Review: When It Breaks It Burns – Transform 19

“You don’t understand everything. But that’s just life.” – When it breaks it burns. A powerful, political performance.

I’ve studied Performing Arts throughout my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like “When it breaks it burns”. I was uncomfortable, I was moved and I was inspired. These aren’t the usual emotions generated from going to see a performance in Leeds Playhouse, are they?

The coletivA ocupação company, whose performers are students, have travelled Brazil to sell out audiences, and are now touring festivals in the UK with their performance “When it breaks it burns”. They are real, their stories are authentic and their experiences are brought to life within this piece.

We are told that “Their lives were changed forever by the high school occupations of 2015 and 2016 in Brazil. Using dance, live music and performance, they reveal the reality and brutal intensity of living inside a political movement. Get up close to the action and their extraordinary stories, as real life invades the stage”.

The performance was raw, creative and so powerful. All of the things it should be. It gives a front row seat to the brutality of being a student in Sao Paulo, during the school restructuring in 2015, which saw more than 100 Brazilian state schools face closure.  In response, a new generation of protesters was created – the students. Their mantra, “to occupy is to resist”, speaks for itself. “When it breaks it burns” uses dance, music and performance to tell the students’ extraordinary stories. Each member of coletivA ocupação is connected by mutual experiences; they are connected by fear. Not only is this show a piece of art – it is activism; it is education.

On entering the venue, we were introduced to the setting of the events. We were forewarned about the interactive and unique nature of the piece and partook in our first call and response. “To occupy is to resist.  To occupy is to resist.  Black lives matter.  Black lives matter.” From that very moment, I knew I was in for an imperative and exhilarating experience.

The room I entered had chairs scattered around the floor. I was instructed to take a seat on the chairs or sit on the floor.  I was lucky enough to get a seat right in the centre of the spiralled chairs. It was difficult to know, from sitting in the dark room, who was an audience member and who was part of the performance, with the only differentiation being our stickers, which we were given when entering the venue. 

Now it all seemed to make sense.  We were on stage with the performers; we were going to be part of this. We were taken on a journey, the journey that they have experienced first hand.  It is uncomfortable being in that room, with bodies rushing around you and even falling on top of you.   I imagine it was much much more uncomfortable being in Sao Paulo.  I was shown a world which I knew very little about and I left wanting, yearning to make a difference.

The piece incorporated multi-levels in the beautiful Leonardo building.  We were hushed off of our chairs as they built a barricade in the middle of the room.  We were told to sit on the floor, gather in circles, stand around the room. We were there, with them.  That was the most powerful aspect of the piece, for me.  How they incorporate the audience into every movement, every section of the piece; the juxtaposition of the scenes left you wondering whether to be laughing or crying.  It was a rollercoaster of emotions, which I’m not even sure I was prepared to experience.

The majority of the speech was in Portuguese, with English subtitles being displayed on a screen in the room.  It was sometimes difficult to see the screen, watch the performance and remember where you were supposed to be standing, sitting or walking.  However, this was all part of the act.  On entering the venue we were told, “You won’t understand everything, but that’s life.”  So I didn’t worry too much about not knowing what each character was saying the whole time, as we could keep up with the storyline just from the performers’ powerful body language, facial expressions and movement.  Each actor in the performance brought something unique to the stage. They were confident in the messages they needed to portray and knew exactly how to make their voices heard.

Nearing the end of the performance, we were hurried to get out of the performance room and on to the streets of Leeds to be part of a live protest.  Passers-by were wondering what we were doing and lingering around to hear what we had to say.  Some had even started shouting things back to us.  It was a breathtaking end to a compelling performance.

If you ever have the chance to experience that art that is “When It Breaks It Burns”, I urge you to take the opportunity!  It will change your perspective on so many issues.  ColetivA Ocupação continues to tour the UK this year and I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

All photographs by JMA Photography.

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