Monday, 19 April 2010

Places of encounter

Photo taken from the website Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças

Last Saturday I saw Pororoca, the latest work by brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues, presented at Culturgest. Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças was formed 20 years ago. In 2007 it started a new project, Centro de Artes da Maré, at the Maré favela (slum area) in Rio de Janeiro, a place deprived of cultural institutions. That´s where Pororoca was created (an indian word for a natural phenomenon caused by the meeting of river and sea water, known in english as a bore) and that´s where the programme Dance for All takes place, offering free lessons of corporal expression and contemporary dance.

The company carries out its activity in partnership with a NGO that aims to prepare the favela youth for university and promote art and education projects. The inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro´s rich zone book by email and a mini van picks them up and takes them to the favela, where they attend, for free, the company´s shows, together with the local population. And thus, 'pororoca' takes place... “We are not here thinking that we are solving any problems or making a better future for all... What we aim is to build 'places between’, where one can meet, get to know and socialize with the ‘other’”, explained Lia Rodrigues during the conversation that followed the show.

The choreographer´s statement reminded me of another, by Daniel Barenboim, one of the founders of West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a project that involves israeli and palestinian musicians, as well as musicians from other arab countries and Iran (although not an arab country, one in conflict with Israel). So Barenboim said: "The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it”. One of the highlights of this orchestra, created in 1999, was the concert in Ramallah, on August 21, 2005.

Museums are also places of encounters, they create a space to meet the other and debate different realities, although many times they are seen ideally as neutral places. I thought about that when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Apart from presenting one of the best exhibitions on the Holocaust, the museum is actively involved in the prevention of genocide, through temporary exhibitions (at the time of my visit they had one on Darfur), through the project World is Witness, which bears witness to acts of genocide all over the world (except Palestine...), through publications and various other initiatives.

One more place of encounter was created in another museum related to the Holocaust, the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition free2choose questions the limits of basic human rights, such as the freedom of speech, and confronts visitors with situations where fundamental human rights clash, threatening, in some cases, the security in a democratic society.

There are many more examples. The International Slavery Museum in Livrepool, the District Six Museum and Robben Island Museum in South Africa, the recently inaugurated Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos in Santiago de Chile, the National Museum of the American Indian and Japanese American National Museum in the USA, Te Papa in New Zealand, to mention only a few. I see them all as places of encounters, for the celebration of diversity, difference, tolerance.

In the end of last year, during the annual meeting of INTERCOM (the International ICOM Committee for Museum Management), an international group of museum professionals endorsed the Torreón Declaration, in the homonymous mexican city: “INTERCOM believes that it is a fundamental responsibility of museums, wherever possible, to be active in promoting diversity and human rights, respect and equality for people of all origins, beliefs and background”. David Fleming, President of INTERCOM, wrote in an article in the Museum Practice (Issue 49, Spring 2010) regarding the declaration: “Gone are the days when museums have to stand aloof, pretending they are not part of the society they are supposed to serve, carrying on oblivious of their surroundings as though the culture they display has no political or social relevance. Museums need not be neutral spaces – they can be so much more”.

Those who attended Lia Rodrigues´s performance at Culturgest filled up the room where the conversation would take place after the show. Many people had to stand, others sat on the floor; there were various questions regarding the presence of the company in the favela, relations with the local community, the violence, the hope, the future. I felt once again that providing places of encounter, together with discovery, is what mainly gives sense to our work. Neither museums, nor theatres or orchestras or dance companies are social workers, therapists, peace forces, politicians, lawyers, priests... But they are (can be) 'places between’, places of encounter. And when this happens, the moment is special, for those who worked to make it happen and for those participating in it. This is what remains, what completes us, what makes us grow a bit more.

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