ICAF in Brazil: Estopô Balaio in São Paulo

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. This is their journey.

On Friday April 29, Anamaria and I went to Bras train station to join an unusual community performance by an arts collective called ‘Estopô Balaio’. The name is a slang term from Northeastern Brazil and means so much as ‘an unstoppable urge to express’. The group operates from a house in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of São Paulo: Jardim Romano. Most residents there are migrants from the Northeast and their barrio regularly floods whenever it rains, causing great devastation and havock.


The play, entitled The City of Invisible Rivers is based on authentic experiences of neighbourhood residents. It is the result of a beautiful, reciprocal collaboration with locals and a small nucleus of professional artists, including theatre makers, musicians and visual artists who themselves have roots in the Northeast. They have been working in Jardim Romano [‘Roman garden’] for the past 5 years and have succeeded in establishing a very strong rapport with the community. They offer all manner of arts courses, organize block parties once a month, and have co-created the material for this show together with a group of local youngsters. The result is a stunning performative journey through this amazing area, giving colour and poetry to the environment and bringing out the beauty, the talent, and indeed the magic of what well-to-do outsiders perceive as a no-go area. The sheer love, commitment, creativity and high-level participatory art that artistic director João Junior and his collective bring to this place is a testimony to the incredible power of community art that is integrated fully in the daily life of a community.

Schermafbeelding 2016-05-01 om 19.44.40

Estopô Balaio Website | Facebook


ICAF in Brazil: Fortaleza – São Paulo – Florianopolis

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. This is their journey.

lecture audience UDESC

UDESC University

On Tuesday, Anamaria and I travelled from Fortaleza to the South. After a 3 and a half hour flight, Anamaria got out in São Paulo and I (Eugene) travelled on for another hour to the beautiful state of Santa Catarina. Upon arrival, a southern cold front from the Arctic has caused a huge flood in Florianopolis, causing local traffic to come to a standstill. Fortunately, my host, Dr. Marcia Pompeo from UDESC university, managed to get through and take me to her home in the small lakeside town of Lagoa da Conceição. After dropping off my bags, we immediately went to see a community theatre show in the covered backyard of a primary school. The cast consisted of three generations of local residents. It was their second performance of the evening.

The first show, which took place an hour or so earlier, had been interrupted by a power blackout, prompting the audience to light the stage with their mobile phones. The play, collectively created by the participants under guidance of one of Marcia’s PhD students, was entitled E se eu fosse um Camarão [‘if I were a shrimp’]. In a style that reminded me of Argentinian community theatre (with lots of choral singing and acting with occasional brief dialogues), the production dealt critically with real estate speculation and environmental destruction. Apparently, in this community outsiders from São Paulo and abroad buy up the best lakefront properties, blocking views and preventing access to the shore for locals. I very much enjoyed the show, which was performed energetically and with visible fun by the cast, which also included 4 live musicians.

shrimp 2

shrimp 1

On Wednesday, Marcia took me around the town to show me the sights that the play talked about. I also took the opportunity to interview her briefly, because, after all, she is one of the pioneers of the practice and theory of community theatre in Brazil. In the late afternoon, she took me to the arts campus of UDESC (Universidade do Estado der Santa Catarina), where I presented an illustrated talk about the origins of community art, its relation to ICAF and the connection to urgent political developments both in Brazil and in Europe. It led to a fascinating discussion about the political crisis in Brazil and the refugee and terrorist issues in Europe.

I am writing this on Friday April 29, from the location of our next stop: São Paulo, a metropolis with more than 20 million people. In this huge urban environment we will be meeting with four different community arts organizations about which we will report in the days to come.

UDESC Website

ICAF in Brazil: Visiting Edisca in Fortaleza

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. They meet with Brazilian community artists in their own contexts, give presentations of what ICAF is all about and, hopefully, find a partner. This is their journey.

Today, Monday 25 April, we began our scouting work in Brazil. First on the list was EDISCA, a fantastic community dance organization in the Northeastern city of Fortaleza, where we arrived yesterday from Rio. EDISCA was founded more than 25 years ago by Dora Andrade, a dancer/choreographer who wanted to make a difference to the lives of young children in the marginal neighbourhoods of her home city. Over the years she has created a total concept that combines dance training of the highest caliber with education, nutrition and social care. EDISCA begins working with kids in the age group of 7 to 12, but some stay with the company until they are well into their twenties.

edisca danseresje

Participants are given food, training gear, and money for transport, because many have to travel more than two hours from their homes in the outskirts to the EDISCA training center. The building itself has studios, classrooms, offices, costume ateliers, an eating area, and a theatre. We found EDISCA a truly impressive organization that is social-artistic in the truest sense of the term: high on the social end of the scale, high on the artistic end of the scale and high in human terms. And Dora is a passionate director of this impressive enterprise, and a very generous host to boot. To get a first impression of the organization, here’s a short video we made during our visit:

Tomorrow we fly back to the South: Anamaria to São Paulo and Eugene to Florianópolis, where he’ll give a presentation at the University of Santa Catarina and will visit some local community art groups. On Thursday, he will meet up again with Anamaria in São Paulo to jointly visit at least three arts organizations in that immense metropolis of more than 22 million inhabitants.


Edisca Website | Facebook

Florence Blog

Last weekend (14 and 15 November) I was in Florence, Italy to present a paper on the Pitfalls of Participation at the International Artes Conference. I was there as a guest of Grodzki Theatre from Poland, another long-time partner of ICAF. Grodzki is one of the participants in an EU Lifelong learning project on art as a tool for education and social inclusion. Their network includes organizations from Hungary, France, Italy, England and Greece. It was my job to peel away some of the more romantic notions many people, including those representing the partners in this project, still have about participation. Participation is much more complex – and messy – than many community artists seem to think. Few of them are aware of the power relations that are operating in the participatory arts processes they facilitate. Too many all too easily assume that participation (which can assume many shapes and forms) in the arts automatically leads to political empowerment.

At the Artes conference I also ran into another old ICAF friend, François Matarasso. He argued convincingly that the arts are crucial to a child’s education because they can teach him or her to empathize with others, to cooperate, and to explore moral values. One of the problems, as he sees it, is that today’s politicians (most of whom grew up in a time when the world was very different) insist on literacy and maths whereas the most valuable skills for someone in the near future is more likely to be a flexible, adaptable creative team player. ‘This is where art has something to offer people,’ Matarasso argued, ‘but it is rarely understood by politicians. Their education had the odd music lesson and a rare school outing to a museum. It was not seen as something integral to how a child develops and how it might learn to relate to the world’.

Matarasso was quick to emphasize that art is not the solution to all the world’s problems, in the same vein that I argued that participation is not the answer to everything. But it can help equip the child with skills that can help him or her deal with the complexities in our globalised world. And how they acquire these skills – the creative process – is more important than what they learn, he insisted. These processes, he explained, may seem chaotic and messy to casual observers. They are full of trial, error and ambiguity. It requires risk-taking and openness to new experiences.


Matarasso was critical of art processes that are too instrumental. ‘When art is used to deliberately pass on skills or diminish offending behavior it becomes like math or science, ‘ he said. But when children can explore the benefits and risks with more autonomy, he continued, art generates growth. The irony is, according to Matarasso, that while standard formats for instruction and testing of children become more and more dominant in education, their future is likely to be more and more unpredictable. So it would make sense, he concluded, to increase rather than reduce art in our educational system. Walking through the streets of Florence that night and bouncing from one spectacular fresco to another, Matarasso’s words seemed to make all the sense in the world…

Speaking of frescoes, François Matarasso recently published the fourth book in his Regular Marvels series. This time he has collected – and poetically edited – the voices of people from the Lincolnshire Fens, as they express their relationship with the many churches in that coastal part of England. The book can be downloaded on the following site: http://thelightships.com/2014/11/18/download-the-book/


From 3 through 14 July 2014, ICAF director Eugene van Erven was in Shanghai to attend a performance studies conference and explore Chinese interest in community arts. He discovered that there is a great deal of potential in that vast and densely populated country. Conversely, Chinese colleagues are very attracted to the gateway to worldwide community arts which ICAF offers. A Chinese presence at ICAF-7 (29 March – 2 April 2017) is therefore very likely.

 China 1

 The Performance Studies International conference was hosted by the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), one of the country’s most respected art institutions. As part of the conference they had organized an outdoor show in which amateur dancers, musicians and children performed. STA has received special privileges for international cultural collaborations and, in addition to more conventional training programmes for Chinese Opera and contemporary performing arts, it also has a special division for what they call social performance. This includes projects with deaf people, HIV/AIDS patients, and abandoned children of migrant workers (of which there are millions living on the outskirts of this enormous metropolis of close to 30 million inhabitants).

One of the driving forces of the STA social performance section is Daniel Liang Shen, who became intrigued with the Blue Angel Project of our Australian partners Big hART when I told him about it. (https://www.facebook.com/BlueAngelproject)

As some of you may remember, Big hART is currently working on a site-specific design and performance project involving the plight of seafarers worldwide. Scheduled to open next year at various Australian festivals, there are plans to also develop similar events in other port cities. For this purpose, a Big hART team came to our festival last March to explore possibilities in Rotterdam. Immediately taken by the idea, after the conference Daniel Sheng took me to see China Maritime Museum in Lin’gang New City (which is literally a brand new city, like there are so many in China). The place is impressive in size and in content: it is filled with remnants of Chinese marine history ranging from complete sailboats (that traveled from China to Africa well before Marco Polo arrived in China) to certificates of seafarers.

 China 2 

 After the museum, Daniel drove me to the world’s largest container terminal in the port of Yangshan, 70 kilometers south of Shanghai. It is located on an island that can only be reached by a 30-kilometer bridge. Some 4,000 local residents had to be evacuated for the construction of this port which annually processes 9.3 million containers full of goods that are transported across the oceans to your doorstep.

 China 3

The last day before I returned to Holland, Daniel invited me to a dinner with two former captains of the China merchnat marine, Mr. Pan Meng Chu and Mr. Zuo Hua Jun. Over the most delicious dishes they told me their life story, all the way from their early days as sailors – when Mao was still in power – to the present. Fascinating tales of village boys getting on the high seas to places like Gdansk, Antwerp and Rotterdam and discovering a completely different world and lifestyle. Stories that reflect a closed society that is now gradually opening up, but still very different from western ways of being. It is an exciting thought that at the end of March 2017 our worlds may be brought a little more closely together as we hope to include a community art project from Shanghai in our next ICAF programme.

Joker Tsunami in Ukraine

On February 10th 2014 (the day I turned 59), Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, a German-Bolivian Theatre of the Oppresed (TO) practitioner based in Afghanistan, sent me an urgent mail from Ukraine. He had responded to a call from colleagues in that beleaguered country to help organize grassroots TO sessions on the streets in the hope to engage local communities to find possible solutions to a peaceful future. Through an online campaign a number of TO jokers (facilitators) volunteered to travel from overseas to Ukraine. They includied Olivier Forges, Roberto Mazzini, Idan Meir, Evan Hastings, Hector Aristizabal, and Brent Blair.

Needless to say, theirs was a powerful intervention in one of the most volatile, politically complex, and violent situations in the world today. Hjalmar reports that they were able to work in 5 different Ukrainian regions, including the pro-Russian East of the country. And while there were some tense moments with pro-government demonstrators and secret police officers accusing the jokers of being ‘foreign agents’ and local goons threatening to stop the theatre activities, Hjalmar, his Ukrainian colleagues and the foreign jokers were once again left ‘amazed by the power of TO to create true dialogue’.  Before he left Ukraine, Hector, who – together with Luc Opdebeeck – will be at our next International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam between 26 and 30 March, wrote the following: ‘We hope that some of the people involved in the project will continue doing the urgent work of reaching out to the other side and engaging in further dialogue so they can truly imagine a different outcome to the current polarization of the power relations in Ukraine. I agree with Hjalmar that our focus as international participants must be now in finding ways to continue supporting the efforts of the local organizers that are highly motivated and committed to continuing the work’.

Over the weekend, of 23 February, the political situation miraculously turned around: the president has fled, his former allies are disowning him, and there are new elections on the horizon. Too soon to tell where all this will lead. We’d like to create space at our upcoming event next month to spread the word, provide updates about engaged arts practices for dialogue in Ukraine, and generate concrete support. Meanwhile, keep checking the special facebook page on theatre for dialogue in Ukraine: https://www.facebook.com/theatrefordialogue

In solidarity,

Eugene van Erven


MEXE – Cabo Verde and Trindade in metro station


I also shot a short video of this event at Trindade metro station, quickly edited in i-movie …

Last night at 7 PM a group of young people from Cabo Verde danced and sang at the Trindade Metro station in Porto, as part of the MEXE-II festival. Later that night I saw a dance performance by female inmates from the Santa Cruz de Obispo prison, which they made in collaboration with the Ballet Contemporâneo de Norte. I have no pictures from that as I found it indiscrete to photograph during the show.