times. So I have my darlings. But you know, as an artist you sometimes also have to kill your darlings. Sometimes you use your darlings and then you have to kill them.
How important is the architectural space for your work?
The space where we create a piece is very important. It can really change the way you move, the way you behave. So where you are living has a lot to do with the way you think, the way you act and move. My new piece »Pororoca« is very connected to this new part of my life in the favela. I was very shocked by this new reality in 2003 when I moved there. »Incarnat« was a portrait of this shock. I think »Pororoca« shows that we have, metaphorically speaking, arrived there. We understand more now about this new space, it has influenced our way to move and think.
Do you think dance is the purest expression of human creativity?
No, of course not. It is just a manifestation, representation of the human being. But it is no purer than any other activity. It is just for me a good way to express ideas.