This new piece by Brazilian dance artist Thelma Bonavita, staged as part of Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred Festival, is both infectious and surreal. Eu Sou Uma Fruta Gogoia (or I am a Gogoia Fruit) reworks of elements of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement while exploring notions of cultural identity.
The Tropicalia movement had a significant effect on Brazilian culture in the 1960s. Bonavita points out its thirst for bringing different musical elements together as a reaction to the traditional forms of music that were dominant at the time. Tropicalia musicians combined rock, blues, folk and jazz from around the world with Latin American genres such as samba and bossa-nova to create a sound that represented freedom of expression. Given its universalism, this sound gained subversive cultural weight in the light of a repressive military dictatorship, and it is this which Bonavita is interested in.
The form of her performance reflects this eagerness to merge strands of popular culture together; Bonavita’s interest is less in the resulting aural collage and more in the use of the body to create an amalgam of images that explore contemporary Brazilian identity.
The show is divided into three parts, each taking its cues from the style of the Tropicalia movement. To the sounds of a Casio keyboard, with a range of wigs on her head, Bonavita addresses the audience. “You all right?” she asks. “Two plus two equals five.” The repetition of lines is structured and controlled; on top of this Bonavita introduces elements of Western popular culture, singing the lyrics from Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ and smiling as she does so. It’s an awkwardly humorous scene that informs the tone of the whole performance.
For the second part of the show, she shuffles through a series of pre-recorded instructions and performs them in front of the audience. The props are carefully chosen: feathers, sparkles, wigs, plants, melons and other clichéd symbols of Brazilian identity. These are piled on top of each other in a seemingly random manner. Bonavita then leaps over the plants, sings a song, embodies a bird and repeats this sequence in various ways.
This is a reference to the avant-garde poetry movement poesia concreta that originated in Tropicalia and which was less interested in content and far more in mixing forms to arrive at a new language. Through this surreal collection of jumps and songs, Bonavita aims to recreate this form of poetry through her own body. The result is both evocative and alienating, yet it is always underlined by a queasy humour. A wig flies around the performance space suspended by balloons, becoming a ‘character’ capable of interacting with both the audience and the performer.
It is the nature of the piece that clarity materializes in some images and not others. Formally, Bonavita’s show is very intriguing and successful in bringing contrasting popular culture elements together on stage. But there is an uncertain quality in Bonavita’s performance and she doesn’t always ground the work’s intentions. She doesn’t perform with the controlled grace of the trained dancer, nor does she allow for purely natural movements. When she embodies a bird, it’s neither fully a caricature nor a physical metaphor; an ambiguity that eventually becomes overwhelming. The subjectivity of the images is what makes them unclear.
Gogoia Fruit mixes personal and public politics, and Bonavita’s skill lies in allowing form and a carefully chosen set of props to create evocative images. In its trashy aesthetic and its constant invitation for the audience to interact, the piece asks potent questions about the way we construct cultural identities, and how we personally place ourselves in the resulting narrative.