When It Breaks It Burns presented by coletivA ocupação and Battersea Arts Centre
What is it?
Good question. It’s an experience for the audience, a testimony for the performers. We start off huddled in the foyer of the Battersea Arts Centre before being summoned upstairs by a neon performer who rallies us into a call-and-response. Despite being cold and confused, the whole audience is eventually cooing back at him, delighted. The rest of the show is a piece of dance-theatre which remains immersive throughout (I almost get a kick to the eye at one point). It’s predominantly in one room, but we are initially sat on chairs scattered around randomly, with no audience/actor divide, and are shuffled around the space.
What Is It About?
The piece is inspired by the 2015 school strikes in Sao Paolo, when the government’s threats to shut down almost 100 high schools prompted teenagers across the city to occupy their own schools. Many of the performers of this piece were themselves occupiers, and When It Breaks is a vivid recreation of the heady days they spent planning and carrying out the occupations. Although we do get brief time checks (5am on the first day of the occupation...9am....day 2 of the occupation), it’s less a narrative than a series of moments. There’s a brilliant dance-off, a 3am segment where they share worries, and a bit in which they discuss LGBT rights in a tantalising seduction duet.
How Did It Make Me Feel?
The idea of ‘dance theatre’ can send shudders down some people’s spine, but there’s nothing reverent about this piece. Rather, it’s an explosion that revels in its own messiness, and, squeezed into the BAC’s echoey Council Chamber, we, the audience, are right in there with them. The opening moments are electrifying as the performers start to shudder in their seats before flinging themselves around us, their sweat licking our skin. The show is too personal to call them a cast - at one point they show us pictures of themselves taken before the occupation and point out their bad hair days. Hair features a lot in this show, particularly as something that's racialised. A repeated refrain is 'the first person they arrest will be black', and their anger towards the state becomes localized around racial and class injustice. This aspect is unfocused though; the piece is uninterested in becoming a polemic, and where the production really glows is in its defiant sense of hope. The show balances well the energetic optimism of youth with the sincerely dire circumstance of the schools occupation. Amidst all the neon and pumping dance-offs it never let us forget the ring of police outside, or the sense of uncertainty under the surface.
The night I see it a group of grouchy, reluctant teenagers are in the audience. At one point, they have to hastily split apart as the mob of performers heads towards them, and the look of sudden panic on their faces is hilarious. Despite the farce, though, this moment really spoke to the poignancy of the show; these were the teenagers that Sao Paolo’s occupiers were, before they were forced to be politicised.
Grace AK x
When It Breaks It Burns is playing at Battersea Arts Centre until the 29th February 2020.
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