“Reality has adapted to this piece”

A conversation between Luiz de Abreu and Kerstin Schroth with the oral translation and transcription help of Calixto Neto.

I have seen your piece O Samba do Crioulo Doido the first time in Berlin in 2004. Could you share your thoughts behind the piece and how the idea to create this stage work back then was born? As much as your thoughts and the urgency to re-stage the work again in 2020.

What is behind the creation of the choreography of O Samba do Crioulo Doido are issues that I have reflected on since the mid-1980s. I am a black dance artist who has always been inside the context of white dance. This is the history of contemporary and modern dance in Brazil: it has always been connected to a white and intellectual elite. Black people rarely have the power of creation, the power of voice within groups and companies. The black body was always used to speak about white themes in choreographies. Therefore, Samba, in fact, is a synthesis of the reflections that I have been putting myself since the mid-1980s: about the black body in this world.

The play revolves around issues of race, gender, and the place of the black body in the contemporary scene. I felt that the changes that Brazil had been undergoing at that time, in the early 2000s, with the resumption and a new opening of Brazilian democracy, with a left-wing party in power, influenced some sectors of society. Regarding feminism, gender issues, LGBTQIA+, questions around blackness and the black movements. However, in the field of dance, I did not feel these same concerns because the black body is almost invisible in the contemporary Brazilian dance scene. So I started to make these reflections and create a black aesthetic discourse almost alone in that context. I started borrowing from other areas of knowledge the problematizations of the black body: in philosophy, in sociology, in the everyday world, in political movements. Because I was unable to build and maintain a dialogue regarding black aesthetics in the dance of that time.

Therefore, behind the creation of O Samba do Crioulo Doido are the concerns that Brazil was experiencing at that time, the desire for democracy, the construction of black speech, female speech, gay speech and black woman speech, that at that time didn’t even exist. Neither the black woman nor the black man on stage. Brazil as the background – the setting is the flag of Brazil – and the one who tells this story or who reflects and problematizes this story is the black body. I summarize in a simple sentence the urgency to present this show sixteen years later: reality adapts to a dance choreography, not the other way around. And sixteen years later, this piece still manages to problematize and question the different issues of the black body in the world, as much as the historical issues of Brazil, the question of racism, and the question of the place the black body takes in the society. The same flag that sixteen years ago was our redemption and our glory and our desire for democracy, for the construction of voices coming from women, homosexuals, and black people, it is the same flag which sixteen years later oppresses us. It is the flag that sends women back to the kitchen and black people to the lowest jobs, the flag that legitimizes the genocide of a black population and sends gays back to the closet or for a gay cure. And at the end, back to the colony.

How was it for you to transmit your material to another dancer/ choreographer, to re-work your piece together with Calixto Neto? Did the material change or is it exactly the same piece?

O Samba do Crioulo Doido is today for me no longer a dance choreography. I see this piece as a bedside book to which I always go back to and discover other things that are written there. The piece today serves as a background for me to develop other works. There are many things, many concepts within O Samba do Crioulo Doido, that I have not yet developed and that I start to develop in other works, in other writings. Therefore, the idea of transmitting this piece started in the early 2000s, when I put together a version of the show for ten black dancers from Salvador. The show was renamed O Samba do Crioulo Doido – Bahia version. The idea at that time was to have an aesthetic discussion involving ten dancers regarding the black body. In another context, as the original show was created with me alone within the São Paulo environment. The main idea was to develop the themes from the perspective of each dancer, how each one of them related to the themes in the piece. In other words, the final product of each dancer would be personal. I was not interested at that point in working from my original, samba solo, but only to use it as a driving force: ideas that motivate the creation of a show that talks about the black body.

In 2015, I thought about stopping performing O Samba do Crioulo Doido, which I performed for twelve uninterrupted years. Naturally, I started not to want to present it anymore. But people requested to see the piece again, perhaps due to the changing political scenario starting in 2015/ 2016, the democratic backlash Brazil faced. In this time, I started the process of transmitting the piece to another dancer, to Pedro Ivo Santos, who had danced in the group version in Salvador. We did three presentations. This was a first experience. Finally, at the end of 2019 I received the proposal to work with Calixto Neto. I accepted this offer driven by the idea of how to transmit a piece that is so personal to another body. We started working together. In addition, that moment coincided with my loss of vision. I lost my vision at the end of 2018 and started this work of transmitting O Samba do Crioulo Doido with Calixto in 2019, only a year later.

One of the first questions was: how am I going to transmit a dance piece that is movement based to another dancer? We thought of assistance and had help from people who served as my eyes. But I started asking myself, how could I be more present during this transmission? It could be by touch. This was a very important discovery. The whole process stopped being only a work of transmission, but addressed the question: how can a blind person develop work with movement and image? It opened many doors. This work of transmission with Calixto Neto was only possible because he is a dancer and choreographer who gave space for us to work from sharing of ideas. The work did not have much of a hierarchy between the creator and the performer, but it was a shared process. Despite being a new generation, being a young dancer, he has a lot of dance experience. Because he was born in a dance cradle that is the state of Pernambuco, which is culturally very rich, his family comes from dance, his mother was a dancer, and participated in very important professional groups. And he also begins to develop his personal work that questions and problematizes the black body. For me, the most important thing to share in a creation with a dancer/ choreographer today, is of course the question of the movement, but also and foremost I am interested in the way the person is thinking and questioning our world. In that sense, it was a joy for me to meet Calixto because it was a very rich and very equal dialogue, from which we both learned. During the process we said a lot that it was not just a transmission of movements, but a transmission of life, and that we are both learning from it.

The work with Calixto Neto was different from the one with the Bahia group. With that group we took my solo and simply tried to re-create it with the group. But this is impossible! From the moment the movements leave my body environment, the body of Luiz de Abreu who has created this environment, with this muscular memory of Luiz de Abreu and pass it on to Calixto Neto, the body environment of Calixto Neto, the muscle memory of Calixto Neto, it becomes something else! It will never be the same!

When it leaves one environment and goes to another, it is no longer the same. It opens the question of life itself, of generations. Because this is a transmission of knowledge of generations, it is a generational encounter: me transmitting knowledge to him and he transmitting knowledge to me. Both of us learning, two black men, but coming from different backgrounds. It is a dialogical relationship of listening, of understanding the context of one and the other, in a transatlantic diasporic dynamic that is found in O Samba do Crioulo Doido.

Your piece has been shown in Brazil and Europe over the years, could you speak about the reception this work has gotten both in 2004 and 2020, from different audiences?

Today in Brazil, the reception of pieces has become more controversial again, this can maybe be said even for the entire planet. I feel that nowadays, theater or festival directors are especially looking for shows that cause a certain controversy. It seems to me that there is a specific criterion to invite and present pieces these days. I see political questions and activism turned into a product for the market by this. O Samba do Crioulo Doido will only be invited if it responds to a certain type of controversy, and it will of course also suffer from censorship by organizers. The piece can be controversial, but to some extent, it cannot change structures or the institutions that are inviting this piece, nor political structures of a state on a higher level. Naturally, in the sixteen years of its existence, O Samba do Crioulo Doido was often punished, although most of its presentations happened under a left-wing government. But the punishment and rejection took place in environments with strong reactionary currents.

As an example: in 2000, I showed O Samba do Crioulo Doido in Serra da Capivara, an archaeological site in the state of Piauí, Brazil, an area protected by the army. In that presentation, officers from the army were present, people from the military police, deputies, city councilors and mayors from that region, as well as known representatives of the evangelical church and the governor of the state Wellington Dias from the left-wing party PT.

At first, the organizers wanted to prevent me from performing, asked me to cut out a scene from the piece. I did not remove the scene and presented the solo as I created it in front of these people. Well, it was the perfect setting for a great tragedy. I had to run from the city, escorted to Teresina, the state capital. All of this, with many negotiations with the governor, with the politicians of the time so that I would not be arrested. … in short, I took a big life risk presenting the piece in this rather strong reactionary environment. I tell this story to show you how controversial this piece has always been received and strongly rejected, while I was threatened. Only at that time, we (the black community) did not have the exposure that we have today. In fact, the point is, that controversy was not in fashion and was not being co-opted by the market. As in any political movement, the market co-opts them and turns them into products.

Today I feel that audiences are thrilled to see O Samba do Crioulo Doido. And it is a bit scary, because I imagined when I created it that in ten or twenty years the solo and its themes would have become obsolete. That it would have become an outdated piece, that it would no longer be able to answer the questions of the current time. Moreover, it is frightening to imagine – and I repeat again – how reality has adapted to this piece. And in a very powerful, exponential way. In Paris where the recreation of the piece was presented now in March, one of the spectators expressed her horror about how actual and present the questions from sixteen years ago are still today.

And Calixto is still taking the same risk as me back then in Serra da Capivara, with his body exposed. In Brazil today, I cannot present this piece, because organizers are hiring controversial shows, but only to a certain extent. Pieces are only invited as long as they do not interfere too much with the current structures. In this most reactionary phase in Brazil, which began after the coup of 2016 and escalated after Bolsonaro came to power, O Samba do Crioulo Doido was only shown three times. Now the doors for this piece in Brazil are closed, under the current circumstances. Especially because it is the naked body of a black man talking, who has been censored since he was born. So actually, no big surprise! This black body has been censored since birth; censorship is our daily life. Censorship has become a national affair today, because it has affected whites, blacks, privileged and non-privileged people. That is why it got in everyone’s agenda and only then became a national issue. In a sense, it has democratized Brazilian misfortune.

Interview conducted in July/August 2020.

O Samba do Crioulo Doido  was presented as part of Moving in November: Traces in November on November 10th and 11th, 2020.

Photo: Marc Domage