Nice sliding and sliding over a wet surface. A body covered in handfuls of soap suds. A party of exuberant, soaking wet dancers and flying white flakes of bubbles. Lovely to watch, isn’t it. This is usually the case in other performances where the performers get wet. But in washing (‘washing’) by the Brazilian Alice Ripoll, which can be seen on Thursday evening at the Julidans festival, there is a dark edge to the playful display. Something stinks.
No, washing is not about the endless handwashing and doorknobs of the past year and a half, says Ripoll from Switzerland. “But it seems somewhat prophetic, even with those face masks.” A year later than planned, she travels through Europe with her company Cia Rec, where her work has been shown before, including in Julidans. Performances in which the raw reality of Brazilian society slumbers beneath the colorful, festive surface and sometimes erupts violently.
The experiences of the dancers, professionals and amateurs, are often the starting point. In Create For example, Ripoll worked with young people from the favelas: a performance that is as swinging as it is abrasive, with dance from the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where Ripoll has its home base. washing was made with professional dancers, also from the ghettos of the world’s number one carnival city.
Two years ago, before the corona crisis broke out and hit (and still is) particularly hard in Brazil, one of the dancers suggested the idea of working with soapy water as a movement catalyst. Ripoll, himself a descendant of European immigrants: “When we improvised with it, I saw how the suds change the dark color of their skin. That brought me to the relationship with the many black cleaners in Brazil, the racism they experience. There is a paradox: they are the ones who make sure that the houses of the elite are clean, but that same elite sees them as old garbage.”
She saw another contradiction. Cleaning means, Ripoll says, removing everything related to normal functions of every human body. Odors, mucus, sweat, blood, etc.; anything associated with completely natural actions, such as sex or birth. During childbirth, optimal hygiene rules and extremely primitive physicality come closer than ever. Hence the scene in which dancers fight their way out of a tangle of bodies. The cleaner the better, we tend to think, but that is essentially contrary to nature.”
In Rio, a stream of people – especially women: mothers, mothers-in-law, aunts and sisters – moves every day from the favelas to the ‘neat’ neighborhoods of the wealthy, predominantly white elite. Who prefers to ignore the guardians of their hygiene, as if they were invisible, or at least anonymous. The masks in the performance therefore do not refer to hygiene, but to social hierarchy.
With her dance performance Ripoll wants to make visible the persistent consequences of the history of Brazil, colonization and slavery. The fetid undercurrent of bustling Brazil, where race and class – as in Europe, she emphasizes – are closely linked, although Ripoll, as a white Brazilian modest, refrains from making too firm statements. After all, she has no personal experience with racism. “I listen to the dancers’ stories.”
She is sure that things have not improved under Bolsonaro, on the contrary. What the left-wing Lula government brought improvements for the black and indigenous population has been reversed by the current president. After a short recovery, the disadvantaged groups seem back to square one. The way out of their miserable circumstances is as slippery as the floor on which the dancers lie washing struggle.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 15, 2021