Fifteen years ago, a young man in a working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro posted a video from a family barbecue on YouTube. It showed him weaving around his friends in quick, slick steps as he danced to a hip-hop beat. Children stared; adults took out their cameras.
The Brazilian was dancing a passinho, or little step, a style that had already been circulating through baile funk parties – banned favela “funk balls”. The YouTube post ignited an online trend. Countless videos of young dancers appeared, in a torrent of interpretations that reimagined passinho through capoeira, samba and hip hop.
“It was something born completely in an internet world: a mash-up,” says the choreographer Alice Ripoll, who is based in Rio. She works regularly with Cia Suave, a group of dancers from the city’s slums. Their collaboration Zona Franca, a thrilling large-scale dance about a young generation facing off against a darkening world, is the opening show for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, which begins on Thursday.
With passinho there was something very open. The dancers were very young and could understand a way of being on stage, of the relationship with the floor— Alice Ripoll, choreographer
The Cia Suave company was born in the creative fires of passinho. In 2014, the director of the city’s Panorama dance festival commissioned Ripoll to create a performance using passinho with the community of a poor district, and then to stage it in the neighbourhood. The result was Suave, an absorbing dance that oscillates between thrilling group scenes and quieter conceptual moments when dancers use the nimble footwork of passinho to traverse a cold, dark oblivion. The cast, some of whom were only 18, articulated the hardship of the favelas even while revealing their own infinite energy.
Along the way, passinho unlocked something creatively. Ripoll traces this back in part to the Brazilian funk she heard at the soul-music parties of her youth – she likes to chart her country’s innumerable street-dance styles, to chronicle where they came from and how they developed. “I had a lot of experience working with hip-hop dancers, and I felt something very resistant and closed – to other techniques, to enter contemporary dance,” she says. “With passinho there was something very open. The dancers were very young and could understand a way of being on stage, of the relationship with the floor, of mixing in the theatricality. It was not difficult for them.”
She says her own training at the Angel Vianna dance centre, which allows non-dancers to enrol, encouraged an openness to new possibilities. So, for example, when she was thinking of inviting a 26-year-old pole dancer named Katiany Correia to audition, she ignored people who didn’t think it was a good idea as Correia had no contemporary-dance experience. Intrigued after seeing videos of Correia dancing at parties, Ripoll ultimately offered her a place in Cia Suave.
Other members of the group have been involved since the beginning, including Rômulo Galvão, a regular performer who has a background in contemporary dance and acting, and who helped develop Suave beyond the quick burn of passinho as it is seen in baile funk. “Passinho is a dance you do for two minutes and then you can’t do it,” Ripoll says. “I had the challenge of creating a one-hour piece. If a dancer were doing choreography, Rômulo would enter and improvise, and helped create the universe of the piece.”
What is the difference between them and people in the city who don’t live in favelas – who are white, can study in a good school and have good opportunities?— Alice Ripoll
Ripoll is particularly conscious of her young dancers’ lives. In 2017 an alternative arts festival in Rio asked her to create a dance responding to the damaging effects of the city’s decision to host the Fifa World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, the urban development for which had triggered the gentrification of poor areas. She says she felt embarrassed to present the commission to her young cast in this way, as if harmful legacies were a recent phenomenon: the dancers had been navigating them all their lives.
“I felt like I had to take a step back and change the question. Let’s talk about the legacies of the city that have existed since they were born. What is the difference between them and people in the city who don’t live in favelas – who are white, can study in a good school and have good opportunities?” she says. The dance they created, aCORdo, became a sombre quartet about police brutality that they had seen during what amounted to unofficial border patrols of the favelas.
Last year, most young voters in Brazil cast their ballots to replace Jair Bolsonaro, their far-right president, with the socialist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – an event that extended to Dublin, where thousands of Brazilian residents of Ireland filed into Croke Park to cast their votes.
Ripoll finished creating Zona Franca as that younger generation celebrated Bolsonaro’s defeat. But not all members of Cia Suave felt promise in that political shift, she says. “The problems here in Brazil are very deep. In the generation of their grandparents and parents, you cannot feel a resolution for hard problems, so it’s something difficult for them to have hope.”
Some of the dancers follow politics and others don’t, Ripoll says, nonjudgmentally. “They don’t read newspapers, and they get informed by social media, and not real information.”
Zona Franca draws on such social change. Its name refers to Brazil’s “free zones”, where taxes were waived as an economic incentive. Ripoll visited them as a child; she recalls her father buying a videocassette player when they were otherwise much more expensive to purchase. She and the group extended the concept to think about the boundlessness of the internet and about the cultural exchange it has made possible. Ripoll wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to dance in styles from other parts of Brazil, for example, but TikTok and other social media have given the online generation a freedom that allows them to experiment with different dance cultures.
One of those is brega funk, a dance, popular in northern Brazil, that turns displays of violence and risqué sex into empowering gestures. In the process of creating Zona Franca, Ripoll had to embrace the reinterpretations of dance styles that online exchanges brought about. “It’s something you can’t control,” she says. “When I’m using the funk in rehearsal, I need to know who originally did it, and nobody knows. We find that a DJ did a part of it, a singer sang a few words. You don’t control who is owner of the steps.”
That led them to create a spectacle that looks beyond Rio to other parts of Brazil. Ripoll says it broadens the young dancers’ horizons in the process. “I like the words ‘zona franca’ to express what we are looking for, more than a theme or a subject: it’s a free zone. With each new piece with this group I feel we go one step more looking for freedom.”
Zona Franca, the opening show of Dublin Theatre Festival, is at the O’Reilly Theatre, at Belvedere College, from Thursday, September 28th, to Saturday, September 30th