WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR METAPHORS – Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo – part 2

São Paulo. Photo: Andreas Haglund

Back in São Paulo, MITsp, the international festival for dance and performance was entering its’ last day. I was in town to take soak in the abundance of performances and discursive events.
This is the second part of a two-part article series about the seven performances I saw at MITsp. Please read the first article for a more continuous line of thought, or jump in here, in the middle of thought.

Tropical Trans-Realitites

What are the processes of translation at stake when using lived experiences as artistic material? How is the qualitative difference between telling it as it is, and processing lived experience as abstraction, sensible? Is there time for metaphors? Profétiques (on est déjà né.es) is a performance by the Ivorian choreographer Nadia Beugré and the performers Beyoncé, Canel, Jhaya Caupenne, Taylor Dear, Acauã Shereya El Bandide and Kevin Kero. The performers have been hand-picked from the queer, trans-femme underground of Abidjan, the capital city of Côte d’Ivorie and were throwing a massive party on stage as the audience entered. While the MC Kevin Kero was chanting the ladies up, they each walked up the stage and showed off their moves or danced for their own pleasure. Some of the moves I could clearly read as voguing vocabulary and to read the others I turned to the program text which told me: “Hairdressers by day, dance floor divas by night, (…) inventing their own dances that, mixing voguing and coupé-décalé [Ivory Coast musical style]”. It’s a queerness highly specific to the Ivorian context and I was enjoying every second of a global phenomenon called queer ingenuity. The piece moved on with a dramatic get-ready-with me routine where the already femme-presenting performers got even femmer. Through dramatically putting on wigs, tucking their junk and beating their faces to Bolero the piece clearly stated, welcome to our world: This is the Transopocene. A term I’m borrowing from my friend and colleague alex blum’s gradutation work, the seminar Transopocene. Which was “a week’s study of how to live and thrive in a cis economy. In this ongoing End of the World, the cistem is crashing, and we’re throwing an afterparty in the ruins of gender.” Although I wasn’t present for the seminar, the concept of centering one groups’ experience by use of the suffix ‘cene’ resonated as I sat there witnessing another after-party in the ruins of gender. Celebrating the very existence of trans-feminine people that according to the program text: “cruise between genders with great freedom, even inserted in a very patriarchal society that, at best, pretends not to see them”. Even though the project was initiated and authored by Beugré, Profétiques was the performers world.

The piece continued with personal stories of imprisonment, sex work, love affairs and direct addresses of the political situation in both Brazil and Côte d’Ivoire. They also engaged in queer activities such as reading each other to filth, running around on all fours barking and ugly-singing Man Down by Rihanna. It was a playful space developing in front of me that seamlessly flowed between abstract dance and concrete story-telling. Susy Shock’s quote “We don’t have time for metaphors” kept haunting my experience as the brazilian performer Acauã Shereya El Bandide threw candy at an audience screaming in agreement to her statements about political rights for gender non-conforming people. 

What are the processes of translation between direct speech and artistic material? How can political speech be conceived as artistic material? Who owns the stage and what discourse, and aesthetic of artistic production is given space? These questions run around my head as I think of another of Nadia Bergué’s pieces, L’homme rare, which I saw at Impulstanz during the summer of 2022. This piece was also an exploration of gendered performativity, of femininity in AMAB-bodies [Assigned Male at Birth-bodies]. That piece worked primarily through dance and didn’t include any explicit references or speech of socio-political struggle. The cast of L’homme rare, or perhaps just their costumes, were less femme presenting than in Profétiques. When I left L’homme Rare I remember feeling slightly disappointed, as if something in the exploration of femininity for these men felt forced at worst and slightly enlightening at best. In retrospect, it was a piece also discussing somatic gendered politics but doing so without addressing the performers lived experiences explicitly. I don’t believe lived experience is a necessary ingredient in art-making, but if one engages with topics that do spring out of the performers lives, being explicit can serve the work. Profétiques really understands and works through this. However, the discrepancy between the two works make me want to ask questions like: “Is there a correlation between the severity of social oppression and explicity on stage?” and “If there is no time for metaphors (which is again a, by me, projected statement) how is explicit, politically charged material conceived and worked with as artistic material?”

As Profétiques (on est déjà né.es) came to end there was something in Bergué’s continous desire to work with marginalized groups while reffering to them as ‘lost people’ that made me queasy. Who was this piece really for? But my western queer-feminist linguistic habits were challenged and quickly evaporated when a lump of tears appeared in my throat. Brazil is the country in the world where the most transwomen get murdered yet there I stood in an immense sea of support; the piece ended with a jubilant standing ovation. During the franco-lusophone after-talk I got even more moved by listening to what ways this project had changed the lives of the individuals that took part in it. One had gotten the courage to start their gender-affirming care and another was able to take a desired and consious break from sex work. Between queer artistic ingenuity and social support, it seems to me that Profétiques (on est déjà né.es) manages to be an articulation of a Transopocene, a trans-centered world-building exercise, that in some senses is prophetic. It carved out an open socio-cultural space for stories often buried underground. When a subaltern speaks there is a lot for the privileged to learn about the global social systems of oppression.

A Crip Orientation, Erotic Socio-Somatic Wisdom

The theatre piece Meu Cuerpo Está Aqui (My body is here) by Rio de Janeiro based Julia Spadaccini & Clara Kutner started with a monologue by the performer Bruno Ramos in Brazilian sign language. While the other three performers (and the sign language interpreter), Haonê Thinar, Juliana Caldas and Pedro Fernandes were sitting behind Bruno, staring defiantly at the audience. The monologue was not translated to spoken language, to make the point that this, is a crip-centered space. The four performers have different crip lived experiences, Bruno is deaf, Haonê has one leg, Juliana has dwarfism and Pedro is wheelchairbound with cerebral palsy. These lived experiences, and the erotics they allow, are central to the piece.

The piece continued when Juliana Calda came to the front of the stage and shocked us all. She began to talk explicitly about her sexual desires, how she wanted to suck cock, get fucked and spanked. It was a long monologue where her clothes flew off and where she was rubbing her tits while staring defiantly at the audience. She was slapping her own ass and made masturbatory gestures in the air as she talked about what she would do with this imagined man of hers. The monologue was witty, hot, and really set the stage for the rest of the piece. We passed through several scenes where the performers shared the ups and downs of sex and love from their lives. We got to hear how dates have stood up on one of them in person because of deafness. We got to hear how one of them have been forced to date secretly, because their partner was ashamed. We got to hear how one of them bought sex to access the intimacy they desired. We got to hear how people take pictures of one of them in public. But we also got to hear about how the same person that took unsolicited photos got beaten up by one of the performers. We also got to hear about how one of them came out and found heaven in lesbian sex. We also got to hear how one of them re-reads Snow White and the seven dwarfs as an orgy-laden paradise. All the stories (except perhaps Snow White) seemed to spring directly from the performers lived experiences and they were all touching, devastating, entertaining and hot. In Meu Cuerpo Está Aqui, telling it like it is became the art form. Which voices need the stage for producing empathy?

The piece really put the hammer on the nail with its’ ending. The attention was suddenly turned to audience when Juliana Caldas, entered the proscenium to ask audience members to share their personal sexual stories. She approached people at random, asking if they had an erotic memory they would like to share. Oscillating between tentative shyness and bold bragging, several audience members shared their stories. Juliana was commenting along and encouraged the audience members to go deeper, to share more details. While still respecting no’s she continued to tease the audience with a gaze that seemed to ask, ‘Is your body here?’ When asking from the position of erotic power that she embodied earlier, having the question turned to the audience was, in my reading, a Crip triumph. After hearing about how intimately the four actors were aware of how their socio-somatic reality is part of producing and limiting their erotic desires, Julianas teasing gaze was really saying: ‘Look what society forced me to process about my own body and my desires; Look at how far I’ve come in articulating these desires and inhabiting my body. Have you?’ or ‘My body is here, is yours?’.

It was with the hint of these questions in Julianas gaze that I started to see the traces of a conception of a Crip sexuality. Not to be understood as the sexual attraction to, or of, crip people, rather I saw the traces of a socio-somatic sexual wisdom that could, in the spirit of Sarah Ahmeds Queer Phenomenology, be conceptualized as a sexual orientation. A crip orientation. What if it’s not Crip bodies that are ‘challenging norms’? But abled-bodied desire being taken for granted, the sexual practices not challenged enough so as to go only by default anatomy or not explore the multitude of sexual options possible? ‘Meu Cuerpo Está Aqui’ is not only here to represent crip stories, which it does with splendor, but also to challenge monotone abled-bodied sexuality.

The Calamity and the Calm of an Emergency

The last piece I saw at the festival was Gente De Lá (People From There) from the Fortaleza-based multidisciplinary artist and activist Wellington Gadelha. The program text described the work as ‘a poetic moment of accusation and affront (…) a black, ghetto, urban and transversal scenic action’. And it does nothing but live up to that promise. When entering the theatre room, Gil-Scott Herons’ canonic track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was being blasted loudly whilst the phrase “ISTO É UMA EMERGÊNCIA” (THIS IS AN EMERGENCY) was blinking in sharp red capital letters on a black wall. This set an intense tone in the room, framing whatever was to come as something of grave importance. Cleverly enough, Wellington used this charged up atmosphere to begin the piece by calmly singing a soft lullaby, flying a black kite in silence, and systematically wrapping up red t-shirts in black plastic bags with soothing precision. He was doing all this while looking members of the audience in the eye. There was a calmness to his movement and an aesthetically clinical vibe to the space that became extremely uncanny. Because the context of the piece was clear, this was about the racialized violence of the suburbs, a periferia, the favelas. The piece was produced with reference to the deaths that take place each year, by intra-gang violence and police brutality. Similarly to the United States, due to the heritage of a plantation economy and its’ enslavement of African people, there is a correlation between class and race in Brazil. Dispossessed people living in favelas are more likely to be descendants of enslaved Africans whilst the people living in gated communities inside cities are more likely to have Portuguese, Italian or German heritage. This extreme socio-economic disparity is a primary source of conflict and violence in Brazil, which has the highest homicide rate in the world. A statistical reality where black people disproportionally die in larger numbers. In other words, an emergency.

Wellington was gentle when he was rolling four red t-shirts into each their black plastic bag. Making sure they were all equally neatly folded up. It took time, and the silence was loud while the emergency-sentence still was flashing on the wall and four carefully placed police lights flash in their characteristic blue lights. Suddenly he put the box knife he used to wrap the t-shirts on the floor before putting himself in one of these plastic bags. Funk, a Brazilian music genre originating from the favelas, at 150 BPM started playing as he rolled slowly through the space. He rolled over the box knife several times, without it hurting him. As the music kept slapping us with its’ contagious rhythm and explicit lyrics Wellington danced the plastic bag to pieces. The performativity stayed on a thin line between nihilistic, escapist and celebratory as he continued his improvised-dancing to the baile funk tracks. Although Wellingtons dancing was teetering at the edge of catharsis, there was never a moment of full release. As soon as he built up an energy, he stopped dancing and moved somewhere else. With an excited and teaseful look he seemed to say, ‘I’m not here to dance for your pleasure’.

On the two edges of the long stage, two of these plastic bags were hanging full of something that unmistakably resembled bags used for corpses. It was a harrowing imagery. Suddenly, Wellington breaks out of the dance, grabs the box knife and with careful determination he slices the bags open. Sand fell and landed on speakers playing Billie Holidays ‘Strange Fruit’. The speakers bounced the sand off and down to the floor as the police lights continued turning through Holidays heart-crushing tune. The imagery stayed clinical. There was a harrowing effect to the level of simplicity and ‘of-course’-ness that Wellington used to perform all the actions of the piece. When violence is every-day, a state of emergency is the norm. Again, as a total foreigner and guest in the Brazilian context, there was something chilling and heart-wrenching about watching Wellington allude to all these images of extreme violence and disruption without raising an eyebrow.

Although Susy Shock iconic sentence ‘We don’t have time for metaphors’ has served as my framework for thinking through this festival. It is obvious that this is not an absolute. I read Gente De Lá as a brilliant exercise in using staged metaphors to aesthetisize and poetically process lived experience. Through the tension between the clinical, the calm and the calamitous of this ‘poetic moment of accusation’ Wellington Gadelha managed to convey complex structures of grief, despair, and revolutionary anger to someone so far removed from the context as I, a white middle-class Scandinavian who’s never bore witness to this kind of violence. But not only do these staged acts serve as metaphors, they also seem to tease out somatic practices that encompass a sensibility of the periphery. Meaning a skill-set only accessible to those who have the lived experience of the favelas.

Finally, as a European, following the development of the genocide in Gaza with horror. It had a strikingly large effect when Wellington co-opted his own applause by not bowing but instead holding up the Palestinian flag. Whilst the standing-ovation raged on he proceeded to carefully and precisely wrap the flag up in a black plastic bag, just as with the red t-shirts. It was highly effectful and weaved together the two experiences of ghettoized locations, Brazilian favelas and the Gaza strip. Personally, I experience a huge difference in my proximity to these two struggles. But since the Palestinian right to liberation and their homeland has been so vividly discussed in the last 6 months, in a flash it was easier for me to understand the cultural and emotional weight of the fundamentally working-class and afro-brazilian struggle that Wellington Gadelha brought to the stage. 


In the beginning of these two articles, yet in the end of the festival, I scribbled down Susy Shocks sentence “Nós não temos tiempo para metáforas” in the same moment it was uttered. The sentence manages to trace a conceptual trail through the seven performances. Shows filled with the potency of lived experience, socio-politically informed choreography and emotional intelligence and generosity. I carry with me a long set of questions from this experience. Centered around lived experience, identity, translation and artistic practice, these questions reflect my position of coming to São Paulo and watching the works as a cultural outsider. But they also hint at trends of topic and practice that are present in my everyday context too, that of Northern and Central Europe. Questions like: “How do artists articulate methodologies to translate lived experiences to artistic material?”, “How do these very processes of translation constitute artistic practice?”, “How are mechanisms of commodification present when artists perform vulnerability? Who stands to gain from artists exposing personal and collective traumas?”.

MITsp was a festival that proposed art as a place for self-realization in Profétiques, a place for processing familial trauma in Told by My Mother, a place for practicing the politics of minoritized spiritual practice in Lanca Cabocla, a place for pirating normative narratives in Meu Cuerpo Está Aqui, a place for processing the impact of structural violence in Gente de Lá and a place for somatic speculation in O Que Mancha and Eu Não Sou Só Eu em Mim. The seven works I saw were in one measure or another dealing with questions of identity, agency, subjectivity, and the qualitative sociopolitical relations that produce these phenomena. This festival provided me with equal measures of confusion and questions as it did answers and insights. In the spirit of that very experience, I’ll finish this text with some questions that kept re-appearing in my notebook. There are traces of answers sprinkled throughout these two articles. What are the material realities and processes that produce personal agency? That produce subjectivity? That produce personhood? How does artistic practice substitute and complement these realities?

Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo

More from Andreas Haglund