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Catching the spirit of Mendes and the Amazon

joe hill-gibbons
Joe Hill-Gibbins
Celebrating the legacy of Chico Mendes and Brazilian popular culture, the Young Vic and People's Palace Projects (PPP) are initiating Amazônia, a year-long season of events, workshops and productions in Brazil and London.

The season started with Young Vic director Joe Hill-Gibbins and Paul Heritage from PPP travelling to Rio Branco, Brazil in February to join in the Quadrilha workshops. Here is Joe's journal of the events.

Thursday 17 January 2008

I arrive in Rio Branco at midnight, after a seven-hour, two-flight trip across Brazil. We've travelled from Rio de Janeiro on the east coast to the Amazonian state of Acre, on the western extremity of the country.

They both have ‘Rio’ in their names (which means river), but these two cities, further apart than London and Moscow, couldn’t be more different.

The Rio we just left is a sprawling metropolis, a glamorous cultural centre immortalised in pop culture hits like ‘Flying Down To Rio’ and ‘The Girl From Ipanema'.

quadrilha dancer
A Quadrilha dancer
What little reputation this other Rio has is as a remote frontier town miles from the action. Despite their global ecological importance, the Amazonian states don't seem central to the Brazilian consciousness.

Yesterday when producer and director Paul Heritage and I were telling Cariocas (Rio locals) that we where leaving for Rio Branco, we were met with looks of incredulity. As one Ipanema sunbather put it: "Why would you do that?!"

We're going to work with a group of young people from Rio Branco's 'League of Quadrilha'. The Quadrilha is celebratory, high-energy dance which found its way from the royal courts of Europe to Brazil in the 18th century, becoming considerably less stuffy in the process (think country dancing meets Brazilian carnival).

This traditional dance form is of particular interest to us at the Young Vic, as in the middle of every Quadrilha the dancing pauses and a short dramatic scene is performed. This is traditionally a blackly comic scene about a wedding gone wrong, performed in a larger-than-life, panto-like style. This mix of dancing and dramatic scenes intrigues us and could be the perfect form for a family show at the Young Vic.

chico mendes
Chico Mendes
Acre was also the home of Brazil's most famous environmentalist. Chico Mendes was the rubber tapper from a tiny community in the Amazon who rose to international prominence when he spoke out against the deforestation that was threatening his peoples' way of life. Mendes' life story embodies so many of the issues surrounding climate change, including issues of personal responsibility and the idea that local battles can hold a global significance.

Mendes was shot dead in his home by cattle ranchers in 1988, and has since become a near-mythological figure in the region. At the airport baggage collection I see a man wearing a T-Shirt with Mendes' face on it and the slogan 'Chico Mendes Lives'.

I'll be working closely with Paul and five theatre practitioners from São Paulo. We're going to lead sessions for members of the Quadrilha League on three topics: costume making, how to use audio/visual equipment to document the Quadrilhas, and the dramaturgy of the wedding scenes. I'll be taking charge of the wedding workshop with Paul.

quadrilha wedding rehearsal
Quadrilha wedding scene
Could these short, comic scenes somehow incorporate contemporary issues, and specifically the threats to the environment in Acre?

And furthermore could this dramatic form, the short play inside a dance, somehow be used to tell the story of Chico Mendes?

Although I'm excited by these questions I'm also a little nervous. After all, who are we to run workshops about a traditional Brazilian art form? Is this an interesting cultural dialogue about a global issue, or is it some kind of liberal cultural colonialism?

Friday 18 January 2008

Our first session starts at nine. This is so we can get to work before the day really heats up. Even so I'm baking. I've never been particularly proud of my pale legs and don't own a single pair of shorts. I'm wearing black jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, and sweating like the gringo I am.

Our workshop group is great. What's impressive about the members of the Quadrilha League is their motivation. Every person has a full-time job so they have to rehearse their high-energy Quadrilhas in the evening, after a long day's work. They all bring energy and commitment to our workshop. After some silly warm-up games to break the ice I get them to perform some of their typical wedding scenes as a starting point for our work.

quadrilha rehearsal
Joe and Paul in Quadrilha workshop
It dawns on me that not that many people from England come to Rio Branco, or visit the League of Quadrilha. The first time I speak everyone starts laughing - the sound of English being so odd to their ears.

There's a great expectancy in the room. I have travelled several thousand miles from the land of Shakespeare, Churchill and Henry VIII to work with them. I can't help feeling the pressure to do something clever or miraculous to meet their expectations, like recite the St Crispin's day speech and sprout wings and fly around the room.

 

Saturday 19 January 2008

I borrow a pair of shorts from Paul. This may well be the first time I've worn shorts since 1990. Quickly I realise that here my pasty white legs and gingery hair are not a source of shame but the height of exoticism. One man stares at my legs and asks “is it cold where you come from?”

We start to address the question of whether ecological issues could be good material for the wedding scenes. First we brainstorm what the threats to the environment are in Rio Branco. We ask each participant to write down a shocking fact, a type of conflict and a burning question on three large bits of paper spread out across the room.

Next I give them the task of trying to incorporate this material into the scenes they performed yesterday.

quadrilha rehearsal
Quadrilha storytelling
The group prove to be incredibly imaginative. One scene has a harebrained groom throwing so much junk into the river that it clogs up and floods his house (his fiancé is not best-pleased). Another has two star-crossed lovers, a rubber-tapper and a lumberjack's daughter, whose decision to get married causes pandemonium.

What's great is that the introduction of the ecological theme doesn’t make the scenes too leaden or worthy. They still retain all the madcap energy and dark ironic humour of yesterday’s Quadrilha scenes.

I eat lunch with Netto, one of the costume workshop participants. He’s wearing a fake England football shirt with ROONEY written on the back.

He doesn't speak any English, and my Portuguese hasn't much improved in the last 72 hours, but somehow we're able to sustain an entertaining conversation by simply listing names of English and Brazilian footballers.

In the evening we visit two Quadrilha rehearsals. The first group are coincidentally, to our great astonishment, already rehearsing a Quadrilha scene about the life of Chico Mendes and are kind enough to give us the script.

Another group are rehearsing in a large sports hall that has been double-booked, and a game of football is simultaneously going on, in and around the dancing. It's fantastic to see the Quadrilha dancing in full flow. Their energy is so infectious and it's impossible not to smile as you watch. It's also clear to see how rural traditions are being celebrated through the dance. The men dress up as farm boys with suspenders and large straw hats and women wear pigtails and red-checkered dresses.

Sunday 20 January 2008

quadrilha standing group
Quadrilha dance
We talk with the group about the many mythical creatures of the Amazon forest. This seems important as members of the league talk about preserving local culture as much as they do protecting the environment. Or to be more precise, for them local culture and the environment are the same thing.

It's fantastic to hear the stories. There's a pink dolphin who turns into a man at night and seduces women; a giant river snake who hypnotises fishermen and Curupira, a guardian of the forest whose feet point backwards so hunters that follow his tracks always head in the wrong direction.

What's most amazing is that (unless I misunderstood what was being said) half the room believes the creatures exist. One girl confidently says that none of them are real. Except for the man-dolphin.

In the afternoon we bring all three workshops groups together to share their work. The energy in the room is fantastic. We show three of our environmentally-themed wedding scenes and they all get a great response (the comedy in two of the scenes having been enhanced overnight by the inexplicable inclusion of men in drag).

fashion show
Quadrilha fashion show
Then we have a fashion show of the environmentally-themed costumes that have been made. A makeshift catwalk is marked out and everyone triumphantly parades up and down in their costumes as Snap's ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ blasts out of the stereo.

The presence of the documentation workshop group, filming and snapping away with digital cameras, makes the event feel like a bona fide fashion show, and everyone leaves on a high.

The exchange of ideas over the last three days has been incredibly stimulating and inspiring. And although we're leaving tomorrow we'll keep in close contact with the league.

I can't wait to see what happens next.

 

Joe Hill-Gibbins

www.youngvic.org
www.peoplespalace.org


published in 2008

Amazônia events:

June 2008: Quadrilha Dance Competition, Rio Branco, Brazil

16 August 2008: FESTA! Dance and Community project at the Young Vic

See Patrick Neate's feature on Festa! and the Quadrilha in Acre in the Observer.

November 2008 - January 2009: Amazônia, the Christmas show at Young Vic

February - March 2009: Amazônia tours Brazil

 

Could these short, comic scenes somehow incorporate contemporary issues, and specifically the threats to the environment in Acre?

And furthermore could this dramatic form of the Quadrilha, the short play inside a dance, somehow be used to tell the story of Chico Mendes?

 

A group are rehearsing in a large sports hall that has been double-booked, and a game of football is simultaneously going on, in and around the dancing. It's fantastic to see the Quadrilha dancing in full flow. Their energy is infectious.

 

Who are we to run workshops about a traditional Brazilian art form? Is this an interesting cultural dialogue about a global issue, or is it some kind of liberal cultural colonialism?

 

One man stares at my legs and asks “is it cold where you come from?”

 

We talk with the group about the many mythical creatures of the Amazon forest. This seems important as members of the league talk about preserving local culture as much as they do protecting the environment. Or to be more precise, for them local culture and the environment are the same thing.

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