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Lia Rodrigues: Brazil's traumas through dance

September 29, 2021

Having made dance accessible to slum residents in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian visionary artist is now being honored by a prestigious German award.

A woman with curly hair looks into the camera
Rodrigues taps into the pain and powerlessness of Brazilians to create her dance piecesImage: Companhia de Danças/dpa/picture alliance

With contorted faces and twitching bodies, dancers come together, push each other away, and sway while blood spurts. The movements appear like a mix of attack and defense, closeness and revulsion.

The excerpts from the dance piece Furia by Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues reveal the choreographer's concern with strong colonial and racist distortions.

Like other countries of the so-called global south, Brazilian society is dealing with traumas resulting from colonial violence. And Rodrigues' works taps into the ongoing pain, anger and powerlessness.

Wounds that never heal

"How can I show them, the realities of the insurmountable barriers of inequality?" the choreographer asks in a 2016 film clip. "They are like wounds that never heal. Open and full of pus."

Racism,violence, power and powerlessness are not the only themes that Lia Rodrigues deals with in her pieces. She also makes a statement about breaking down barriers in dance through her choice of collaborators: people of the most diverse origins, genders, and body shapes work in her company.

Solidarity with the poorest

For her efforts, Rodrigues was honored by the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of the German Catholics' Art and Culture Award on September 28.

"Political art, or perhaps 'politicizing art,' is more necessary than ever before. Art like Lia Rodrigues'," said DW director Peter Limbourg in his speech honoring the artist. "Lia Rodrigues moves in a tradition that is also a tradition of Christianity: to resist oppression, discrimination and exclusion without violence."

Rodrigues' dance pieces "arise from solidarity with the poorest, with those excluded by racism and discrimination. The choreographer understands dance as a basic form of human education that is for everyone," the jury said in explaining its choice of Rodrigues as the award's recipient. Through this, Lia Rodrigues shows a unique combination of "great artistic dance work with a humanitarian commitment arising from the firm belief in the transformational power of dance."

Bringing dance to the slums

Lia Rodrigues was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 1956. After training in classical ballet, she danced with various companies in Brazil and France.

She founded the Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas in Rio de Janeiro in 1990. It was initially for classical dancers trained at the academies. But in 2004, she opened the company to talented dancers from the favelas, the Brazilian slums.

Right on the edge of the Favela de Mare in Rio de Janeiro, Rodriguez initiated the Centro de Artes da Mare and the Free School of Dance in 2009, where dancers have trained and rehearsed together ever since. She is also interested in giving young people — who otherwise would not have had the opportunity — access to the field of dance and a way off the streets.

A man carries a woman on his shoulder
Rodrigues' piece 'Formas Breves' being performed in 2004 at a dance festival in BremenImage: Ingo Wagner/dpa/picture-alliance

Welcome financial support

Lia Rodrigues' pieces have had an impact far beyond South America and have been staged many times in Europe. She has particularly close ties with France.

The artist and her group have followed the election and leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with great concern. Many of the already rare cultural subsidies have been cancelled without replacement since 2019. Rodrigues' company has since been financed almost exclusively by European funding.


A woman in black sits on a green couch
Cultural subsidies in Brazil were canceled in 2019 — and have not been available since, affecting Rodrigues directlyImage: Lia Rodrigues/Companhia de Danças

The COVID pandemic has hit Brazil hard, especially the favelas, affecting Rodrigues' dance company as well.

Rodrigues' last project, Nororoca, premiered in January 2020 but has been on hold since. It is a further development of Rodrigues' 2009 piece, Pororora, now performed by the white dancers of the Norwegian Carte Blanche dance company. It will be shown in Paris in November.

Endowed with prize money of €25,000 ($29,235), the German Catholics' Arts and Culture Award has been presented every two to four years since its inception in 1990. It is the German Catholic Church's highest honor in the cultural sector.

"This prize money can help the Companhia make up for several canceled international performances and prepare new productions for the time after," says Rodrigues, who is the second woman to be honored with the award, following the selection of German screenwriter Ursula Ehler-Dorst in 2008.

This article was translated from German.