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Art

A theater of many idioms

Companhia Balagan combines pedagogical approaches with the multidisciplinary research of stage director Maria Thaís Santos Lima

Above, a scene from Recusa, an award-winning play that weaves together the company’s approaches

Alê CatanAbove, a scene from Recusa, an award-winning play that weaves together the company’s approachesAlê Catan

Early in life, stage director Maria Thaís learned to see others through the lens of their differences and to challenge deterministic contexts. The director, whose full name is Maria Thaís Santos Lima, comes from the small town of Piritiba in the Chapada de Diamantina in Bahia State. She prefers to call herself a sertaneja, or country girl. After she had already decided to dedicate herself to the theater in the 1980s, she chose not to use it as an expression of political activism. She stuck to this commitment during her stay in Russia, where she developed the components of her doctoral research on director Vsevolod Meierhold (1874-1940), her reference point and role model. What she learned from that experience became the rationale for the Companhia Teatro Balagan, established in 2000 by Santos Lima with the primary goal of conducting research, which would find its expression through performances and teaching.

These two currents, artistic and pedagogical, have coexisted ever since. During this period, the group of actors and collaborators at Balagan (which means “street fair” in Russian) brought seven plays to the stage, including the award-winning Recusa (Refusal) (2012), which weaves together the company’s two approaches. The newest production is Cabras – Cabeças que voam, cabeças que rolam (Goats – Heads that fly, heads that roll), which will run from February through March 2016 at the São Paulo Cultural Center. With war as a central focus, the production strengthens the foundations laid out in the debut of Sacromaquia (2000), and reinforced inTauromaquia (Bullfighting) (2004).

Tauromaquia

Chris Von AmelnTauromaquia…Chris Von Ameln

At the Balagan, the narratives unfold using different combinations of all the elements of stage production like physical movement, voice, music and set design, and the public is called upon to participate. “The idea is to prompt a discussion about why we have so much trouble accepting the other, when, in the end the other is part of us,” says Santos Lima, who is also a professor at the Department of Performing Arts at the University of São Paulo School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP).

The best example of this inquiry, Recusa, presents this theme in the context of indigenous culture, based on an actual occurrence in 2008, when two Indians from the Piripkura tribe, believed to be extinct, were contacted. This event became known to the company at the exact time that Santos Lima’s work was taking a different direction. Involved with teaching since the 1970s, she also remained close to her artistic vocation, whether dance, singing or film. “Doing the work would teach me that theater should not exist as a pure art form but rather should be influenced by other modes of expression,” she says.

In the 1980s, Santos Lima was a professor at the Laranjeiras Art Center (CAL) in Rio de Janeiro and worked as a body coach for several productions. At the time, actor training programs were strongly influenced by the Italian Eugenio Barba and his “Theatre Anthropology,” which places the actor front and center. “I was more interested in studying the relationship between the stage and the actor through other artistic practices than trying to find unity with the universal,” says Santos Lima. A short time later, she moved to São Paulo in order to start work on her master’s degree with critic and professor Sábato Magaldi at ECA-USP.

...Cabras, the most recent play: consolidating the spatial perspective that characterizes  Balagan

Alê CatanCabras, the most recent play: consolidating the spatial perspective that characterizes BalaganAlê Catan

During this phase, Santos Lima was still reluctant to direct. She helped to design and manage the innovative Escola Livre de Teatro (Free School of Theater) in Santo André (SP), where she met playwright Luis Alberto de Abreu, who regularly authored the plays put on by Balagan, such as the current production Cabras. In the late 1990s, Santos Lima traveled to Moscow to pursue a “split PhD,” where she conducted research on Meierhold and, at the invitation of Russian director Anatoli Vassiliev, was an artist in residence at the School of Dramatic Arts Theater in Moscow. Her work in Russia gave birth to Balagan, founded by actors and artists from different disciplines, such as the musician Fernando Carvalhaes and set and costume designer Márcio Medina, who has been responsible for all of the company’s productions since then.

The partnership between Santos Lima and Medina gave rise to a vision of space that characterizes the company’s productions, beginning with Sacromaquia, the first of a trilogy about cloistered life, where the characters are nuns. Tauromaquia deals with a cowboy’s daily life. Západ (2007), followed a period of exhaustive research. Only four years later, in 2011, a new play was produced. Prometheus – A tragédia do fogo (Prometheus – The Tragedy of Fire) is the tragic apex of a study that began with Recusa and ends with Cabras.

Balagan’s many idioms require specialized collaboration and connection to different academic domains, like semiotics and anthropology. “Balagan’s productions inspire a stunning immersion,” says Alexandre Mate, a professor at the Art Institute of the São Paulo State University (IA-Unesp). “Their rigorous approach is grounded in unique research that synthesizes all the constituent elements of theater.” Cassiano Sydow Quilici, a professor at the Art Institute of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), believes that Balagan is not only about research on controversial topics, as in Recusa – it is also about trying on another way of thinking and feeling.

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