Looping Bodies at the Utopia Warehouse

Port warehouses are spaces full of creative possibilities. Despite having a scale that usually surprises us by its brutality, these giant rectangular constructions with thousands of square feet have the potential of becoming locations for powerful and transformative participatory activities. Especially when they do not function as storage buildings, warehouses can become flexible locations for art, music, dance, dialogue, theater, and other kind of creative performances. Without commercial goods, boxes, and containers, these spaces transform into playgrounds for human and community experimentation. That is precisely what has happened to the Armazem da Utopia (Utopia Warehouse) at the Maua Pier. This old warehouse has emerged as one of the most vibrant cultural spaces of Porto Maravilha, the urban project that changed the face of the old port of Rio de Janeiro in Brasil.

Last November, I participated in a collective performance of approximately 300 people who danced together and created an improvised choreography of massive scale at the Utopia Warehouse. We danced to the music of the samba-reggae-dub that Felipe de Assis, Leonardo França e Rita Aquino, and other collaborators remixed, and followed the steps that few dancers/facilitators were showing to all the participants. Without any previous preparation, all the attendees of the Multiplicidade 2025, became participants of the Looping: Bahia Overdub performance. Rhythmically and organically we generated a collective body that moved through the ample space of the warehouse.

In groups, hugging strangers, we multiplied ourselves creating flexible human chains that moved rhythmically through the ample space warehouse floor. We generated a collective body by dancing together. Our individual selves dissolved. Through movement, music, and and coordination we created a collective dance that was powerful, full of energy, happiness, flow, laughter, and surprises. The experience was part religious, part party, part art performance, part play. Totally moving and renovating.

From a bird-eye perspective the dance floor looked at some moments as a labyrynth made our of moving walls. Those walls were like worms made out of humans hugging each other. Human chains. I tried to make sense of the performance during the long flight that took me back to North America, and draw on my notebook a couple of sketches.

The chains were the most basic pattern of the participatory choreography. At the very beginning of the performance, once the MC started to talk to the participants, shouting words with overdub effects, some dancers (that were part of the collective that put together Looping: Bahia Overdub) started to model the human chains. Forming groups of three to four people, they invited the attendees who were spread through the floor to join them.  Most of us were not fully aware of how the performance would evolve. An audience of 300 people was at that moment waiting to hear and watch  just another performance of the the Multiplicidade 2025 festival (this one was number 6). This audience, however, was ready to participate and transform itself into a collective group of dancers.

As the performance progressed the human chains grew from groups of 4 to groups of 10, 20, and even 40 people, forming long collective bodies, human serpents. Serpentine rivers that followed the bass line of the samba-reggae and the Afro-Brazilian drums.

One of the patterns that emerged from the improvisation was a human circle. As the chains grew so much to include more than 30 people, sometimes they were able to form an entire circle. This also was possible by some of the words that the MC shouted from the cubicle where he and a DJ controlled the sound system.

“Vai….veeeen” (goooo….and come) the MC said with a distorted echoic voice altered by reverbs and delays.

The participants followed those instructions, and, once they formed a circle, closed it and opened it, went to the center and came back to the exterior, creating a rhythm that was soft and organic.

The collective body made musical waves. Streams of movement. It flowed with the cadence of the dance steps. A body created by strangers connected through hugging and dancing.  Touching each other, sharing our energies and movements, we made rhythm. We made music. Together, we became one, and dissolved into a collective self like water.  A communal experience of happiness and humanness.

Perhaps the way that I describe this participatory performance makes it sound like a religious ritual. The communal aspect of it definitely has some elements of the act of coming together as a whole. Participating in it re-united us, re-connected us. However, the performance was actually an improvised pagan ritual. Improvised body poetics. It emerged in the middle of an old warehouse, in the middle of a night program that lasted 6 hours and included different kinds of music performances, not necessarily all of them involving dancing. DJ Coni, and Martin Messier, for instance had sets that were more minimal and experimental, and that the audience enjoyed just by listening while standing.

The surprising element of the Looping: Bahia Overdub was precisely how fast it connected with an audience that was ready to participate, to dance, and to occupy the empty floor in a way that was quite unusual. With very few cues and guidelines, suddenly hundreds of people were dancing together, hugging each other, touching the other, and moving as one collective body.

Humans cooperating in a dance is perhaps a very old tradition that we learned thousands of years ago. However, it is not easy to do such dance spontaneously with hundreds of strangers. That is why this performance felt so unique. It could be something that perhaps is more common in a city like Rio de Janeiro, a cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city), with a carnival tradition in which dancing occupies streets and public spaces for several weeks. As some of the videos of previous iterations of the Looping: Bahia Overdub performance, the scale of the collective body that participants assembled was never the size of the one we created at the Utopia Warehouse. It was way smaller.

Sometimes is difficult to imagine how massive collaboration could take form in physical space, among human beings using their bodies as the only means of communication. This kind of participatory performance allowed me to experience the collective body on my own. To dissolve my self into a moving  group. Choreography and dancing are powerful means of communication for exploring  cooperation and collaboration in an embodied and playful way. I look forward to exploring their potential as strategies for building communities, appropriating spaces, and empathy.

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